Tuesday, December 18, 2012


"Here Bring your Wounded Hearts" by Elspeth Young 
Romans 16:1-2


Even though Paul never personally ministered to the saints in Rome he sent them instruction and encouragement in the form of a letter, which is now the book of Romans in the New Testament. His letter to them was written towards the end of his time in Corinth ( Acts 20:3), Paul hoped that after his visit to Jerusalem he would then be able to visit Rome. At the conclusion of his letter (Romans 16) he gave a long list of greetings to friends and fellow saints who were then living or ministering in Rome. Romans 16 is unique because  it gives us an intimate glimpse into the members of the early Christian church, it is also unique because 10 of the 29 people mentioned by Paul in his letter are women-- including his letter carrier Phebe.

Facts About Her:
  • Paul sent his letter to the church in Rome via Phebe (Rom. 16:1); 
  • She was a "servant of the church" from Cenchrea (a port in Corinth) and Paul wrote to the Romans that she was "our sister" and asked that they, "... receive her in the Lord, as becometh saints, and that ye assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of you.." (Rom. 16:1-2)
  • Paul also tells them that she "...hath been a succourer of many, and of myself also."(Rom. 16:2)
Speculations About Her:
  • It appears by Paul's introduction of her that Phebe was unknown to the Roman saints and that her main purpose in traveling from Corinth  to Rome was to join with the saints there and complete the "business" she had in Rome. Paul may have chosen her as his letter carrier because she was already planning on the trip, though it is possible that she may have gone for the main purpose of delivering Paul's letter and message to the Roman saints.
  •  The Greek word that is used to describe Phebe as "servant" of the church is the word
    "diakonos" and literally translated it means:

    "1)One who executes the commands of another, esp. of a master, a servant, attendant, minister
    the servant of a king; 2)  a deacon, one who, by virtue of the office assigned to him by the church, cares for the poor and has charge of and distributes the money collected for their use." (source)

    In the King James Version of the bible  the word "diakonos" is used 31 times and is translated twenty times as "minister", 8 times as "servant", and 3 times as "deacon". Whenever it is used it has reference to those who serve and minister in an official office in the church. (source) The word "diakonos" being used to describe Phebe has been the center of much controversy among scholars. In her article " A Study of Romans 16 for LDS and Evangelical Conversations" Bridgette Jack Jeffries says: 

    "The word is used elsewhere in the New Testament to refer to the office of deacon, an office that many Christian traditions have barred women from for centuries... Those who resist seeing Phoebe as a deacon usually point out that the literal translation for διάκονος was “servant,” and Paul uses the term to mean “servant” in numerous places (Rom.13:4, 15:8; 1 Cor. 3:5). However, nowhere else in the New Testament does Paul (or any other author) connect one's status as a διάκονος to service with a specific local congregation, as is the case with Phoebe and the church at Cenchreae. The phrase “διάκονον τῆς ἐκκλησίας” (diakonon tes ekklesias – of the church) is unique to Romans 16:1. Because Paul is listing Phoebe's credentials to Roman Christians who would be unfamiliar with her, because she is probably on official church business on his behalf in delivering his letter, because he connects her διάκονος-ship with a specific local congregation, and because his designation of her as a προστάτις indicates that she was a woman who advocated for and supported others in the Gospel, the textual argument for reading διάκονος as a specific office or leadership position becomes very strong."
  • The other word that is hotly debated among scholars in the word that is translated in the KJV as "succorer". In Greek the word is "prostatis"  and literally means, "a woman set over others; a female guardian, protectress, patroness, caring for the affairs of others and aiding them with her resources."  The word "prostatis" is used only once in the KJV bible and this is to refer to Phebe in Romans 16. It is a word that indicates female leadership and as Jeffries said, "The Greek verb from which this noun derives, προΐστημι (proïstēmi), literally means “to preside over”. The masculine equivalent was well-known for carrying the possible meaning of one's legal guardian, and it is now known that a woman could be a legal προστάτις as well. The word has a stronger connotation than that of a meek and submissive helper and is best translated into modern English as “benefactor” or “patron.”
My Thoughts

As I studied Phoebe I was amazed by the amount of debate there is among scholars and theologians over who she was and what type of authority she held in the early church. It is obvious from the words Paul used to describe her-- mainly the word "diakonos" (meaning servant or deacon) and "prostatis" (meaning a woman set over others)-- that Phebe held some type of leadership and authority position in the early Christian church.  Just exactly what that position was has become the center of a heated debate as to whether or not women were ordained to the priesthood in the early Christian church and whether they should (or could) be now.

