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.