Women Deacons

I have mentioned before my concern that complementarians need to guard themselves against blindspots that actually undermine their hermeneutic. I’m going to hit another one today. And then I’m done. I have no more complaints after this. Really!

Today’s issue is women deacons. My basic concern is that we undermine our entire Biblical premise for the office of an elder being male only if we don’t also embrace the role of the deaconess in Scripture.

Here’s my main argument:

1. It’s Biblical.

My pastor has presented this in a formal way, and I have gone through his notes and relied on them heavily for this post. He argues 2 main things.

1. It’s Biblical.
2. It’s consistent with historical church practice.

As someone from an independent Baptist/Bible background, the fact that it is consistent with historical church practice isn’t naturally compelling to me. I wasn’t taught to value church history as an independent Baptist. However, now that I attend a Presbyterian church, I am coming to value that 2nd argument in a new way. So I’m going to include that in what follows.

First, It’s Biblical.

I Timothy 3 (NAS)  8 Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain, 9 but holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 These men must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach. 11 Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things. 12 Deacons must be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households.

The previous verses of I Timothy 3 cover requirements for elders. Verse 8 begins the requirements for the office of Deacon. Verse 11 literally reads “the women.” Some translations say “their wives.” This is a possible interpretation, but a strained one. First, it requires the addition of the possessive pronoun “their,” which is not in the text. Also, another important question for that interpretation is “Why are Deacons’ wives being scrutinized and not Elders’ wives?” This is a glaring inconsistency.  Finally, if this text means “Deacons’ wives”, what church screens Deacons in this way? I’ve never known a church that considered the character of the wives of deacons that didn’t also consider the wives of elders as well. A more natural and less strained understanding of this text is that these women were Deacons. This is consistent with Romans 16 where Paul refers to Phoebe as a Deacon.

Romans 16:1-2  I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant (diakonos) of the church which is at Cenchrea; that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you; for she herself has also been a helper of many, and of myself as well.

It is true that “Deacon/Servant” can be used in a generic way—every believer is called to be a servant. But, it is also often used in an official way (the same word is used in I Timothy 3). Paul here seems to be commending Phoebe as a “Deacon/Servant” in an official way. He is instructing them to receive her and help her in her job. Many conservative commentators understand the text in this way.  Edmund Clowney, Douglas Moo, John Piper, Thomas Schreiner, and Robert Strimple also think that Phoebe held the office of Deacon in the church.

Please note that this is an entirely different argument from those for women pastors. Part of the Biblical argument against female elders is that the Bible never names a female elder and that the qualifications of an elder are written in specifically male terms. There are other arguments, but we undermine the importance of those points if we don’t accept women deacons. The Bible DOES name a female deacon (Phoebe) and it DOES include women in the discussion of the qualifications of a deacon.

Having women Deacons does not undermine the complementarian argument. NOT having women deacons undermines the complementarian argument. The Biblical case for women deacons is made BECAUSE of what Scripture says and not in spite of what Scripture says. There are many conservative commentators today who hold to both male headship and women Deacons (the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood considers the issue of women deacons a nonessential with respect to its core mission of promoting Biblical gender roles).

There are two great dangers in Biblical interpretation. The first danger is to say “Yes” where God has said “No.” This danger is real, and we should be diligent to guard against it. The other great danger, however, is to say “No” where God has said “Yes”. This is as grave a danger as the slippery slope of liberalism. If God has said “Yes” to women Deacons, then so should we.

Second, it was the historic practice of the church.

It is well documented that women served as deacons for the first 1000 years of the church. Though the practice waned around the time of the Great Schism between East and West, John Calvin reinstituted Deaconesses as part of his reforms of medieval church polity. Informed by the example of the Early Church and by Scripture, Calvin was a proponent of the office of Deaconess throughout his life. He saw the office of Deaconess as a public office of the church and had an order of Deaconesses in Geneva primarily composed of older widows.

There is an assumption among some complementarians that having women Deacons is a slippery slope to liberalism. Church history disproves this assumption. Church history demonstrates that the practice of having women Deacons is seen by many of our forefathers to be exceedingly biblical.

