Does the Bible Allow for Female Deacons?

Reformation Church Blog

Just asking the question about female deacons might raise suspicions. Some might think that the question only arises because of innate chauvinism and misogyny. Of course God is an equal opportunity employer and wouldn’t restrict an office of the church on the basis of sex or gender.

Others, think the question is birthed out of feminism. It seems obvious that offices in the church are to be held by duly-appointed men and any suggestion otherwise is only a capitulation to cultural presuppositions.

Who knew a question could be that complicated! Just asking it can get you called a chauvinist and feminist. That’s actually a somewhat impressive feat to pull off!

It might be tempting to just bury your head in the sand and ignore the conversation altogether, but such an approach is surely not to be commended. If we believe that Scripture is inspired, authoritative, and sufficient, then we must trust it to provide clarity and direction for the church. Besides, we are preaching on 1 Timothy 3 and the qualifications for deacons in a few weeks so this is a question which deserves a rather immediate response.

So how might we wade through some of the complexity and do something that our culture is increasingly unwilling and unable to do – speak with nuance and precision on a topic that deserves a scalpel rather than a sledgehammer?

First, let’s begin by looking at the text.

Relevant Texts

To be fair, there isn’t just one text, but rather a cacophony of texts. Anytime we are studying a topic, we should seek to have a holistic view of all that Scripture says on that topic. Discerning God’s revealed will demands that we take into account every jot and tittle and word that He inspired. On the other hand, theologians recognize the difference between primary and secondary texts. Primary texts are the ones that are most obviously and explicitly relevant to a topic while secondary texts have a more peripheral bearing on the matter. For example, although there is a sense that a text on Old Testament judges might be pertinent to the discussion of female deacons, surely New Testament texts dealing particularly with the diaconate and/or gender roles are more relevant.

So what are the primary texts as it relates to the topic of female deacons?

Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. 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)

This provides general qualifications of the office. Much of the controversy revolves around what is meant by “their wives” since that Greek word could also be translated as simply “women” and could thus be about deaconesses. Arguments for and against both positions are listed below.

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.” (Acts 6:1–4)

This is typically viewed as the establishment of some sort of proto-diaconate office. Is it significant that they only and explicitly chose men for this role? It certainly isn’t explicitly prescriptive (after all, they also chose only Jews), but even descriptive passages have some sort of prescriptive element so the challenge is to see if the selection of men is an element that is intended by Luke and/or the Spirit to be universally binding.

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, (Romans 16:1)

The word translated servant is the same Greek word for deacon leading some scholars to conclude that Phoebe was a female deacon. If that were the case, then the argument about whether or not female deacons are allowed in scripture would be obvious. However, in the immediately preceding chapter it says that Christ was a “servant” (same Greek word) and we know that He wasn’t a deacon in the technical sense of the term. For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs… (Romans 15:8). More on how to think about this text will be mentioned below in arguments for and against each position.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

Some argue that this text has a large bearing on the issue. After all, Paul says that there is no male or female. If there are no genders, then there are no gender roles and thus to limit an office of the church on the basis of gender is the sin of partiality. Case closed, mic dropped.

But think about the implications of applying this literally and universally. Does this also mean that women can serve as elders? After all, if Paul’s point is that all gender distinctions are completely irrelevant in the kingdom, then this text doesn’t just forbid churches from prohibiting women as deacons, but as elders and pastors as well.

Or, what about in the context of marriage? Does this passage therefore legitimize same sex marriage? Again, if there is no distinction between male and female, then why couldn’t a male marry another male? Likewise in discussions of gender. Does this passage give validity to the idea that someone could be non-binary? After all, if there is no male and female, then why do we assign gender at all? Is that Paul’s point? That there are literally no distinctions at all between men and women? If not, what is the point?

Hopefully, these examples show why Paul’s principle must be limited. His point isn’t that there aren’t males and females in any sense whatsoever, but rather that neither gender nor ethnicity nor socioeconomic class are taken into account in regards to God’s calling. The text means that God doesn’t only choose men for salvation (or only the rich or only Israelites or other factors like that). The context has nothing to do with whether or not God only chooses men for particular offices of the church.

Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. (1 Timothy 2:11–15)

This passage tells us what is explicitly prohibited for women: teaching and exercising authority. In other words, this is the boundary within which all female ministry must take place. It can’t involve her teaching men or exercising authority over men within the church. This leads us to a helpful digression.

An Unfortunate Accident of History

The biblical distinction between the offices of elders and deacons is clear. Elders are tasked with preaching, teaching, and otherwise providing oversight and spiritual direction for the church. The deacons, on the other hand, are tasked with meeting various needs in order to free the elders to carry out their God-ordained roles. As the Acts 6 passage which many believe to be the establishment of a deacon-like role says, some are to be chosen to minister in such a way as to allow for others to devote themselves “to prayer and the ministry of the word.” That seems to be the general distinction between elders and deacons as well. Deacons attend to various physical and spiritual needs of the body in order to free the elders to do their work of oversight and shepherding (overseer and pastor being other synonymous terms for the office of elder).

