Yesterday I looked at how the New Testament describes the office of a deacon. Today I want to argue this point: the Bible describes women as holding this office, and the church should follow the New Testament’s example in similarly recognizing women who are exceptional servants by identifying them as deacons.
The qualifications for deacons are listed in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. The key verse for this discussion is right in the middle: verse 11 says, “Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things.”
There are four different views on this verse, and I want to explain why I don’t find the first three interpretations convincing before defending what I think is the biblical view.
View 1: Wives of deacons
Among American churches that don’t recognize female deacons, this is probably the most widely held view. According to this understanding, Paul is describing the qualifications for a male-only deacon office, and one of those qualifications is the standing of the deacon’s wife. If she does not meet the qualifications of verse 11, then the husband should not be recognized as a deacon.
This view has the backing of the many English translations (KJV, NIV, ESV, Holman) which render the Greek word for woman as wife, and also inserts the word “their,” which is absent from the Greek (“Their wives…”). What this view has going for it is that it removes any controversy about women in positions of leadership by simply removing women from being recognized as deacons altogether.
I don’t find this view at all convincing. First, it would be very odd for Paul to give qualifications for deacons’ wives without similar qualifications for elder’s wives (1 Tim 3:1-7). Further, while it is true that the Greek word gune can be mean either wife or woman depending on the context, in this instance the context does not make a compelling case for to limit its meaning to married women. Paul does not say “their wives/women” but simply “women.” The ESV seems aware of this dilemma, but it mutes it by adding “their” to the passage. I’m not convinced that addition is grammatically defensible.
Moreover, had Paul meant something along the lines of “their wives,” Greek grammar would demand the use of an article before wives to identify that he is speaking to people who by identity are deacons’ wives. The absence of the article here is huge, and indicates that he is referring to people who are by quality female, rather than those who are by identity wives.
Finally, Paul follows the use of women with the word “likewise.” This ties the group of people Paul is talking about to the group that has gone before—namely, deacons—not to a new class of people such as wives.
View 2: All women in the church
For those who can read Greek, this view is much more defensible grammatically than View 1. It rightly sees Paul as describing those who are by nature women in the church, and thus it holds that all women should be aspiring to be dignified, with their speech under control. Which is true!
But the problem is that it doesn’t fit very well in the context. For six verses Paul is describing the qualifications for the office of a deacon, so to break off in the middle of that to describe a gender-based qualification seems strange. Moreover, he dealt with a description of godly women in Chapter 2, so this view also makes this passage not only misplaced, but also redundant.
View 3: Deaconesses
Outside of the Americas, this may very well be the majority interpretation of this passage. This view sees Paul as describing three separate offices in 1 Timothy 3: elders (all male), deacons (all male), and deaconesses (all female).
This view also is very defensible grammatically. But it just doesn’t fit with what you see in the rest of the New Testament. While there are at least a dozen references to New Testament deacons, there are no references (outside of this verse) of this third office. There are no descriptions of what they should do. No other references to their existence at all. I generally don’t buy the argument that something has to be in the Bible more than once for it to be true, but it seems untenable that Paul would introduce a church office he expected to see in the church in only one verse, and that there would be no other canonical references to this group.
View 4: deacons (some of whom are men, and some of whom are women)
This is what I believe is Paul’s intent in this passage. He describes the office of deacon in verses 8-13. Verses 8-10 describe all deacons, verse 11 describes in particular deacons who are women, and verse 12 describes in particular deacons who are men. Verse 13 concludes the section by returning to a discussion of all deacons.
This view best fits the grammar of the passage, and best explains the way Paul lays out these qualifications. The first set of qualifications (8-10) lay out that deacons must be godly, and somewhat seasoned believers. They have experience, and their doctrine is in order. Verse 11 then contains a group of qualifications that are more gender-specific. Every culture has their own idioms that get this point across; in English you might say “don’t be a grumpy old man.” That doesn’t mean that it is ok to be a grumpy old woman—it simply indicates that in English, “grumpy old man” is idiomatic, it is most commonly associated with men, and don’t be one.
This is what Paul is doing in this passage. He is not saying its ok for male deacons to gossip, but he’s simply saying that in Greek, “gossipy old woman” is a saying, and it is one that should not be descriptive of any of the church’s deacons. After that somewhat gender-specific qualification, he turns to the male deacons: they must manage their households well. That doesn’t mean its ok for the female deacons to be poor parents or have terrible marriages. It simply means that those qualifications more particularly apply for men (as the heads of the household), and so he addresses them in particular. Then in verse 13, he wraps it all up by addressing all deacons.
Before I deal with some objections to this, let me say that this is an area of wisdom. I understand that different churches interpret this passage differently, and I don’t see this as a key doctrine of the faith. It is certainly not worth dividing over. But with that said, I think this understanding accurately reflects what Paul is implementing in 1 Timothy 3.
Objection 1: Isn’t this a slippery slope that leads to female elders?
Elders are all about leadership, teaching, and shepherding. Paul makes clear in 1 Timothy 2:9-15 that elders are to be men and that women may not hold that office. While it seems logical that future elders are drawn from the deacons, that doesn’t mean that every deacon must be qualified to be a future elder. It is the height of American-style bureaucracy to say that “we choose elders from deacons, so all deacons must be elder qualified.” That just simply is not how Paul instructs the church.
Objection 2: Doesn’t this make women leading in the church?
No. If deacons are rightly understood, they do not exercise leadership in the church, but rather are simply known for their exceptional service. This is true for both men and women. In fact, Paul says that there are “a variety of ways to serve” (1 Cor 12:5; cf Rom 12:6). Examples given which use the Greek word diakania (deacon) include giving to the poor (1 Cor 8: 3-4, 9:1, 111-12), as well as evangelism and discipleship (1 Cor 3:5, 2 Cor 6:4, Eph 3:7, Col 1:23). There is no reason to say that those ministries are inherently leadership in the church that should be reserved for men.
Objection 3: We haven’t done that before!
Your church may not have done it before, but this is the model of the NT. In fact, given the history of the Philippian church (and Philippians 1:1) it is likely there were female deacons there. But conjecture aside, the NT does describe at least one female deacon by name:
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon at the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me” (Rom 16:1-2).
A final appeal:
I do appeal to pastors to follow Paul’s lead and to recognize the faithful servants in your church, and particularly the women who serve the church exceptionally well. Our world is so gender-confused that it can’t understand how the church can see any differences between men and women. It does our testimony no good to refuse to recognize faithful servants who we allow to serve, but refuse to recognize, because they are women. Rather, we should embrace gender differences, guard leadership for men, and esteem the faithful service of all who meet the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3:8-13.