Role of Deaconess

This is the tenth post in a series through Pauls first letter to Timothy and today I’m going to try and answer the question: do you think the bible allows women deacons? This is no easy task as there are good bible believing Christians on both sides of the debate. Bible teachers who I respect greatly differ on this difficult issue and honesty, depending on what church tradition you grew up, you’re probably inclined to already hold a position. I don’t intend to critique a view point but try and simply unpack what I think the Bible says about the issue (even though the Bible is not entirely clear or explicit in this instance!)

In the previous post about deacons (which I’d encourage you to read if you haven’t done so already, found here), I wrote that deacons are servants of the church who are also qualified for the ministry of overseeing the practical, physical, need based cares of the church. The main roles of a deacon found in Acts 6 and 1 Timothy 3 are:

  • Deacons lead others as they can serve
  • Deacons meet physical needs
  • Deacons have various roles but one aim
  • Deacons serve elders so they can lead

these distinctions become very important when we think about the question at hand: can women serve as deacons? The short answer to that is “yes”, and “no”! Let me try to explain by giving you four reasons why I think it’s valid, in some settings, to include women as deacons, but first here is the text:

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. 13 For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

1 Timothy 3:8-13

Wives is ambiguous

In verse 11 Paul writes: “Their wives likewise”. As in many languages, the word “wives” can mean “women” or “wives” and the pronoun “their” actually isn’t in the Greek at all. It’s possible that verse 11 simply reads “Women likewise”

Deacon’s wives?

why does Paul seem to talk about deacons wives and not elders wives? Why does Paul seem to place a higher level of accountability on deacons than he does elders? This is especially curious given what Paul has said about the elders home. Despite the fact that elders have stricter qualifications, there is no mention of their wives.

The context doesn’t fit

The overall context  … back in chapter two …shows that Paul was writing with instructions for men’s behaviour in the church, as well as women’s behaviour in the church – this is the springboard for Pauls discussions about leadership roles in chapter 3. In the same way that Paul addresses both men and women in chapter 2, Paul is again addressing men and women in chapter 3 (notice the word “likewise” in verse 8 and 11 actually points us back to verse 9 of chapter 2.) The point is that Paul is writing about order in the church and gender roles in the church as much here in chapter 3 as he was in chapter 2. The point is that the flow of the text doesn’t read:

role of elders – role of deacons – role of deacons wives.

the flow of the text more likely reads:

role of elders – role of deacons – role of deaconess.

The matter of Pheobe

The fourth reason for the “Yes” women can be deacons is that Paul, in Romans 16, names a Deaconess:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae

Romans 16:1

Pheobe is referred to as “a servant of the church”. the word servant is the same generic term that is used in 1 Timothy 3, however, it’s not that word that is important here. The next phrase “of the church” demonstrates to me that Pheobe was not merely someone who served at a particular church, but was an official at a particular church.

I’ll confess that these reasons aren’t watertight and the fact that there is so much debate and disagreement amongst good bible scholars demonstrates how little we actually be sure about this topic. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at this issue and have concluded the general principle to be true:

Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.

Romans 14:5

When you couple these four reasons with the picture of women who played a vital role in Paul’s ministry the case becomes stronger. Paul specially mentions 17 women by name who have ministered to him throughout his ministry.

A Word of caution

Earlier in the post, I mentioned that the actual role a deacon plays in the life of a church becomes very important when we think about the question at hand. The problem, as I see it, is not the issue of gender role, but the misapplication of the role of deacon. If you elevate the role of a deacon to an authoritative position similar to the role of an elder (as some churches and traditions have done) then I think there are not only problems with women’s roles, but also a problem with your thinking about church leadership. When you consider the role and responsibilities that we have already discussed in the previous post then there is no biblical evidence whatsoever that these responsibilities should only include men.

So my conclusion is that since Paul does not call them “women deacons,” but simply “women” he is distinguishing male from female deacons. The deaconesses are a subgroup of deacons, as indicated by Paul’s separate use of “likewise,” and by his deliberate use of “women”.



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