August 1, 2016

Deaconesses? Six reasons.

by Clint Archer

sporkIn November 2015 Glamour Magazine named, as its “Woman of the Year”, Caitlyn Jenner. The audacity of this selection sparked a seismic social media commotion of polarized opinions about the magazine’s bold move to name as its woman of the year… a man. Yes, Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner, is a male.

His erstwhile fame was well-earned by winning the gold medal in the men’s decathlon event at the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympic Games. His newfound celebrity comes from simply declaring that he believes he is actually a woman. What makes him a woman is that a) he says he is one, b) he dresses in feminine clothing and make-up, c) he had some cosmetic surgery to give his face the appearance of femininity. And that was enough to become a covergirl for Vanity Fair and so validate and celebrate his delusion.

If a man believes he is Napoleon Bonaparte, we recommend therapy. It would be a cruel joke for anyone to suggest putting him on the cover of Leadership Magazine as dictator of the year.

As followers of our compassionate Savior, Christians need to demonstrate a sincere compassion for people who are so confused about who God made them to be that they resort to cross-dressing. But that sympathy does not mean we should ignore what the word of God says about gender roles in the family, in society, and in the church.

I don’t know of a biblical topic on which there is no debate, but women’s roles are one of the most controversial. And of all gender-related matters, the question of women deacons is the one on which there is the most disparity of application in churches that otherwise agree on gender issues. Gender wars have no place in the church, because God has left us with clear instructions on the topic. But this is one issue that still causes great confusion.

There is only one text that explicitly mentions the qualification of deacons, (1 Timothy 3:8 – 13), without any reference to their function (besides the word “deacon” meaning servant), and in the middle of that passage there is a set of qualifications for “women.”

The question is “which women?” The reference could be to female deacons, a group of women who assist deacons, or deacons’ wives (which many English translation committees apparently favor).

Bear in mind that the word “deacon” is not native to English at all, and is a transliteration from the Greek diákonos which means “servant, minister, waiter.”

The other consideration is whether or not the recognition of a position of deacon in a church is one that necessarily implies a level of authority, which would make appointing a lady to that role a violation of 1 Timothy 2:12.

Without being dogmatic about my interpretation, I still feel quite convinced that women may biblically be referred to as deacons. And here are my six reasons, in no particular order…

  1. Pheobe is called a deacon by Paul

Romans 16:1 “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant [diákonos] of the church at Cenchreae…”

Paul had an array of suitable terms for servant in his Greek thesaurus that he could have employed to describe Phoebe as an unofficial serving saint. But he appears to go out of his way to choose the only term that could also refer to the qualified, appointed office of deacon.

I can think of at least five other words Paul could have used to describe Phoebe as a servant who was not a deacon:

  • sundoulos – fellow bondservant
  • doúlos – servant or slave;
  • therápōn – attendant;
  • hupērétēs – a servant;
  • leitourgós – a public servant, usually one serving at the temple or one who performs religious public duties.

Without falling into the trap of intentional fallacy one has to ask, “Why would Paul pick the only tool in his shed that could cause confusion with the office? Is he really going out of his way to be ambiguous?” I doubt it. So, either Paul knew no one would think Phoebe was in the office because it was reserved for men (as opponents to my view would say), or he did mean to refer to her as a deacon, and knew that his readers would recognize her as such. If I’m right, deacon is the only word he could choose; if I’m wrong he had several other options which he eschewed.

 

  1. Phoebe is called a deacon of the church of Cenchreae

This argument comes from Paul’s use of the possessive genitive construction: Paul calls Phoebe a deacon “of the church of Cenchreae.” She isn’t just a servant at the church, but a servant belonging to that church. Again, it seems like Paul chooses language that seems to be singling her out as occupying a more special place than just any other serving member.yoda gender wars

A. T. Robertson, a highly respected Baptist Greek scholar—the Yoda of Baptist seminoids—believes Paul uses language that is clearly “in favor of the technical sense of ‘deacon’ or ‘deaconess.’” A convincing argument to me that is.

