Lost In Translation: Phoebe, Servant or Minister?

Bob Edwards


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Phoebe in the Bible

Phoebe in the Bible

I’ve talked with a number of Christians who hold a complementarian view of how men and women should relate to one another. They believe that God has called men to be leaders in the church and that God has called women to submit to male leadership.

At the same time, many of these brothers and sisters are not entirely comfortable with their position. It strikes them as odd, some have told me, that men lead and women follow.  It doesn’t seem quite equitable. There’s a difference in levels of authority, responsibility and opportunity.  Simply put, men have more authority; women have less.  Men have more responsibility; women have less.  Men have more opportunities; women have less.

Though the evident inequality makes some of my complementarian friends uneasy, they hold fast to their beliefs nonetheless.  They do this, some tell me, because they must remain true to the word of God, even if it makes them uncomfortable.  On one level, I think their steadfast loyalty to the Bible is commendable.  I find it very encouraging, for example, when people say “no” to temptation, out of loyalty to God, even if their feelings are telling them to give in.  In the case of a complementarian belief system, however, I think loyalty to God and his word has been misappropriated.  Please allow me to explain.

In the Greek New Testament, Paul refers to himself as a “diakonos” (Colossians 1:23 and 25).  In the New King James Version of the Bible (NKJV) this word is translated “minister”.  Paul explains that his duties, as a minister, include “teaching” and “preaching” (Col. 1:28).  He also refers to Timothy as a “diakonos“, translated “minister”, and associated with teaching or instruction.  In Romans 16:1 the word “diakonos” is used again, this time in reference to a woman, Phoebe.  But in this instance the NKJV does not translate the word as “minister”. Instead it refers to Phoebe as a “servant”.

In Romans 16:2, another Greek word is used to describe Phoebe’s role in the church.  She is referred to as a “prostatis.”  NKJV translates this word regarding Phoebe as “helper”.  When similar Greek words are used of men, however, they are translated as “ruling” (1 Timothy 5:17, 1 Timothy 3:4, NKJV).  In Romans 12:8, the word is translated as “leading” (NKJV).

If the translators of the NKJV Bible used the same English words for “diakonos” and “prostatis” for both men and women, relevant passages would read as follows (words in question are capitalized):

  • “If you instruct the brethren in these things, you will be a good MINISTER of Jesus Christ, nourished in the words of faith and of the good doctrine which you have carefully followed” (1 Timothy 4:6, NKJV).
  • “Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them:…he who LEADS, with diligence” (Romans 12:6-8).
  • “I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a MINISTER of the church in Cenchrea, that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and assist her in whatever business she has need of you; for indeed she has been a LEADER of many and of myself also” (Romans 16:1-2).

Unfortunately, the words “diakonos” and “prostatis” are not usually translated the same for men and women.  For example, the NKJV translates this last verse as follows:

  • “I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a SERVANT of the church in Cenchrea, that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and assist her in whatever business she has need of you; for indeed she has been a HELPER of many and of myself also.” (Romans 16:1-2).

Different roles for men and women?  In the English translation, apparently yes.  In the original Greek manuscripts of the New Testament…no.

In light of these observations, I would encourage my complementarian friends to listen to their consciences if apparent inequalities between men and women make them feel uneasy.  At the same time, I would encourage them to steadfastly hold to the truth of the Bible—as it was written in its original language and context.


YOUR TURN: What do you think about these discrepancies between the original language and the English translation?  How does understanding the original language change your opinion about Phoebe’s role in the early church?  Next week Bob will look at the translation of 1 Timothy 2:12.

For more information on the translation of “diakonos” and “prostatis” from the Society for Biblical Literature click here, and for more on Phoebe, click here.

Bob Edwards

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  • Thanks for another great post Bob! I have found the study of the original Greek and Hebrew so very important and helpful. Thank you so much for drawing attention to these translation issues as they have helped me so much in my walk with Christ. I used to think God would explain these confusing gender passages in heaven, but I am so happy that he chose to show me sooner.

