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Can Women Be Deacons?

Within egalitarian circles this is a very easy question to answer. Egalitarians generally believe that men and women are equal in all respects and that gender differences are largely relativized by the grace of the Gospel. Therefore, whatever men do in the church, woman may and should do likewise.

Case closed.

Complementarians, on the other hand, generally believe that men and women are equal with respect to dignity and worth and equal with respect to salvation graces, but different with respect to responsibility and role. Therefore, for complementarians, the answer to the question is more complicated. Many would argue that it depends on what you mean by the word “deacon”.

Within certain Baptist circles the word “deacon” has come to mean roughly what most of the Protestant world means by “elder” and that muddies the water and makes a straightforward answer to the question impossible to give. The Bible seems to communicate that the words “elder”, “pastor” and “bishop” (or “overseer”, depending on your translation) mean roughly the same thing and that this one office is distinct from the office of “deacon”. There are several passage in the New Testament in which the terms “elders”, “overseers” and “pastors” (or “shepherds”) are used interchangeably:

“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:1–3 ESV)

“This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— 6 if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach.  (Titus 1:5–7 ESV)

“From Miletus he sent a message to Ephesus, asking the elders of the church to meet him.

18 When they came to him, he said to them: “You yourselves know how I lived among you the entire time from the first day that I set foot in Asia …. for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God. 28 Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son.” (Acts 20:17–28 NRSV)

As such most scholars understand these terms as interchangeable. An elder oversees the flock of God as a shepherd (pastor). In line with that understanding, The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689 says:

“A particular church, gathered and completely organized according to the mind of Christ, consists of officers and members; and the officers appointed by Christ to be chosen and set apart by the church (so called and gathered), for the peculiar administration of ordinances, and execution of power or duty, which he entrusts them with, or calls them to, to be continued to the end of the world, are bishops or elders, and deacons.” (Chapter 26, paragraph 8)

The early Baptists spoke of an overseer (referred to as a bishop or elder) and a separate, distinct office holder referred to as a deacon. If that distinction is maintained, the original question about women serving as deacons is greatly simplified. If we are using the term “deacon” in the New Testament sense of “one who serves” or even as “one who organizes acts of service” then the answer, of course, is “yes”. Women can and should serve in the office of deacon.

It appears as though women were serving in this office in New Testament times. In Romans 16:1-2 the Apostle Paul writes to the Christians in Rome and says:

“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)

The NIV renders that same verse in the following way:

“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.” (Romans 16:1 NIV11-GK)

The underlying Greek word is diakonos and even conservative complementarian scholars believe that in this case, it refers to a female who was serving in some sort of official church office. Thomas Schreiner, for example, contends that:

“it is likely that she held the office of deacon… for this is the only occasion in which the term diakonos is linked with a particular local church.”[1]

He goes on, however, to remind his readers that they must be cautious about reading modern notions of the deaconate back into a 1st century text. Leon Morris, a convictional egalitarian, offers similar counsel:

“the social conditions of the time were such that there must have been the need for feminine church workers to assist in such matters as the baptism of women or anything that meant contact with women’s quarters in homes. The form of expression here makes it more likely that an official is meant than the more general term “servant”, though in view of the wide use of the term for the general concept of service this is far from being proved.[2]

On the whole, it seems reasonable to assume that Phoebe was recognized as some sort of office holder in the church in Cenchreae. Her role was likely focused on ministry to women and may have extended to the care of orphans, widows and the sick.

The historical account seems to indicate that women were serving in the office of deacon very early on as well. In AD 111, only about 15 years after the close of the New Testament canon, Pliny the Younger wrote to the Emperor Trajan seeking instruction on how to deal with the growing number of Christians in Bithynia Pontus. In order to get some first-hand information on the habits and practices of the early church he says that he:

“thought it the more necessary to extract the real truth, with the assistance of torture from two female slaves, who were called deaconesses: but I could discover nothing more than depraved and excessive superstition.”[3]

It seems very likely that the church employed a number of women to assist with their benevolent ministries to the poor, to orphans and to other women. Many scholars understand Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 5 as establishing the criteria governing who was eligible for employment of this kind.

Many, if not most, conservative evangelical complementarian scholars and pastors continue to affirm the legitimacy of women serving in some kind of “deacon office”. John MacArthur, for example, in his book “Answering The Key Questions About Deacons” says: “There are three distinct offices advocated in 1 Timothy 3 – elders, deacons and deaconesses.”[4] While it seems neater to understand two offices (elder and deacons –  be they male or female) the point is that female deacons are fairly widely recognized as normative and permissible according to Scripture. As deacons they are not exercising oversight and they are not involved in the authoritative teaching ministry of the church.

A common challenge to this majority position, arises out of the difficulty of reconciling all of what has just been discussed with what the Apostle Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:12:

“Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well.” (1 Timothy 3:12 ESV)

If deacons are to be “the husband of one wife” then how can there be women deacons?

Zooming out to consider the wider context would seem to offer a way forward. In the previous verse Paul said:

Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.” (1 Timothy 3:11 ESV)

Thus, at the very least, the ESV translation requires us to assume that there were husbands and wives holding this office together – something we do not see in the earlier list of standards for elders. The elder is required to be “the husband of one wife” – an expression most commentators understand to mean “faithful and chaste” – but there is no comparable “their wives likewise”. The office of elder is not shared between the husband and wife in the way that the office of deacon appears to have been.

The NIV translates 1 Timothy 3:11 in the following way:

In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.” (1 Timothy 3:11 NIV11)

The Greek word underlying these translations can mean either woman or wife – the translator must use the wider context to make a determination. Either way you choose to go, however, you are left with women office holders. Either beside their husbands or on their own.

Putting this all together, with respect to the 1 Timothy 3 issue, it would appear that the Apostle is saying that, as in the case of the candidate for the eldership, the candidate for the office of deacon, if he is a man, must have a proven track record of marital fidelity. The female candidates, either as wives or as widows (as per 1 Timothy 5) must have a reputation for godliness and charity.

The New Testament documents, as well as the historical record, clearly indicate that women were critically involved in the life and mission of the early church and there is little reason to understand why they shouldn’t continue to be so today. Having women serving as deacons makes the church a gentler, safer and more inclusive place and in no way jeopardizes what complementarians believe about the responsibility of men to function as spiritual leaders in the home and in the household of faith.

Soli deo gloria,

Pastor Paul Carter

If you are interested in more Bible teaching from Pastor Paul you can access the entire library of Into The Word episodes through the Audio tab on the Into the Word website. You can also download the Into The Word app on iTunes or Google Play.

[1] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary On The New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 787.

[2] Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, Pillar New Testament Commentary. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 529.

[3] Pliny the Younger as cited by Peter J. Williams in Can We Trust The Gospels? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 26.

[4] John MacArthur, Answering The Key Questions About Deacons (Panorama City: Grace To You, 1985), 20.