Should the Church Appoint Women Deacons?
he question posed in the
title of this study is a matter that many churches throughout the country have
wrestled with from time to time. At issue is whether or not the Bible
authorizes women to serve as the appointed servants of the local church known
The Organization of the Local Church
To begin we should
first note what the Bible authorizes for the organization of the local church.
In Philippians 1:1 the Apostle Paul addresses the epistle “...To all the
saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons”
(NKJV). This describes the core relationships of service and leadership that
are set in the local church:
Overseers of the “flock” (also known in Scripture as elders, presbyters,
pastors, shepherds or overseers).
Deacons: Servants of the local church.
Saints: All believers set apart by the gospel of Christ unto
service to the Lord.
workers referred to as “deacons” are to be appointed based on qualifications
outlined in First Timothy 3:8-13. These qualifications in brief are:
1. Reverence (3:8a).
2. Not double-tongued (3:8b).
3. Not given to much wine (3:8c).
4. Not greedy for money (3:8d).
5. A pure conscience (3:9).
6. Proven (3:10a).
7. Blameless (3:10b).
8. Husband of one wife (3:12a).
9. Ruling house well (3:12b).
“Why Do Some Think That Women Can Serve In This
The reasons that some struggle with this question are
I. Phoebe. In
Romans 16:1 a woman is mentioned by the name of Phoebe. Most translations
refer to her as a “servant of the church in Cenchrea.” However, the
word translated “servant” is the feminine form of the word translated “deacon”
in other places. Several of the modern translations have a footnote attached
to this word reading “Or, deaconess” (ASV, NIV). The Revised
Standard uses the word “deaconess” in the text and the New Revised Standard
calls her “a deacon.”
II. “Likewise their wives...” In the
list of qualifications given in First Timothy 3:8-13 verse eleven lists
qualifications for women. This is generally understood to qualify the
character of the wives of men serving as deacons and elders. However, given
the fact that in general the words for “woman” and “wife” are the same in
ancient Greek, some translations have taken this to be a list of qualifications
for women deacons (ASV, NASB, RSV, NRSV).
III. History. By the
fourth century history records that churches in the East had women deacons as
an established office of the church. Prior to this a second century letter
from a Roman governor named Pliny to the emperor Trajan describes his torture
of two Christian women he says were called “ministrae” (the feminine
form of the Latin word “minister” meaning “attendant, servant, helper,
assistant, agent, accomplice” (Langenscheidt’s Latin-English Dictionary, 200).
IV. “Women have been neglected!” Finally, some in today’s churches have the feeling
that women have been neglected by not having been allowed to serve the Lord in
the same way men have within the local church. As a result, many are looking
for ways to involve women in public roles of leadership which they feel have
been denied to them in the past.
“Does This Prove The Church May Appoint Women?”
To answer this let us address each point:
I. “Was Phoebe a Deacon?” As we can see from the diversity of translations there are a number
of meanings that are attached to the word from which the word “deacon” is
translated. The King James version translated its various uses in the New Testament
in the following frequencies: “deacon” (3), “minister” (20), and “servant”
(7). Clearly most of the times it is used it does not refer to the appointed,
qualified servants of the local church but to servants in general. This is
especially clear in Galatians 2:17 where the word refers to Christ.
II. Are Qualifications Given For Women Deacons in 1
Timothy 3:11? While it is true that the
word for “wife” and “woman” are generally the same the context of the verse
must be taken into consideration. Verse twelve clearly lists two
qualifications for deacons that could not apply to women: “husbands of one
wife” (a woman can’t be the husband of one wife) and “ruling...their own
houses well” (God has given man the responsibility of “ruling” the home – Genesis
III. “Does History Prove There Were Women Deacons in the
Early Church?” Although most commentators
accept without question that the early church had women deacons I would argue
that they do so based on supposition more that evidence. Concerning Pliny’s
Letter to Trajan after translating ministrae “deaconesses” Henry
Bettenson notes: “If so, this is the last reference to ‘deaconesses’ til the
fourth century, when they attained some importance in the East. They seem to
have been unknown in the West until the recent establishment of the office in
the Anglican Church” (Documents of the Christian Church, by Henry
Bettenson, p. 5). The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church notes
that in early documents: “The distinction between widows and deaconesses is
rather obscure” (380). There is no question that the early church offered
regular support to qualified widows who had proven themselves to be “servants”
of the church (see 1 Timothy 5:3-16). Was Pheobe such a widow?
In the Biblical record
of the history of the church, in the first reference to those appointed as
qualified servants of the local church we find that the church in Jerusalem was
instructed to —“...Seek out from among you seven MEN of good reputation,
full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business;”
(Acts 6:3, emphasis mine). While there is some question as to whether or not
this is the same kind of role qualified in 1 Timothy 3:8-13 the gender of those
serving is clearly identified. (Note: various forms of the word translated
deacon are used throughout the account in Acts 6 describing the work to be
IV. Have Women Been Neglected? To answer this we must clarify exactly what is meant
by the question: Are there ways that churches have not effectively utilized
their women (and men)?—Yes! There are always ways that Christians can be more
effectively used in the local church. On the other hand, does appointing only
men as deacons leave women neglected in the local church?—No! There is much work
to be done in the local church which has nothing to do with the public assembly
or roles of leadership. Examples of such work are described in First Timothy
5:10 and Titus 2:3-5.
The Authority of Scripture
What we must always
remember in questions such as this is exactly what it is that serves as our
pattern for faith and practice—the Word of God! That means that we must not
yield to our sympathies about what we wish were done. Nor give way to the
pressures of a culture opposed to Biblical patterns of male and female roles.
We cannot even base what we do upon what secular history records. How can we
know when history records apostasy and when it records sound doctrine if not by
Scripture? Let us hold with patient confidence to the Biblical pattern.