I am hopeful that having female Deacons will become the norm among conservative evangelical churches once again. Without it, I personally think we set up women for failure, especially in my culture. Women are important. Their needs are important. The reality is they/we HAVE been excluded and oppressed throughout history, even church history. If we deny women the office of deacons when God hasn’t, we push them toward accepting either feminism or chauvinism. We haven’t given them a Biblical norm.  That’s a serious problem.

I’ll end this post with an encouragement. What if this is your conviction, but you are not under church leadership that feels the same? A wise female deacon at my own church told me of her experience advocating strongly for this at another church she attended years ago. At some point, she came to see that her efforts had gone from being positively advocating for a good thing to being negatively divisive. If you love and trust your church leadership, certainly there shouldn’t be a problem discussing this, even advocating for it with the appropriate people. But unity in the church is a precious thing. I encourage you to guard yourself diligently from crossing the line between encouraging toward a more Biblical view of women deacons to undermining leadership and fostering disunity. Be diligent to preserve unity.  Make every effort to preserve unity.  For we are all One Body.

23 Responses to Women Deacons

  1. Deborah April 29, 2010 at 7:27 am #

    I admit to being a little lost with this post–not on your basic arguments, but on something more fundamental. What is the difference between a deacon and an elder? I grew up in a church that had deacons but not elders; some of my friends' churches had elders but not deacons; I hadn't heard of a church having both elders and deacons; and I'm currently in an international, interdenominational church that tries to avoid any controversy among traditions by having neither deacons nor elders but instead a church council. I've always thought that elders and deacons were the same thing, just different labels. Can you explain the difference? Thanks.

  2. Greg Verrall April 29, 2010 at 7:45 am #

    Good job Wendy! Spot on!

  3. Wendy April 29, 2010 at 2:47 pm #

    Thanks, Greg. 🙂

    Deborah, awesome question! The crowd I've run with the past 3 churches and 12 years all practiced a similar church government, which by my convictions most closely fits the instructions given the early church.

    The primary authority structure consists of a plurality of elders. These are the pastors and ruling board. My conviction is that they are men only. There should always be more than one for mutual accountability. And they make the governing decisions of the church.

    The secondary position is that of deacons open to both men and women. Deacons were tasked in the early church with more practical needs — the service of widows, tending to the sick. They were the feet of the ministry, freeing the elders to teach and lead at a more formal level.

    The Bible speaks of elder (also called bishop and overseer) and deacon as two distinct offices as in I Timothy 3.

  4. Anonymous April 29, 2010 at 4:23 pm #

    In reference to to qualifications for the wives of deacons and not the wives of elders:

    Elders hold a church authority role, deacons are tasked with practical needs -attending to widows, etc (as you already referenced above). Perhaps the qualifications for a deacon's wife are there because may be helping him in some of his roles. For example, it is not always appropriate for a man to visit a woman who is a widow, or has a need, by himself. The wife of an elder will not be helping him in his tasks. Food for thought….

  5. Addy April 29, 2010 at 5:38 pm #

    Excellent post!

  6. birthinukraine May 5, 2010 at 2:33 am #

    Wendy, can you describe what a deaconess does and her qualifications? thanks, anne

  7. Wendy May 5, 2010 at 2:48 am #

    I can try. I Tim. 3:11 “Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things.” The term likewise reflects on the qualifications of a deacon mentioned in the verse before. Paul then emphasizes for the deaconess temperance and dignity as contrasted with gossip. Overall, I think you are looking at the same general qualifications that you look for in a male deacon, basically the fruits of the Spirit.

    The Scripture doesn't prescribe what she does. Like male deacons, she's a servant, carrying out the practical, hands on service that helps elders to focus on teaching and leadership. Feeding the hungry, caring for widows, visiting the sick. Speculation is that Phoebe in Romans was the one Paul sent bearing the book to be read by the believers there. If that's the case, she simply filled a practical service role that Paul couldn't do himself.

    In our church, the men and women deacons oversee the care of the poor, sick, and generally needy. They administer a deacon's fund for financial needs. They coordinate meals to the sick. They organize outreaches to the community. And so forth.