    • I’m happy too :). And glad I could play a role in God’s work of encouragement.

  • Great exegesis!

    Wouldn’t it be interesting to go the other way as well, to read all of the verses — for both men and women — with the word “helping” instead of “ruling”?

    The bishops in 1 Tim 3 would be chosen because they are “helping” at home. “Because how can a man take care of the church of God if he cannot help his own home?” Indeed.

    The elders in 1 Tim 5 would be doubly-commended for “helping well.”

    I would argue further that “ruling,” with its often negative connotations, is too strong. The word is more about “being set above” or “presiding,” often with the purpose of protecting or guarding.

    (Came here from Rachel Held Evans’ site. Excited to see what develops!)

    • Love the idea of reading all the verses with helping for both men and women! Especially the part about bishops/elders being chosen because they are helping at home. That certainly fits more with the “Jesus ethic” we see in the gospels. I think we often forgot that men and women did not live in spheres as divided back then as we do now in the post-industrial age. Men didn’t leave the home early in the morning and return at dinner or later. Women were involved in industries like trade, textiles, agriculture, etc. But that is a topic for another post! And welcome to the Junia Project!

  • I think a woman can be called a “minister” and a “leader” even if she is not supposed to hold the priesthood. We minister to others and lead in many capacities. I feel there would truly be inequality if the role of women also included having the priesthood or leading the home. I love that my role is to be a mother and the primary nurturer and teacher in the home. I have chosen not to work so I could fulfill this role. (I know too that some women have to work, and that God blesses them as needed.) We women greatly influence our husbands and children. A women who can stay home with her children has much time and opportunity to plan and run the family, and it would be a shame if when a husband comes home his role is to be instructed by his wife, which often ends up being the case. I believe Heavenly Father gave men the role of leader of the home, so they will rise to the occasion of being an equal co-partner and parent. While Mom has many things on her mind relating to overseeing the home, Dad should be the one who makes sure family prayers and scripture study takes place each day and other needed teaching opportunities. He is responsible for the spiritual and temporal welfare of his family. He is supposed to lead in such a way that he would lay down his life for his wife, as Christ did for the Church. Women love feeling protected and cherished, and they become their best selves when their husbands make them feel this way and help fulfill all their needs, as Christ does for the Church. Men rise to the occasion and become their best selves when their wives “honor” them (or in other words believe in them and support them.) A good man who feels his wife loves him and believes in him will do all he can to please her. Decisions are to be made together, and when they seek the Lord’s will, they can come to an agreement. The husband should not make decisions by himself or rule over his wife in any way. Both are equal partners with different and equal roles.

    • Hi Jennifer,
      Thanks for sharing your view! I am curious though how there would be true inequality if women also held the roles of priesthood or helped mutually lead in the home. I also find this statement demeaning to men: “Heavenly Father gave men the role of leader of the home, so they will rise to the occasion of being an equal co-partner and parent. “ This implies that if men didn’t have the role of leading in the home, that most men wouldn’t co-parent or co-partner (which, how are they really co-partnering if they are doing the leading?) I think we should give men a little more credit. There are plenty of fabulous husbands and fathers that practice mutual submission.

      • Hi Katie. You are right. I did not mean to sound demeaning and agree that there are many good men. I am fortunate to have one. I do believe our different roles are meant to help us each become our best selves. My husband, for example, has always been a good partner and willing to help wherever needed, but has had to learn to be on top of things with me. (It is also often the complaint that the men are not instigating family prayers and scripture study.) Women complain that their husbands are like another child. In my experience, it’s most often the mom that knows the children’s homework and where everyone needs to be at what time, and Mom tells Dad how to help. When Dads feel their responsibility to lead, they can then get on top of things too and be an equal co-parent. Too often I see women leading the home and men saying that if they are to have a happy home they need to agree with their wives and do what they say, and the men seem to submit to that. God does want us as equal partners, and in that case, the woman needs to gently encourage and allow her husband to lead, and the man needs to take that position- not so the man will be over the wife, but so both will be more equal partners. I think when Ephesians 5:33 says the wives should “reverence” her husbands that means a wife should respect her husband enough that she will value and seek his equal partnership and make all decisions with him, and not be happy to run the show herself. Eve made the decision to eat the forbidden fruit, which affected her Adam too, without Adam’s consent.

