So, that's the background I bring to this discussion. The Lord has given me the privilege of being in a range of settings, witnessing a range of approaches on the question of women serving as deacons. All of these churches would in some way define themselves as "complementarian," yet they had differing views of how sisters could serve.

So, can women be deacons?

The short answer to that, in my opinion, is "yes, women can serve and ought to serve as deacons." That won't be controversial for a lot of you. You're currently involved in churches where this is the practice and understanding of the Scripture. But for some of you, that may be a new idea or it may not be the practice of your church. So, let me offer just a sketch of the biblical support for this position and then offer an important caveat.

A Brief Case for Women Deacons

First Timothy 3:8-13 contain some key instruction on this matter. For me, the issue turns in part on verse 11: "In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything" (NIV). Or as the ESV renders it, "Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things."

Both the NIV and ESV contain marginal notes for the word "wives," indicating the term may be translated "women." So, the text could either have in view the wives of deacons (if you accept the supply of "their" in the verse), women deacons, or women who assist deacons but are not themselves deacons. Because "their" is not explicit in the text, and the word "likewise" seems to indicate another category in the list, I lean with many others in understanding this verse to refer to women deacons or at the least women who assist deacons.

Moreover, there are instances elsewhere in the New Testament that seem to indicate the apostolic church had women deacons. I think of Romans 16:1 where Phoebe is described as a "deacon." True, the word "deacon" has a range of meanings wider than the office itself. Paul could refer to his own ministry as an apostle using the word "deacon" (1 Tim. 1:12). Most of the prohibitions have to do with the qualifications for male deacons-"husband of but one wife." But if the assumptions I make in the previous paragraph are correct, then it would seem the Bible does not forbid women from playing this role.

An Important Caveat

As I recounted earlier, I've been a member at churches that do not have elders but are governed by a group of deacons. If the church does not have elders and deacons perform the teaching and oversight responsibilities biblically belonging to elders, then women should not serve as deacons. I'm a complementarian, so I believe the basic pattern of qualified male leadership in the church should be maintained in joyful obedience to the Lord.

But having said that, the more important "fix" to such a situation is not to restrict women from serving in what may be a permissible area of service in the church, but to conform the church itself to the New Testament pattern of governance. We shouldn't restrict women in an effort to maintain irregular governance; we should conform our governance of the church to the word of God and deploy women to serve wherever and whenever appropriate.

The pattern of leadership in the church should be qualified men serving as elders.
This is not at odds with women serving as deacons.

But if the church does not have elders, and instead deacons perform
the teaching and oversight that biblically belongs to elders,
then women should not serve as deacons.

A Plea

To my brothers serving in churches without elders and with ruling deacons, for the blessing of a well-ordered congregation, for the liberty of our sisters, and for the flowering of gospel ministry, re-examine why you currently neglect so clear a New Testament office as elders, which was established in all the apostolic churches (1 Tim. 3; Titus 1). And test yourselves to see if the failure to obey the Lord's word on elders gives opportunity for denying our sisters an opportunity to serve their Lord and their churches as deacons. Structures do matter. Sometimes the wrong structures prevent spiritual growth, service, and gospel advancement.

Thabiti Anyabwile is Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church, Cayman Islands. Pastor Thabiti is the author of What is a Healthy Church Member?, The Decline of African-American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity, and The Faithful Preacher: Recapturing the Vision of Three Pioneering African-American Preachers. He also blogs regularly at Pure Church.