However, for various reasons, in some traditions (including the Southern Baptist Convention) deacons were eventually tasked with elder roles. Many SBC churches for instance have a single pastor who reports to a deacon body who oversees the spiritual direction of the church. In other words, though they are called deacons, they are actually functioning as elders.

This is a problem in that 1 Timothy 2 explicitly forbids a woman from teaching or exercising authority over men in the church.

As a result of the confusion of offices, some claim that women can’t serve as deacons because doing so would violate the spirit of 1 Timothy 2. However, there is nothing about the office of a deacon in particular that would necessarily involve teaching and exercising authority. A deacon certainly might be able to teach, for example, but teaching is not a prerequisite to the office (whereas it is listed as a qualification for elders).

So, in short, churches with deacons who function as elders have engaged in linguistic gymnastics by switching the title of deacon with the function of elders. While there may be good reasons for limiting female deacons, this is not one of them. Rather, those churches should repent of using biblical language in non-biblical ways and establish the offices that God ordained to carry out the functions that He desires.

Considering Both Sides

As mentioned earlier, much of the debate hinges on whether or not the reference to gynaikas in 1 Timothy 3 should be understood as referring to “the wives of deacons” or “female deacons.” Grammatically, either is possible so let’s consider both sides of the argument.

What are the arguments for translating the word as “women” or “deaconesses” and thus in favor of female deacons?

  1. The word “gyne” (or gynaikas) in Greek can just generically mean “women.” This is important because words don’t have meaning independent of context. Think of a trunk. Do I mean a part of an elephant, bathing suit, suitcase, tree, part of a car, etc? Apart from the larger context of a sentence or paragraph or story, it is impossible to know which is meant. Likewise with the word gyne. The word itself can mean either women or wives and which it means can only be determined by context.
  2. The word “their” in verse 11 (“their wives” in the ESV) is not found in the Greek. Therefore, the beginning of the verse just says “women likewise” (plural) or “wives likewise.” Translators have added the word “their” to reflect the majority opinion of the ESV committee that Paul is referring to deacon wives rather than female deacons (though most ESV Bibles have a footnote saying that either option is possible).
  3. Some say that the phrase “husband of one wife” means that women can’t serve as deacons. However, that phrase can’t be an absolute requirement or else single men could not serve as deacons and neither could widowers who have remarried and thus have had at least two wives. In other words, the passage isn’t saying that a man must have a wife, but that if he does, he must only have one. If the requirement of having one wife doesn’t mean he has to have a wife, it can’t necessarily mean that he has to be a man.
  4. Phoebe is called a diakonos in Romans 16:1 though this term could just mean “servant” and not be an official office. Then again, the fact that a congregation is listed and this seems like an official designation for her could suggest something more than just that she happens to serve the church. There seems to be at least something official about her.
  5. In the pastoral epistles the term “likewise” is used to address a new group of people and that is the term that Paul uses for these women (see 1 Tim 2:9; 3:8; Titus 2:3, 6, et. al).
  6. It would be strange to not mention elder’s wives in the previous verses and then to refer to deacon’s wives in verses 8-13, especially because the conduct of an elder’s household is also mentioned.
  7. Nothing elsewhere in Scripture would forbid a woman from carrying this office (as long as the office of “deacon” is defined as a non-authoritative role) as the Bible only forbids women from teaching or exercising authority over men (1 Tim 2:12) and the deacon office doesn’t inherently involve either.
  8. The term “deaconess” occurs in the early church (diakonissa) and is even used at the council of Nicaea.
  9. There is an overlap between what is required of deacons and of the gyne who are mentioned. For example: dignified relates to dignified; not double-tongued relates to slanderers, blameless relates to faithful in all things. In other words, it could be that Paul is showing that men and women who serve in the office must meet the same general requirements (dignified for example) while also recognizing that some sins might be more of a problem with one gender than another (greedy for dishonest gain for men vs. not being sober-minded for women).
  10. Many pastors and theologians throughout church history have affirmed that women can serve as deacons. A few prominent voices include: Theodore of Mopsuestia, John Chrysostom, F.J.A. Hort, E. Earle Ellis, Tom Schreiner, John Piper, Sam Storms, etc.

What are the arguments for translating the word as “wives” and thus against the having female deacons?