        • May I?

          Re: Ephesians 5:33. This thought that begins in v.28 is speaking to the husband, not to the wife. Each is to love his own wife [Paul is teaching a new thought, as love was not normally a part of these marriages]. How that love looks is v. 29, and the why is v.33: “so that” [hina] the wife might respect the husband. It’s DEscriptive of how that love looks, not a PREscriptive command. If he loves, she “may” respect. Not even a guarantee.

          • That is really helpful, Vicki! I hadn’t thought about the nuance of “so that” the wife might respect. I think it is so important not to oversimplify Paul’s thoughts here and make them into commands, or prescriptions, as you so well put. This was a letter to a particular group of people living according to traditional Roman Household Codes. Early Christians were in the process of adapting those codes according to their new understanding of the gospel.

    • Hi Jennifer, and thank you for sharing your thoughts on leadership in the church and in the home. I like the language of equality that you use to describe the roles of men and women. Historically in the church, however, the reality has not fit the language. Taking your example of the priesthood, women who are gifted to function in this role have been denied the opportunity strictly on the basis of their sex at birth, by an authority structure made up exclusively of men. Sadly, this demonstrates a remarkable inequality for women in terms of both authority and opportunity. In 2007, the Pope proclaimed that any woman seeking to function as a Priest would be automatically excommunicated from the church–a severe penalty for seeking to function in a role allegedly reserved for men. Women have been prohibited, by men, from functioning in such roles on the basis of St. Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible, St. Augustine’s commentaries on this Bible, and the adoption of these viewpoints into canon law in the 12th century. The Latin of the Vulgate, however, does not accurately reflect what we are able to read in the Greek New Testament manuscripts. A gender hierarchy that has allegedly been ordained by God, has evidently been created by men. The situation reminds me of Jesus’ words to the religious leaders of his day “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions” (Mark 7:8, NIV).

      • Hi Bob. I appreciate what you are doing, and women certainly need to be respected as equal to men, but to be equal does not mean to be the same. No individuals are the same or have identical gifts or missions. I do not lack in my ability to bring others to Christ because I do not have priesthood. I agree that women can be very gifted in teaching, but I do not believe they should have the priesthood.

    • Jennifer, I appreciate your thoughts, but I’m curious as to how come to these conclusions from scripture. For example, where does it say in the New Testament that your most important role is to be a mother and the primary nurturer and teacher in the home? I think my most important role is to be a follower of Christ, to make disciples, and to love God and others. I love being a wife, mom, and grandma, but the reality is that most of us women will be single and not have those responsibilities for a good portion of our average 80 year life span. Does God have any use for us during those times as well?

      Here are some things that don’t make sense to me in your comment:
      I don’t see anywhere in the New Testament that a man’s role is be the leader of the home and that he is responsible for the spiritual and temporal welfare of his family.We do read that the husband is the head of the wife – but the word “head” (kephale) was never used to mean authority in those days. In fact, Paul often talks about authority in his letters, and when he does he usually uses a different word (usually exousia). Paul also speaks of women managing their households, which in those days often meant working in textiles, agriculture, running a small business, and managing servants. In most of the world then and now, a woman staying home and only raising children, cleaning house, and preparing meals for her immediate family is an anomaly.

      I also don’t think the bible says that a husband is supposed to lead in such a way that he would lay down his life for his wife – I do believe it says that a husband is supposed to love his wife in that way, and that comes on the heels of the verse that says “submit one to another”. How does one make the leap from husbands love to husbands lead? I would really like to understand this reasoning and would appreciate your insight, because the model you’re describing sounds more like 1950s America than a priesthood of believers.

