By Meredith Stone

“I can’t believe I’ve never seen her before!”

This summer I taught my final course as a faculty member at Logsdon Seminary and School of Theology. The subject of the online month-long course was Paul’s letter to the churches in Rome.

I have always had mixed feelings about Romans. On the one hand, it provides us with beautifully-complex foundations for understanding God’s grace and love. On the other hand, it has been weaponized for far too many fundamentalist positions.

But buried in chapter 16 of Romans is an apparently secret treasure that definitely caught my students off-guard. I structured the course so that we started reading Romans from the end following Scot McKnight’s Reading Romans Backwards (Baylor Press, 2019), which means this treasure was among their first new insights into the book.

“I commend to you 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” (Romans 16:1-2, NIV).

The commendation of Phoebe found in chapter 16 demonstrates that she was the carrier of the letter to the churches at Rome. When Paul wrote his letter from the port of Cenchreae near Corinth, he entrusted it to Phoebe, a wealthy Corinth woman who financially supported Paul’s ministry, to deliver. Romans met its first recipients in the hands of a woman.

But even more than that, many scholars believe these verses also reveal that Phoebe was not only the letter-carrier, but she was also the person who read, or rather performed, the letter to each of the house churches in Rome.

A woman was the first person to preach from Romans!

I created a video discussion board on this topic for my class. As they recorded their comments, I could see the amazement on their faces at the prospect of Phoebe’s existence and important role. They said things like: “Reading this in a woman’s voice makes a huge difference!” “This is really interesting given what Paul says about women preaching and leading in other letters!” “Does this word really mean ‘deacon’ in the Greek?!”

And my favorite student comment was: “I can’t believe I’ve never seen her before!”

A truer comment has never been uttered. Phoebe is right there on the page! So why has Phoebe’s monumental role in Romans been so overlooked?

I tend to think we often read the Bible quickly scanning the verses and pages for the things that we already know are there. Hope. Grace. Love. Salvation.

But when we slow down and look a little bit closer, we might find something, or rather someone, who we have never seen before—an previously unseen gem which jumps off the page to reveal even more hope, grace, love, and redemption than we thought existed.

And unfortunately, I think the same is true in the church, church leadership, and in our society. Our brains are programmed to look for who and what we know exists, and it is easy to overlook people and perspectives outside of our comfort zone.

But like Phoebe, even if there are people or perspectives we don’t see or understand on a first glance, it doesn’t diminish their existence or importance.

In fact, maybe it is the very things we are overlooking which could open our eyes to the beauty and mystery of God. Maybe these undiscovered treasures might invite us into a vision of a redemptive church, society, and world which might better reflect the compassion, love, and justice of God.

It’s time for us to see Phoebe.

It’s time for the church to see all the overlooked women who are gifted, called, equipped, and busy joining in God’s work of reconciling all of creation to the divine self.

May God slow you down and open your eyes that you might see her.