  1. The phrase “husband of one wife” implies that deacons are generally men.
  2. If the word means “deaconess” then the passage begins with talking about male deacons, then switches to female deacons, then immediately goes back to male deacons. This transition seems unlikely and syntactically awkward.
  3. Speaking about a deacon’s wife in verse 11 makes a smooth transition into the discussion regarding a deacon’s home in verse 12. Verse 11 could even be linked to verse 12 and be part of the idea of a deacon caring for his wife and being above reproach.
  4. The word “gyne” is used in the very next verse (verse 12) as a clear reference to a wife.
  5. The men chosen in Acts 6 are all male. This continues with an overarching pattern that we see throughout Scripture of God appointing men for leadership positions within the garden of Eden, ancient Israel, and the church. While we need to be careful to not read too much prescription into a passage that is descriptive, the fact that it is mainly descriptive doesn’t necessarily negate any prescriptive element.
  6. Since a deacon is a serving role, Paul perhaps mentions their wives as a helpmate to their serving duties, which would not be needed for elders (who primarily teach and lead). In other words, it might make sense to mention deacon wives, but not elder wives in that it would be more natural that a deacon’s wife would help her husband in his official role whereas elder wives do not formally help in the carrying out of elder duties. For example, a deacon’s wife could help him prepare communion, visit the sick, set up tables, keep the books, etc. (deacon tasks) while a pastor’s wife would not be able to provide the same level of support in preaching sermons, giving pastoral oversight, etc. (elder tasks).
  7. Besides the somewhat ambiguous reference to Phoebe in Acts, there seem to be no other examples of deaconesses in Scripture. Obviously if Phoebe was a deaconess, there wouldn’t need to be other examples, but it is certainly possible that Phoebe was just a servant of the church and not an officially recognized holder of the deacon office. To use such a tenuous text as a load-bearing support for the female deacon position seems unwise.
  8. If verse 11 was referring to a third office or female deacons then one would expect more info on these “deaconesses” besides the 4 qualifications. The fact that the requirements for deacons and wives/women in verse 12 overlap to some degree, but also differ seems strange if Paul’s point is that women can serve as deacons. Why would he not just say that male and female deacons must meet all of the criteria or say that women must meet these general requirements, but also a couple of others or something like that?
  9. Various pastors and theologians have held to the idea that verse 11 refers to deacons’ “wives.” Such persons include: John Calvin, Johaness Weiss, B.B. Warfield, Herman Ridderbos, George Knight, Alex Strauch, etc.

What is the Position of Reformation Church?

If strong arguments can be made for either position and if faithful pastors and scholars are divided on the issue, how do we as a church approach the issue?

First, we need to beware of villainizing either position. Those who hold that only men can serve as deacons are not necessarily misogynistic. Nor are those who hold that women can serve as deacons necessarily influenced by feminism. To resort to such caricatures is unhelpful and unkind. Faithful men and women have reached different conclusions and those conclusions are not necessarily driven by sinful ulterior motives or biases.

Second, we recognize that there is no real neutrality or middle position between the options. In fact, each and every church must choose a position. Churches will either have female deacons or not. There is no third option. A church might confess a degree of theological ignorance on the topic, but practically speaking they choose a position by whether or not they appoint females to the office.

Third, we recognize that this discussion is not at all a question about whether or not women can serve the church or are valuable and essential components of the church and her mission to make disciples. Again, that is an unfair caricature. Of course women can serve in a plethora of ways. The issue isn’t whether women can serve, but rather in what capacities and roles has God given boundaries.

Fourth, to some degree, where churches land on these issues reflect not only what they believe the Scripture teaches, but also often what they perceive as the greater danger to the church of this generation. Is the greater danger that the church would neglect or minimize the role of women or is the greater danger the pressures of third-wave feminism? How churches answer that question is often reflected in its choices on how to allow women to minister within the body. Those who think that chauvinism or male authoritarianism is the greater danger, tend to allow for more formal opportunities while churches that believe that feminism (third-wave feminism in particular) is the greater danger tend to be more limiting in their approach.

With these caveats in mind, for each and every article of faith and doctrine, there are degrees of certainty. That Christ has been raised from the dead is a matter of primary importance and clarity. That God has differentiated the sexes and given males and females unique roles and responsibilities is not a matter of first importance, but is nonetheless highly significant and transparent from the pages of Scripture. But when it comes to female deacons, there is much less clarity and thus this calls for greater epistemological humility. Therefore, members of our church are free to hold positions on this that are contrary to the formal position of the church itself. This isn’t a hill to die on or a position to divide over, but is rather one to discuss warmly (and even passionately) with brothers and sisters while enjoying a nice beverage of your choice.

In the end, churches must take a position and Reformation Church has chosen to restrict the office of deacon to duly-appointed men. Thus women will not serve in that capacity in our body. That said, we want to see both women and men flourish within the local church. However, we do not believe that having an office is essential to that end. Rather, we want to commend each and every member of our community to join us in our mission to glorify God by making disciples and ministering to the body regardless of title, office, or nametag.