Should women serve as deaconesses in the church?

Question

Dr. Nally you’ve helped me with numerous other topics in the past. Please assist me on this one. Based upon 1 Tim. 3:11 and Rom. 16:1 should women serve in the office of deacon?

Answer

Before we commence our brief study, we need to state that this issue isn’t about the dignity and worth of men and women who serve in the church. Both are blessed with numerous gifts. Faithful men and women in the church are necessary for its completeness.

This issue concerns the different roles both men and women have to properly glorify and grow the Lord’s church. So, we are discussing our proper roles before God, not the dignity, honor, and worth of the different sexes, of which according to God's word there's only two (Gen. 2:18-24).

Introduction

As you know, this a debated topic within the church. According to the New Testament, Christ has appointed officers to govern the church under himself. These officers under the authority of the Holy Spirit, the Word of God, and prayer govern the life and ministry of the congregation.

The offices of a church are very important. Mismanagement of the church will cause problems within the body. An example may help.

It only takes two people to form a church before God (cf. Matt. 18:20). The first church was in the Garden where only Adam and Eve met with God. As the Belgic Confession 27 states: “[The] church has existed from the beginning of the world and will last until the end, as appears from the fact that Christ is eternal King who cannot be without subjects.” Please see, “The Old/New Testament Church” linked below.

From Gen. 3:8-9, we observe the first couple were familiar both with the sound of God walking in his Garden and his actual voice. For the first couple to recognize such things, it appears to have been a normal occurrence, most likely at least every Sabbath (Gen. 2:3).

Adam was the head of the Covenant of Works (Gen. 2:15-17), the covenant head of all the animals (Gen. 1:26; 2:19), the appointed head of his family (his wife was his helpmate, Gen. 2:18-24), and the earthly head of the first church. However, when Satan preached his first and only sermon in the Garden church (Gen. 3:1-5), Adam didn’t properly perform his leadership role in his family, in being the covenant head of the animals, and the Lord’s church. Adam stood right next to Eve (Gen. 3:6) and neglected his headship duties.

(1) As the head of his family Adam should have said to Eve, “Don’t eat!” as “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matt. 4:4; cf. Gen. 2:16-17).

(2) As the head of the animal kingdom, he should have commanded the serpent to be quiet, as “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Matt. 4:7).

(3) As elder of the first earthly church, Adam should have told the serpent “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” (Matt. 4:10).

Adam failed in his duties. Eve partook of the forbidden fruit. She sinned. In a role reversal, Eve lead both her family (1 Tim. 2:14) and God’s church (cf. 2 Cor. 11:3) against the very command that God gave specifically to Adam (Gen. 2:17). Adam followed his wife Eve into sin (cf. 1 Tim. 2:14). He too ate and he sinned. Since Adam was the covenant head of mankind, the entire human race (except Jesus) fell in him (Rom. 5:12-21). Mismanagement of the church lead to the Fall of mankind. So, having the proper officers in a church fulling their God appointed tasks is a very important issue.

This said, below we briefly make arguments from Scripture as to whom true deacons are.

The First Diaconate

Luke informs us that the first diaconate was formed in Acts 6:1-6. Luke states,

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.

Some truths we can draw from above are:

(1) A need existed in the Jerusalem church to help feed the hungry (Acts 6:1)
(2) The Jerusalem church was gathered together by the Twelve (Acts 6:2)
(3) The Twelve gave instructions for the selection of seven men to help feed the hungry (Acts 6:3)
(4) This action freed the Twelve to be able to pray and minister the word of God (Acts 6:2, 4)
(5) Seven qualified men were chosen (Acts 6:5)
(6) The Twelve ordained these seven men (Acts 6:6)

Some state that Acts 6:1-6 aren’t about deacons. But this is the only set of verses in the entire Bible that tell us what deacons do. If we eliminate these then we have an office in 1 Tim. 3 which has no biblical stated purpose! Some have suggested that Rom. 12:3-8 are gifts to be split between the elders (word gifts) and deacons (serving gifts). The deacon-oriented gifts would be “serving,” such as "the one who contributes” and the “one who does acts of mercy.” However, it’s highly questionable if Paul is referring to the two offices of the church in Rom. 12:3-8. Sunday School teachers who aren’t elders may still teach and others may still do acts of mercy, etc.

Though the word “deacon” isn’t used in Acts 6, the seven men certainly could claim the same promise for faithful service that is made to deacons in 1 Tim. 3:13. They are ordained as deacons are (Acts 6:6). Also by serving tables they were in “ministry,” as the same Greek word for “distribution” (diakonia) in Acts 6:1 is also used for “ministry” in Acts 6:4 of the Twelve ministering the Word of God. While the ministries of both elders and deacons differ they both “serve”!

So, the first seven deacons were all men who were chosen by the whole congregation, which included women. There’s no record in scripture that the women in the church at Jerusalem objected to the Twelve, being all men, only allowing men into the ordained office of deacon.