From an LDS perspective the words "diakonos" (servant or deacon) and "prostatis" (a woman set over others) present no theological problem. The idea of a woman disciple being set apart and having authority to preside and minister to a specific congregation or to the church as a whole fits right into what Latter-day Saints believe is the responsibility of women in the church.

In the LDS church men are organized into quorums according to their priesthood responsibilities while the women are organized into a sisterhood, called the Relief Society. The purpose of the Relief Society is to help to increase faith and personal righteousness in the church, strengthen families and homes, and seek out and provide relief for those who are in need. While it was not called "Relief Society" back then, we know that a similar organization for women existed in the church Christ established when He was alive. The first chapter of "Daughters in My Kingdom" paints a beautiful picture of what this ancient "Relief Society" did and who was involved in it. It says:
"The Prophet Joseph Smith declared, “The Church was never perfectly organized until the women were thus organized.” Sister Eliza R. Snow, the second Relief Society general president, reiterated this teaching. She said: “Although the name may be of modern date, the institution is of ancient origin. We were told by our martyred prophet that the same organization existed in the church anciently.”
In ancient times Christ invited women not only to be his disciples, but to be actively engaged in the work of saving souls. We don't know all the details about how this ancient sisterhood functioned, but since the rest of the LDS church has been patterned after the ancient church we can also we can guess that the basic framework of our modern day Relief Society is the same as it was 2,000 years ago.

 For example, in the modern Relief Society women from each ward (congregation) are called and set apart by a laying on of hands to preside over and receive revelation about the families within her ward. In addition, within in a Stake ( a group of wards) a Relief Society president is also called who presides over all the Relief Society presidents within that stake. There is also a General Relief Society President who presides over all the Stake and Ward Relief Societies within the Church. These women not only lead and  receive revelation about the women and families in their stewardship, but they also work in concert with male leaders to make sure the needs of their members are met. So, as I studied the story of Phebe I saw woman who was fulfilling her "Relief Society" duties in the ancient church.

I feel that understanding the meaning of the word "prostatis" (translated as "succorer") lends beautiful depth and insight into who Phebe was and what her contributions were to the early church. As I mentioned above the word "prostatis" means " a woman set over others; a female guardian, protectress, patroness, caring for the affairs of others and aiding them with her resources." 

The idea of a woman being "set apart" to care for the affairs of others and aiding them with resources fits perfectly the description of a modern day Relief Society president. It is not hard for Latter-day Saints to envision a role for Phebe in which she was leading and ministering-- with authority-- to the members of the church, including men like Paul. Just insert the full definition into the scripture instead of the word "succorer" and see how it illuminates the verse, 

"..for she hath been a woman set [apart] over many, and of myself also" 


"...for she hath been a female patroness caring for the affairs of others and aiding many, and of myself also."

Paul's use of the word "hath" here is also particularly insightful because it indicates that she had been a "succourer" or a "prostatis" for others and for him, but that now she was not. This too fits in with LDS belief and practices, because in the LDS church members are called and "set apart" for a certain office or task. With this setting apart comes a blessing and an infusion of authority to lead and receive revelation specific to their office. Members usually serve in a position for several years, after which they are "released" and the office and authority are then transfered to someone else. 

It is intriguing to think about Phebe being the ancient equivalent of a Relief Society president, the "prostatis" of Paul's congregation in Corinth. In that responsibility she would have embodied Christ-like service in caring for and ministering to the women and families in her stewardship, which makes me think that perhaps the translation of the word as "succorer" isn't far from the truth. For as Alma described, Christ himself would, " ... take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities." (Alma 7:12)


The other thing I found as I studied Phebe was that many people got hung up on the word " diakonos" which can be translated as "deacon". They were confused about how Phebe could be called that if she didn't have priesthood authority. Yet when I went and looked up what the original Greek word "deacon" meant it was this, "one who, by virtue of the office assigned to him by the church, cares for the poor and has charge of and distributes the money collected for their use." (source)

That word, regardless of how we use it today, described someone who had authority from the church to administer  spiritual and physical relief to the poor. To me that description beautifully fits the calling of the Relief Society.

