Now we need to get into the details related to these four sisters and one brother.
If you read carefully, you could see that all the things related to these four sisters include all the aspects of the practical church life. First, Phoebe is a serving one, a deaconess. Deaconess is the feminine form of deacon, which is the Anglicized form of the Greek word for serving one. Therefore, Phoebe represents the serving spirit in the practical church life.
In the practical church life, the first thing is not doctrine, but serving. The one recommended is not a pastor, not a lady-minister, but a deaconess, a serving one, one who serves. The holy Word is economical, but Paul uses two long verses to recommend this dear sister, to indicate in what way she serves. "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a deaconess of the church which is at Cenchrea, that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints and stand by her in whatever she may have need of you; for she has been a patroness of many and of myself as well" (Rom. 16:1-2). First Paul calls her a deaconess, then a patroness, which is a word of dignity, denoting one who helps, sustains, and supplies, and which indicates the high esteem with which she was regarded.
Perhaps the best nurse in an American hospital could give you a part of the picture of the service of a Roman patroness. In Paul’s time, a patroness was one who was always with you, alongside of you, taking care of you, supplying all your need, bearing all your burdens, and solving all your problems, meeting all your need. Paul charged the saints in Rome to take care of Phoebe because she had been serving many in this way. Her service meant that she would provide whatever you needed. Whether your need was great or small, right away she would simply give you whatever you needed. The service of the best nurse may be a picture of one-third of the service of such a patroness.
What we need is the training of so many sisters to be church nurses. In a sense, the church is a hospital, a haven to care for so many sick ones. We need to bring the sick ones in and take care of them. The brothers are doctors, and the sisters and some of the brothers have to be nurses.
If you sisters do love the Lord and do mean business to be for the church in the Lord’s recovery, you have to consider yourselves as serving ones, as those giving nursing care, just as the nurses in a hospital. Yet this nursing care is just one-third of the service of a Roman patroness.
The word for the Holy Spirit translated Comforter is the Greek word Parakletos. It is hard for any translator to find the best English equivalent for this word. The best suggestion is the word for the Roman patron. The Holy Spirit is the Patron, and all the serving sisters are patronesses. Moreover, 1 John 2:1 says that the Lord Jesus today with the Father is our Patron there. In this verse the word parakletos is usually translated advocate, but the best English translation would be patron, one called alongside you to take care of everything you need. A Roman patron takes care of your cases, your legal cases, legal causes, and also takes care of your business need.
The thought in Paul’s recommendation of this sister is in this line. In every local church there is the need of a group of serving sisters like this sister, a group of serving sisters taking care of the saints. I have seen the practicality of such a service among the sisters in the church in Shanghai, which was the largest church in China. That church was ninety percent built up with the serving sisters. Brother Nee’s ministry was there, but his ministry rendered only one-tenth of the building up in that church.
There were a good number, not just one or two, not even only ten or twenty, but a good number of sisters there in Shanghai serving the saints, serving the apostles, the servants of the Lord. Their service was more than that of a nurse. The church in Shanghai was raised up in 1926. From the time Brother Nee began to minister in 1927 until he was married seven years later, in 1934, for the most part he was taken care of by those loving sisters, most of them older than Brother Nee. The church there was built up very much by the serving sisters. Most of the practical things there were taken care of by the sisters.
When I first went to Shanghai in 1933, every Saturday the sisters did the cleaning of the hall and the cleaning of all the chairs. Very few men were free on Saturdays. The few brothers who were there were the full-time co-workers. Most of the brothers had to work six or seven days a week, so nearly all of the cleaning work was under the hand of the sisters.
Other places in China had a similar situation. But there were places that would have been much better if there had been a group of serving sisters. In some places the lack of the building of the church was mainly due to the shortage of the serving sisters. For this reason, we are burdened to have some training for the sisters so that there could be a group of serving sisters raised up for the building up of a strong church.
The first picture of the church life in miniature was a family of three persons, one brother and two sisters, Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, in John 12. In that little picture Lazarus was there resurrected from the dead as a testimony to the life. But there was the need of Martha serving. Don’t consider that Martha was so bad. Martha was really good. The church needs a group of Marthas serving. Even Mary was serving there, in a different way. Lazarus was the only one who didn’t serve. He was just sitting there as a living testimony, resurrected from the dead. This picture shows that the serving is not with the brothers, but with the sisters.
In Paul’s recommendation, the first practical aspect of the church life is unconsciously covered. Implied in this recommendation is the serving spirit of the sisters. First of all, the sisters have to be trained as church nurses.
(Serving Sisters in the Church Life, Chapter 1, by Witness Lee)