(Tim) The Fall 2008 issue of Covenant Seminary's review, Presbyterion, has an article by Covenant's Dean of Faculty, Jimmy Agan, titled "Deacons, Deaconesses, and Denominational Discussions: Romans 16:1 As a Test Case." Dr. Agan works hard not be viewed as putting his finger on the scale of a greatly controverted issue being weighed by our ecclesiastical association known as the Presbyterian Church in America. He warns his readers not to come to any easy conclusions about the meaning of the texts, but he does seem to have a few conclusions, himself, and they are helpful.
First, this from Footnote 29:
While fuller discussion is beyond the scope of the present article, we may at least name two implications... for the office of deacon if the conclusions summarized above are correct. First, it seems that the ecclesiastical title diakonos was chosen not because of its associations with the service rendered by domestic or table attendants, but because it well suited an arrangement in which "deacons" functioned as "agents" in authority over the congregation and under the authority of the elders, at whose behest they carried out a variety of tasks. Second, if deacons were such" agents," we should not speak of the office as one which was (or is) devoid of authority.
It can't be emphasized often enough that, whatever else deacons may be, they are officers and exercise authority over the believers of their church...
True, their authority is both distinct and subordinate to that of the elders, but authority it most certainly is. So the man who tries any number of a host of techniques to usher women into diaconal resonsibilties should be asked whether he believes it would be wrong for those women (regardless of their title, ordination, commissioning, etc.) to exercise authority over their brothers in Christ? If he agrees they ought not to, he should then be asked what concrete steps he or his congregation have taken to guard against it in the life of the church?
Such probing will quickly reveal whether 1Timothy 2:9-15 is a living reality in the life and commitments of the man and his congregation. Without such probing, we are conniving at the sexual anarchy we dwell in the midst of.
On pp. 105-106 and 108, Dr. Agan writes:
Whatever we conclude, it is evident that we cannot simply assume that "deacon means deacon" or "servant means servant." Rather, we must ask which of the various meanings of the term diakonos is in view in this text. This in turn requires that we pay careful attention to the presence or absence of the kinds of contextual markers indicated in the table above. To return to our earlier analogy, we know as English speakers not to say that "secretary means secretary," nor to assume that a given instance of the word "secretary" must mean "a piece of furniture used for writing" simply because the word may mean this. Rather, we base reasoned interpretive judgments on what we know of the word and its various uses on the one hand, and of the context in which a particular instance occurs on the other.
My own consideration of lexical and contextual factors persuades me that Phoebe was neither a "servant" nor a "deacon" of the church at Cenchrea, but its "emissary," "envoy," or "spokesman." Contextual markers provide the primary evidence for this conclusion; for example, there is nothing in Romans 16:1 or its immediate context to suggest that Paul is using the language of Table or Domestic Attendance, whether figuratively or literally, or that he is discussing church office. What the text does indicate, through the exhortation to "receive her in the Lord, worthily of the saints" (Rom. 16:2), is that Phoebe will be traveling from Cenchrea to Rome. Since reference to travel frequently marks contexts in which diakonos designates Communication/Delivery, and since the contextual markers associated with other uses of the term are absent, we must consider the possibility that Phoebe serves as a travelling representative of her home church when she journeys to Rome...
While no one of these arguments is definitive, the cumulative evidence points toward Phoebe's being neither a "deacon" nor a "servant," but what we today might call a "representative." If this is the case, Romans 16:1 does not shed direct light on the question of women as deacons, though it does give us significant insight into women's involvement in contact between churches in the New Testament era.
Readers wishing to read the original may download it as a PDF linked to the title at the beginning of this post.
Dr. Agan has helped us with this article and I am grateful for that help.