Precedents, Prejudice and a Deacon named Phoebe (decisive proof that deacon/pastor qualifications are general principles, not discriminatory against women)


  • “All of you are equal as brothers and sisters” Matt. 23:8 (There are rare exceptions, but Numbers 15:15 defines equality as the same rules applying to all)
  • Why is equality important?
    “The secret of unity is found in the equality of believers in Christ. The reason for all division, discord, and difference is found in separation from Christ.  1 SM 259
  • “I rescued you from Egypt, where you were slaves. I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to be your leaders.” Micah 6:4
  • “Aaron and Miriam had occupied a position of high honor and leadership in Israel…In the affections of the people and the honor of Heaven she stood second only to Moses and Aaron.” Patriarchs and Prophets p. 384-5
  • “It is the accompaniment of the Holy Spirit of God that prepares workers, both men and women, to become pastors to the flock of God.” Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church 6:322
  • “There are women who should labor in the gospel ministry.” Evangelism, 472. Manuscript 43a, 1898

There are discussions about whether women can be ordained as spiritual leaders in our church, especially at the pastoral level.  There is no Bible command anywhere against ordaining women as pastors in the Bible, nor in Ellen White’s writings.  Some sincere people though have claimed 2 Timothy 3:2 should be understood to ban women from being ordained pastors, even though it doesn’t even use the word ordained (some take it further that they should be banned from being pastors which conflicts with both Bible principles  and explicit statements of Ellen White that both men and women can be pastors and neither Ellen White nor dictionaries use that word in any other way except for as full leaders of churches. All supposed claims to the contrary have been debunked with proper linguistics and context).

There are many problems with this thinking.
A) The Bible routinely uses the male gender to refer to principles or laws for all people. For example in Mark 2:27, Jesus says,
“The Sabbath was made for man”.

Did he mean that only men should celebrate it? No, of course not. He was using the male gender to refer to all people inclusively.  Dr. Martin Hanna has written extensively on how male gender words in scripture are often used to refer to all people here:

Men and Women in Church Order: A Study of Paul’s Use of Representative Statements by Martin Hanna, Ph.D

B) History and linguistics back this up. The word man was used as a general term for all people until ~1000 AD.

“Old English man, mann “human being, person (male or female);…Sense of “adult male” is late (c. 1000); Old English used wer and wif to distinguish the sexes, but wer began to disappear late 13c. and was replaced by man. Universal sense of the word remains in mankind and manslaughter…Man also was in Old English as an indefinite pronoun, “one, people, they.”

“It wasn’t until about a thousand years ago that the word “man” started to refer to a male and it wasn’t until the late 20th century that it was almost exclusively used to refer to males. Before “man” meant a male, the word “wer” or “wǣpmann” was commonly used to refer to “male human”. This word almost completely died out around the 1300s, but survives somewhat in words like “werewolf”, which literally means “man wolf”.

Ellen White clearly explained that when she says man, that it often means to all people, including women, here:
“God wants His people to work. To every man—and that means every woman, also—He has given His work, and this work each one is to perform according to his several ability.” —The General Conference Bulletin, April 22, 1901, p. 396 (Daughters of God, 134, 135). {MTC 178.1}

James White agreed, saying:
“We object to that narrow-souled theology which will not allow the old ladies to have dreams because the prophecy says, ‘your old men shall dream dreams;’ and that will not allow young women to have visions because the prophecy says ‘your young men shall see visions.’ These stingy critics seem to forget that ‘man’ and ‘men’ in the Scriptures, generally mean both men and women. The Book says that it is ‘appointed unto men once to die.’ Don’t women die?” (James White, Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, February 25, 1862; Spiritual Gifts, vol. 3, p. 24).

C) Another problem with this is that in verse 12, it says that deacons also must be the husband of one wife. But the Bible states quite clearly that Phoebe was a deacon  in Romans 16:1 and Junia was an apostle in Romans 16:7. This makes it quite clear that Paul was making general statements and did not intend to exclude women from spiritual leadership. If he had,  he would have banned both Phoebe and Junia from doing so.

That should be enough to end the argument and prove that Paul was just giving universal principles in 2 Timothy in a culture full of sexual immorality. Unfortunately emotional biases imprison many minds with unfortunately wrong and harmful ideas. In this case and many others, their reasoning that redefines many words follows exactly in line with the desperate attempts of Darwinian “Christians” to claim that when the Bible says that God doesn’t really mean what it says. There are other possible alternatives that can fit with all nature evolving Darwinian style.

