Did you know that Paul’s letter to the Romans was delivered by a woman?
In the Re:Exodus sermon series we’ve just completed, we worked through several chapters of Romans, one of the most theologically significant epistles in the Bible. Somewhat surprisingly, the ministry of a woman is part of the reason we have this letter today. When we read Romans, we’re benefiting from the gifts of women.
In the final chapter of the letter, Paul names those who are important to him and his ministry; nine of these are women. But he begins with Phoebe.
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant (diakonos) of the church at Cenchrae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints , and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well.” (Romans 16:1-2, ESV)
What does this mean?
Paul is instructing the Roman church to welcome and honor Phoebe because she’s taken the long, expensive, and dangerous journey to bring them his letter. But Phoebe was more than just a letter-carrier. Paul is commending Phoebe as his representative; the Romans “were to treat her in the same way they would have treated Paul or any other servant of the Gospel,” explain Elyse Fitzpatrick and Eric Schumacher in their book Worthy: Celebrating the Value of Women.
There was no public mail service at this time, so writers had to depend on a trusted messenger to make sure their words were delivered safely. Paul entrusted his letter to Phoebe. Why would he trust a woman with this responsibility?
There are several clues in chapter 16. First, Paul calls Phoebe a servant or deacon, diakonos, a term used to describe those who helped meet the church’s needs. It’s a term he uses to describe his own ministry in several letters. Paul also says of her, “she has been a patron of many and of myself as well.” In the Roman empire, a patron was a wealthy and influential person—man or woman—who used their status to benefit those who were not as rich or well-connected.
Paul trusted Phoebe because she was a faithful servant who used her time, talent, and treasure for the sake of the gospel. She offered her gifts to the church, and Paul valued what she gave.
And this is where Phoebe becomes especially relevant to us. In our culture, women haven’t always been seen as having a significant role to play in the church, but Phoebe and her gifts are part of the reason we have Romans today. At Exodus, we believe the gifts of women are important to the work of the church. It’s the reason we have a ministry called Exodus Women. This ministry exists to discover, develop, and deploy the gifts of women for the mission of Jesus at Exodus. We believe women’s ministry isn’t just a ministry to the women in the church, but—like Phoebe’s in Rome—a ministry by women for the entire church.
Through her faithfulness, courage, and generosity, Phoebe offered her gifts in service of the gospel. And God used her gifts for the benefit of the church—not just those house churches in Rome—but all the Christians in all the churches in the world who now have a copy of the letter Phoebe delivered.