There is one moment that stands out very clearly from my first year of seminary, way back in 1982. That’s when New Testament professor and Greek taskmaster, Dr. Richard Jeske revealed that the Greek word used for Phoebe in Romans 16: 1-2 is the same word used elsewhere for male followers of Jesus. Diákonos, is defined as servant; deacon; minister. However, when the word was used for a woman, translators steeped in patriarchal assumptions would call her a “deaconess.”
It’s gotten a little better since 1982; Phoebe has graduated (in some churches) to “deacon.” But back then, this was a revelation to those of us who – even thought we were in a church that had voted to ordain women – were still fighting to be recognized as equal partners with men. My copy of Biblical Affirmations of Woman by Leonard Swidler, published in 1979, was well-worn and heavily highlighted as I learned how to biblically justify my existence.
And now Pope Francis has announced that he’ll create a commission to study the possibility of allowing women to serve as deacons in the Catholic church. Don’t get me wrong; I’m very glad that the pope is trying to bring reforms into the church. But this one is a no-brainer. “Allowing” women to serve as deacons doesn’t even address the issue of translating the same word as “minister.” It simply returns to the practice of early Christianity.
The question for the Catholic church is whether it will be faithful to the biblical witness or stick to tradition, with all its patriarchal baggage.
Sure, there are many who will see this as a toe in the door for women to become priests. And I say, what would be so bad about that? Even the oft-accused misogynistic St. Paul recognizes the ministry of Phoebe.