When you have to constantly twist the meanings of words to fit a predetermined outcome as those against women’s ordination frequently do, that’s a massive red flag that you’ve got a man made tradition masquerading as godly, a tactic that Jesus strictly condemned  in the Bible as vain worship (Mark 7:5-13).

If we take the reasoning of anti-WOers seriously, and combine it with their principle that we should follow ancient precedent regardless of other Bible principles and whether progress has been made since then as Jesus said would happen (John 16:12+), then we will have to eliminate all female deacons (deaconesses) from the SDA church because there were supposedly no female deacons in the Bible. We’ll also have to fire all female treasurers, female Sabbath School teachers, female seminary professors and more.

This is a travesty that would cripple our church at the very time that need MORE and MORE voices of both sexes proclaiming the gospel as both the Bible and Ellen White agree. We suffer great loss when we try to hamper this as those against women’s ordination are trying to do.

  • “The Lord gives the word, and a host of women brings the good news.”  Psalm 68:11
  • “When a great and decisive work is to be done, God chooses men and women to do this work, and it will feel the loss if the talents of both are not combined.” (Letter 77, 1898; Evangelism, 469)


Before we go into more details on the linguistics, proving conclusively that Phoebe was a deacon and therefore that the standards for pastors and deacons were about faithfulness in marriage and not about discrimination against women, let’s look at some background first.
Many sincere people who are against women’s ordination make misguided arguments that on the surface appear admirable and even biblical.  They strongly advocate following customs and patterns that Bible people followed, thinking that is what God wants us to do now. Certainly in some cases, such as the 10 commandments and other cases that is crucial. But should we oppose democracy because the precedents in the Bible are monarchies or judges and we see no cases of democracy in the Bible?  Should we forbid people from using cars and internet because there are no biblical precedents of that and become Amish? Should we require all male believers to travel to Jerusalem 3 times a year since that was a law (Deuteronomy 16:16)?.  Should we ban all women from teaching in schools and churches as Paul did (1 Timothy 2:12)?

If we follow the philosophy of those who are against women’s ordination, we must reject democracy, all men must go to Jerusalem 3 times a year and no women can  teach in our schools seminaries or churches.  Those against women’s ordination have never at any time been able to establish any consistent principle besides their feelings and their whims about which precedents we should and should not follow. And that’s only of a myriad of biblical, scientific and linguistic problems with their views.

Conservatives are especially prone to the confirmation bias that what they grew up with is the default “truth”, as the Pharisees were, and that it can’t change without a direct command from God.  In addition, they don’t have a command from God requiring that we follow all precedents in the Bible. That’s just another in a very long line of invented standards they have made up that have no basis in the Bible.

Another of their serious flaws is frequently redefining and changing the meaning of words with absolutely not a shred of linguistic justification in order to fit their predetermined conclusions.

  •   When the Bible say the priesthood of all believers, they say, nuh-uh…only men can be priests.
  •  When the Bible says all are equal, they say, nope they can’t be equal in ordination,
  • Some say women can’t be pastors. But you can  not biblically claim to be following equality if you use double standards whether it in money, gender or anything else since God states that he hates them and say that equality involves having the same standards for different groups. (Proverbs 20:10, Numbers 15:15, Ezekiel 47:14).


The big problem is that what many conservatives believe seems pious. But it is simply not based on a command of God in the first place. If you investigate closely, some of their positions are based on tradition and misunderstandings or else they are double standards without consistency. There is to be sure much to be concerned about from the liberals who in Bible times followed idolatry,  killed prophets in the OT and disregarded God’s standards. This disregard continues in the present (gay marriage, Darwinism, liberal economics). But there is just as much or more to be concerned about from conservatives who in Bible times followed legalism, killed Jesus and disregarded God’s standards due to man-made traditions which they put above Bible verses, fair exegesis, fair linguistics and consistent standards to preserve their views and avoid change. This disregard continues in the present (Sunday for some, conservative economics which replaces Jubilee economics, denying women’s full equality, higher levels of racism, etc.)

Many well meaning people and even scholars have accepted conservative or liberal ideas without using objective investigation to “test everything and hold on to that which is good” 1 Thess. 5:21

We need to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves to figure out the truth.