 

  1. The term diákonos itself has no connotation of authority or teaching

In every Greek resource I checked the word always means “serving, helping, assisting, waiting on, ministering to” and never ruling, managing, organizing, overseeing, teaching. So there is no reason a woman could not occupy that role in the church as she would not be teaching or exercising authority over men.

 

  1. The presence of deaconesses in the first 1000 years of church history

There were churches that did have deaconesses and churches that did not, just as today. But this fact is an important part of replying to the false accusation that churches today who have deaconesses are simply caving in to our cultural pressure or feminist efforts at introducing egalitarianism to the church. There were deaconesses long before Rosie the Riveter.

Alongside the deacons there were also deaconesses. Their history begins with Rom 16:1 where Paul describes Phoebe as [a deacon] It is, of course, an open question whether he is referring to a fixed office or simply to her services on behalf of the community. … It is indisputable, however, that an order of deaconesses did quickly arise in the Church. … there was an independent office of deaconesses, this fell into decay in the early Middle Ages.” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament).

 

  1. The lack of the possessive pronoun “their” in 1 Tim 3:11

In the flow of giving qualifications for deacons, Paul suddenly introduces a new group of people who need to be qualified. And he calls them, very simply: “women.” Not their wives, just women.

In Greek, like in French, Dutch, Afrikaans, and many other languages, the word for “woman” and “wife” are identical, and the meaning can only be determined by context. So if Paul said “their women” he would indisputably be talking about deacons’ wives. But he leaves off the word “their” which in similar usage just means “women” not “their women/wives.”

 

  1. The absence of qualifications for elders’ wives

If Paul meant to provide qualifications for deacons’ wives, then why not elders’ wives? In the passage in Titus 1:6-9 elders’ qualifications are reiterated, with no mention of their wives needing to be qualified. It seems odd that the wife of an overseer escapes the need for official qualifications, but not the wife of a servant in the church.

 

There are other reasons for or against this view, which you should feel free to share in the comments in a polite manner, but these are the six that I found most convincing.

Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • LT

    I think the weakness of #1 is that the word diakonos (and its forms) are used in a variety of places with no apparent technical connotation. In fact, a quick survey seems to indicate that the majority of uses of the word are not of the office, but in a more general sense of serving.

    • This is a good point. That’s why one can’t be dogmatic either way; but I think that the addition of #2, the genitive of possession singles out this usage as possibly referring to the office of deacon of the church at Cenchrea.

    • Orlando R. Guerrero

      I agree with LTD, to make diakonos work you have to do word gymmastics to make it fit for woman office. Paul said in the book of Acts choose men. No where does he say choose women. Only Phoebe is memtioned but I think as a servant much like the Marys who ministered to Jesus. Obviously Deacons wives could be expected to work alongside side their husbands in visiting the women and needed to be just as sober minded and have discretion. As a deacon taking care the needs of a young widow ,I would take my wife with me.

      • LT

        To clarify, my point isn’t against women deacons/deaconesses. I could go either way on that. My point is that the use of diakonos in Rom16:1 doesn’t support that point. The other points are good ones worthy of consideration.

  • Fibber MaGee

    Let’s agree that the word “their” is not there, but the word likewise is. And would you agree that the context of Romans 16 is different than 1 Timothy 3? The problems I have witnessed are that women with the title of deacon eventually step over the line into a spiritually authoritative role. Perhaps we could find another title?

    • To me “likewise” adds the group of women into the category of office-bearers: overseers must be…likewise deacons…likewise women…
      If a church sees deacons as a role of authority over men, then yes it should be reserved for men. But just because some churches do it that way, does not mean the Greek word, nor Paul’s usage allows for it. Rather than alter the biblical terminology, why not alter the erroneous application of the term?

      • Fibber MaGee

        Good point. Now what do I do with verse 12?

        • It makes sense if the flow is as follows: All deacons…women…male deacons… Kinda like: “Nurses need to look presentable and be punctual, women need to have their hair up and skirts pressed, men need to have their shoes shined and hair cropped, all nurses will get equal pay on payday. Now substitute nurse with deacon and requirements for qualifications. Viola.

          • robertetozier

            What if “Viola” doesn’t want to be a deacon? She likes her hair down.

          • On the Twelfth Night you can wear your hair As you like it.

