Deacons are vital servants in the life of any biblical, gospel-centered, missional church. They aren’t grunt workers; they are mobilizers and servants in the advancement of the gospel ministry, like we see in the prototype of Acts 6.
And at Redeemer Church, we see a valid interpretation for the diaconate ministry to be open to women who meet the qualifications given by Paul in 1 Timothy 3:8–11.
8 “Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. 9 They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. 11 Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. 12 Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. 13 For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.”
(1 Timothy 3:8–13 ESV)
A SURVEY OF THE QUALIFICATIONS
Let’s begin with the qualifications that Paul lists in verses 8–10, as he addresses the men.
Dignified – They are worthy of respect. People respect them, and would respect them as a leader. They are worthy of being imitated.
Not Double-tongued – This means they are not a gossip or slanderer. More pointedly, they don’t talk like Satan—they don’t have a snake-like tongue. They aren’t two-faced and insincere.
Not addicted to much wine – Paul is basically saying, “They have control with alcohol.” Greek literally, “They pay attention to their wine.” Not drunkards.
Not greedy for dishonest gain – They aren’t always looking for a quick buck, not looking for cash no matter the cost. And they aren’t involved in get-rich quick silliness. This is especially important for deacons who serve with the church’s finances and benevolence ministry.
Hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience – They hold to the pure gospel. They aren’t required to be able to teach, like the elders (v.2), but they must clearly hold to the gospel, and walk in accordance with that gospel of grace. They are still doctrinal people.
Tested – Observed, assessed, and trained by the elders—and then approved for installation. This means that there’s an actual process to becoming a deacon.
Now, let’s get to the reason you are reading this article. Is Paul talking about the wives of deacons or women deacons when the text says, “their wives,” in 1 Tim. 3:11?
A quick reading of 1 Timothy 3, comparing the elder and deacon qualifications two things jump out.
Deacons don’t have to be able to teach.
It looks like Paul is giving qualifications for deacon’s wives and not elder’s wives. That’s odd.
Now, the phrase, “their wives” is not the most helpful rendering of the Greek. If you have an ESV Bible, footnote number four shows that this phrase could, and I think, should be rendered, “Women likewise”. The CSB has it as, “Wives,” with a footnote saying, “The women.” The Greek word translated “wives” in the text, is simply “women”. Additionally, the word “their” is not even there.
The Greek literally reads, “Women, likewise,” or, “The women”. The translators made an interpretive decision with, “Their wives likewise,” and like a faithful translation should, they provided the alternative translation possibilities.
So if Paul isn’t addressing the wives of deacons, Paul is giving qualifications for women deacons—and that makes a lot more sense. Why would deacon’s wives need qualifications and not elder’s wives, when elders are the overseers of the church?
Look at the qualification structure of 1 Tim. 3 The repeated likewise is important to the flow of the text. Paul is establishing two groups, male and female deacons, who will serve the church in similar ways, with similar character.
The qualifications parallel each other. He is applying the qualifications, not to deacon’s wives, but to female deacons.
You could look at Paul’s section on deacons and summarize the teaching as:
Male deacons addressed (1 Tim. 3:8–10)
Female deacons addressed (1 Tim 3:11)
Male deacons addressed (1 Tim. 3:12)
Male and Female deacons addressed (1 Tim. 3:13)
What about when Paul says that deacons must be the husband of one wife? A few things are at play here. First, the Greek word for deacon can be masculine or feminine. Paul uses the plain word for women to address the women, and the normal word for deacon to address the male deacons—so it wouldn’t be confusing. Additionally, it is seen through church history that women deacons tended to be older widows. But these principles for women deacons should still be considered, but not mandated since it isn’t in God’s Word. But we ought to apply the principle. Women deacons, they must be faithful to their husbands—they must be one-husband kind of ladies, who manage their tasks in the household well. The Proverbs 31 Woman’s character and actions don’t fly out the window in the diaconate. They matter. They are for the purpose of godliness and for glorious service in the life of the local church.
We think that Paul is teaching about women deacons, and that the Bible has the office of deacon open for women. I want to show you other places in the Bible where it seems to be the case, and throughout Church History.
PHOEBE: DEACON OR SERVANT?
Paul writes at the end of Romans:
“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 ESV)
Phoebe is called a servant, the same Greek word used for deacon in 1 Tim. 3 and Philippians 1:1.
The ESV text has a footnote on the word “servant”—it could say deaconess, or really deacon, since the Greek word can be masculine or feminine. But it would make sense to say deaconess since the context reveals Paul is writing about Phoebe, a woman. But that alone doesn’t mean she is a deacon.
Paul could just be calling her a servant, but the context does seem to say that she is a deaconess. Why? Because Paul mentions a specific church, “of the church at Cenchreae.” That structure, when used in the rest of New Testament is noting a specific person in an official office.
