The Bible is God’s very Word. Each local church’ must carefully study Scripture and allow it to shape its beliefs and practices. It is not sufficient to adopt a position based on human tradition (“we’ve always done it this way!”) nor cultural pressure (“we gotta keep up with the times!”). Scripture must have its say and sway in the body of Christ.
This does not means that everything in the Bible is equally clear or important, however. The Bible clearly designates some things, like the gospel, as “first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3). Other things are left up the believer’s (or church’s) conscience (Romans 14:1-4). Where God has clearly spoken, we must follow Him closely. Where there is freedom, we must exercise freedom carefully.
We can know what to hold tightly onto and where there is freedom based upon a close reading of Scripture. We can also learn from other Christians both in our own day and from the past (church history).
It is seems clear that only men should serve as pastors/elders (more on that in later posts). It is less clear, and seems to be a matter of freedom for each church, whether women can serve as deacons.
But first, what is a deacon?
Before plunging into the issue of female deacons, it is helpful to review exactly what a deacon is. The apostles established “proto-deacons” to help meet practical needs (Acts 6:1-7). Essentially, these deacons were running a food bank for needy widows in the early church. Later on, deacons occupied a place of service within the church. In fact, the the word “deacon” can also mean “servant.” Anyone who serves the churches could be called a “servant.”
It is important to remember, as well, that deacons are different than elders. Elders must be skilled to teach because they occupy the authoritative teaching role in the life of the church (1 Timothy 3:1-7). Elders are called to shepherd the flock of God, providing the overall leadership and direction for the church (1 Peter 5:1-4). Deacons, on the other hand, are not required to have skill in teaching because they do not occupy a teaching role.
In Romans 16:1, Paul described Phoebe as a “servant [literally, diakonon] of the church which is at Cenchrea.” This text is complicated because the Greek word diakonos can be used in a generic sense, meaning “someone who serves.” Or, it can be used in a technical sense meaning “the office of deacon.” Although we cannot know definitively which sense is intended here, a few clues give us insight into what Paul meant. First, Paul links Phoebe serving as a diakonos of a particular church. If Paul had wanted to merely commended Phoebe’s service, he could have done so. In fact, all he needed to say was that Phoebe was a diakonos without adding the qualifier of serving in a particular church. But he links her service to a particular church as if his audience would have known that she served in an “official” capacity (Thomas Schreiner, Romans, pg. 787).
Although the Romans text is far from definitive proof for female deacons, it certainly opens the door and seems to give churches freedom to exercise their discretion on the matter.
1 Timothy 3:11
1 Timothy 3:11 references “women” or “wives” under the broader discussion of deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. There are three main possibilities for how to understand this term:
- Wives – The wives of a male deacons.
- Female assistant – Women who assist the male deacons in serving the church
- Female Deacons (“Deaconesses”)
Very few argue for the second view (female assistants). The primary debate comes down between view #1 (wives) and view #3 (deaconesses). Let’s consider evidence for these views.
Wives of Deacons
Alexander Strauch believes the wives of deacons are in view. Here are Strauch’s arguments from his book, Ministers of Mercy: The New Testament Deacon.
First, Strauch builds his argument upon the “plain meaning” of the Greek word “wives/women.” Paul first refers clearly to two offices: elders and deacons. If Paul had wanted to reference a female office, why didn’t he plainly use the word for a female office? Since Paul uses the term “wives,” we should know immediately who he is referring, the wives of male deacons (121).
Second, he responds to an objection. Many who argue against his view claim that the possessive pronoun, “their,” should be in the text. In other words, if Paul had meant the wives of male deacons, it should be translated, “their wives…” But since Paul doesn’t say that, then women deacons are in view. Strauch responds by claiming that the possessive pronoun isn’t grammatically necessary in the Greek to convey the idea of possession (121-122).
Third, Strauch sees a male deacon’s wife as indispensable to the service of a deacon. Many scholars have been puzzled why Paul demands a higher qualification for deacons than elders. He demands that a deacon’s wife be “above reproach” but says nothing of an elder’s wife. That’s odd. Strauch responds by noting that this qualification exists for a male deacon because often his wife assists him in meeting needs. On the other hands, an elder’s wife is not mentioned in the list of qualifications because she would not help him govern the church (127).