  • bill80205

    This whole discussion points out what I believe is a falacy in most baptist, at least SBC, churches that refuse, yes they know better, to have elders and only have deacons. They give deacons a role that is sort of a blend of the biblical roles of elder and deacon saying the pastor(s) are the elders. As Pastor Archer points out, “The term diákonos itself has no connotation of authority or teaching”. Although I have asked both senior pastors of large and small SBC churches and seminary professors, I have never gotten a biblical answer. It always comes down to those seven words, “We’ve always (never) done it that way before.” It might be worthwile for these pastors and deacons to read “Biblical Eldership” by Alexander Strauch and have a serious discussion about how their churches are operating.

    • This opens a whole other can of worms, kettle of fish, and den of lions. I think I’ll stick to offending one group at a time!

      • Jason

        True, but this really is the issue at hand. “Should a woman be a deacon?” first requires that we answer “What is a deacon?”

        Unfortunately, once you go the way of office, there are hundreds of implementations and some of the roles that the office of deacon may require are roles that not every member of the congregation should be encouraged to fill and for which not all of those who actually fill the office are even gifted.

        I think a lot of the struggles congregations face with lack of service comes from the rigidness of offices, especially when it comes to deacons. Many want to leave the needs of the body to those “officially” designated, and those “officially” designated are often forced into trying to do things for which they are not properly equipped or at the very least need more help than they have. Most people don’t really see themselves as share holders at all.

        Throughout my early life, I never found it difficult to put together events with my group of friends. It was always “flying by the seat of our pants” and yet we almost always managed to accomplish what we set out to do and we enjoyed doing things together. Different friends were better contacts for different needs, and we all learned that about each other.

        Imagine what the body of believers could accomplish if we managed to cultivate those types of relationships instead of turning fellowship into an assembly line processes with work instructions with Biblical instruction often left to other institutions. Empowered by the Spirit, the results would certainly amaze us, to speak nothing of the witness it would be to the world.

      • bill80205

        Good thinking! 😋

  • wiseopinion

    Oh goodness..another dissertation of how to make women “feel” equal and appreciated. What is wrong with us that we need a “word” a “title” a semantic notation of some sort that we are valued and important in the body of believers? As a ministry leader of several different ministries over the years, I have never felt less than the men who meet with other men once or twice a month to discuss the “business” of the church. When ever I read something like this, I think of Matthew 20:17-29. Jesus once again, for the third time predicts His death…He is telling them He is going to tried, tortured, killed BUT will be raised to life…and what happens? A mother comes and ask that her sons be placed in the seat(s) of honor next to Christ. Jesus asked a question…can they take up the cup He will be taking up Himself? They say…well…yes we can !. Jesus tells them they do not know what they are asking for or saying. Then everyone else is totally annoyed about the request of the mother. Jesus has just told them HE IS GOING TO BE TRIED, TORTURED, AND KILLED..and their response is who is going to be the greatest next to Christ and everyone becomes annoyed…not because Christ is going to die a horrible death, but because their self esteem and status was pricked. We lose sight of the fact that we are ALL mere servants of the Most High. There has to be distinctions for the division of works and ministries, but they cannot turn into distractions that cause the focus to be taken off Christ and on to ourselves. This has caused more than one body of Christ to act unbecomingly and bring shame to what we profess to believe to those who are watching. Satan loves this kind of debate…I am a ministry leader, willing to help and serve whenever possible in whatever capacity I am able…I don’t need a title to make it so.

    • I’m not sure what debate Satan loves, but if I found one I knew he enjoyed, I’d refrain from joining it. The question to me isn’t how people feel about being recognized for their service or not, simply the consistent application of biblical terminology. If God didn’t want a different term for an overseer or servant, he wouldn’t have provided those terms in his word.

  • Craig Giddens

    There’s no getting around Paul’s instructions for deacons are to men.

    1 Timothy 3
    8. Likewise must the deacons be grave, not doubletongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre;
    9. Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience.
    10. And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless.
    11. Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things.
    12. Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses
    well.
    Craig GIddens

    • Ah, but the if you read my article you’d see that an issue in question is that although the English versions often translate it “their wives” Paul did not write their wives, he wrote..Likewise women. If he said “their wives” we would have no discussion about this at all. But he didn’t. Hence the topic of today’s post. Thanks Paul.