Dr. Svigel, at Dallas Theological Seminary, says:
First, Paul describes Phoebe as a ‘diakonos of the church at Cenchreae,’ specifying her function as diakonos to that specific church. This may seem insignificant until we realize that whenever the Greek phrase “________ of the church” is used in the New Testament and the earliest Christian literature (where “________” is a personal designation or title), the personal designation refers to an office, not just a generic function (Acts 20:17; Eph. 5:23; Jas. 5:14; Rev. 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14; Ignatius, Trallians 2.3; Philadelphians 5.1; Polycarp 1.1; Shepherd of Hermas, Vision 2.2.6; 2.4.3; 3.9.7; Martyrdom of Polycarp 16.2; 19.2). Therefore, if Phoebe is merely a “helpful assistant” of the church at Cenchreae in Romans 16:1, this is the only time the construction is used this way in the earliest Christian literature.”
Phoebe is great deacon, an official servant from the Church at Cenchreae.
Now, this is all of the Biblical evidence for women deacons. I don’t think the exegetical waters are muddy. I think it is more than safe to say there is room for women to be deacons. However, this is all of the New Testament’s cards on this matter.
So, what is the best way to resolve this matter?
A few things must be said. I don’t think this is an issue of division or argument. This isn’t an essential doctrine. Having women deacons, or not, doesn’t compromise the integrity of local church like having women pastors/elders does. “According to Paul, women can serve as deacons because a diaconal ministry is supportive and does not involve teaching or exercising authority over men. The office of elder or overseer is restricted to men, for qualifications for pastoral ministry include being able to teach and to lead (1 Tim. 3:2; 5:17; Titus 1:9)—the very two activities prohibited for women, according to 1 Tim. 2:12.”  Now, of course women aren’t prohibited to teach (Titus 2:3–5). What Paul means in 1 Tim. 2:12, which Schreiner references, is that women are not to be the teaching authority (preaching to the church), or the leadership authority (governing/overseeing) in the local church, which is reserved for the pastors.
The teaching of the New Testament is limited on deacons and one could take it either way. Great scholars and pastors land on both sides of this discussion. Dr. Russell Moore, one of my heroes, doesn’t think women should be deacons. While, Dr. Tom Schreiner of Southern Seminary thinks they can.
It is also quite likely that women served as deacons in the early church. The NRSV reflects this view in identifying Phoebe as “a deacon of the church at Cenchreae” (Rom. 16:1 NRSV). The reference to a particular church after the term “deacon” suggests that an office is in view… Whether women are identified as deacons in 1 Tim. 3:11 is disputed, but there are a number of reasons to answer in the affirmative.
First, the word “likewise” suggests that Paul continues to speak of deacons.
Second, the qualifications listed are remarkably similar to what is required for male deacons (1 Tim. 3:8).
Third, a reference to wives is improbable, for then Paul would be addressing the wives of deacons and saying nothing about the wives of elders, which is quite unlikely because elders had greater responsibility than deacons.
Fourth, it is evident from an early period in church history that there were female deacons.
There is much room for charitable disagreement and co-laboring for the Kingdom on this matter.
So what helped Redeemer Church arrive at our conclusion?
When we are uncertain what the Bible teaches, not because of the Bible, but because of us—we should consider Church History. Historical Theology shows us what Body of Christ before us has done. This practice may not always lead us in the right direction, but it may help us see more clearly. We should always hold exegesis and texts in our hands, and Church History as a voice in the background.
For me, the historical evidence here is overwhelming.
In A.D. 111 Pliny, Governor of Bithynia, reported questioning, under torture, two women who called themselves deaconesses concerning Christian rites. He arrested them as Christians, they said they were deaconesses, and he tortured them. So right at the end of the Apostolic Period, there are deaconesses in the church. These are churches that were planted by the Apostles and those were disciples by the Apostles.
We find evidence of deaconess in the second, third, and fourth centuries.
Here is a quote from the third century from the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, a guidebook written for church plants, based on the teaching of the apostles.
“Let the deacons be in all things unspotted, as the bishop himself is to be, only more active; in number according to the largeness of the Church, that they may minister to the infirm as workmen that are not ashamed. And let the deaconess be diligent in taking care of the women; but both of them ready to carry messages, to travel about, to minister, and to serve…Let every one therefore know his proper place, and discharge it diligently with one consent, with one mind, as knowing the reward of their ministration.”
“Ordain also a deaconess who is faithful and holy, for the ministrations towards women. For sometimes he cannot send a deacon, who is a man, to the women, on account of unbelievers. Thou shalt therefore send a woman, a deaconess, on account of the imaginations of the bad. For we stand in need of a woman, a deaconess, for many necessities; and first in the baptism of women…”
Here we have those who were discipled by the Apostles, installing women deacons in local church. They even wrote a prayer for the installation of women deacons:
O Eternal God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Creator of man and of woman, who didst replenish with the Spirit Miriam, and Deborah, and Anna, and Huldah; who didst not disdain that Thy only begotten Son should be born of a woman; who also in the tabernacle of the testimony, and in the temple, didst ordain women to be keepers of Thy holy gates,—do Thou now also look down upon this Thy servant, who is to be ordained to the office of a deaconess, and grant her Thy Holy Spirit, and “cleanse her from all filthiness of flesh and spirit,” that she may worthily discharge the work which is committed to her to Thy glory, and the praise of Thy Christ, with whom glory and adoration be to Thee and the Holy Spirit for ever. Amen.”