  8. Sharon M. May 23, 2010 at 4:28 am #

    Great post, Wendy! You know, one of the things I appreciate most is your courage in addressing these controversial issues. You do it gently, honorably, and Scripturally, but also with boldness. This issue hits a real nerve among conservative evangelicals so I have often been fearful of addressing it in my own writing, but your willingness to talk about these issues is a great encouragement and example to me.

  9. Wendy May 23, 2010 at 5:25 am #

    Thanks, Sharon. And thanks for bringing attention back to the issue.

  10. JStacie November 12, 2010 at 7:45 pm #

    Could some of the problem just be what a church uses as a title? Growing up conservative, independent Baptist and still being one, Deacons in our church seem to be the same as others elders. Men of spiritual repute who assist the pastor with financial matters, leadership, church discipline, etc. Obviously, women are not restricted from being on missions committees, visiting people in need, going on visitation, etc. They just don't have a title. Although, we did have a group of elected “deaconesses” at one church who assisted with visiting missionaries, banquets, funerals, etc.
    At the same time, the first deacons chosen were specifically requested to be men. Maybe this implies a position of accountability to make sure that the needs of the church were met, whether met by the deacon himself or delegated to men and women.

  11. Anonymous April 23, 2011 at 6:02 pm #

    This work may be of interest to you, sister: http://www.reformedonline.com/view/reformedonline/deacon.htm#Conclusion

  12. Anonymous December 28, 2011 at 5:44 am #

    We are all to make disciples.
    Men alone are clearly to fill the roles of Elder and Deacon.
    Yes, the wife of a prospective Deacon should be interviewed before allowing him to be a deacon.

  13. Wendy December 28, 2011 at 6:00 am #

    Just saying it, Anonymous, does not make it Biblical.

  14. Allison Redd February 24, 2012 at 5:55 am #

    Thank you for this post. I'm just now reading it in February (and wish you had written it in November!) but it is still quite timely. We attend a conservative Reformed Presbyterian church (ARP) that leaves the issue of women deacons up to the local sessions. Well, our little church is now 175 years old and just this past December the session voted to allow women deacons. Our first two women deacons are wonderful ladies and true servants. After the women were installed in January, our pastor went over some of these arguments again, but I appreciated your points about the differences in qualifications for elders and deacons, and even have discussed the Greek in that passage with my husband (who is a student of Greek and aspiring scholar) and they are actually helping me come around to this position. I think by outright denying women the opportunity to be deacons that some denominations are on slippery ground, especially when many of their local congregations are trying to find loopholes to get around their denominational laws.

    I want to say, too, for others in this thread that I agree completely with Wendy that the office of elder, whether ruling elders or teaching elders, are expressly to be held by men according to Scripture. That's pretty clear. But the deacon/deaconess issue is not as clearly seen in the Word, and so I've been wrestling with it. This post has been quite helpful in restating the arguments for women deacons from a complimentarian, conservative position. Thanks again!

  15. The Blog bites better than the Bullet. April 19, 2012 at 4:55 am #

    It used to amaze me that one of my favorite teachers, John MacArthur Jr., teaches about female deacons in this way too, yet is a very definite complementarian. I had been brought up in churches where the line between deacons and elders was not Biblically very clear, and this clouded the issue for me for years.

    It makes complete sense though when we know that we are neither male nor female, slave nor free, etc. but one in Christ Jesus. It also makes sense because God has clearly gifted many women to serve in the church, and as you state, this was the practice of the early church!

    It is encouraging to be freed by the truth that God has given me gifts to use for the benefit of others, and there is much freedom in doing that in healthy churches where the Bible is lived. I have no problem submitting to a male Eldership when I am freed to use my God-given gifts.

    Finally, I think the move away from women being able to serve as deacons is linked to the descent from the time of Constantine into the Dark Ages and occured alongside the invention of the distinction between clergy and laity. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that the church is still working things out to get back to how the early church lived according to the Bible.

    I am a woman, and I don't need to be a man; it's just awesome that God loves men and women and uses them in all their uniqueness and their difference from each other. Thanks for your articles.

