Published: 12 September 2022

Does The Bible Allow Women Deacons?

Women Deacons

Can women serve as deacons? Does the Bible have anything to say about women deacons? As a matter of fact, the New Testament does mention a woman who was a deacon:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. (Rom. 16:1 NIV)

At first glance, one might conclude from this verse that the Bible authorizes women deacons. However, we’d be irresponsible Bible students if we were to jump to that conclusion just from reading this verse.

Most English translations do not use the word deacon in Romans 16:1. Instead, they use servant which is what the word deacon actually means. If English Bibles were consistent in translation, we’d never see the word deacon in the Bible; we’d only see servant. So, was Phoebe a servant in the same sense that all Christians are servants of God? Or, was Phoebe specifically appointed to be a designated servant in the church (like in Acts 6)?

How can we tell what Phoebe’s role was?

Unfortunately, Romans 16:1 is not conclusive. We can’t really tell with certainty if Phoebe’s role was that of a specially appointed “deacon” in the church or if she was a servant in the normal sense. The debate among scholars and Bible students has so far failed to settle the matter. Douglas Moo comments on this making note of a hint in the text that Phoebe might have been an appointed servant: 

“In calling Phoebe a diakonos of the church in Cenchrea (a town five miles east of Corinth), Paul may mean simply that she is a Christian, called, like all Christians, to be a servant of Christ and of the church (see 1 Pet. 4:10). But with the official–sounding addition of the church of Cenchrea it is more likely that Paul is identifying Phoebe as holding the office of ‘deacon’ (see Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8, 12; many understand 1 Tim. 3:11 as a reference to female deacons).”1  (emphasis added)

Not so fast…

Of course, not everyone agrees with Moo:

“Is he right? In addition to Rom. 16:1, diakonos is used in a genitival construction 17 times in the NT, and in each instance diakonos cannot mean deacon; in every reference the word is used functionally. Far from supporting Moo’s assertion, then, the evidence points in the opposite direction: the fact that Paul refers to Phoebe as a diakonos of the church in Cenchrea is more likely to indicate function than office.”2

Myerscough is correct that diakonos (deacon) is about function and not about office. In fact, I see no evidence in the New Testament “the office of deacon” was ever anything but a function. Servants serve – they do not hold office. Yes, I understand that the word office indicates a position one holds. Regardless, church tradition has made (and continues to make) the role more than Spirit filled people designated to serve because they possess the biblical traits of a servant.

Servants, or office holders?

The position of deacon has been turned into a role coveted as a means of power or prestige in the church. It has, in large part, lost its biblical function. If deacons aren’t serving the needs of others in tangible ways, they are merely office holders and are not fulfilling their biblical role as designated servants.

Scholarship leans in the direction that Phoebe held of the office of deacon. Myerscough, perhaps unintentionally, seems to be separating the function from the office. However, in an ironic twist, he has strengthened the argument that Phoebe was a deacon by pointing out the functional nature of her work. I could quote scholar after scholar, but there would still be no definitive conclusion. While it seems likely that Phoebe held the office of deacon, we cannot prove it.

Women deacons in 1 Timothy 3:11?

Many argue that the New Testament does not authorize women deacons on the basis that a deacon must be “the husband of one wife” (1 Tim 3:12). They reason that if Phoebe was a deacon, then there is a contradiction in the Bible. Is this correct, does 1 Timothy 3:12 slam the door shut for women deacons? Not necessarily. Let’s take a look at v. 11 first before considering v. 12.

Wives or women?

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

Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things. (1 Tim. 3:11 NASB)

Of the 61 English language Bibles available on BibleGateway, 31 of them (51%) translate v. 11 as women instead of wives.3 Clearly, Bible translation committees are evenly split as to which word to use. Why the ambiguity? In biblical Greek, one word (gunē) does double duty and can mean either wife or woman.

“Because γυνή [gunē] can mean both “wife” and “woman,” it is not clear whether Paul is referring to the wives of deacons or to women workers, “deaconesses.””4

Only the context can reveal whether gunē means wife or woman and in this passage the context could take us in either direction. Doesn’t the fact that it is a requirement for deacons to have a wife tell us that the context is speaking of the wives of the deacons. Again, it’s not cut and dry.