Different Translations of 1 Timothy 3:11

1 Timothy 3:11 (ESV) Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.

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

1 Tim. 3:11 (HCSB) Wives, too, must be worthy of respect, not slanderers, self-controlled, faithful in everything.

Above we quoted three different translations - the ESV, NIV, and the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) - of 1 Tim. 3:11. The reader will note that they somewhat differ. The ESV uses the phrase “their wives,” the NIV uses “the women,” and the HCSB uses only “wives.”

The word “their” (ESV) has been supplied by the translators to allow for an easier understanding of the text. But the word isn’t in the original Greek text. However, in the original written by Paul through the Holy Spirit, leaving the word “their” out like the HCSB does, allows for the verse to refer not only to the wives of deacons, but also to the wives of elders. John Calvin states, “He [Paul] means the wives both of deacons and of bishops, for they must be aids to their husbands in their office; which cannot be, unless their behavior excel that of others.” (Calvin, 1 Tim. Commentary).

However, even if we dismiss Calvin on this point (which we shouldn’t), elder’s wives still have other qualifications as well. For instance, an elder (or deacon) wasn’t/isn’t going to manage his household well and train his children without a faithful and devoted wife (Tit. 2:4-5). Both elders’ and deacon’s wives had to be faithful as help-mates to their husbands so they could biblically serve in their respective offices.

The word translated “wives” in Greek is “gynaikas.” Depending on the context of a verse “gynaikas” may be interpreted either as “wives” (ESV, HCSB) or “women” in general (NIV). Context matters. For instance, in the very next verse the same Greek word is also translated as “wives” (1 Tim. 3:12) in all three translations. The same in 1 Tim. 3:2.

Those who translate “gynaikas” as “wives” may teach that it refers to the wives of deacons (ESV), or the wives of elders and deacons (HCSB). Those who translate it as “women” may teach that it refers to the office of the deaconess, or a female deacon (NIV).

Proper translation is important! So, what was Paul’s intention? Was Paul referring to only the wives of deacons? Was Paul referring to the wives of elders and deacons? Or was Paul referring to women in general therefore speaking of women deacons? Which meaning is more scriptural?

To whom does 1 Timothy 3:11 refer to?

First, a deacon is an office within the church. An office implies authority. Deacons must display authority in the carrying out of their office. They should not teach, exercise judicial authority, or discipline like elders do. However, they do exercise the power of order with respect to the unique position of their office. Though not in the same way elders do, deacons still manage, lead, and direct. They have authority in the church otherise it wouldn't need to be an office in the church.

For instance, one duty of deacons is to assist the needy (Acts 6:1-6). Deacons aren’t expected to carry out this blessed service of the church by themselves. Imagine attempting the assist those during COVID with only a few deacons! Deacons lead others - both males and females - to accomplish such tasks. But since a woman may not “exercise authority over a man” (1 Tim. 2:12) then she can’t biblically carry out the authoritative office of deacon. So, we observe that the word “wives” in either the ESV or HCSB is a more biblical translation.

Second, both male elders and male deacons have marriage qualifications respective to their offices (1 Tim. 3:2, 12). However, if 1 Tim. 3:11 refers to a class of women deacons there is no such qualification! Can these women be divorced? Can they be single? Can they be remarried? There are no martial qualifications given as there are for male elders and male deacons?

Third, there are only two assigned offices mentioned in 1 Tim. 3, not three (1 Tim. 3:1, 8). The phrase “the women” isn’t an office. Paul doesn’t assign a named office to these women? There is an order of widows in 1 Tim. 5:9-12 but they aren’t called deaconess in scripture; though some in church history have called them such thus confusing the masses today. While they are a very much needed and a wonderful ministry within the church they are not a named office either.

Fourth, after 1 Tim. 3:11, Paul immediately goes on to further discuss the office of the male diaconate (1 Tim. 3:12-13) that he began in 1 Tim. 3:8-10. If the mention of “gynaikas” refers to another office, then why didn’t Paul first complete his discussion of male deacons instead of an odd start, stop, restart arrangement on his discussion concerning them? This seems unnecessary and confusing.

Fifth, Paul seems to emphasize that women are not deacons in the very next verse, when he says “Deacons must be husbands of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:12). How can a woman be the husband of one wife unless it’s a non-Christian LGBT church?

Sixth, the word “household” is used four times in 1 Tim. 3:4, 5, 12, and 15. It’s used twice for the office of elder and once for the office of deacon. As Adam was in the Garden, the husband is the head of his home even today (Eph. 5:23-24; 6:4; Col. 3:20; 1 Pet. 3:1-7; cf. 1 Sam. 3:13; 1 Cor. 11:3). Therefore, biblical male leadership in the home is being taught for both male elders and male deacons.

The final use of the term “household” is in reference to the Lord’s church. Paul states in 1 Tim. 3:15, “if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.” Christ is the husband of his “household,” his bride (Eph. 5:23). So, Paul’s argument is consistent throughout 1 Tim. 3 where a male elder, male deacon, and the male Savior is in control of their respective households. While women are truly gifted and lead in other realms, women don’t fit the biblical pattern seen in 1 Tim. 3 for deacon leadership in the church. The diaconate is made up of only males.

