1 Timothy 3:8-13 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 (or as translated in NIV & NASB – women 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.
For many churches, the question of whether the Bible allows for women to be ordained into the office of deacon has been a point of contention. For consistency sake, however, we have to put into question many common practices of churches that are traditionally opposed to women deacons. Some of the same churches that would be against women deacons often have women on the church staff serving as children’s directors, worship leaders, church secretaries, cleaning staff, and/or other paid positions. Some congregations that would strongly reject the concept of a female deacon will still regularly appoint females to serve as the chairman of the finance committee, personnel committee, or even a pastor-search committee. Many of the roles we would describe as committee heads and/or staff positions, however, are actually modern manifestations of the Biblical role of deacon without the Biblical title. (For the article “What do Deacons do?” click here). Is this an ok practice? According to the Scriptures, should women be given official charge over areas of service in the local church in ways easily confused with the functional role of a deacon?
If we rely on women to do so much of the service ministry in the local church, is it possible that certain qualifying women can and should be ordained into the office of deacon? This is not a question of preference nor is it a question of tradition, rather it is a question of Biblical interpretation. The Bible is our final authority regardless of our preferences or traditions so the important question is whether the Bible explicitly forbids female deacons or not.
1 Timothy 2:12 makes it clear that women should not serve in the role of pastor. Paul prohibits women from teaching or having special authority over men within the local church. He argues that this is according to God’s design in creating male and female equally valuable yet distinct in their role within the family unit and the church. Teaching and authoritative spiritual leadership are two of the primary tasks of the pastor described in 1 Timothy 3, thus it seems that this office is restricted to men. The office of deacon, however, serves a different role within the local church. While pastors must be “able to teach”, deacons do not require this ability because their primary role is one of service. Since the deacon role does not require the two aspects of church life prohibited for women, does this mean that the women are free to serve in the office of deacon? Again we are looking for Scriptural evidence that might prohibit women from serving in this role.
Since we have no other Scriptures prohibiting women from serving the church as the deacon is designed to do, we must look closely at the qualifications for deacons given in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. I believe that evidence for female deacons can actually be found within 1 Timothy 3:11. Paul addresses women directly in the context of these deacon qualifications in a way that he does not in the elder qualifications previously. Some translations have rendered 1 Timothy 3:11, “Their wives likewise must“ suggesting that the qualifications to follow were given to the wives of deacons in the local church. The Greek, however, should be more simply translated “women likewise”, not “their wives”. Both the New International Version and The New American Standard Bible render this translation as simply “women”. This a more natural reading considering the fact that no instruction was given to the wives of the elders in the above passage. One would think that if Paul was concerned with giving particular qualifications to the wives of church leaders, he would also include the similar instruction to the wives of pastors, not just the wives of deacons. This leads me to believe that Paul was not intending to address the wives of deacons in verse 11, rather he was intending to address women deacons in particular.
Female Deacon Sightings in the Bible:
In Romans 16:1, Paul identified a woman named Phoebe as a “deacon of the church at Cenchreae”. He commended her and said that she should be welcomed and the church in Rome should help her in her ministry with whatever she needs. For those that disagree with the appointment of female deacons, they interpret the word “deacon” in Romans 16:1 to be a non-official use of the word servant. We cannot know with certainty whether Paul intends to describe Phoebe as holding the office of deacon, but the language does suggest an official title associated with the church at Cenchreae. What is knowable is the tremendous role that she played in her service of the church. She exists among a number of godly women explicitly mentioned in Scripture as contributing greatly to the mission of God through their service in the church. Examples would include both Lydia and Mary, two women who actually hosted the church gathering in their homes (Acts 12:12. 16:13-15. 40). Another example would be Priscilla who joined with her husband in discipling Apollos in Acts 18:26.
Female Deacons Historically and Presently
While Scripture alone is our authority, it is important that we not deviate entirely from Church history in our interpretation of Scripture. If I am the only one to have ever interpreted a text of Scripture in a particular way, then I am probably wrong. I am not, however, the only one to have interpreted the above texts to allow the appointment of female deacons. As early as the AD 113, a governor of Bithynia, Pliny the Younger referenced women officeholders in the church and he even mentions two deaconesses who were martyred for the cause of Christ (Baker Encylopedia of the Bible, 591). This means that local churches planted by the apostles themselves were appointing female deacons. In more recent church history, Charles Spurgeon allowed the appointment of female deacons. And finally, among evangelical leaders of our modern day, there are several notable pastors and scholars who believe in the absolute authority of Scripture and have come to similar conclusions about female deacons. Among those are Mark Dever, John Piper,Thabiti Anyabwile, David Platt, Matt Chandler, John McArthur, Tom Schreiner, Gregory Allison, and others.
It is hard to make an indisputable argument for female deacons in the church. What is absolutely clear throughout the Scriptures is that women play an important role within the body of Christ that includes utilizing their unique gifting of service. They should not be limited in their serving. This should under no circumstances be a discussion that creates division within the body of Christ. The office of deacon is a role designed to maintain and spread unity so let not our discussion of deacons defeat the very purpose they were designed to accomplish. As for me, I believe that the Biblical case against ordaining female deacons is not strong enough to prohibit women from serving as deacons in the local church. I believe the case for ordaining female deacons, although not indisputable, is strong enough to move forward with ordaining qualified women to serve in specific areas of ministry and I believe that women deacons would benefit our local body of Christ in a variety of areas in the days to come.
10 As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: 11 whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen (1 Peter 4:1-11).
By His Grace & For His Glory
Pastor Brandon Langley
St. Rose Community Church