Qualifications for deacons of both genders

You see, Paul could be addressing the qualifications for both male and female deacons. The breakdown would go like this.

Vv. 8-10 lists requirements for all deacons regardless of gender.

V. 11 addresses requirements specifically for females.

V. 12 addresses requirements specifically for males.

V. 13 is once again speaking about all deacons regardless of gender.

So, let’s apply a little formatting to the text to help bring this out:

8 In the same way, deacons are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. 9 They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.

11 In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.

12 A deacon must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well.

13 Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus. (1 Tim. 3:8–13 NIV)

Interestingly, even though Mounce seems to lean in the direction that this passage is about male deacons, he makes the following remark:

“But there is nothing in this paragraph that would prohibit women from being deacons (“one-woman man” assumes male deacons but does not necessarily require it), and presumably in this case her husband’s character would be examined. There always was a need for women to serve. When the female diaconate was finally formed, its basic sphere of ministry was service to women.”5

Women deacons make sense

As Mounce pointed out, later in church history women deacons primarily served the needs of other women. Let’s face it, there are some needs Christian sisters have which would be inappropriate for male deacons to assist with. Women deacons can help in ways men can’t. For example, women can aid other women who need care due to illness, injury, childbirth, etc.

Let’s also acknowledge that every church already has women deacons; they just aren’t officially designated as such. Most of our churches would cease to function if the women stopped serving. There are a few women in every church who we count on to get things done. They just aren’t called deacons.
To be a deacon is to be a servant. Those women who faithfully and reliably serve are no less deacons just because they haven’t been officially assigned the role.

Does the Bible authorize women deacons or not?

While I respect the arguments of those who say the Bible only permits men to be deacons, I do not share their conclusions. While we don’t like to admit it, there are ambiguities in the Bible. If there weren’t we’d all be in perfect agreement about doctrinal matters. As it pertains to women deacons, 1 Timothy 3 is ambiguous. How does one decide then?

God is perfectly capable of communicating

When something mattered to God, He always communicated details very clearly. Consider the requirements for the Passover lamb in Exodus 12.

  • God commanded when the Israelites should celebrate Passover (10th day of 1st month).
  • They were to eat one lamb per household.
  • If the household was too small to eat an entire lamb, they were to share neighbors.
  • The lamb must be without blemish.
  • It was to be a male lamb.
  • It was to be a one year old lamb.
  • The lamb is set aside until the 14th day of the month and then killed.
  • They were to kill the lamb at twilight.
  • Some of the lamb’s blood was to be put on the two doorposts and lintel of each house where the lamb was eaten.
  • They were to roast the lamb with fire.
  • They were to eat unleavened bread and bitter herbs with the lamb.
  • They could not eat it raw, nor boiled in water.
  • They were to leave none of the lamb until morning.
  • If anything was left they were to burn it.
  • They were to eat in haste. They were to eat with a belt on their waist, sandals on their feet and a staff in hand, ready for immediate travel.

Is that specific enough? Now, consider how little detail there is in many New Testament passages. Under the New Covenant, it is often the case that God tells us what He wants done, but not necessarily how to do it. In other words, when there is ambiguity, He expects us to use our sanctified common sense to figure out how best to get things done. 

God could have spelled it out, but He didn’t

Because God is ambiguous about women deacons, I conclude He is leaving the matter up to us. The text can be read in such a way as to allow women deacons. I see nothing in 1 Timothy 3 which proves women may not be officially designated as deacons. 

Lacking clear guidance in either direction, God expects us to be wise enough to sort it out. Perhaps it is a test to see if Christians of good conscience on both sides of the debate can draw different conclusions without questioning the motives, integrity, and intelligence of the opposite side. Can we disagree without drawing lines of fellowship? Whether God intended it as a test or not, it is one regardless.

References

  1. Moo, Douglas J., Romans. Edited by D. A Carson, R. T France, J. A. Motyer, and Gordon J. Wenham. New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition. Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994.
  2. Myerscough, Richard. “Exegesis 21: Was Phoebe Really a Deacon?” Foundations (Affinity) 36 (May 1996). 25.
  3. https://www.biblegateway.com/verse/en/1%20Timothy%203:11.
  4. Mounce, William D. Word Biblical Commentary, Pastoral Epistles, Vol 46, Nelson, 2000, 482.
  5. Ibid., 485.