The question is raised by a number of modern translations including the 2011 edition of the NIV. The new NIV has “our sister, Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae” (Romans 16:1). The footnote gives an alternate translation of “servant,” but another footnote on deacon reads, “The word deacon refers here to a Christian designated to serve with the overseers/elders of the church in a variety of ways; similarly in Phil. 1:1 and 1 Tim. 3:8, 12.” The 1984 edition of the NIV had the reverse: servant in the text and deaconess in the footnote. Other translations using deacon in this passage include God’s Word, NLT, NRSV, and the Voice. The NJB and the RSV used “deaconess,” and the more traditional reading of “servant” is found in the KJV, ASV, NASB, NKJV, and ESV.
The Greek word in question is diakonos, which means servant or helper. Deacon is a transliteration of diakonos. Transliteration is when we give the letters of one language using the closest corresponding letters of another. Some variation may exist as I’ve used an “I” for iota and a “K” for kappa where deacon has an “E” and “C.” I’ve given the Greek ending, where deacon anglicizes the ending by dropping off the last two letters. So why the transliteration?
The usage in Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3 indicates the servants are in an appointed position in the church with qualifications. There is a sense in which all Christians should be servants, but not all Christians are appointees having the qualifications listed in 1Timothy 3:8-13. Among those qualifications, by the way, is the qualification “husband of one wife.” In church history, there is no evidence for women as appointed servants (deacons or deaconesses) until the third century. Maybe we would have been better off not coining the word deacon, but the issue would still remain: was Phoebe an officially appointed servant or not?
This is not a question of whether women can do valuable service in the church. They certain can. The church would be impoverished without their service. The question is whether they were appointed in the sense of Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8, 12 as the 2011 NIV footnote reads. The evidence is simply lacking for this view, and church history doesn’t have such appointments until the third century.
Phoebe was certainly a servant. She was likely the letter carrier for Paul’s letter to the Romans, a very responsible task. But was Phoebe a deacon in the sense of the NIV’s footnote? The evidence points to no.