Rom 16:1 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae,

Rom 16:2 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.

We start chapter 16 seeing that Paul, as he does in many of his letters, places personal greetings and messages here. This chapter may seem rather innocuous, but it is the cause of what I would consider much bad doctrine – how? And where? In the very first verse. Before we get to the doctrinal issue, let’s look at what Paul says and what we can draw from it.

Paul says, “I commend to you” – who is the “you” here? The church at Rome. Paul also says that “you” are to welcome her and to help her, so we can surmise here that Phoebe is coming to Rome and we can also draw the conclusion that she may even be the courier delivering Paul’s letter. Now, can we make a definitive judgment as to that statement? No, we can’t, but it is a reasonable conclusion to draw but since it’s not definitive, we wouldn’t want to base any dogma or doctrine on it. Why do I say that? Because of what we will discuss next on this verse and for Mr. Griffin’s sake, we will define two words that pertain to the study of Scripture. Those two words (write on whiteboard) are: 1) exegesis, and 2) eisegesis. We have covered these two words before, if memory serves, but since I can’t even remember if we have, it’s good to do it again.

Exegesis is a word that means “to lead out of.” For our purpose, in interpreting the Bible, it means to draw out of the text the meaning of that text. We are trying to find the author’s original meaning and intent in what the text says. At its root, a text means the same thing today that it did when it was written. The challenge for us is to extract that meaning from the text. The other word, “eisegesis,” means pretty much the opposite of exegesis – eisegesis means “to lead into.” For us, it means reading a meaning into the text that isn’t there. It’s bringing something into the text that was never meant to be there. It’s always a challenge for the student of the Bible to engage in exegesis and not eisegesis. You might say we’d never engage in eisegesis. It’s easier than you may think. It’s not easy for us to lay aside our contemporary views and culture in interpreting the biblical text. We don’t think like a Jew of 2,000 years ago or like a Greek did back then or how people coming from the pagan cultures of that day thought. Paul, and the other New Testament authors, though, had all those factors in mind when they wrote what they wrote, inspired by the Spirit of God. We aren’t supposed to interpret these Scriptures using today’s news headlines or today’s political or economic or cultural climate – think about it – was our political and economic and cultural climate different 50 years ago? Is our culture different than that of the Sudan? South Korea? Germany 500 years ago? 100 years ago? 200 years ago? So does Romans 16 or John 6 or whichever passage you pick have a zillion different meanings – one for each era? No, they don’t.

Let’s look at an example. John 3:16. First, I want to read something from this booklet (hold up IRBC Constitution). Anybody seen this? It’s our church’s Constitution. Anybody read it? I sure hope so. You should read it. Let me read from this and tell you what we believe happened as a result of the fall of Adam: (read statement on total depravity). This statement says the Fall rendered Adam and all his descendants -which includes you and I – totally incapable of saying “yes” to God and we have no natural desire or want to say “Yes.”

One time I was leading a Sunday School class like this and we had all agreed on this same point – man’s natural inability to say “Yes” to the Gospel or to obey God in any way. Until one man rasied his hand and sai, “What about John 3:16?” I responded, What about John 3:16.” He said that John 3:16 said that everybody had the ability to say “Yes.” I said, “OK, let’s read John 3:16 and that’s what we’ll do now.” So now, someone here hopefully can recite John 3:16…..

I had this gentleman read John 3:16 aloud to the class and he said, “See. There it is.” I said, “There what is?” “Whosoever believes.” “OK. ‘Whosoever believes’ says what about who CAN or CANNOT believe? Read it again, out loud. What does the verse say about anyone’s ability to believe?” “Well, it doesn’t say anything.” “Exactly. It doesn’t say anything one way or the other. It says nothing about anyone’s ability to believe.”

My point is that this gentleman was reading something into the passage that just was not there – John 3:16 says whoever does something – believes – receives a reward – eternal life. That’s all it says – nothing about man’s natural ability or inability to believe. Thinking it does say something is eisegesis – reading something into the verse that just isn’t there.

I’ve said all that to say this as we work through verse 1. Paul says something here that I maintain has resulted in much bad doctrine and teaching throughout the church and it has to do with Phoebe. Paul speaks very highly of Phoebe, does he not? And the manner in which he speaks highly of her causes some people to draw what erroneous doctrinal conclusion? That women are to be pastors. Anytime the discussion comes up concerning female pastors, one of the first verses cited to support this is Romans 16:1? “Well, what about Phoebe?” Well, what about Phoebe? Paul commends her for being a servant to the church Cenchreae. The word translated as “servant” in my English Standard and in your NIV and in your King James and in your New King James and in your New American Standard is the same word – diakonos – that is also translated elsewhere in the New Testament as what word? Deacon. Just as new information, if you use the NIV, the NIV has been revised with a new version called the NIV-2010. My son-in-law, whom you’ve seen here with my daughter, works for Zondervan and all Zondervan employees were allowed to send one electronic copy of the new NIV to someone and after his first option declined, I accepted, because after all, there’s no book like a free book, right? All I have to say about this new version is that if you like the old NIV, you may well not like the new NIV but you can make your own judgment if you choose to upgrade down the road. The new NIV translates verse 1 not with “servant,” but with “deacon.”