Lets read the verse of scripture again, this time inserting the original meaning of the word:
"I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is one who, by virtue of the office assigned to [her] by the church, cares for the poor and has charge of and distributes the money collected for their use which is in Cenchrea."
When it is read this way it is easy for me to see how the word "deacon" or "deaconess" could apply to Phebe. She was one who had been set apart, given authority to preside, and to administer to the needs of the poor.

Perhaps the confusion is because the way in which we now use the word "deacon" may not have been the way the word was used anciently. For example take the word "ordination". In the Doctrine and Covenants there are scriptures in which both men and women are "ordained" to offices within the church.  For example men were "ordained" as bishops and high councilors (D&C  20:67) and women were "ordained" to preside over the Relief Society (D&C 25:7). In both instances these "ordinations" would be what is now considered a "setting apart" in our modern church vernacular.

In the 1828 version of the Webster's Dictionary the word "ordained"  is defined as "to set apart",  and so for early Latter-day saints the meaning was probably clear. Yet, in recent decades the word "ordain" has come to be associated with priesthood ordination and so the language we use has changed to make the difference clear. Today a person can only be ordained to a priesthood office, like an elder, a deacon, an apostle, etc. While they are set apart to a certain calling like, a bishop, a stake president, Relief Society president, member of the First Presidency, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles,  a temple president, etc..

So using the word "deacon" or "deaconess" to describe Phebe's role in the church doesn't necessarily indicate that she had been ordained with priesthood authority. Yet as an ancient member (and perhaps leader) of the Relief Society she would have been organized, as the Prophet Joseph Smith said,  "after the pattern of the priesthood" and her work would have been a priesthood purpose.

 In speaking of the role of the modern Relief Society Julie B. Beck stated, 

"We operate in the manner of the priesthood—which means that we seek, receive, and act on revelation; make decisions in councils; and concern ourselves with caring for individuals one by one. Ours is the priesthood purpose to prepare ourselves for the blessings of eternal life by making and keeping covenants. Therefore, like our brethren who hold the priesthood, ours is a work of salvation, service, and becoming a holy people.” ("Relief Society: A Sacred Work", Ensign, Oct. 2009)

Personally, I love think of Phebe as being called a "deaconess". To me it is a reminder that the work she was doing, the work of Relief Society, is part of the great priesthood mission of the earth. Phebe's story is just more evidence that, from the very start, women have played an important role in God's church and that we are every bit as involved in God's great work of bringing " to pass the immortality and eternal life of man" (Moses 1:39).

Questions to Think About:
  • What does Paul's use of the words "diakonos" (servant, minister or deacon) and "prostatis" ( a woman set above others) to describe Phebe tell you about the role of women in the early Christian church? How does this better help you understand the purpose of the Relief Society in the modern church and the way in which women should work with men in ministering to the church?
  • Why would Paul have sent Phebe to Rome and entrusted his letter with her? What business do you think she could she have had to do among the Saints in Rome?
  • How could you use Phebe's story as a way to help young women and young men better understand the way in which God would like men and women  to work together in the Gospel?
  • How does the story of "the elect lady" mentioned in 2 John shed light on the story of Phebe and give insight into how women were organized in the ancient church? 
  • Brigham Young once described Eliza R. Snow, the second president of the Relief Society, as " a Priestess, Prophetess, and Presidentess." Why do you think we don't use those words more commonly in our modern day vernacular, what benefits or downsides do you see to using those words to describe Relief Society sisters today? 


  1. You did such a great job explaining the original Greek words used in the scriptures to describe Phebe. I love learning the history of words and their original meaning as it adds so much to my study and understanding.

  2. Timely. Too often we interpret the past through a present lens but use the wrong one. Thank you for this. If we really believe that Joseph Smith was led by God, we believe in the way he restored our doctrines, covenants, and organization. This is an important part of the conversation on women and God.