Those against women’s ordination are sometimes highly intelligent, but as research has shown, it’s sometimes easier to be even less objective if we go higher up in establishments. One WO opponent said:

Point 1: You do not have a single statement in God’s Word that says to ordain women as apostles, bishops or elders (aka: overseers).

Point 2: You do not have a single clear example in God’s Word where a sister served as such.
The truth is that
Point 1: They don’t have a single statement forbidding women from being ordained as apostles or bishops either and Deuteronomy 4:2 forbids us from adding laws that God has not given. We do have statements in the Bible that men and women are supposed to be equal (Gal. 3:28) which is nullified if women can’t be ordained. We also have Ellen White telling us about God’s original design, that the gospel is supposed to restore.

“When God created Eve, He designed that she should possess neither inferiority nor superiority to the man, but that in all things she should be his equal.” (TM p. 485)

There is absolutely no honest way to claim that women are equal in all things if we deny that they can be ordained and/or pastors.  It’s just robbing words of all their legitimate meaning which is a frequent conservative tactic.

This is far more significant if they have a calling from God to do that and we are standing in the way of God’s purpose. That’s the most serious issue here. Those against women being ordination may be sincere as were the Pharisees of old such as Saul of Tarsus. But they may find themselves fighting against callings from God.

Point 2: We have a clear example in Romans 16:1 that Phoebe was a diakanos, which is translated as deacon, elder or even minister at times as well as historical examples after the Bible of female deacons and ministers. We also know that masculine words quite often refer to all human beings in history (such as the “Sabbath was made for man” Mark 2:27). Since 1 Timothy 3:12 says that deacons should be the husband of one wife, this case of Phoebe shows that Paul was just making a general statement that deacons as well as bishops, male or female, should be faithful in their marriage using the masculine gender to refer to all cases as was common at that time. It wasn’t an eternal ban on women in leadership.

It is admirable that people are so dedicated to what they believe is a godly principle. But some of the most serious deceptions are so very close to the truth, or as Ellen White puts it, they are parasites of the truth. Ellen White rightly says:

“Error cannot stand alone, and would soon become extinct if it did not fasten itself like a parasite upon the tree of truth. Error draws its life from the truth of God. The traditions of men, like floating germs, attach themselves to the truth of God, and men regard them as a part of the truth… Men boldly teach for doctrines the commandments of men; and as traditions pass on, from age to age, they acquire a power over human mind….The tree of truth bears its own genuine fruit, showing its true origin and nature. The parasite of error also bears its own fruit, and makes manifest that its character is diverse from the plant of heavenly origin… Satan has had his hand in all this; for by directing men to false standards, he misshapes the human character, and causes humanity to acknowledge him as supreme.” Evangelism p. 589


Another frequent mistake people make is that they do not understand how dramatically language and cultures have changed and how much this affects their thinking. This is a good introduction for how different many word meanings were in the past and why we can’t always trust that what we think a word means is what people in the past understood.

One of the worst cases of this is that many people claim that the Bible assumes God exists and all discards all contrary evidence (presuppositional reasoning). The problem is that this reasoning was invented in 1920 by a guy named Cornelius Van Til and it is exactly the opposite of how Godly people reasoned in the Bible in Luke 1:1-3, Acts 1:1-4, Acts 17:21-30, Isaiah 41 and many other places. Bible faith was based on the best evidence, facts, truth and proof that exists.

Another big difference that influences thinking in ways that most people are unaware of is that in modern times, we often (but not always) use male and female terms quite distinctly. But in Bible and medieval times they did not. The masculine gender was often used to refer to all human beings or for general/usual principles that applied to everyone.

 “the word ‘man’ was originally gender neutral, meaning more or less the same as the modern day word “person”.  It wasn’t until about a thousand years ago that the word “man” started to refer to a male and it wasn’t until the late 20th century that it was almost exclusively used to refer to males.”

Jesus thus says, “The Sabbath was made for man” Mark 2:27. Did he mean that Sabbath was only made for men, but not women? No, of course not. His statement is a universal statement, inclusive of all human beings.

James White wrote about this saying:

“We object to that narrow-souled theology which will not allow the old ladies to have dreams because the prophecy says, “Your old men shall dream dreams;” And that will not allow young women to have visions because the prophecy says, “Your young men shall see visions.” These stingy critics seem to forget that “man,” and “men,” in the Scriptures, generally mean both men and women, the book says that it is “appointed unto men once to die.” Don’t women die?” Spiritual Gifts v. 3 pg. 24

That exact same principle is true of 1 Timothy 3 and the requirements of bishops and deacons. Modern people sometimes impose current thought patterns that they aren’t even aware of on the Bible and it results in unfortunate eisegesis and harm to the church and women.

