Does the Bible teach that women can be deacons?

I have been preaching through the Pastoral Epistles at my church, and a few Sundays ago I delivered a message on deacons from 1 Timothy 3:8-16. You can listen to the sermon below or download it here.

The second point of the sermon focuses on verse 11 and deals with whether Paul intends for women to serve as deacons. This is a controversial question, and I obviously don’t treat it exhaustively in this sermon. Nevertheless, here’s where I came down.

11 Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things.

Verse 11 actually sticks out a little bit in context. Why would Paul drop in a reference to “women” in a passage about deacons?

Some people think that he does it because he wishes to imply that these aren’t just “women” but female deaconesses. After all, having a list of qualifications suggests that a church office is in view, just as is the case for deacon and elder qualifications. Why specify such qualifications if an office is not in view for the women? Also, a woman named Phoebe is called a “deacon” in Romans 16:1. Isn’t Paul just invoking the same office that Phoebe holds in Romans 16:1? So the argument goes.

Nevertheless, I am not convinced that line of reasoning is correct. The underlying word is the typical Greek term for “woman” or “wife.” The very same word is used in the very next verse, and it clearly indicates “wife” in that verse. Without more explanation on Paul’s part, it is very unlikely that his readers would have detected a specialized use of a routine term in verse 11, especially when a routine use of the same term immediately follows it in verse 12. Also, the word “likewise” suggests a similar, but nevertheless a distinct group from the deacons (just like the word “likewise” in verse 8 suggests that deacons are a similar but distinct group from the elders). Since the text before and after verse 11 is focused on deacons, it makes more sense to see verse 11 as somehow related to deacon qualifications as well, not to a separate class of female deacons.

If this reading is correct, then Paul is saying that the behavior of the deacon’s wife needs to be exemplary. Why? Because exemplary character in a wife is another evidence of a husband who manages his own household well (v. 12).

Obviously, many good Christians disagree over the interpretation of this verse. No matter what your view of female deacons, we can at least agree together that the women spoken of here are being called into service. As wives of deacons, these ladies did have responsibility for serving others—whether or not they held office. That is why they have to have character qualities fitted for a servant. There are four:

(1) Dignified – The underlying term might also be translated as “worthy of respect/honor, noble, serious.” This woman too needs to command the respect of those who meet her.

(2) Not Malicious Gossips – This woman cannot be a person who engages in slander. If you meet a lady who likes to cut on people all the time, she is not cut out for this kind of work. The godly woman has control of her tongue and knows how to build others up.

(3) Temperate – This means that this lady cannot be a drunkard. If she is filled with wine, she can’t be filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18).

(4) Faithful in All Things – Obviously this is not a phrase that denotes perfection. But it does say that this woman must be “trustworthy, faithful, dependable.”

I don’t think this text is talking about female deacons, but what if it were? Would that contradict what the Bible says about male leadership in the church and in the home? Wouldn’t female deacons contradict biblical complementarianism? The answer to that question is “No, not necessarily. But it might.”

There are many Baptist churches that have deacons who function as non-shepherding leaders of the church. Even though they are called deacons, they function like elders minus the teaching and discipling. They lead the church. Sometimes they even dictate to the pastor. They don’t cast vision or shepherd, but they are in charge. In churches like that, I would say that having female deacons undermines biblical complementarianism because the deacons are de facto elders if not actual elders.

But I would also argue that such churches do not have a biblical understanding of the diaconate. Moreover, I would argue that such deacons are functioning in a way that contradicts their biblical mandate and that does not promote the maximum health of the church. The church doesn’t need a board of directors called deacons. The church needs a board of shepherds called elders. And the church needs deacons who are full of the Spirit and who come alongside and facilitate that ministry of the word by their service. When deacons are functioning properly and biblically, there is no necessary contradiction to have women who are also recognized as the official servants of the church—whether or not they are called deacons.

