We live in the outskirts of “Amish Country,” in Chester County, PA. Seven years in the area, but I still cringe when I come upon an amish lady with a leaf-blower backpack strapped to her shoulders, or a teenage amish girl, donning a traditional, ankle-length dress, weed- whacking. I'm still not accustomed to seeing them on a John Deere lawn mower either. It feels wrong. For some Christians, female deacons in a church seem just as out-of-place.
Should women be deacons in a New Testament local church? Absolutely. Here’s why.
Romans 16:1-2 is the the first mention of a female deacon.
"I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well." (Romans 16:1-2)
Phoebe is called a servant "diakonon" (διάκονον) of the church. The word means servant. Our English Bible versions often, instead of translating the word, transliterate it with the word deacon. This is the same word used for the official office of the deacon in other places. (Philippians 1:3; I Timothy 3). Phoebe was "a deacon of the church at Cenchrea." This structure, when used in the rest of New Testament refers to an official office. (Acts 20:17; Eph. 5:23; Jas. 5:14; Rev. 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14). Phoebe was an official deacon in Cenchrea from which Paul wrote the letter of Romans. Cenchrea was one of two harbors controlled by Corinth. Phoebe hand-delivered the Book of Romans to the church in Rome. The year was A.D. 57. Paul greeted 27 different people in the Letter to Romans. Imagine receiving this deacon assignment: Deliver the Letter to the Romans, the clearest and most systematic presentation of the Christian gospel in all the Bible, to the church in Rome. Impactful ministry by Deacon Phoebe.
The most significant passage in the Scriptures concerning deacons is I Timothy 3:8-13. These verses follow the spiritual qualifications enumerated for male elders. (I Timothy 3:1-7). Verse eight transitions to discuss the second category of officers (deacons) in the local church with the word, "likewise." That is followed by six spiritual qualifications for deacons. Then, in verse eleven, the word "likewise" is used again, signaling a third category. Is Paul talking about the deacons’ wives or female deacons? Most English translations, including the ESV, translate the beginning of verse eleven, "Their wives likewise..." indicating that the Apostle is now bullet-pointing special qualifications for the wives of deacons. That doesn't seem likely, however for four reasons.
The New American Standard (NASB) translates I Timothy 3:11 this way, "Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things."
First, grammatically, it is not certain. Again, the words used in most English translations are "their wives" which is from gynaíkas (γυναῖκας) which can mean both “wife” or “woman." There was no word for "wife" in the Greek language. If you look at an interlinear New Testament (which has the corresponding Greek word under the English word) you will notice there are no Greek words under "the" or "their." If the apostle Paul had wanted to say "their" he could have used the possessive pronoun to clearly communicate that.
In addition, contextually, it doesn't seem to fit. As mentioned earlier, Paul breaks up the qualifications for the offices in the local church with the word "likewise." (vv. 8,11) The use of the word "likewise" in verse 8 introduces a new qualification list. And it seems that the natural reading of "likewise" in verse 11 would be to see another qualification list-that of the female deacon. Also, the four qualifications enumerated in verse eleven are similar to the qualifications given for the male deacons in verses 8-10. All-in-all, the context doesn't seem to fit with "wives of deacons."
Thirdly, logically the meaning of "their wives" would be out of place. Why would there be qualifications for the wives of deacons with no qualifications for the wives of elders, the spiritual leaders of the church? The overseers of the local church have the significant responsibility of being examples to the flock. Are we supposed to understand that the the wives of the Diakonos (servants/deacons) are given spiritual standards when the wives of the Presbuteros (elders) are not? Doesn't make sense.
Finally, the interpretation "the wives of the deacons" has issues doctrinally. The interpretation that I Timothy 3:11 is giving qualifications for the wives of deacons, is usually attached to the position that women are disallowed from being deacons in a local church. But this seems to contradict Scriptures that give clarity regarding gender roles in the local church. The New Testament is clear about the equality of the genders in both creation and redemption.(Genesis 1:27; I Peter 3:7) This is Biblical equalitarianism. The Scriptures are similarly clear in prescribing different gender roles, similar to the roles in the economy of the Trinity, in both the home and the church. (Genesis 2:24; Ephesian 5: 18-31; I Timothy 2:9-15) This is Biblical complementarianism. The elder/overseer/pastor role in the local church is to be exclusively filled by a qualified male. Females are not Scripturally permitted to fill that role. But gender roles, as laid out in the Bible, have nothing to do with inferiority versus superiority. Albeit, our innate sinfulness, like a grocery cart that is out of alignment, biases men towards a proclivity to domineer their sisters, and for females towards a tendency to resist the leadership role that the Lord has assigned their brothers. Doctrinally, those are the Biblical lines. Those are the Scriptural roles. Within those Biblical guardrails, there should be freedom for believing females to serve in a variety of public capacities. In fact, a fair reading of the New Testament sees females praying in the church, reading the Scriptures, publicly speaking, visibly serving, testifying, and even discipling male teachers who were less than orthodox.
