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.