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 NKJV
Only two Bible verses describe her role, and only one mentions her name. While Saint Paul says very little about Phoebe, her service impacted the church in her time as well as the church today. The work that the Lord accomplished through Phoebe continues even in the Lutheran Church.
Described by Saint Paul as a “servant of the church,” Phoebe could also be entitled “deaconess.” The church has historically viewed her as one of the first women to serve in this vocation. While the daily routine of a deaconess can vary greatly, each shares Phoebe’s purpose as a helper. Just as Phoebe helped Pastor Paul, deaconesses today serve in a “helper” role.
The service of Phoebe and deaconesses centers on the Lord’s gifts. To find those, one need look no further than the church. It is through the pastor – one of God’s gifts to the church – that God’s forgiveness by the means of Word and Sacrament comes to us. A deaconess is defined by her relationship to the Office of the Public Ministry, which is held by the pastor. She, like Phoebe, is a helper.
The pastor proclaims the Word in his preaching, teaching, and through the public reading of Scripture. He distributes forgiveness in the body and blood of Jesus and proclaims salvation through the waters of Holy Baptism. He forgives sins in the name of Jesus. The pastor’s call is to distribute God’s good gifts – forgiveness and eternal life – which God has given to His bride, the church.
A deaconess helps the pastor by pointing the Good Shepherd’s sheep to those same gifts. She does not give them out like the pastor does, but rather points others back to the Office of the Public Ministry, held by the pastor. She does this through the teaching of the Faith, spiritual care, and acts of mercy. Deaconesses teach the Faith through Bible studies, Sunday school classes, and singing hymns. They provide spiritual care through shut-in visits, prison visits, and private counseling. Acts of mercy can include something as great as sheltering the homeless or as common as providing a shoulder to weep on, or a cup of water to drink.
Just as Christ is hidden in the water, bread, and wine in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, He is also hidden in your neighbor. Consequently, as a deaconess serves her neighbor, she recognizes that she is, in fact, serving the Lord. He does not need her service; her service gains her nothing. Rather, it is the neighbor who is benefited by her good works, done in faith. The deaconess is motivated to this service by the love that was first shown her by Jesus, just as all Christians are motivated to “love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
The work of a deaconess, like the work of Phoebe, does not strive for glory, but only to further God’s kingdom by pointing back to the great gifts which God has given to His church in His Son, our Lord, and Savior, Jesus Christ. These gifts are received through the pastor’s hands and mouth, where the body and blood of Jesus are given and the words of Holy Absolution are spoken. Thus, when a deaconess points those she serves to the pastor, she is pointing them to their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Deaconesses are not important or even necessary; Jesus is. Pastor Paul didn’t need Phoebe’s help, just as pastors today can preach and teach without a deaconess. And yet the church rejoices in receiving these women as another gift from the Lord.
Without God’s Word and Sacrament, the church is nothing. Because God promises to give His gifts through the Pastoral Office, the deaconess points God’s sheep to him. It is there, from the pastor who stands in the stead of Christ, that God’s people find forgiveness and salvation. It is there, in service to Christ, that a deaconess finds joy.
by Deaconess Sara Lemon