      I love this article about the very diverse and important roles God called these women to play in the Bible and hope it will encourage you as well: http://newlife.id.au/equality-and-gender-issues/25-biblical-roles-for-biblical-women/

      • Hi Gail,

        In 1Timothy 5:14, Paul states: “I will therefore that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully.” You can define “managing the household” as you did, but I think that Paul meant for mothers to guide her children and manage the affairs of the home. I am not saying women should never work outside the home. Yes, there are women who will never -through no fault of their own- be a mother in mortality, but that doesn’t mean they can’t or shouldn’t find ways to help mother other children, like aunts often do so well. As followers of Christ, we can be lead by the Holy Spirit to do our primary responsibility, which is to use our gifts and abilities to bring others to Christ. That primary responsibility lies first within our home and to our extended relatives, but our capacities to bring others outside of our families unto the Lord is limitless and also an important work, and that work of bringing souls unto Christ doesn’t require having the priesthood.

        As for “head,” here’s a source that disagrees with you about it not meaning “ruler”: http://christianstudies.wordpress.com/2011/05/07/does-kephale-mean-source/. A husband can be a leader and care of his wife in such a way that her opinions and needs are paramount to his own. I believe to “rule” means to lead and to be responsible for temporal and spiritual welfare. It has always been known since Adam that men were to be the primary providers, if possible. Ephesians 5:25-27 tells us that men are responsible for teaching “the word” and presenting their wives to the Lord unspotted, so this is saying he is responsible also for the spiritual welfare of his wife. This does not mean I shouldn’t be responsible for my own learning and applying of God’s word, nor that I am not capable of doing so. My husband and I learn together and help each other, but he is his best self when he leads our home (calls us together) for prayer and scripture study. What women wouldn’t want a husband like that? It’s not like we both don’t lead the discussion. My husband is not an authoritarian, nor was it ever meant for husbands to act in such a way, and Paul tried to ensure that by talking about them leading and loving. It’s easy to say a husband should be willing to die for his wife, if he is supposed to care for his wife like Christ did the Church and when Christ died for us. I am sure your husband would die for you, like mine would for me. I would die for my husband as well. The biggest leap is saying Paul thought women should have the priesthood, when Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 14: 34-35 that women should be silent in church and if they learn something there that they should tell it to their husbands at home. Paul was caught up in the sexism of the culture of his day to some degree, but, at the same time, he did believe women were equal to men and should be treated as such (which doesn’t necessitate having the priesthood).

        • Hi, Jennifer,

          I think we’re going to have to “agree to disagree” but also think you are taking some of these verses out of context and applying them in ways Paul never intended. For example, in 1 Timothy 5:14, Paul is not addressing younger WOMEN, but young WIDOWS. This whole section (verses 3-16) is about dealing with issues the church was having with widows. Verses 11-12 show that having them marry was NOT Paul’s first choice – it’s like a concession he is allowing! So to use this passage to say that Paul was establishing some kind of rule that a woman’s key role is to stay home and raise children is to take Paul’s words completely out of context.

          The same logic can be applied to your use of Eph,. 5:25-27. You say this passage says “men are responsible for teaching “the word” and presenting their wives to the Lord unspotted, so this is saying he is responsible also for the spiritual welfare of his wife”. But the text only says “husbands love your wives” – everything else is just commentary.

          I see a similar dynamic with your interpretation of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. You say these verses mean Paul intended for all woman to be silent in the church for all time. I think its important to look at the whole of what Paul was teaching and what he was writing about here. In 1 Corinthians 11-14 Paul addresses proper behavior for both men and women in corporate worship. In 1 Cor 11 he gives men and women some instructions to heed when they are praying and prophesying. In 1 Cor 12 he gives instructions to both “brothers and sisters” on spiritual gifts, noting that they are given to every believer (and no mention of gender distinctions) and are to be used for the common good. 1 Cor 13 describes how we are to love one another in the body. In 1 Cor 14 Paul instructs BOTH men and women about the proper use of the gift of prophecy and interpretation in church – again, no gender distinctions are made. In v. 26 each member of the body is encouraged to participate in corporate worship – “when you come together each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation” and so on.

