Phoebe was a wealthy woman who offered Paul hospitality in her home at Cenchreae, a prosperous port on the eastern side of Corinth. When Paul traveled to preach the Word in Ephesus, Phoebe funded his travel and remained behind serving as deacon of the Corinthian church in Cenchreae.
Paul wrote, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.” (Romans 6:1-2)
The quote from Romans 16:1-2 is the earliest mention of a deacon in the Christian church. Paul valued Phoebe highly and entrusted her with leading the Corinthians at Cenchreae. He refers to her as his benefactor (prostatis) and the benefactor of many. Prostatis or its verb form proistēmi implies leadership.
Paul wrote that deacons (female as well as male) were expected to be “serious, not slanderers, but temperate and faithful in all things.” (1 Timothy 3:11). Paul refers to male and female ministers in the early church who served as overseers, elders and pastors for new converts in his absence. The term implies a person entrusted with spiritual leadership of the community.
The Greek word diakonos (διάκονος) used in this letter is the same word Paul uses elsewhere to refer to those who served to build up and provide financial support for other churches. Phoebe served the church at Cenchreae in the same capacity as Apollos, Tychicus, Epaphras, Archippus, and Onesimus. Paul described his own ministry using the same term in 1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor. 3:6, 6:4, 11:23; Eph 3:7; Col 1:23, 25.
A fourth century stele on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem bears an inscription commemorating another female deacon Sophia, as the second Phoebe (hē diakonos, hē deutera Phoibē). The date and manner of Phoebe's death is unknown.