Friday, August 22, 2008

Paul on Leadership, Romans 16

This text identifies Phoebe with the function of “deacon.” Diakonos in Greek can serve as either masculine or feminine and could be understood simply in terms of a regular pattern of service undertaken by Phoebe on behalf of her local church. The term here in Romans 16.1 is variously translated “servant" (NASB, NIV, and KJV); “deacon” (NRSV); and “deaconess” (RSV). According to one commentator (James Dunn), if it was the case of a regular pattern of service, then it would have been expressed differently in Greek, by the usage of the verbal form of the term (diakoneo) or the more generic term for service (diakonia). Diakonos paired with the participle of the verb “to be” points to a more recognized ministry or position of responsibility within the congregation (pointing to deacon as the proper translation). Phoebe’s duties as a deacon are not revealed in this brief introduction. At this stage in Paul’s writings, the understanding of ministry and office was not well defined. The form of ministry mentioned depended on the context and the needs of the particular congregation.

In looking at verse two, there are the curious translations of the term prostatis. It has been translated figuratively as “helper or support” (see NASB; NIV; KJV; RSV; NEB; NJB). The term actually denoted a person of prominence in the ancient Greco-Roman world. The term should best be given the understanding here as “patron” or “protector.” (The ESV translates this term as “patron” and the NRSV translates this term as “benefactor.”) The masculine form of the term was well established in this sense, especially for the role of a wealthy or influential individual as patron of a Hellenistic religious society. There are two occurrences of the feminine form of the term in Jewish inscriptions in Rome. The term in these inscriptions should probably be understood in the sense of a patron or protector. If this term did indeed mean “patron”, then it would have been familiar to Paul’s readers in reference to patronage of a voluntary association or trade guild. In giving Phoebe this title, Paul acknowledges the public service this prominent woman has given to many believers at Cenchrea.

The term could very well be related to the term “ho proistamenos” (the one who leads – Romans 12.8). One who stood at the head of and cared for a congregation, as the proistamenos did, would be compared to a patron who perhaps provided a meeting place along with social and political clout. Phoebe obviously had a position of prominence in her community. It has been speculated that she may have owned a house there and, as a wealthy, influential person was in a position to assist missionaries and other Christians who traveled to and from Corinth. If this were the case, her assistance could have taken the form of hospitality; furnishing funds for journeys; or representing the community before secular authorities. Whatever here role may have been, Paul’s Roman readers would most likely think of Phoebe as a figure of significance, whose wealth or influence had been available to the church in Cenchrea.

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