Phoebe a Deacon? Romans 16:1-2

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.

In Rom.16:1 Phoebe is called a “servant.” The Greek noun diakonos may also be translated as “deacon.”

So, does diakonos refer to a function or a title? Was Phoebe a faithful servant or serving in the office of a deacon?

In 2 Cor. 6:4 Paul refers to himself as a diakonos. He states, “but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities.” So, was Paul a deacon? When and where was he ordained? Paul wasn’t a deacon! He makes this abundantly clear in Rom. 1:1 saying he was an apostle; “Paul, a servant (Gk. doulos, not diakonos) of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.” Paul’s use of diakonos in 2 Cor. 6:4 is functional (i.e. serving) and does not speak of his office.

Scriptures normally use diakonos in a functional sense without reference to the office of deacon (Matt. 20:26; Mark 9:35; Rom. 13:4; 16:1; Gal. 2:17; Eph. 6:21; Col. 1:7). Deacon is only translated by the term diakonos five times (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8, 10, 12, 13).

There is no doubt Phoebe was a Christian and distinguished for her service to the church. She’s even called “sister” meaning “sister in the Lord” in Rom. 16.2. She apparently was wealthy and was a “patron of many” probably meaning she assisted many by providing resources. Phoebe may even have been the one who carried Paul’s book of Romans to Rome - we don’t know.

This said, the context of Rom. 16 requires only that Paul is commending Phoebe as a dedicated servant of God’s people. The context doesn’t require that she be serving in the office of a deacon. In light of another passage that describes a deacon to “be the husband of one wife” (1Tim. 3:12), it’s more biblical to see Phoebe as a faithful servant in the church and not a deaconess.

This said, we don’t even know if diakonos was being understood as the “office of a deacon” between A.D. 55-57 when the book of Romans was written. 1 Timothy was written in A.D. 62-64 some five years after the book of Romans. Philippians, where the first occurrence of deacon is translated (Phil. 1:1), was written in app. A.D. 62. Therefore, was the office of deacon - with its 1 Tim. 3 qualifications - even formed yet? As Douglas Moo states, “It is very likely that regular offices in local Christian churches were still in the process of being established, as people who regularly ministered in a certain way were gradually recognized officially by the congregation and given a regular title” (Epistle to the Romans, p. 914).

Report from Church History

Brian Schwertley wrote a book called, “A Historical and Biblical Examination of Women Deacons” linked below. This is an excellent work. In it he makes a historical study of deaconess in church history. Here is what he states,

There is no question that deaconesses existed in the early church, in Calvin's Geneva and in the French Reformed churches. But these deaconesses were modeled after the order of widows in 1 Timothy 5:9ff. and not after Acts 6:1-6 or 1 Timothy 3:1-10, 12. Those who argue in favor of women deacons who are of the same office and function as male deacons should note that the evidence from church history starting with the earliest church fathers and ending with the 19th century is overwhelmingly against women deacons who are in the same office and have the same function as male deacons. There is not a single instance in the entire history of the Christian church of women deacons who are of the same office and function as male deacons, until the 19th century. The evidence will show that women deacons, whether ordained or not, were in a completely separate office from the male diaconate. These women had different functions, different qualifications and a different authority than the male diaconate.

What happened in the 19th century whereby some begin to question the authority of Scripture and history on this issue? The first feminist wave is the name for a period that lasted from around 1850 to 1940. While we are thankful that this movement changed many things in a good way, it also began to change the interpretation of Scripture - including re-interpretations of Rom. 16:1 and 1 Tim. 3:11 and other texts. The inspired Scripture of yesterday should still be our standard today. The church should be reforming culture, not the other way around.

Church history records the first use of the word “deaconess” by the Roman Catholic Church beginning in the late fourth century. But their qualifications were drawn after the widows ministry in 1 Tim. 5:9-12, and not male deacons in 1 Tim. 3.

To keep confusion at a minimum (cf. 1 Cor. 14:33) I suggest the term “deaconess” should not be used to describe the biblical work of widows or other female type ministries, like counseling women by women, etc. In addition, this group of widows weren't an official office; though the Roman Catholic Church sees them as such. Rather the work of widows is a special biblical gifted ministry. While there are only two authoritative offices in the church, there are many ministries, which are accountable to both the male elders and male deacons, as directed by the holy scriptures.

In Summary

All the above points testify to the fact the Paul is not speaking about deaconesses in 1 Tim. 3 and Rom 16:1. I believe the HCSB is a better interpretation of 1 Tim. 3:11, than either the ESV and especially the NIV.

Those who interpret the text as deaconesses also refer to other texts in the Bible to attempt to solidify their opinion. Those are covered in another note entitled “Should women teach men the Bible?” below.

Related Topics

The Old/New Testament Church
Should women teach men the Bible?
A Historical and Biblical Examination of Women Deacons

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).