19 Responses to Does the Bible teach that women can be deacons?

  1. Lauren Law December 9, 2014 at 8:21 pm #

    As a female growing up in the Southern Baptist denomination, I have struggled for years and years and years about my “place” in the church…or even my “calling”. Every “gift” survey I took scored high in shepherding and leadership gifts, and yet there was THAT verse. I felt guilty for having those gifts…that something was wrong with me. I finally settled things with the Lord when I said I’d do whatever HE lead me to do with what HE had given me. I don’t need a “title” to be a deaconess…a shepherd servant in my church. I DO believe that churches NEED females on their deacon boards for one reason and one reason only…this world has proven that MEN have difficulty ministering to WOMEN’S needs…especially single women. If all deacons and pastors were faithful to their callings, women would not be a “problem” in the church. But women are seen as temptations… not necessarily because men are evil…but because God designed men to protect women. A hurting woman is something a man can easily mistake for someone who needs his care…and his care moves from being spiritual care, to emotional care…to physical care. Women need to minister to women…and Paul DID cover that when he said the older women were to mentor the younger woman. Pastors and deacons should NEVER be alone with any woman in the church, other than their wives…and in a counseling session, that line gets crossed often.

    Thanks for addressing this “touchy” matter with an open heart and mind that’s seeking God’s truth.

  2. Chris Taylor December 9, 2014 at 10:58 pm #

    Having ‘searched the Scriptures’, I see a loose parallel construction in 1 Cor 9:5,

    “Do we not have a right to take along a believing wife [lit., sister], even as the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?”

    Paul qualifies the type of wife that can be taken into ministry, whether elder, deacon, or missionary. In 1 Timothy 3, Paul states clearly what the qualifications are. In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul assumes the character of a minister’s wife, namely that she be a sister.

    The other way of looking at this is to acknowledge that Paul didn’t have to qualify the type of wife a minister can take into the ministry. He could have simply said, ‘Do we not have a right to take along a wife, …’ But it appears that he is not satisfied with simply saying ministers can have wives. He makes it clear that ministers should have believing wives, worthy of the moniker, ‘sister.’

  3. Don Johnson December 10, 2014 at 4:22 am #

    I ask Denny again to take off his blue masculinist glasses when reading Scripture. Of course a women can have a ministry of being a deacon, but it is not an office.

  4. Jonathan Bee December 10, 2014 at 5:41 am #

    but some churches make it an office- if they do that you can see why they do not allow female deacons

    deacon simply means servant , I really do not get why people are against women serving the church…

    also in this day and age, can we just use the word Volunteer etc!

    • Don Johnson December 10, 2014 at 10:26 am #

      If a church makes it an office, then they are following human tradition that I think negates Scripture.

      • David Casper December 31, 2014 at 12:42 am #

        Don, anytime we use the phrase, “I think” when it relates to scripture, we are possible walking a dangerous path. What we think is wonderful since God blessed us with the gift of freewill. But what we think doesn’t matter…it is what God says that takes priority. Please don’t take this as me attacking you since I am fighting similar things in my life.

        I am learning to avoid saying things like “I think” or “what if”. This is hard for me and God has also been convicting me to remain silent where the Bible is silent and to loudly proclaim what the Bible proclaims. I wish we could sit down with a cup of coffee and learn from each other what God has been putting on our hearts.

  5. buddyglass December 10, 2014 at 9:40 am #

    A different perspective from someone else in the complementation / Reformed camp:

    http://www.theologyforwomen.org/2010/04/women-deacons.html

  6. Jay Ryder December 10, 2014 at 1:03 pm #

    Quite a few reformed/complementarian denominations allow for unordained women in the the deaconate with the title or commissioning of deaconess.
    The PCA is one example: http://byfaithonline.com/the-case-for-commissioning-not-ordaining-deaconesses/

  7. Jason Dohm December 10, 2014 at 1:09 pm #

    Greetings.

    For anyone interested in a very text-focused, exegetical book about New Testament deacons, I really like Alexander Strauch’s:

    http://www.amazon.com/The-New-Testament-Deacon-Minister/dp/0936083077

    A very related point to your post is what you make of Acts 6:1-7. If you accept that this text gives us the prototypes for deacons, which I do, it is very difficult to get to women deacons as officers that church leaders would install into service through prayer and the laying on of hands. If women deacons wouldn’t be appointed in this case, where the specific service in question was distribution to widows, it is hard to imagine when they would be.