      • Jason

        I looked up the concordance just to see what you mean. I wonder why the word is said to mean both 1. A women of any age, virgin, married, or widowed. and also 2. Wife

        The first definition seems to include the second… so the only thing I can think is that someone added the secondary definition to explain how we prefer to translate it.

        For instance, our modern, sensitive to feminist PC, ears don’t like the sound of “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his woman, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’” (Matthew 5:31). Though the context shows that the woman in question is the man’s wife, the word by itself is more generic. Yet to our modern ears it sounds almost harsh to call a man’s wife “his woman”.

        • It’s just the way many languages work. In Afrikaans the word “Vrou” (rhymes with flow) means woman or if it is with a possessive genetive it means wife “sy Vrou” i.e. His wife. Incidentally the same is true of man meaning man or husband depending on the possessive genetive.

          • Jason

            Is it really anything more than context for these languages? I mean, if I say “a car” I could be talking about any car at any time, but when I say “that red car” I’m talking about a specific, red car. That doesn’t mean the definition of car needs to have “2. A specific red car.” in the dictionary.

            Certainly “sy Vrou” identifies a wife more specifically than “Vrou” (in this particular case, her relationship to a particular man). Does it really mean that people see the word Vrou as a different meaning, or just that they see the word sy as more explicitly defining the context of the word?

      • Craig Giddens

        Ah, but now you’re delving into another topic. Which English version are you going to go with or if you’re going to go to “the Greek” which Greek text? A doctrine or teaching is weak if you’re running to different versions or the Greek to back it up.

        • A doctrine or teaching is weak if you’re running to different versions or the Greek to back it up.

          So, the people to whom the letter was originally written — i.e., those who actually spoke Greek — couldn’t have any doctrine?

          I smell KJV-onlyism.

          • Craig Giddens

            “I smell KJV-onlyism.”

            I choose the KJV. If someone else wants to use another version then fine, but at least stick with that version to support your belief on a particular subject. BTW why not say something like “I sense someone uses the KJV” instead of “I smell”? The point I brought up is legitimate. Is the Greek going to be your final authority?

          • Yes the Greek is going to be my final authority. Because Paul wrote it in Greek. There is no chance Paul got it wrong while the English translators got it right. Right?

          • And Paul was limited in what he could write 😉

        • Dan Phillips

          A brain or intellect is weak if it doesn’t grasp that a close study of Greek and Hebrew are necessary to determine the content and truth of doctrines and the precise meaning of the texts that teach them.

          • Craig Giddens

            A soul is weak in faith if it doesn’t believe God can preserve His words into a modern language. Can the Greek and Hebrew be accurately translated into English? Wouldn’t that make more sense than constantly “running back to the Greek”? Wouldn’t it be better to have the Hebrew and Greek words translated into modern languages for all to have access to a final authority?

          • Fibber MaGee

            Craig, I think you might benefit from an in-depth study of the Bible itself. I did this a few years ago and it is fascinating. So worth the time. Then you can argue with these guys over manuscript superiority:)

          • This is where growing up in a fully bilingual country helps. There are multiple ways to skin cats and translate words. And two can be different and yet both can be right. It sounds odd to a monoglot, but just ask… Most of earth’s population.

          • Dan Phillips

            A soul is bizarre and God-shaming in faith if it wastes much energy pursuing what God might have done rather than what all know He has done — breathed His words, inerrantly and bindingly, in Hebrew, Greek and a smattering of Aramaic.

          • Fibber MaGee

            Or at least listen to those who do and did.

        • Well I’m not citing an obscure Greek grammatical rule; the word is “women” not “their wives”. There is no Greek manuscript that questions that. The problem is with the KJV translation and its influence on the English translations. Other languages got it right; we didn’t.

    • Gabe Powell

      It seems odd to me that a deacon–someone who serves in practical functions–must have wives that meet certain qualifications, but that elders who serve as the spiritual leaders and teachers of the church do not have such qualifications. It would seem that the higher, more authoritative and influential role (elders) should have more strict qualifications than the more service-oriented roles. Just a thought.

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