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Can Women be Deacons?

  • The Good Book Blog Talbot School of Theology at Biola University
  • 2014 22 Oct
  • COMMENTS
Can Women be Deacons?

By John McKinley

An opportunity for expressing the complementarity of men and women in the church is to promote women to the office of Deacon. Controversy accompanies the question of women and the office of Deacon, so the opportunity is lost in many churches. In what follows, I will present the arguments about 1 Timothy 3:11 (as referring to women Deacons or not) and propose a way this office can be promoted for greater expression of complementarianism in the church. In a companion post to follow soon, I will present the related question of what the Deacon role is.

Complementarians are normally enthusiastic about affirming the spiritual equality of women to men while maintaining that women and men are not same in how they function. This recognition of a difference has been worked out partly by reserving the job of Pastor/ Overseer/ Elder (I think these all refer to the same office) for qualified members who are men. This follows the picture of Elders given in the New Testament (we have no mention of women functioning in this office, and the qualifications are directed to males). But what of Deacons?

What is the correct meaning of gunaikas in 1 Timothy 3:11? “Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things.” (NASB)

The argument that Paul intends to address the “wives” of male Deacons is established in modern English translations and evangelical church practice. KJV, NKJV, NIV (1984), NLT, ESV and HCSB all translate gunaikas as “wives” or “their wives” to indicate that these women are wives of the male Deacons, not an order of female Deacons. Calvin even extended the verse to indicate wives of the Overseers and Deacons. Common arguments for this meaning of “wives” are:

1)  Verse 11 is sandwiched between preceding and following statements that clearly address male candidates for the office of Deacon.

2)  The term gunaikas often means “wives” in the New Testament and Paul’s writings, so we should expect consistency here.

3)  Since Deacon work is caring for the physical needs of the church, it makes sense that the wives of the deacons would be involved in caring for the sick that would include women and children; a team ministry is in view.

4)  The NT has no feminine form of the term “Deacon.”

The alternate view is that Paul specifies a distinct rank of female Deacons who must be similarly qualified to male Deacons of the same office. These need not be women married to the deacons, but are just a set of women Deacons alongside men Deacons. Modern English translations that give the meaning of “women” for gunaikas are RSV, NASB, and NIV (2011). As was recently presented by Gregg R. Allison in Sojourners and Strangers (Crossway: 2012), common arguments for this meaning of female Deacons are these:

1)  Verse 11 starts with “likewise” that parallels v. 8 where a certain type of person is being introduced (Deacons). This pattern was begun in 2:9 where Paul uses “likewise women” to turn his focus on instructions for the women of the church after detailing instructions for men in the church in 2:8. Then, in 3:2 Paul uses “likewise” as part of setting out the qualifications for the overseers. To signal the shift from overseers to Deacons, Paul uses “likewise” in 3:8. When we read 3:11, “likewise” here makes the best sense as the same pattern of introducing a type of person, in this case female Deacons.

2)  None of the grammatical devices that could indicate a possessive “their” or “of” show up to tie these women to husbands for the meaning of “wives.” “Their” is not there as we should expect. The reference to women as wives of the Deacons is unlikely without any indicator of association to husbands or the aforementioned male Deacons.

3)  Were it right that Paul did intend to specify “wives of the Deacons,” this is strange in that there is no parallel for the Overseers. Because of this strangeness, recall that Calvin stretched v. 11 to cover both classes (Overseers and Deacons).

4)  The four character traits in v. 11 (listed below on the right) are basically the same as what has already been elaborated about male Deacons in vv. 8–9 (NASB):

  • “men of dignity”                                  
  • “dignified”
  • “not double-tongued”                          
  • “not malicious gossips”
  • “not addicted to wine/ sordid gain”      
  • “temperate”
  • “holding to the mystery of the faith”   
  • “faithful in all things”

5)  The commendation of Phoebe as visitor from Cenchrea to Rome includes the normal masculine term “deacon” along with high praise that she is a helper of many, including Paul. With no mention of her husband and the language of patronage, it seems unlikely that a general ministry of “servant” is in view. More likely is that she is here titled as a Deacon of the church in Cenchrea. If that is right, then it would fit that Paul intends “women” as Deacons in 1 Timothy 3:11.

6)  The post-apostolic church maintained an order of female Deacons distinct from the widows and virgins that were also active groups for ministry in the early church. In some cases, female Deacons were ordained, assisted the Overseers in the rite of baptizing women (instruction and anointing the body), assisted in the distribution of the Lord’s Supper, and cared for the sick and orphans. There is no evidence that female Deacons taught in public assembly. Churches in the East invented the term diakonissa “Deaconess” for this order of women. The term appears in the Canons of the Council of Nicaea (325). Many tombstone inscriptions carry the term. The earliest mention of female Deacons is around 112 AD in Pliny’s letter to Emperor Trajan. As governor of Bithynia, Pliny had occasion to order the torture of two Christian women who he identified as Deacons. It’s possible that the title was used in an honorific way (as in “wives of Deacons”), but this is unlikely in view of the other evidence for regulations concerning Deaconesses.

An objection that I have heard a few times is that women are already doing the functions of Deacons in various works of ministry to children, women, and other physical needs of church members, so why the need of a title? In response, I offer: 1) the title of Deacon is prescribed in the Bible, 2) titles seem to be important for recognizing the roles of Pastors and Elders in churches, so whatever the rationale is for those titles is probably applicable to Deacons, and 3) titles can be significant for men and women to recognize the valuable contributions of these leading men and women in the church titled as Deacons alongside the Elders (a complementary ministry).

As should be clear, I am persuaded of the second of these arguments. If this conclusion is right that the NT specifies an office of women as Deacons, then we must ask further what this role means for men and women and the church. I will address this in a companion post to follow.


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