Greg Allison, professor of Historical Theology at Southern Seminary, in his book, Historical Theology, writes about a generous deaconesses at the church in Constantinople. “Olympias, a widowed deaconess of the church in Constantinople, leveraged her immense wealth to become a generous patron of the church. She donated many of her estates to the church, supported the ministries of such church leaders as John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nazianzus, ransomed exiled captives, sustained a community of 250 virgins, and cared for the poor.” And a woman named Salvina, Jerome tells us, served as a deaconess under Chrysostom’s ministry. “Salvina, however, consecrated her life to deeds of piety, and became one of Chrysostom’s deaconesses.”
When Chrysostom preached on 1 Timothy 3, he echoes the same exegetical approach of Dr. Schreiner. Paul isn’t talking about women in general, he’s talk about church leaders. “Some have thought that this is said of women generally, but it is not so, for why should he introduce anything about women to interfere with his subject? He is speaking of those who hold the rank of Deaconesses.”
When I see all of this evidence, I can’t help but echo Spurgeon, who said, “Deaconesses, an office that most certainly was recognised in the apostolic churches.” Spurgeon never gave a defense, as far as I can tell, for women deacons; he merely stated it as if it were a known fact. “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.”
He too saw women deacons in God’s Word.
“For deaconesses were appointed, not to soothe God by chantings or unintelligible murmurs, and spend the rest of their time in idleness; but to perform a public ministry of the Church toward the poor, and to labour with all zeal, assiduity, and diligence, in offices of charity.”
Modern Day – John Piper, Mark Dever, Tim Keller, John MacArthur
When Piper was leading Bethlehem through clarifying church structures and changes he purposed a restructuring of the deacons, including women deacons.
The revision aims to unite men and women in one body of deacons. We believe that God calls men to bear the primary leadership and teaching office in the church (elders) but that he calls both men and women to a broad array of ministries including the body of deacons elected by the congregation. In the present structure the main governing board is a Council of Deacons distinguished from a Committee of Deaconesses. The revision would replace the Council of Deacons with a Council of Elders, made up of men, and would create one body of deacons including both men and women. The deaconess committee would no longer exist.
Jonathan Leeman affirms female deacons over at 9 Marks, the ministry of Mark Dever. Redeemer Presbyterian’s website shows that Tim Keller holds to female deacons too.
And, to my surprise, John MacArthur also sees the exegetical and historical reasons for women deacons.
The office of deaconess is clearly implied. The “likewise” in verse 11 ties the qualifications of these women to those already given for the offices of overseer and deacon. In verse 11, Paul did not refer to those women as deaconesses because diakonos has no feminine form.
During the first few centuries of the church, the role of a woman servant (diakonos) was to care for fellow believers who were sick, for the poor, for strangers passing through, and for the imprisoned. They also were responsible for helping baptize and disciple new women converts and to instruct children and other women.
HICCUPS AND HURDLES
Given the exegetical evidence and the historical evidence, I think it is absolutely honoring to Christ to have women serve as deacons. If you still feel uncomfortable with this notion, it can’t be because of the Bible or because of Church history—it’s probably your history.
If you grew up in a church where the deacons ran the church, they had the governing authority and not elders, and if this church were installing women deacons, it would jolt your system because it would basically mean, in your frame of reference, they were installing women pastors, women overseers. And that contradicts the New Testament.
Bad ecclesiology brings bad fruit. And sometimes we don’t realize we are still lugging around some of that spoiled fruit in our mental baskets, making us basket cases in corners of our theology. I could say more on this matter of church structure, but we can save that for another day.
In closing, we are never to bring creative license to the church of Jesus. He died for her. He let his flesh be ripped open on the cross, and he rose from the dead to forgive all of our sins and to give us new life, and to call the Church to himself. We don’t treat the church lightly. We don’t bring a new spin to Christ’s Bride and Body; we follow Christ’s word for Christ’s Bride.
In a culture that treats women in sinful ways, it is in the Church of Jesus Christ where they can be powerful servants for the cause of Christ. Maybe we should join our brothers from the Early Church and pray great things over and for our women deacons.
Deacons exist for the fame of Jesus; unclogging what would hinder the proclamation of the gospel of the Kingdom (Acts 6). Toilets, sure, and so much more than toilets. Yes! So much more!
Praise the Lord for deacons, male and female.
Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 774.
V. M. Sinton, “Deaconess,” ed. D. R. W. Wood et al., New Bible Dictionary(Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 262.
Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, eds., “Constitutions of the Holy Apostles,” in Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: Lactantius, Venantius, Asterius, Victorinus, Dionysius, Apostolic Teaching and Constitutions, Homily, and Liturgies, trans. James Donaldson, vol. 7, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 432.
Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 25–26.
Jerome, “The Letters of St. Jerome,” in St. Jerome: Letters and Select Works, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. W. H. Fremantle, G. Lewis, and W. G. Martley, vol. 6, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1893), 163.
John Chrysostom, “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the First Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to Timothy,” in Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. James Tweed and Philip Schaff, vol. 13, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889), 441.
C. H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 13 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1867), 589.