In the Bible, we see statements that on the surface appear to require both elders/bishops/pastors and deacons to be husbands or as many versions put it, faithful to his wife:

  • “An elder (διάκονος) must be a man whose life is above reproach. He must be faithful to his wife.” 1 Timothy 3:2
  • “A bishop (διάκονος) then must be blameless, the husband of one wife” 1 Timothy 3:2 (KJ21)
  • “Let the deacons (διάκονος) be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.” 1 Timothy 3:12


But there is strong evidence that this masculine gender was intended as a general principle for both men and women similar to what Jesus said in Mark 2:27)  and not one intended to discriminate against women and ban them from being pastors or deacons for all time as some have unfortunately thought. Paul also says:

  • “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a deacon(διάκονος) in the church in Cenchrea.” Rom 16:1

In addition, Paul calls another woman, Junia, an apostle:

  • “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews, who were in prison with me. They are highly respected among the apostles and became followers of Christ before I did.” Romans 16:7

1 Corinthians 12:28 tells us that the gift of being an apostle is the highest spiritual gift and the gift of being a prophet is second. So we have women in scripture who were engaging in the top 2 spiritual positions that God has designed.

Unfortunately, when anti-ordination people read this, the natural cognitive bias that is easy for anyone to fall prey to kicks in. Many have tried to make excuses saying that διάκονος is often translated servant and so it doesn’t require that Phoebe is a church official. She was just a helpful servant girl, a maid or something like that. This thinking though has a lot more to do with biases shaped by Victorians and Greek culture than it does fair analysis of the text and it’s context.  There are several major reasons why this is faulty thinking.


When we look at lexicons, we find that διάκονος has these meanings.
1) one who executes the commands of another, esp. of a master, a servant, attendant, minister
a.    the servant of a king
b.    a deacon, one who, by virtue of the office assigned to him by the church, cares for the poor and has charge of and
2) distributes the money collected for their use
a.    a waiter, one who serves food and drink

The only one of those definitions that is used in a spiritual/religious context is the deacon meaning. So that’s the more likely meaning. Paul could easily have used several other Greek words for servant such as παῖς (Matt 8:6) or δοῦλος (Luke 17:7) if he had meant just doing menial labor not connected to a church office. He didn’t. he chose to use διάκονος, a word which has highly spiritual connections.


2) GODLY LEADERS ARE SERVANTS: This claim that Phoebe was just a servant is in fact strong evidence for her being a deacon because that’s precisely what biblical leaders are. Servants. If you don’t believe me, believe Jesus and many apostles writing of how they are servants as leaders of the church and how that’s the primary trait of a leader.

  • “But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant,” Matthew 20:26
  • “The greatest among you must be a servant.” Matthew 23:11


Repeatedly the Bible refers to people in leadership as servants, especially in the church. But even outside it.

  • “After all, who is Apollos? Who is Paul? We are only God’s servants(διάκονος).”1 Cor. 3:5
  • “If you explain these things to the brothers and sisters, Timothy, you will be a worthy servant(διάκονος) of Christ Jesus,” 1Tim. 4:6
  • “The authorities are God’s servants(διάκονος).” Romans 13:4

Several times διάκονος is translated as ministers, as in leaders of the church:

  • “It is not that we think we are qualified to do anything on our own. Our qualification comes from God. He has enabled us to be ministers (διάκονος) of his new covenant…” 2 Cor 3:5,6
  • “In everything we do, we show that we are true ministers (διάκονος)of God. We patiently endure troubles and hardships and calamities of every kind.” 2 Cor 6:4

The verses above show that deacons, as well as apostles and pastors are servants. Nearly everyone spoken of as a servant (διάκονος) in the Bible in connection with the church is a church officer.  So to be consistent, we must agree that Phoebe was a deacon as well if not more (possibly even an apostle or minister) in the early Christian church.
If one wants to deny the majority meanings of dictionaries, common usage, context, etc. you have to have some very powerful reasons why you think this is justified.

