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wallpaper people: who is Phoebe?

One of the many things I love about Jesus is that it’s the overlooked people who capture his attention. They’re like wallpaper. Some people just blend into the background unnoticed. Jesus not only sees wallpaper people—he treats them as if they are hidden treasures.

Wallpaper trends have been in and out of fashion since it first appeared on the insides of cupboards about 500 years ago. Today, it’s not only on our walls; it’s on our laptops and phones. But wallpaper people?

They’re usually ignored. Unseen. Almost invisible. Full disclosure: I’ve experienced plenty of my own wallpaper moments of being ignored. It literally stings your heart and messes with your head. First you wonder to yourself: “What’s wrong with me?” Then you go into attack mode: “What’s wrong with them?” You hang around like wallpaper until you can’t stand it any longer—and then bolt.

Jesus sees wallpaper people. While noisy crowds throng him on his way to die for the sins of the entire world, Jesus suddenly stops to call a blind wallpaper person to come to him. He models and commissions his followers to do the same (e.g., Luke 22:27; Mark 10:42-44; John 13:3-15).

Paul when introduces a “wallpaper” person named, Phoebe, to the church in Rome, he says, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well” (Rom 16:1-2). Notice that Paul does not recognize Phoebe according to her marital status; rather, he describes her as “our sister … a servant … and a patron of many and of myself as well.”

The Greek word “servant” (diakonos) is all over the NT (Matt 20:26; 23:11; Mark 9:35; 10:43; John 12:26; Rom 13:4; 15:8; 1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 6:4; Eph 3:7; 6:21; Phil 1:1; Col 1:7, 23, 25; 4:7; 1 Tim 4:6; 2 Cor 3:6). From these references it’s clear that “servants” help address the needs of others (Acts 6:1-5; 1 Tim 3:8-13). But note, too, that two “servants”ministered beyond “serving tables.” Stephen was a gifted teacher-preacher-apologist and Philip was quite the evangelist.

What about Phoebe? Was Paul asking the Romans to “help her” in serving tables? Or as a gifted teacher-preacher-apologist-evangelist, like Stephen and Philip? Much like his recommendation of Timothy to the church in Corinth (1 Cor 16:10-11), Paul wanted the church in Rome to receive Phoebe as a servant-leader (diakonos). He uses the same verb when he asks the church in Philippi to “receive” Epaphroditus (Phil 2:29). Phoebe’s role in the church was no less important or less official than that of Timothy or Epaphroditus, or of any of Paul’s other coworkers.

Unfortunately, women have been excluded from leadership positions in some churches. But such a practice deviates from the very early church, where men and women ministered side-by-side in similar positions and in record numbers. Out of the 29 “wallpaper” people listed in Romans 16, almost half are women—but all of them are like hidden treasures.