          That gets us to the verses you mentioned, 34 and 35. It seems to me these are a continuation of Paul’s ongoing instructions about orderly worship – something along the lines of women should not interrupt by asking questions during worship. Earlier in this letter Paul had mentioned that the Corinthians were getting drunk at the Lord’s Supper and that those prophesying and speaking in tongues were all talking at once – perhaps those women not prophesying began chatting in their seats or asking questions? They are told to be in submission to those men and women leading worship.

          So 1 Corinthians 11-14 is not intended to be used as any kind of model for spiritual leadership in the home. Here Paul addresses three groups of people who were disturbing worship and tells them ALL to be silent when appropriate:
          1. male and female prophets are told don’t talk at once, be silent in church.
          2. male and female speakers in tongues are told if there is no interpreter, be silent in church
          3. married women with Christian husbands are told don’t ask questions during the worship. ask your husbands at home
          Paul is not telling the female prophets discussed in ch. 11 to stop prophesying!

          So I think it is wrong to take these verses out of context and use them as part of a framework to support restrictive gender roles in the home or the church.

          I want to make clear that the purpose of this blog is to encourage, educate, and support those who have an egalitarian viewpoint. If you are not open to this view but are here to speak against this position, you are in the wrong place!

          • Let’s take 1Timothy 5 verse by verse:
            1 Rebuke not an elder, but intreat him as a father; and the younger men as brethren; (Paul is not only speaking to women, nor to just widows.)
            2 The elder women as mothers; the younger as sisters, with all purity.
            3 Honour widows that are widows indeed. (This chapter goes on to define what makes a worthy widow and an unworthy widow.)
            4 But if any widow have children or nephews, let them learn first to shew piety at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God. (Paul is saying that widows should first show holiness at home, if they have children or nephews or parents.)
            5 Now she that is a widow indeed, and desolate, trusteth in God, and continueth in supplications and prayers night and day. (A worthy widow has faith and prays.)
            6 But she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth. (An unworthy woman seeks her own pleasures.)
            7 And these things give in charge, that they may be blameless. (If a widow is does those things that make her worthy, she will be blameless and worthy to receive whatever help she needs from the Church.)
            8 But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel. (If any- including males- seek their own pleasure above caring for their families, then they are worse than someone who does not believe in the faith.)
            9 Let not a widow be taken into the number under threescore years old, having been the wife of one man, (A woman is not to be numbered among the widows if she is younger than 60.)
            10 Well reported of for good works; if she have brought up children, if she have lodged strangers, if she have washed the saints’ feet, if she have relieved the afflicted, if she have diligently followed every good work. (This lists things that make a widow worthy.)
            11 But the younger widows refuse: for when they have begun to wax wanton against Christ, they will marry; (This says younger widows can refuse to do those things listed in verse 10 and can seek promiscuity- which is against God’s will- and desire to marry instead of caring for their own as they should. This doesn’t mean marrying again is bad, if a woman keeps her first commitment to God and her family.)
            12 Having damnation, because they have cast off their first faith. (It’s damnation to cast of God and family.)
            13 And withal they learn to be idle, wandering about from house to house; and not only idle, but tattlers also and busybodies, speaking things which they ought not. (A person seeking their own pleasures gets into all sorts of mischief- while a person who puts God and others first does not.)
            14 I will therefore that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully. (To avoid becoming a busybody and the like- or to avoid getting involved with things that do not build the Kingdom of God- younger women should marry and bear children and guide the home and not speak disapproving of probably these things and of other people.)
            15 For some are already turned aside after Satan. (for some younger women are not doing these things and are following Satan and seeking their own pleasures)
            16 If any man or woman that believeth have widows, let them relieve them, and let not the church be charged; that it may relieve them that are widows indeed. (Family should take care of their widows, and the Church will care for those without family.)
            Verses 17-25 speak to the men. All the verses should fit your agenda, if your agenda speaks truth. Women are fully loved and can be fully used by the Lord when they seek to build His Kingdom, and they do not need the priesthood to do that. Maybe they do need a different church, however, if they are feeling put down.