    • Don Johnson December 11, 2014 at 11:23 am #

      I have found Strauch is good for what he covers but does not go nearly deep enough in his analysis.

  8. Alistair Robertson December 10, 2014 at 4:05 pm #

    I don’t have time to get into details here (and perhaps it’s inappropriate) but I’ve whacked up an old post giving my different perspective.

  9. Dal December 10, 2014 at 8:07 pm #

    I have been recently attending a church and the majority of the deacons are female, in fact, also so are the “elders” and my guess is that so few males wish to be a deacon/elder, they leave open the position for others….

    So, does this mean I am in a bad church?

    • Meg Davis December 11, 2014 at 12:39 am #

      Personally, I think a woman’s influence over a man should never be stronger than a man’s influence over a man.

  10. Brent Burckart December 12, 2014 at 12:49 am #

    If the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:11 are for deacons’ wives, then why would there not be similar qualifications listed for elders’ wives, especially since the role of an elder is not only that of a servant (the meaning of the word deacon), but also that of an overseer with spiritual authority in the church (1 Tim. 3:1; Heb. 13:17)? It would seem at least as important, if not more so, for elders to have godly wives.

    On the other hand, if 1 Timothy 3:11 is not referring to deacons’ wives, but rather to female deacons, this would make perfect sense, since biblically, deacons are not invested with the same governing authority as elders, so that having a woman serve as a deacon would not necessarily be a violation of 1 Timothy 2:12.

  11. David Casper December 31, 2014 at 12:34 am #

    I am always amazed at how often this topic comes up and how many people misunderstand the difference between authority and responsibility. Many feel that women are being disregarded when it is pointed out that certain offices are intended for men. It is obvious when we consider the scriptures and gender roles that certain positions or offices are gender specific. The Bible tells us a woman is not to have authority over a man as a teacher or a preacher. This is when we need to look at the difference between authority and responsibility.

    Does a woman have a responsibility to ensure that everyone is taught correctly? The answer is definitely “YES”. Does the Bible give a woman authority over a man as a deacon or bishop? The answer this time is “No”. Now before anyone gets mad at me…consider this…should a man be put in authority of issues which are better handled by women? I would hope we can agree the answer is “No”. A man should not be out in charge of the Women’s Mission Union or teaching young ladies how to be young ladies. Men are simply not equipped to hold certain offices in the church, but nobody ever complains about that. I have been a man for 52 years, have two college degrees and still cannot tell you what it feels like to be in labor or to give birth. I am simply not equipped to teach a woman how to be a woman.

    When it comes to authority positions like a pastor, how much authority does the pastor actually have? The reality is the pastor has no more authority over you than you allow. Now let us look at responsibility. How much responsibility does a pastor have to preach the truth? The pastor has a HUGE responsibility to ensure the Word is taught with truth, love and with all the inspiration God provides.

    My point is that a successful Church needs women in positions of both responsibility and authority and also that certain positions are intended and should be gender specific. For myself, I look back at my religious education when I was young, and it was women who taught me much of what I know. I praise God these women stepped forward and obeyed the call to teach young people. I will even go as far as saying that a man in the same position would not have been as successful and they would not have had nearly the same impact. However; this being said, the authority for teaching men belongs to men as far as a church office goes.

    Outside of the office can a woman teach a man? I have some wonderful books and training manuals written by women. They are great and God inspired, but their teachings do not come with office of bishop or deacon.

    Now for those who play word games. If a church body was to create an office which had no authority for teaching or preaching to men, I might say a woman could hold that position biblically. As for my church the deacons and pastor have responsibility for preaching and teaching to men. If you take away these responsibilities a woman could hold the office. But I would be careful in pursuing this course of church administration.

    Please forgive my spelling and grammar. It is late and I have been on the computer for several hours.

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