The New Testament is clear about the equality of the genders in both creation and redemption...This is Biblical equalitarianism. The Scriptures are similarly clear in prescribing different gender roles, similar to the roles in the economy of the Trinity, in both the home and the church...This is Biblical complementarianism.
Why are some opposed to female deacons?
To be fair, the reason some remain opposed to female deacons is because they remain unconvinced Scripturally. They have always understood I Timothy 3:11 to refer to "wives of deacons" and they can't unsee that interpretation. They also see Phoebe, in Romans 16:1-2, as something less than an official "deacon." This "traditional position" as I have shown above, is a problematic interpretation. It is somewhat similar to those who believe the elder/deacon qualification of "the husband of one wife" is referring to divorce. It's clearly not. But, many times almost all of us feel the most comfortable joining Tevye and the choir in singing "tradition...tradition...tradition!"
It’s important to remember that a defective ecclesiology (doctrine of the church) will typically lead to division, and to people in the church being hurt. It will produce an environment in which some spiritual gifts are marginalized, or worse, to a toxic, spiritually abusive environment.
Others are opposed to women deacons because they have what we could call "ecclesiastical insecurity." They fear that female deacons would be the proverbial slippery slope to fuzzy gender roles in the church. It would be tantamount to having women pastors. Perhaps that reaction is bc the deacons in their local church now, or in the past, have been essentially de facto elders. In some churches, the deacons function like a corporate board of a Fortune 500 company, keeping the CEO (senior pastor) accountable. Honestly, some churches have a governance (polity) that looks more like a page ripped-out of a representative, political government rather than being governed according to the New Testament Blueprint: elder-led, deacon-served, and congregationally-governed. It’s important to remember that a defective ecclesiology (doctrine of the church) will typically lead to division, and to people in the church being hurt. It will produce an environment in which some spiritual gifts are marginalized, or worse, to a toxic, spiritually abusive environment. Conversely, there is much freedom, grace and room for varied gifts and genders to flourish in a local church that is secure with the Biblical parameters and refuses to codify additional, man-made regulations.
"...there is much freedom, grace and room for varied gifts and genders to flourish in a local church that is secure with the Biblical parameters and refuses to codify additional, man-made regulations."
Another reason some are opposed to female deacons is because they haven't experienced the spiritual gifts of female deacon ministry. The details of a deacon‘s job description are scant in the New Testament. By the pattern of Acts 6, though, we can outline three deacon activities: 1) they minister to the physical and material needs of the church, 2) they alleviate administrative tasks from the elders so that they can focus on the ministry of the Word and prayer, and 3) they help maintain unity in the church family. In some of these activities, female deacons especially excel. Presently, three of our nine deacons are women. While they represent one third of our deacon team, I believe that, to a man, the other six male deacons as well as our elders (who are all men) would agree that our female deacons are usually the first (by a long shot!) to bring to the attention of the team physical and material needs that come up in our congregation. When there is a "people need" I typically get a text, call or email from one of our women deacons immediately. They also sense disunity, contention or sheep that are unsettled almost intuitively. Presently, our church is enjoying the blessings of a female deacon capably managing our entire campus and facility. Also, I, as an elder, have been the personal beneficiary, following a brutal church meeting or two, of the edifying and unifying verbal ministry from some of our women deacons. They "imparted to me a spiritual gift."
I am so convinced that the Scriptures make a strong case for women deacons, I refuse to use the extra-biblical title “deaconesses.”(Even though Spurgeon used it!) I believe there must have been a good reason that Paul called her “Deacon Phoebe” and not “Deaconess Phoebe.” There is beautiful equality among our female and male deacons. They are all deacons.
“It would be a great mercy if God gave us the privilege of having many sons who all preached the gospel, and many daughters who were all eminent in the church as teachers, deaconesses, missionaries, and the like.” -Spurgeon
It would be a great mercy if one day my two daughters and my two sons all serve as deacons in a New Testament Local Church.
Soli Deo gloria