In looking at what some theologians say about this issue, there is no unanimity. There is however a consensus among the more conservative scholars. When you read the following on this verse – to name a few – John Calvin[i], John Gill[ii], Frederick Godet[iii], Matthew Poole[iv], Matthew Henry[v], John Murray[vi], Leon Morris[vii], C.E.B. Cranfield[viii], Everett Harrison[ix], William Hendrickson[x]. Most of those men would say there is nothing compelling the use of “deacon” in this passage. Even those who do say it should be translated “deacon,” for example, such as Cranfield, who says it is “the most natural reading,” would not maintain it holds the weight assigned to it by many who wish to empower women for pastoral ministry. Even if the word is translated “deacon,” there is nothing mandating its use in this passage as an office within the church equivalent to the office of male deacon. Now, as Douglas Wilson, theologian in Idaho, would hold – we do not determine truth by counting scholarly noses, so we don’t vote on truth based upon how many scholars hold a particular position. Having said that, we cannot deny the overwhelming evidence of conservative scholarship that states that verse 1 does not give any weight to the “women are to be pastors” argument. I would hold that to draw such a conclusion is engaging in eisegesis in instead of exegesis.

Elsewhere in the New Testament, there are examples of this word being used that do not compel us to state that its use requires the mention of an office within the church that ministers to all within the church of either gender. We can go to a passage such as 1 Tim. 3, where Paul lays out some requirements for deacons:

“1Tim 3:8 Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain.

1Tim 3:9 They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.

1Tim 3:10 And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless.

1Tim 3:11 Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.

1Tim 3:12 Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well.

1Tim 3:13 For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

Those who would maintain that this passage does not rule out female deacons are using what is called the argument from silence to state such. This means nothing is said about a topic, so because it isn’t prohibited, it must be permitted. Just because the Scripture is silent in one passage on a topic does not mean it does not speak elsewhere and we should not be using an argument from silence to establish doctrinal standards. I would equate this to what I learned from a prison chaplain a few years ago – he had a prisoner come in and request a certain thing for his particular faith system and the chaplain denied him. The prisoner said, “Policy doesn’t say I can’t do it, so I should be able to.” The chaplain’s response was, “Policy does not say you CAN do it and you can only do what policy says, not what it does not say you cannot do.”

I am aware this is a very emotional issue and can cause division within churches. I am not minimizing either Phoebe’s – or females in general – gifts and abilities and her service within the church. One time during the prison study this issue came up and one of the prisoner church leaders was furious at my point that there are certain roles ordained for women in the Scripture and certain ones which the Scripture prohibits them. This man accused me of being bigoted and demeaning toward women and he said I was saying that women were lesser people than men. I responded by stating that I was saying nothing of the sort – that the Spirit assigns gifts to women as He does men but He also, in His Word, assigns parameters for the usage of those gifts. The Scripture gives us parameters on how and where Phoebe’s – and any woman’s – gifts are to be used and verse one of chapter 16 certainly does not give license to the position that women are to be pastors or even that they are to be deacons on the same level serving the same people within the church that male deacons serve. Yes, it is about service, but is about service within the guidelines of Scripture. Scripture does not give us freedom to interpret texts based upon popular opinion, emotions or experience. We are not to read into the Scripture what is not there. We are to interpret Scripture with Scripture, not with culture. Church history seems to show us that women of Phoebe’s time and the immediate time after her served women and if they served men, they served within the guidelines set by Scripture – and served them sacrificially. They did not, however, serve in roles that the Scripture limits to males. For example, Pliny the younger, about A. D. 104, appears to refer to them in his letter to Trajan, in which he speaks of the torture of two maids who were called minestrae (female ministers). The office seems to have been confined mainly to widows, though virgins were not absolutely excluded. Their duties were to take care of the sick and poor, to minister to martyrs and confessors in prison, to instruct catechumens, to assist at the baptism of women, and to exercise a general supervision over the female church members.[xi]

To sum up verses one and two – Paul seems to be sending Phoebe – a reliable servant of the church – to Rome with this letter n her hand and the church at Rome was to extend hospitality to her and assist her as she had done for Paul and others in the past. Verses one and two do not permit us to extend the office of overseer or teaching elder for a congregation to females – doing so violates the meaning of this and other texts.

[i]. Commentary on Romans 16:1-16, Christian Classics Ethereal Library,

[ii]. Exposition of the Entire Bible,,

[iii]. Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, pp.487-488

[iv]. Annotations Upon The Holy Bible, pp. 534-535

[v]. Commentary on the Whole Bible, Christian Classics Ethereal Library,

[vi]. The Epistle to the Romans, Volume II, pp. 226-227

[vii]. The Epistle to the Romans, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, pp. 527-529

[viii]. Romans: A Shorter Commentary, pp. 374-375

[ix]. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 10, pp. 160-161

[x]. New Testament Commentary: Exposition of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, pp. 498-501

[xi]. Vincent’s Word Studies,,