  3. Thanks Heather!! I really enjoyed the article. I just have one thought for clarity's sake. A stake RS President doesn't preside over the RS Presidents in the stake. Each ward RS Pres. is accountable to and presided over by her Bishop. He is the one who gives her counsel and guidance and instruction. A stake RS Pres is there for helping ward RS presidents to learn their respective duties, to instruct, and help in their administrations and questions, but ward RS presidents report to and are under the direction of their Bishop. They are to assist and provide temporal and spiritual support specifically to the sisters of their ward and usually by doing so will bless and assist families.

    The stake RS Pres. is under the stewardship of the Stake President and follows his direction and counsel in helping the ward RS Presidents. Hopefully the stake pres. is giving the same instruction/counsel to his bishops so that the RS and the priesthood are working in concert. But it is significant to delineate that each RS president, general, stake, or ward, is not presiding, but is working under the direction of her direct priesthood leader.

  4. Carin, I appreciate your clarification. It is important to remember that each RS president works with a bishop or a stake president or a prophet. The RS couldn't function without the priesthood and the priesthood couldn't function without the RS.

    Yet I think it is correct to use the word "preside" to describe the role RS presidents play in the church. I used the word specifically because Sister Beck also used it to describe the stewardship of RS presidents. She said:

    "The formation of a presidency is also a priesthood pattern. Every ward elders quorum president and Relief Society president presides over and directs the activities of the elders quorum or Relief Society in the ward. Quorum and Relief Society leaders have a measure of divine authority given to them regarding the government and instruction of those they are called to lead.16 They are men and women who are “called of God, by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands.” To preside means to stand guard, to superintend, and to lead.18 This means that Relief Society and quorum leaders in a ward carry the responsibility to supervise, oversee, and regulate the work of the Relief Society and the quorums on behalf of the bishop."

    Preside does not mean that you have to have priesthood keys. A woman can preside (watch over, lead) over her stewardship. For example, even though a husband may preside in the family if he dies or is absent then the mother is the one who presides -- even if there is another male in her family who holds the priesthood. She doesn't have to have keys or the priesthood to preside over her stewardship. When Joseph Smith created the RS he "Turned the key" to the RS, giving it priesthood authority and responsibility. This doesn't mean that it is separate from the rest of the priesthood organization of the church but it does mean that the women who lead it are able to preside over it, just like an elder's quorum president can in his quorum. I think a RS is missing some of the real power of her calling if she doesn't realize that she has been called to preside over her stewardship.

    I feel like "preside" is another one of those loaded words that is often misunderstood all around :) I am still trying to get my head around what it all entails, and so I really appreciated sister Becks' quote. IT is from her talk called, "why we are organized into quorums and Relief Societies" you can read it here: http://speeches.byu.edu/?act=viewitem&id=2012

    1. I LOVE that talk and think it/she is amazing!

      OK....maybe my word choice was poor....I do agree that she does preside over her stewardship, but the stake RS President has no authority to direct (this would be the keys, etc...) how work is happening in the ward. She should be a liaison and there to give instruction and counsel, but she is not directly over the other RS Presidents, that is what I am trying to say. Does that make sense?

      The only reason it is significant is because (I am sure this isn't a problem where the church is stronger) sometimes, here, organization presidents feel that they do not have to follow the instructions of their immediate priesthood leader because instead they are taking directions and counsel from a stake organization leader and feeling that the stake organization leader should give counsel and direction to the Bishop regarding the functioning of the ward. It is a fine line, and probably one that doesn't even need too much discussion, except that it is a problem where I reside and can easily be an area where individuals can get off course if they are not reading the handbooks and listening to the direction of the general authorities (also a struggle here), and seeking the Spirit in their decisions.

      Thanks for the clarification.

      And can I just say, Heather, I really, really appreciate your ability to discuss differences in opinion. It is not often, unfortunately even in public forums, to be able to discuss different points of view and still feel understood and be treated fairly. I think that is a very unique quality and I really appreciate it.

    2. Carin, Thank you for the nice words. I try really hard to consider all viewpoints. It is important that we be able to have good conversations where people feel safe sharing their ideas.

      I appreciate your experiences. I see now what you mean. I am glad we could chat it out :)