The question over whether or not women should serve as deacons has been hotly debated within the evangelical tradition. Because of the Scriptural priority of male headship, many evangelical traditions have felt that appointing women as deacons would in some way threaten the authority of men. Others refuse to appoint women to the office of deacon because they interpret Scripture as teaching directly against it.
Now to be perfectly honest, I believe there are a lot of passages in Scripture that are quite clear about those roles from which women are to abstain, but I’ve never understood this to be one of them. And that’s what has surprised me about evangelicalism. Many a church that defends the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, holding it up as one of the most foundational doctrines of the Christian faith, seems to run in contradiction with Scripture’s clear teaching on deacons. In Romans 16 Paul speaks of Phoebe, a deaconess he commends, describing her great work in the church. In a tradition that weighs every jot and tittle as being divinely inspired, the denial of women as deacons seemed like a gross evangelical oversight given that Paul himself worked with a female deacon.
This led me to engage some fellow believers on this issue, and I have since learned that there is a plethora of arguments explaining why Paul did not, in fact, permit women to be deacons, nor does the larger context of Scripture.
But interestingly enough, respected evangelical Tim Keller (Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York) disagrees with many of these voices. In an essay defending the place of female deacons in the Church, Keller addresses the objections to appointing women as deacons by carefully examining the Scriptural defense of the practice. To read the whole essay, you can click here.
I won’t rehash all of Keller’s points, but there was one concluding remark that really stood out to me. After delving into all the ways in which Scripture supports the appointment of female deacons, Keller notes that many evangelical churches have nevertheless abstained from this practice for fear of the culture’s perception. There is a worry that in an effort to defend the authority of men in the church, a “perceived authority” related to the office of deacon could be problematic. In response to this concern, Keller writes,
“Many people have said to me over the years they thought that our practice of deaconesses did not flow from our reading of Scripture, but was a capitulation to the egalitarian culture around us. I have tried to show that our reasons are solidly biblical, but I continually try to examine my own heart regarding this. I would only ask our critics to recognize an opposite but equal error.
Many opponents of deaconesses today are operating out of a “decline narrative.” They claim that having deaconesses is the first step on the way to liberalism. But Jim Boice and John Piper, the RPCNA and the ARP, B.B. Warfield and John Calvin, believed in deaconing women or deaconesses. Are (or were) all these men or churches on the way to liberalism? I don’t think so. Nevertheless, one person put it to me like this recently: “Sure, the RPCNA has had women deacons for over a century. Sure, a biblical case can be made. But in our cultural climate, allowing deaconesses would be disastrous. It’s a slippery slope.”
In other words, the Bible probably allows it, but let’s not do it because of the culture. Isn’t that also responding to the culture rather than to the text?”
What an important point! We must always be wary of a practice that treats Scriptural teachings as though they are “not practical” in light of our present circumstances, as if the Spirit inspired Words of God did not anticipate the cultural tide of the centuries to come. When we do this, we reveal ourselves to be far more influenced by the culture than we have ever dared to admit, under the guise of prudence.
I notice you have a listing from N. T. Wright. It is interesting to listen to his comments in support of women’s full participation in the church. I have put on my blog:
I used to belong to the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North American which limits the roles women can have in the church. I no longer that is the correct interpretation of scripture.
One thing that often gets omitted in this debate is the definition of a “deacon”. I agree with you that we should uphold the NT office of deaconess if indeed we are using it to mean the same thing as the original deacons were appointed – to be serving ministers who would visit the widows, pray over the sick, give alms to the poor – basically, the hands and feet of the church – in order to free up the pastors and teachers to study and teaching more. However, in today’s church, we have often combined it the duties of an Elder, and they are in fact leaders in the church exercising authority. In this case, women are not appropriately appointed. But in the original sense, there is absolutely no reason why a woman couldn’t and should not be a ministering presence with the ordination of the church behind her.
Good post. I address this same issue in one of my entries (you can read it at http://huldahsgate.blogspot.com/2009/02/learning-at-gate-deacon-deacon-who-is.html).
In 1 Timothy 3:8-12 it specifically states that all deacons must be men of dignity. I have been in Baptist churches all my life where there are females on the deacon board. I believe that is going against scripture.
Lish, I greatly appreciate your concern for Scriptural authority and our faithfulness to it, but it is important that you avoid the pitfall of proof-texting. Given that Paul refers to women as “deacons” in other parts of Scripture, your interpretation would have Paul contradicting himself.
There are, in fact, other ways of interpreting the passage you cited, such as the possibility that the church Paul was addressing only had men as deacons, or that he was using the word “man” as an inclusive term (in the same way that God created “Man”) and the emphasis is instead on marital fidelity and the character of a given deacon, not their gender.
All of that to say, while an emphasis on Scriptural fidelity is indeed vital, and I fully affirm its importance, such an emphasis not only compels us to read each verse within the larger context of Scripture, but to also search out the spirit of each passage and consider whether it is consistent with the larger trajectory of God’s work and character as revealed in Scripture. This is necessary to avoid Pharisaical legalism, and consequently spiritual blindness.