Five Questions About Women Deacons

Posted: August 24, 2011 in Uncategorized

Another post by Chris Pope.

Our Baptist Faith and Message (2000) states, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” But is the same true of deacons? In some Bible-believing churches, women deacons (or deaconesses) are common; in others they are unimaginable. Most of the debate has to do with 1 Timothy 3:8-13, which sets the qualifications for deacons, assuming them to be men in verses 10 and 12 but also listing qualifications for women in verse 11. But are these women wives or deaconesses?

1. Who do English Bibles say is in view in 1 Timothy 3:11?

Most Bibles carried by our congregation probably say “wives.” Here’s the breakdown:

  • KJV, NKJV, HCSB, Living Bible, Good News Bible, NIrV, Modern Language Bible, Phillips, Beck, and LITV just have “wives.”
  • NIV, ESV, NLT, New English, Good News Translation, and ISV have “wives” with a footnote giving women or deaconesses as an alternate translation.
  • RSV, ASV, The Message, The Amplified Bible, Jerusalem Bible, Young’s Literal, Revised English, Darby, and Estes just have “women.”
  • NASB, NRSV, New Century, TNIV, CEV, and NAB have “women” with a footnote giving wives as an alternate translation.
  • Only a few minor translations just have “deaconesses” (e.g., Weymouth, Montgomery, and Williams).

 2. Does 1 Timothy 3:11 itself favor the translation “women” or “wives”?

Uncertain. Technically, Hebrew and Greek do not speak of wives or husbands, merely of women and men. Their marital status is determined by context. The word in this verse (gynaikos) does not have an article or a pronoun as it does in Ephesians 5, but then again, neither does the word “deacons” in verses 8 and 12. The form could simply be a matter of style, and the surrounding discussion of male deacons means the question of whose woman/wife was under discussion need not be specified. So the grammar really does not favor one view or the other.

As for context, the verse is buried in the middle of male deacon qualifications and is followed immediately by a verse about the deacon’s family life. Taking the “wives” option, the flow of the passage would be: the deacon’s character, his wife’s character, his faithfulness to his wife, and his management of his household. With the “women” option, the flow becomes: the male deacon’s character, the female deacon’s character, and the male deacon’s family. I think the “wives” option makes better sense of the structure. On the other hand, Paul often inserts tangentially related comments into the middle of a thought, so the structural argument is not necessarily the final answer.

3. Are there references to women serving as deacons either elsewhere in Scripture or in early church history?

Uncertain; I think unlikely. Phoebe’s title in Rom. 16:1 is the accusative form of the word diakonos, which has the same form for both men and women. The feminine form of the word (diakonissa) was not created until centuries later. Going by this verse alone, we can’t know whether the word has its technical meaning of “deacon” here or whether it has its more generic meaning of “minister.” (Only in Phil. 1:1 and 1 Tim. 3:8-13 does it mean “deacon” indisputably.)

Some have seen an implied ministerial role for the widows of 1 Tim. 5:3-16 on the basis of verses 9-10 ( “wife of one man” followed by qualifications), but the good works mentioned are in the past tense. Also, the focus of the passage seems to be financial support, and there are no biblical indications that deacons were to be paid for their service.

As for church history, the earliest reference to deaconesses as an office is found around the year 400, in the writings of John Chrysostom and Theodore of Mopsuestia. However, the church also had priests, monks, and nuns by this time, so this is probably not sufficient to establish the New Testament’s intention.

Based on the structure of the passage and the lack of any good evidence for deaconesses in Scripture or in the early church, I think it’s most likely that the Bible is speaking of deacons’ wives in verse 11. However, two practical questions come to mind:

4. If there are women deacons, would they be ordained, and would they have the same duties as male deacons?

Yes to the first half, probably no to the second. If there are two biblical offices and both require ordination, then women being admitted to either office would need to be ordained. The middle-of-the-paragraph placement of 1 Tim. 3:11 argues against women deacons being a separate position.

However, just as the roles and duties of elders can differ according to their gifts, the same would be true for deacons. (In fact, the Bible never sets forth the duties of deacons at all, aside from the food distribution of Acts 6.) In light of the biblical pattern, women deacons would either work alongside their husbands (compare Priscilla and Aquila) or else direct their ministry toward the women of the church (as in Titus 2). Note, however, that whether men or women, deacons are not an authority within the church. No, really, they’re not. All legitimate authority in the church is God-given, and God has given primary authority to the pastors and ultimate authority to the whole body of the congregation.

5. If there are no women deacons, how are women to minister in the church?

The New Testament is replete with examples of women in various ministries. Eight women in Romans 16 alone are singled out as ministers, workers, or laborers in the Lord’s service. They are not only to attend and learn – which itself goes beyond the usual place of women in that time – but they can pray and prophesy in worship (1 Cor. 11:5). Priscilla helped Aquila disciple Apollos (Acts 18:26), and the evangelism of Pentecost was performed by all the 120, which included women (Acts 1:14; 2:1-4). They are only restricted from authority and the teaching of men in the church (1 Tim. 2:11-15), both of which have to do with the office of elder/pastor.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s