I love women of the New Testament. We spend so much of the NT hearing about men or about unnamed women, that it’s so good to hear of women with names doing things with the Apostles. Phoebe was one such woman.
St. Paul actually commended her in his letter to the Romans! “I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is [also] a minister of the church at Cenchreae, that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the holy ones, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a benefactor to many an to me as well” (Romans 16:1-2).
The words Paul uses for “minister” and “benefactor” were diakonon and prostatis which mean “deacon” and “leader”. So Phoebe was a deacon and a leader in the Christian community. Paul trusted her so much that he sent his letter to the Romans with her as courier–– that’s a big job!
There’s biblical evidence that, although Holy Orders was not arranged in the times of the early Christians as it has developed to be today, Phoebe was, in fact, a deacon as we know of them today. One such place is in 1 Timothy 3:11: when Paul is describing the qualities of deacons, he then says “Women, similarly…” using women as an absolute. This points to this historicity of women deacons.
Back to Phoebe. She was darn cool. Something else I enjoy about her is that her name was probably first an ode to the Greek Titan Phoebe. But then she converted to Christianity, devoted her life to Christ, and aided Paul and the other believers, distinguishing herself among them. Another example of something made new in Christ. It is an extra boon to her that the name means “pure”, “radiant”, or “bright”. She was certainly all these things to St. Paul (otherwise he wouldn’t have trusted her to carry his letter to the Romans, his densest theological work) and to the early Christian community she belonged to.
For more information on Phoebe and two other women of the New Testament (Junia and Prisca/Priscilla), there’s a great article at Commonweal.