The sea was choppy. The task ahead of her? Daunting. She had to travel across the Mediterranean, far from her coastal town of Cenchreae. Was she alone? Was she scared? Would she get lost? She was certainly at risk of being mugged or finding herself in the middle of a riot. Yet, she was committed to protecting that letter with her life.
Her name was Phoebe, a New Testament believer who Paul entrusted with the important task of delivering his letter to the Roman church, a letter that would be foundational in shaping the church’s understanding of the gospel.
Phoebe surely understood the importance of the letter she was carrying. She was a benefactor, after all. Meaning she put her money where her mouth was. She believed in Paul’s mission and was even willing to put her own life on the line to support the gospel call. As the letter-bearer, she may have even had the privilege of reading the letter aloud to its first audience. It was common practice for the deliverer to be given additional instructions to share.
And what about Chloe? She was the homeowner of one of the house churches in Corinth. A friend of Paul’s. He referred to both of these women by their first name, meaning they were well known in their communities and active members of the church.
Only mentioned once
Both of these Corinthian women are only mentioned once in Scripture, but there is much to discover about their life and role in the early church. We read about Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.”
And Chloe in 1 Corinthians 1:11, “My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you.”
Though it’s easy to skip over their verses, these names hold special meaning to me personally because they are the names of my two daughters, Chloe & Phoebe. So I wanted to dig into these verses for myself and find out what theologians can tell us about who these women were.
LIFE IN CORINTH
Both of these women lived in the region of Corinth. In geographical terms, Corinth was a land of riches. Located on an isthmus, it was favorably positioned as the meeting place of the east and the west. The travel and trade that came through their ports brought enormous wealth to the people living there. To deliver the letter, Phoebe would have sailed by boat across the Mediterranean, which was a fast but expensive journey. According to the Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Ancient World, it’s a trip that would have taken 10-22 days depending on the time of year and the money spent. It’s no wonder Paul speaks so highly of her. As a woman, traveling alone, her bravery to put her faith into action is certainly commendable.
In order to better understand the setting, I read several historical resources to understand what life would have been like for Chloe and Phoebe, and I discovered that women were not treated as equal under Greek and Roman law. They were often trapped in abusive marriages with no say in the public square. Widows were expected to remarry within two years – or pay a penalty. They were not allowed to participate in politics and very few owned businesses. So many of these women found a sense of belonging in the cults and Pagan deities in ancient Corinth. Far from empowering, these cultish practices further demeaned them. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, required worshipers to practice religious prostitution. Greek geographer Strabo claimed there were 1,000 women prostitutes at one time, collecting money for the temple. Many of them were slaves who had been sold as offerings. Sexual immorality within Corinth become so widely known that the Greek verb “to Corinthianize” came to mean “to practice sexual immorality”.
WOMEN IN THE EARLY CHURCH
However, Christian women, even single ones, were respected and elevated within the church. Christianity did not condone female infanticide. Neither did it condone prostitution, divorce, incest, marital infidelity, or abuse which were all common practices that harmed women at the time. Unlike their pagan counterparts, Christian widows were not pressured to get remarried and found a place to belong within the church family. This independent freedom was attractive to high-status Roman women. So attractive that by 200 AD, Christian women would so outnumber the men that they could not find husbands. Something church fathers Tertullian and Callistus addressed in their writings.
It’s obvious from the context that Phoebe and Chloe were a fellow believers. Chloe and Phoebe were most likely single, wealthy homeowners who greatly influenced the church with their servant leadership and generosity. Chloe hosted a house church. And Paul referred to Phoebe as a “sister”, which meant she considered herself part of the family of God. She is given the title of “diakonos” and “prostatis”. “Diakonos” denotes her position as a “servant” of the church. But it is best translated as a position of servant leadership – “deacon”.
This was not the only occurrence of a female deacon in the early church. The Council of Chalcedon included bylaws regarding deaconesses, Clement of Alexandria wrote of “women deacons”, and Pliny the Younger tragically reports of torturing two young Christian deaconesses in his letter to Emperor Trajan. Her other title “prostatis” can best be translated to “benefactor” or “patron”, meaning she most likely supported Paul’s ministry through financial means, shelter, and hospitality. To be considered a patron in Roman times was a title of wealth and honor. Like Chloe, she may have even hosted the house church of Cenchrae in her household.
What else do we know about Chloe? Paul said he had received word – most likely oral communication – from members of Chloe’s household. The early church didn’t have an official building or gathering place but met in people’s homes. The fact it’s referred to as “Chloe’s household” meant she was the homeowner and most likely a wealthy woman who supported the church with her financial means by opening her home for church gatherings. The letter of 1 Corinthians refers to the division and sexual immorality taking place. Chloe would have been well aware of it, and theologians attribute her with the virtues humility and wisdom for seeking Paul’s advice on these issues.
THE CALL OF THE GREAT COMMISSION
Phoebe and Chloe may not be main characters in the Biblical cannon, but their involvement in the early church testifies that God uses all types of people to spread the gospel. He uses men and women. Rich and poor. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) wasn’t just the call of the apostles. It was Jesus’ command to the whole church. . It is no surprise that the gospel is attractive to women and has been since the early church. We are all equal in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). Since men and women are made in the Image God (Genesis 1:27), both are necessary to be His hands and feet in the world.
So what can we learn from these women? Do I seek out wisdom, like Chloe? Will I carry God’s Word to the ends of the earth, like Phoebe? Am I going to invite people into my home for the sake of the gospel?
As a woman, I am grateful that God sees me and calls me. Far from the accusations of “misogynist patriarchy”, true Christendom has elevated the status of women in society since the beginning. And, while that is not the end goal of the gospel, it is the Kingdom ethic of a community that is transformed by Christ. If a church is truly living out the Great Commission, we should see women in positions of influence, elevated with equality, and bravely spreading the Word of God to the ends of the earth!
MEANING BEHIND HER NAME: The name Phoebe means “bright and radiant,” and from Paul’s comments about her it seems that those words characterized her personality and her Christian life.
MEANING BEHIND HER NAME: The name Chloe means “blooming” or “verdant” in Greek. Its literal translation refers to young shoots of foliage that appear in the spring.
THEMES IN THEIR STORY: Theologians attribute Chloe with the virtues of wisdom because she sought advice from Paul about the quarrels in Corinth while Phoebe is considered a “helper of many”.