An Easy Question? Should Women Serve as Deacons?

Third in a multipart series.

Should women serve as deacons in a church? I wish this was an easy question to handle, but apparently not.

Let us set aside the question about elders and pastors, in this blog post.

Not all Christians agree about deacons.

The word deacon is a transliteration into English of the Greek word diakonos, which simply means “servant.” In a sense, all Christians are called to be “servants.” But there is also a sense in the New Testament whereby a “servant,” or deacon, constitutes a particular office of the church. And this is where the controversy exists.

Some believe women can be deacons. Many other Christians do not.

I will lay out the case for the former, and try to address the concerns of the latter, as I respectfully disagree with it.

If you look at the ESV translation of 1 Timothy 3:8-12, you get a sense of where the conflicting interpretations are:

(8) Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. (9) They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. (10) And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. (11) Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. (12) Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well.

This is one of the two passages in the Bible that directly address the issue of deacons. In general, the word “deacons,” in our English translations is assumed to be male. But then we get to verse 11, that speaks of “their wives.”

The ESV translators have inserted the word “their,” which is not in the original Greek text, in order to make the sentence flow better. But if you have an ESV translation with footnotes, you will find an alternative translation of “women.” If this latter translation is correct, then this would indicate that Paul has in mind the idea that deacons can be either male or female.

As evidence for the latter view, the word “likewise,” when followed by the alternative “women,” as in “women likewise must be dignified….”  indicates that Paul is continuing to list the types of people who could serve as deacons, before returning back to the qualifications of male deacons in verse 12. But the choice of “their wives,” in the main body of the ESV translation, is actually a particular interpretation of the data, that is not favored by other translations, like the NIV, which by default, indicates women deacons (wives is in the NIV footnote).

In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything ( 1 Timothy 3:11 NIV).

Elsewhere in 1 Timothy, Paul gives us the qualifications of male elders, but he never addresses the issue of elder’s wives. That being the case, it is unlikely that Paul has deacons’ wives in mind in 1 Timothy 3:11. Rather, this more likely indicates that these were women deacons (some speak of “deaconesses,” but that is just a made-up English word referring to women deacons. “Deacon” in English is actually gender neutral).

Those two pieces of evidence alone are not necessarily sufficient to convince everyone. But there is more.

The other passage that directly addresses the issue is Romans 16:1-2:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well. (ESV).

Here is where we get the English direct translation of the Greek word diakonos, which would be “servant.” Contrast this with the NIV, that has deacon, instead. Both “servant” and “deacon” mean the same thing. The question here is, what kind of deacon or servant are we talking about?

We get our clue with the word “commend” that Paul uses to address Phoebe, who is a woman. For Paul to “commend” is simply more than just, “Hey, Phoebe is a swell gal.”  As the context of the passage indicates, Paul is urging the church in Rome to give Phoebe a place of honor, singling her out for special treatment. This would suggest that Phoebe occupies some official position, with respect to Paul, which is consistent with the office of “deacon.”

Perhaps that still does not persuade the student of Scripture. Some believe that Phoebe still was not a deacon in any “official” sense. In other words, Paul is indeed commending Phoebe to the Romans, but doing so in a non-commendable manner? I suppose?

However, we also have evidence from church history to consider. Near the end of the first century or early second century, we have a letter in Latin addressed to the emperor in Rome, describing Christian women who were “ministers” in Bithynia, which is a good Latin, plural equivalent of the Greek word “diakonos.” This would indicate that the early church, within about 50-70 years after these New Testament letters were written, had women serving as deacons in the churches.

Imagine that.

This would mean that the early church considered having women as deacons, as consistent with the teaching of the New Testament.

Now, critics of this view would suggest that only men can serve as deacons, because they carry the same type of spiritual authority as elders, or overseers, do. While this is hypothetically possible, you have to come up with a lot of explaining to do, in order for this particular interpretation to work.

Consider the heavy lifting involved:

First, it assumes that deacons do carry an elder-like type of spiritual authority. But this would suggest that deacons are kind of like “junior-elders,” or something like that, for which we have no substantial evidence for support. This effectively renders the distinction between elder and deacon as fairly meaningless.