Critics of women’s ordination don’t have such powerful justifications and so many grasp for other excuses and use them to ignore the dictionary definition that points to Phoebe being a deacon, ignore the fact that the context is highly religious and so also contributes to identifying Phoebe as a deacon, and deny the consistent identification of church officials as servants leaders or διάκονος.


We have historical evidence from several historical sources that there were female deacons/ministers in the early church and a reference that supports Phoebe as a deacon.
Pliny documents that “in Bithynia under Trajan there were female deacons.”[4] In Epistuale 10.96.8, Pliny has two “maidservants” or “slaves” (ancillae) tortured “who were being called ministers” (quae ministrae dicebantur). The word minister (ministra) is synonymous with the Latin word diāconus, for a diāconus can be defined as a “minister of the church, a deacon.”

Another piece of epigraphical evidence comes from Jerusalem (Mount of Olives); it dates from the latter half of the fourth century. What is fascinating about this writing, found on a stele, are the following words:

 Sophia, hē diakonos, hē deutera Phoibē [5]

In this inscription, clearly a woman (evident by the feminine definite article) is being coined with the masculine term diakonos. If the Didascalia of the Apostles is utilized as the earliest known date for women deaconesses, one could logically conclude that deaconesses came into existence in written accounts from the “first half of the third century.”[6] What is more noteworthy is that women are still being designated as deacons (using masculine terms) even over approximately 150 years later.

However, what is especially notable about Sophia is the description of being the “second Phoebe.” Ute E. Eisen comments,

Horsley has shown that in non-Christian inscriptions the description “a second Homer” or the like is applied to individuals who gave outstanding service to their city. For Sophia this could mean that her title “the second Phoebe” reflects aspects of Phoebe’s activity beyond her work as a deacon (Rom 16:1-2), such as her title of prostatis.[7]

To be called the “second” was an honor bestowed upon an individual. Just as grateful citizens gave this title to their leaders, this notable woman won this acclaim, which may be attributed to “benefactions provided” possibly to “her church.”[8]

In addition to Sophia being named a deacon, a woman named Maria also merits the same honor. In evidence from the fourth century, the title is given to Maria of hē diakonos in a “stele of grey marble” erected for her tombstone. The exact inscription reads: “hē . . . diakonos Maria.” G. H. R. Horsley interprets this inscription as “evidence for a widow who exercised the function of deacon in the Byzantine church.”[9]


There are many sincere people who are against women’s ordination. But their reasons are based on imposing standards and meanings on the Bible that derive much more from cultures that discriminated against women than they are from the Bible and proper exegesis and linguistics. The unfortunate excuses that deny women equality ignore all these lines of evidence are due to a priori agendas and double standards that are like cherry picking tiny amounts of evidence for geocentrism or Darwinism and denying the majority of evidence for heliocentrism and creation science.

The more I hear the arguments of some people against women’s ordination and analyze Bible statements and principles, historical context, linguistics, pragmatic evidence and more, it seems that while they are certainly sincere and some of them are highly intelligent, their understanding of the lines of evidence has much more to do with eisegesis, double standards, and emotional a priori fallacies that resist all contrary evidence no matter how good (similar to how Darwinians resist all good evidence for creation) instead of real truth seeking.

At this time when we need more and more voices proclaiming God’s truths to people of every race, sex and background, it appears that Satan is trying to work in the reverse direction and causes us to reduce the number of voices that can share the gospel in effective ways.
I’m sure many against women’s ordination sincerely want to follow God. But we can’t do that by setting aside Bible principles, changing dictionary definitions, ignoring context and historical evidence and using inconsistent standards based on whims for our own predetermined agendas. All of these are done by those against women’s ordination. This is putting man made agendas ahead of finding truth fairly. It’s what the Pharisees did in substituting man made doctrines for God’s way of figuring out truth. They had genuine fears about the harm that idolatry in OT times caused that was admirable similar to the fears of those against women’s ordination. But they went to another harmful extreme of inventing all kinds of man made laws that became destructive burdens on people and eventually caused them to commit the even worse sin of rejecting the Messiah.

Those against women’s ordination do the same thing by advocating the principle that we are required to follow customs and practices of Bible people, even when there is no Bible law requiring that in all cases. I think Jesus would say to them what He said to the Pharisees who invented many extra rules:

  • “Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.” Mark 7:5-13

It’s important to follow God’s laws, but it’s also important to distinguish laws and principles of men from the laws that God has actually given. That’s the way of truth which brings freedom.
God bless,
Bryan Bissell

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