Fourth, Strauch argues that a male-only diaconate preserves the authority structure of 1 Timothy 2:11-12. He writes, “Even in matters that might seem trivial, such as appointing women deacons, we must carefully maintain God’s wise, creative design for men and women” (126). Strauch sees the deacons as authoritative officers in the church, who exercise oversight over the whole ministry of the church’s mercy. Therefore, to appoint women deacons would violate Paul’s principle that women should not hold authority over men (118).
Response: The Text Refers to Women Deacons
There is good evidence that Paul had female deacons (deaconesses) in mind when he wrote 1 Timothy 3:11.
First, the word gynaikas could just as plainly be translated “women” as it could wives. Furthermore, it seems that the term diakonos was a catch-all term referring to men and women, for Phoebe is referred to a diakonos. Even those she is female, the Greek term is in the male case. This demonstrates that the (male) term diakonos could refer to either men or women.
Strauch is correct that the possessive pronoun, “their,” does not need to be explicitly in the text to present the same idea. This argument is a moot point.
Although it could be the case that wives assisted their husbands in the work of the diaconate, Scripture doesn’t tell us this actually occurred! It is an argument from silence. We have more evidence that a woman served as a deacon (remember Phoebe) than a male deacon’s wife assisted him in the ministry! Strauch makes much of the fact that only men were appointed to church the “diaconate” in Acts 6. From this account, Strauch believes the pattern of male-only diaconate has been established (119). Surely, Acts 6 instructs the church today with wisdom. But not everything recorded in Acts is normative for today. Furthermore, his argument cuts in both directions for we don’t see any of the seven selected men’s wives assisting them in the work.
It also seems illogical that deacons would have a higher qualification standards than elders! It seems best to see that Paul addresses male deacons in vv. 8-10, female deacons in v. 11, male deacons again in v. 12, and both male and female deacons in v. 13.
The real issue: authority
The crux of the issue is this: authority. Strauch tries to be nice and imply that faithful Christians have believed in female deacons. But then he essentially charges them with not caring “deeply about the roles between men and women” like God does (126). For Strauch and many others, having women serve as deacons violates the authority structure of 1 Timothy 2:12. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church articulates this viewpoint succinctly: “An even deeper difference is diverging conceptions of the diaconate as a (special) office or, correlatively and more specifically, of the authority of the (office of) deacon. For the Committee, women may not be deacons because 1 Timothy 2:12 prohibits women to exercise authority in the church, including the authority inherent in the diaconate; all authority in the church is a function, by covenant-based analogy, of the headship of father/husband in the home.”
Do female deacons exercise authority over men? No, they don’t. 1 Timothy 2:12 isn’t talking about women exercising some kind of general authority over men. Rather, there are good reasons to believe that an authoritative teaching role is in view. The context clearly demonstrates that teaching and learning the gospel are view: “A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness” (v. 11). This dovetails well with Paul’s admonition for women to be silent in the church service (1 Corinthians 14:34-35). Next, Paul goes directly into the authoritative teaching role of elders (1 Timothy 3:1-7). The phrase “to teach or to exercise authority” may also be a hendidas: communicating one concept through two words. So it would mean “an authoritative teaching role.”
Second, what authority do deacons hold? They do not declare or preserve church doctrine like elders do. They do not officially “teach.” They serve. Therefore, any authority they may have is an authority to serve. Authority is rightful say-so, and to make demands of someone based on position or respect. Deacons do not make demands of the congregation. They serve it.
Sincere Christians differ on the issue of female deacons. Since the biblical evidence could be interpreted a few different ways, it seems best to allow each local church to decide the matter itself. There is freedom here. Christians should refrain from impugning one another’s motives, believing either they are restricting the service of women or subverting God’s ordained design for male and female.
I believe Scripture gives us warrant to allow female deacons to serve the church. It is more important, however, to study the Scriptures for yourself and see if my conclusions hold.