The term that is translated ‘servant’ here is not the word doulos, which means slave, and which is often translated by the word ‘servant’. Instead the word is diakonos, from which we get the term ‘deacon’, and therefore some people argue that it refers to an official role that Phoebe had in the church in Corinth. It is not possible, however, to use this word by itself to justify that idea because it is not unusual for the word to be used in the New Testament in a variety of ways. There would have to be additional information given before we can deduce that she had some kind of official role in the church.
The important detail to stress is that Paul says she was a servant. Now we know that there are two kinds of servants – the willing and the unwilling. No doubt, Phebe was a willing servant. When we look at the description Paul gives here – ‘a servant of the church’ – it could suggest that Paul was saying that everyone in the church was a servant, that she was one servant among many. What can also be deduced is that she served everyone in the church there, which means that she was not selective in whom she chose to serve. If a person is selective, it means that they cease to be servants and instead become lords deciding who is worthy of their ‘service’. Selective service is the opposite of Christlike service.
How do we develop a servant attitude? The answer to this question is obvious. We develop it by spending time with Jesus. If we spent time with him today, we would have discovered that although he is Lord he is also a servant. On the throne, he has a servant heart, and in his heart he has the interests of all his people. Imagine we are praying for an individual in our congregation. We may ask that he or she would be taught something or that he or she should be given comfort. Who is going to provide that blessing and convey it to them? Jesus the Lord who is the servant. Our prayer times should remind us of the servant role of Jesus as well as of the sovereign role of Jesus.
Of course, Phoebe showed her servant heart in being willing to carry this letter to the church in Rome. In doing so, she would be doing them a service because they would receive a great blessing as the letter was read. I suppose we could say that she also did an act of service for us because her action on behalf of Paul here also ensured that we would have the letter of the Romans as well. Who can estimate what the consequences of an act of service might be!
Maybe it would be good to ask how many people in heaven are grateful for the serving attitude of Phoebe in taking this letter to the church in Rome. It has often been pointed out how Augustine was converted through a verse from Romans while living a sinful life, how the letter was central to the development of the Reformation after the recovery of what the letter said about the doctrine of justification, and how John Wesley found spiritual deliverance as he listened to someone reading a passage from a commentary on Romans. And there are millions more who have been blessed through her act of service.
Maybe we can imagine Paul mentioning in a meeting in Cenchreae that he had an important letter to be taken to Rome. Perhaps Phoebe said to herself, ‘I will take it.’ Or maybe she said, ‘I am going to Rome on business, which means that God in providence has made it possible for me to take it.’ The point is, a servant wants to serve and avails himself or herself of the opportunity.