            Again, I quoted Ephesians 5: 25-27 correctly, so you cannot say the text only tells husbands to love their wives. If a husband loves his wife, he certainly would want to make sure she understands the Lord’s words. I do not feel threatened by that, because I know I teach my husband much about the gospel too.

            25 Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it;
            26 That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by THE WORD,
            27 That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.

            You said, “I see a similar dynamic with your interpretation of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. You say these verses mean Paul intended for all woman to be silent in the church for all time,” but I never said that. You speak of the contents of 1 Corinthians 11-14 as if I disagree with you about those things when I do not. I have been clear in stating that women have spiritual gifts and that their ability to bring others to Christ is equal to a man’s. Nothing you said verifies that women should have the priesthood, nor were any women called by Christ to lead the Church. You cannot verify that women were officiating in worship, though women are entitled to personal revelation and all spiritual gifts, including the gift of prophesy. I can know of things to come, so I can guide my home and live prudently, but I do not expect to receive guidance for my church as a whole. I do have a leadership position in my church, but the priesthood presides over me and lends help where needed. I feel I have full use of my gifts in this position in bringing others to Christ. I don’t feel the need to pass the sacrament. I have joy in seeing my son do this. Sunday school is taught by men and women in our church and worship service sermons are given by men and women who have been asked to do so by the presiding priesthood. Women have all sorts of leadership positions in my church, though the male priesthood leadership presides.

            I am in support of those with an egalitarian viewpoint, but I am against anyone perverting the truth, though they have good intentions, for this will only lead people astray. Individual women and men have equal missions to bring others to Christ in the unique way only they can do it, and Paul would have us concentrate on doing just that. Now, I respectfully leave this discussion and wish you all well. Women are wonderful!– and each woman will feel this more so from God when their focus it to be an example of Christ and when they go about sharing His love with those around them.
            Here’s my source, so others can judge for themselves: http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/book.php?book=1+Corinthians&chapter=11&verse=

  • P.S. I mention St. Jerome, because it was in his 4th century Latin translation of the Bible where things began to go awry. I hope to address that further in an upcoming post.

  • Hi Gail, yes in the New Testament “deacon” is also a viable translation of “diakonos.” Charles Trombley discusses this in his book, “Who Said Women Can’t Teach?” Here’s an excerpt: “In the beginning [of the church] there were no servants called “deaconesses,” only “deacons.” The word diakonos occurs thirty times and it is usually tranlated “minister.” Seven times the King James Version renders it “servant,” and three times “deacon.” The feminine noun “deaconess” wasn’t used until the third century, which places it well outside New Testament studies. For the first 250 years, the ministers, men or women, were called deacons” (Trombley, 2003, p. 223-224).

    In his Stromata, Book 3, chapter 6, St. Clement also writes about women who were deacons: “We also know the directions about women deacons which are given by the noble Paul.” Clement was born around 150 A.D.. His writings are thus closer to the New Testament era than St. Jerome’s by about 200 years.

  • Hi, Bob! I was just wondering if you ran into any commentary on the translation of diakonos to our modern day “deacon”. I’ve read that Phoebe was probably a deacon in the church. Have you heard that?

  • This is great, Bob. There seem to be so many instances of “mis-translation”—which is why we have the whole Junia fiasco in the first place! Thanks for shedding some light on this verse.

  • Glad to share. Thanks for the encouraging words. It’s good to know that the information is helpful.

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