You would also have to explain why Paul mentions the qualifications of deacons’ wives, and then totally neglect the description of elders’ wives (see 1 Timothy 3:1-12). Did Paul just forget? Or run out of papyrus? Probably not, but let us keep going with that.

Then you would have to suppose that Paul was somehow not being clear when he describes Phoebe as being a deacon. On top that, you would have to suggest that 50-70 years after these New Testament documents were written, the early church had by then completely misunderstood what Paul was talking about, when it came to the office of deacon.

If you can make all of these various assumptions hold together, with super-glue, then sure, you can go ahead and have a male-only deaconship in your church. If that sounds convincing to you, then well…. okay.

But it all seems pretty sketchy to me.

Nevertheless, I know of several churches that believe that only men can be deacons. I surely understand why such churches would go this route, as it can be defended from Scripture, in a sense. OK, I might sound a little snarky, so apologies go out to my “male-only deacon” friends, but this is my point: If you are going to resort to these type of arguments to restrict the office of deacon to men, you probably should not be surprised if egalitarians, who argue FOR women as elders, use the same type of complex, multi-assumption arguments, to make their case.

Such male-only diaconate churches are simply using the title of “deacon,” but in reality, the “deacons” are functioning in the role of “elder.” So, churches that have both “elders” and “deacons” exercising spiritual authority essentially have a two-tiered system of “elders,” the primary elders and the junior-elders, the latter whom are called “deacons.”

Calling someone a deacon does not make that person a deacon (read my post linked here, if something I am saying in the current post is confusing).

Likewise, there are often things that elders do that should properly be in the domain of the deacons. This follows the example set in Acts 6, whereby the apostles sought to delegate certain functions to servants; that is, deacons, that would otherwise distract the elders from their primary task, that of spiritually shepherding the community of faith, through the propagation of sound doctrine and the application of church discipline. The elders need not be micro-managing the details of the welcome team ministry, hovering over the operations of the floral guild, or managing the logistics for the short-term mission trips.

The service ministry performed by deacons is just as important as the functions performed by elders. But we should be careful not to saddle the elders with tasks that can easily be handled by the deacons.

Egalitarians will shrug their shoulders, as to much of what I am saying here, but some complementarians need to think long and hard about how they view deacons.

Some might be drawn to conclude that a firm stance against women as deacons must be held in order to dissuade Christians from accepting women as elders. But the difficulties concerning the teaching about deacons are NOT the same as the teaching about elders.

For example, we have no examples of women serving as elders in the New Testament, unlike Phoebe was for deacon. Furthermore, we have no clear, substantial evidence in the early church, just following the New Testament era, that women served as elders there, unlike the positive evidence we have for women deacons in the early church.

Confusing the office of “elder” and “deacon” does not help in this discussion. Granted, those who believe in a male-only diaconate do not necessarily marginalize women. Women can serve in other ways. There is a consistent, biblical interpretation supporting a male-only diaconate, so I do not intend to be disrespectful at all. But it sure makes the situation more confusing than it really needs to be. At the risk of stepping on someone’s toes, I must state that the male-only view of deacons is simply not convincing.

If a church wants to “hold the line” against encroaching feminism in the church, restricting the office of deacon to men only is an unstable line to hold, and unnecessarily restrictive. It is much better to allow the weight of the biblical and historical evidence to stand, and to encourage both men and women to serve as deacons in a local church.

For a scholarly argument for women as deacons, read Tom Schreiner’s essay. For a scholarly argument against women as deacons, read Guy Waters’ essay.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

3 responses to “An Easy Question? Should Women Serve as Deacons?

  • John Paine


    Grant Wood, “Dinner for Threshers” (1934)

    Like

  • Sarah Joiner

    Hi Clarke, I’m really enjoying this series so far. Thanks for all of your work. It really is appreciated. Btw, is there a typo? Should: “If you are going to resort to these type of arguments to restrict the office of deacon to women” actually read: “If you are going to resort to these type of arguments to restrict the office of deacon to men”? Thanks.

    Like

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