  16. The Blog bites better than the Bullet. April 19, 2012 at 4:58 am #

    ps- I just scanned your article for the main points before sending that, and in re-reading it I notice you mentioned about the same time-period as me for the waning of female deacons. 🙂 I've thought that from my reading of church history- good to know am on the right track. thanks again!

  17. Bee July 2, 2012 at 5:39 am #

    I would be much more comfortable staying in my complementarian church (I identify myself as a moderate egalitarian) if they allowed women to serve as deaconesses. I approached my pastor about this recently and he wrote me a kind but firm response that he clearly had written more than once before to other women with similar questions – we don't have deaconesses, period, the end, here are our proof texts.

    My problem was simple – I had been through a long and difficult ordeal in which I NEEDED a deaconess, and we didn't have one. My marriage disintegrated in a slow and painful process over the course of five years, and I had no one in church leadership of my same gender to talk to. I struggled with my own sins and with the crushing effects of my husband's sins, but since these were of a deeply personal nature, it would have been awkward at best and highly inappropriate at worse for me to explain them to a male church leader.

    When it became evident that my marriage was not going to survive, my church's sole response to me was to have one of the associate pastors call me every several months and see if I was still struggling. I still was, every time he called, and nothing more happened until the next time he remembered to do it. In the final days of the divorce, I was informed that to stay a part of my church, I had to consent to allowing this pastor to tell the elders why we were getting divorced. The problem was that I hadn't been able to really explain the problem to the pastor, since I was female and he was male, and he was one of my husband's friends to boot.

    I needed a woman, in leadership, blessed and authorized by our church, so that I could sit in her office with a closed door and box of Kleenex and tell her what had really been going on for the last 15 years. We did not have that and the senior pastor still sees no need for it. That is why I am quietly looking for a new church.

  18. Anonymous January 25, 2013 at 7:58 pm #

    Above it says “your comment will be visible after approval.” Clearly this is a biased, authoritarian website not to be respected.

  19. Wendy January 25, 2013 at 8:03 pm #

    I finally posted your comment just so you'd quit yelling at me online. Comments on all of my blog posts automatically shut down after 2 weeks because that's when most comments have come in. I am a mom of two boys and teach at a community college. I don't have time to to monitor comments on 200 old posts every day.

    I have NEVER deleted a comment that opposed my views unless it contained disparaging language about another commenter or was clearly identified as spam.

  20. Wendy January 27, 2013 at 9:23 pm #

    If you want to be involved in real time discussions, you can subscribe to the blog and be notified next time we discuss these things.

  21. julie April 21, 2013 at 6:02 pm #

    I am not sure if I am convinced by this that women deacons are Biblical, but what I love is that you:

    (1) are trying to determine what the Word says – many skip this all-important step!
    (2) emphasize the importance of unity in the body as being more important than causing strife over topics that, while important, are not 100% clear.

    More power to you 🙂

  22. Don Horrocks September 19, 2016 at 11:06 am #

    Wendy – I’m not convinced you can prove your point from this verse. The Greek simply says “women” or “wives” – there is no definite article – just as it says “deacons” – not “the deacons”. The reality is that the verse can be translated in various ways but I don’t think we can be sure that Paul had women deacons in mind in this verse. One question might arise though – if deacons must be “the husband of one wife” would it perhaps be logical if Paul had clarified “or the (one) wife of one husband”? Incidentally, I’m not convinced either that Romans 16.1 makes it clear Phoebe was an ‘official’ deacon. Paul had many trusted and faithful co-workers and helpers. Many people think she might well have been the bearer of Paul’s letter to Rome from Corinth. To suggest she might have a job which could only be performed by an ‘official’ deacon in my view goes too far based on the evidence – and it seems unlikely you had to be a deacon to be allowed to carry letters. My point is that you may be right – but I don’t think you can prove your point from these scriptures. By the way, I am a supporter of women in church leadership.

    • Lynn F. September 20, 2016 at 2:08 pm #

      In this polygamous culture, men might have been married to more than one woman at the same time, but women could not be married to more than one man at the same time. I think that’s why Paul mentions monogamy for male deacons but not for women.