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More on Female Deacons

By May 22, 20108 Comments

About a year ago I wrote a blog entitled “Should Women Be Deacons?” in which I highlighted Tim Keller’s endorsement of women holding the office of deacon. This week I ran across a second endorsement by Wendy Alsup that I wanted to repost here.

In particular, I appreciate Wendy’s warning against saying “no” to that which God has said “yes.” We often find ourselves fearing the opposite–saying “yes” to that which God has said “no”–but they are opposite yet equal errors. The goal of the church is to conform to God’s will in all things, which is why I am continuing to encourage conversation on this topic.

Wendy’s argument is as follows:

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.

Wendy’s final point cannot be understated. This is not an issue worth dividing over. But if we care about Scripture, God’s will, and ecclesial integrity, then we should care about this issue and discuss it further, in love, humility and grace. I hope you will.


  • Rich Hodde says:

    It seems to me that if God specifically told us not to do something, and we then did this thing, there would be negative consequences. Can it be documented that the churches that have women deacons have suffered specifically because of having female deacons? And for that matter, can it be shown that there has been an obvious negative result at churches that have ordained female elders or pastors?

  • David says:

    Another thing to consider in this discussion is the use of the term “deacon” and “elder.” I read this article quickly so I hope I didn’t overlook a discussion of the terms.

    I say this because Wendy appears to have a settled definition in her mind of deacon and elder, but having grown up in a baptist church, I know there are a variety of uses of the terms in different churches. I am not saying that various churches’ use of the terms are in accord with scripture, just that I know they vary in practice and people reading this could make the assumption that the term is being used the same way as in the church they grew up in.

    Many baptist churches have used the term deacon for what I believe the bible calls elder. Deacons were men who were spiritual leaders of the church. There was a deacon board but not such thing as an elder board. A number of years ago my current baptist church changed their terms from deacons to elders to more align with scriptural terms. We have since added deacons, who have different functions than elders, as well.

    All this to say, a reader shouldn’t necessarily assume they know what the terms mean based on the terms used in their own church.

  • Central Asian Friend says:

    Well said (and well quoted?), Sharon, and timely for any culture.

  • e-Mom says:

    Thanks for the link to Wendy Alsup. She’s a brand new blogger/writer to me. Our son attends Mars Hill Church in Seattle, where she teaches. Small world. It’s interesting to know what kind of ministry is going on there for the women.

    My understanding of the definition of “deacon” has to do with hands-on/serving ministry. This is opposed to “elder” which is a teaching ministry. Scripure is clear that women are not to teach men, but I don’t see anything that prohits women from serving men in practical ways.

    Blessings, e-Mom

  • Fate says:

    Interesting… I’m not convinced that there is a such thing as an “office” of deacon… male or female. Having said that… I believe that the early church had some type deaconess. I personally believe the term in my church might be problematic.But, the idea is consistently portrayed where I minister. We just don’t call them “deaconess”.

    I agree that the 1Tim 3 passage use of women/wives can be problematic. We must all be careful to respect the context of a passage in interpreting meaning. Gune is usually interpreted wives in cases where the subject has to do with church polity and worship. But I wouldn’t be shocked if we get to heaven and find out it meant women deacons either…

  • Marg Mowczko says:

    The word deacon comes from the Greek word diakonos. Diakonos literally means a servant. In the New Testament, service and ministry are completely synonymous, so diakonos is variously translated minister or servant, and only occasionally as deacon.

    In modern church usage, the word deacon often refers to stewards of the material and more practical concerns of church life. In New Testament vernacular however, ministers/deacons (diakonoi) were men and women with the highest spiritual integrity and ability, and they functioned as ministers of the Gospel. In 1 Timothy 4:6, Paul tells Timothy that he will be a good minister (diakonos) of Jesus Christ if he points out truth and good teaching to the brothers and sisters.

    Whenever the Apostle Paul used the term diakonos he ALWAYS used it in reference to a minister of the Gospel, not to a steward.

    Paul referred to several New Testament people, including himself, as diakonoi (ministers): Paul (Rom 15:25; 1 Cor 3:5; Eph 3:7; Col 1:23, etc), Epaphras (Col 1:7), Tychicus (Eph 6:21-22; Col 4:7-9), Phoebe (Rom 16:1-2), Apollos (1 Cor 3:5) and even Jesus Christ (Mk 10:42-45; Rom 15:8).

    Several women are mentioned by name in the New Testament who were obviously church ministers and leaders. Phoebe being one of them.

  • Sharon says:

    Marg, thank you so much for your thoughts and the time you put into citing those Scripture references. However, you did leave out one key reference, and that is Acts 6:1-6 in which the office of deacon is first created. In this context, the apostles do not have time to devote themselves to the service of caring for the widows of the church, so they appoint “deacons” to carry out this type of work so that the apostles are free to lead the advance of the church.

    This is the most clear description of what it means to be a deacon, and descriptions of later deacons, such as Phoebe, confirm this description. What makes the term confusing is that the word “deacon” functions as both a title and a simple adjective, which means that simply because the word diakoneo appears in a text does not mean that someone is a deacon of the church in an official sense. Bearing that in mind, I don’t think the office is quite as clearly defined in the ways that you have described. There is certainly some room for differing interpretations, but suffice it to say that there ARE women deacons in Scripture, and that fact is incontestable.

  • Marg Mowczko says:

    Hi Sharon,

    The men serving (diakoneo) at tables as bankers and administrators are not called deacons in any Greek manuscript of Acts 6:1-6 that I know of.

    Furthermore, the role of these men has been absurdly misconstrued by some. These men were not waiters (despite a faulty translation of the NIV in Acts 6.) They did not serve hot meals. The Greek word for “tables” is (and still is today) the identical word for “bank”.

    Calling these men the church’s first deacons was a later church tradition imposed on an improvised solution to a pressing problem in the (very) early church.

    There is no reason to think that the “office of deacon” was being created in Acts 6ff. A diakonos is simply a minister; a minister who does not necessarily teach, which is the only thing that really distinguishes diakonoi from elders and overseers/bishops according to Paul’s qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:1ff and Titus 1:6-9.

    I don’t think that I have defined the word diakonoi at all, merely translated it. Diakonoi are “ministers”.

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