Can women be deacons? I came across Phoebe’s name in Romans 16 and Paul called her a deaconess. But in my church, I see that only men serve as deacons. Why is this?
An Inquisitive Friend
Dear Inquisitive Friend:
Your question concerning women as deacons is one asked frequently, especially by women who have a desire to serve Christ in tangible ways balanced with a commitment to do that service in the way the Lord directs. I resonate with that spirit and identify with that desire to serve Christ with every fiber of my being. I am also encouraged by women who see the church as an effective tool for sharing the gospel, growing in discipleship, and meeting needs of fellow believers as well as others whom the Lord would bring to your sphere of influence and reach through dispensing His loving care.
The first step for applying the principles clearly presented in Scripture is to examine very carefully the didactic or teaching passages that most explicitly present the divinely assigned boundaries and guidelines. I am absolutely convinced that the Lord does not expect us to operate in a vacuum when it comes to decision-making. Although Scripture does not speak directly and provide answers to every question arising throughout the generations, it does give broad general principles to be used in addressing every question with which we struggle in this generation just as surely as He provided answers for those living in the first century. There are two passages to read and study in this regard—one is a positive directive specifically to women on what they are to do in the church (Titus 2:3-5, in which woman-to-woman ministry is described); the other is a warning containing several prohibitions, which the Lord considered important enough to use as boundaries for women who are willing to serve Him in the church/kingdom ministries (1 Tm 2:9-15, in which women are forbidden to teach men or to rule over men). In other words, the lines drawn are not expressed in terms of “offices” but rather by functions. Yet the clear presentation of functions affirmed and those forbidden certainly allows enough light and understanding to make decisions on “office” and “role assignment,” which would seem the most effective way to present cross-generational teaching and timeless guidelines. Both of the aforementioned passages addressing church order and officers are found within the biblical text.
The second step in answering this specific question is to consider the initial appointment of deacons by the apostles, recorded in Acts 6. Here the need that prompted this action is described as the neglect of widows. It would seem that if the Lord intended women to be officially included as deacons in the sense of being officers in the church, this would have been the opportune time to include women in the group appointed! On the other hand, for women to be excluded from this official group who would serve alongside pastors as officers of the church in no way demeans women—women are to be the primary beneficiaries of this service! Rather, the Holy Spirit is inspiring the apostles to honor the creation order and the divine plan for male leadership of the church body, while making clear all along the value of women to the Lord. Without question the first deacons appointed were men.
The third step moves to examining the qualifications for those appointed to the diaconate, which is also recorded in Scripture. These qualities are very similar to those setting apart pastors. These deacons were to minister to the physical and material needs of the congregation; the pastors were to provide spiritual leadership and nurture. Without question, both worked closely together to do the work of the kingdom (Acts 6:6-7). Even the word chosen to describe this office in the church, deacon (diakonos, Greek) is a transliteration or coined word, meaning “servant” or “attending one.” Jesus used a form of this word to describe His ministry (Mt 20:28) as did Paul (Col 1:25). The word is widely used in the New Testament to describe those—male or female—who serve the church, attend to the needs of others, and ultimately consider themselves servants of Christ. These qualifications are set forth in 1 Timothy 3:8-11 and are parallel to those for pastors. In verse 11, the connecting word “likewise” links wives to the same standards.
The fourth step moves forward to interpret this transition to “wives” (gunaikas, which can also be translated “women”). Here are some points for you to consider in understanding this verse:
- Paul seems to be speaking of men in verses 8-10 (note v. 12 and reference to family relationships). In verse 11 he speaks directly to women. Some suggest that it would be unusual to switch the subject to female deacons in the middle of the discussion, especially without making such a transition more clear.
- Certainly from verse 12, you can understand that the family is part of what equips a man for this special task. Their conduct is addressed, and “likewise” could simply be a reminder that a deacon’s wife must have the same virtues and commitments to Christ as her husband. Certainly wives would need to have an important part in this ministry to widows, which first prompted the appointment of deacons. Wives are a valuable part of all ministry, and the creation order calls for them to be helpers to their husbands in every aspect of life.
- In this case, as in many other questions, whether these women are understood to be “deacons” or “wives of deacons” does not change the understanding that they were first and foremost “servants.” There is no hint of a ruling function. Even in the case of Phoebe, who is identified as a “servant” (Rm 16:1), there is nothing to suggest that she had a function placing her over others in the church or over Paul himself. Rather the clear sense of her role was as one who was uniquely gifted and committed to using her gifts and energies to serve the church and even Paul himself.
No one has a heart any more committed to service than a woman who accepts seriously her God-given assignment to be a “helper” to her husband and as the God-anointed “bearer of life” a nurturer of her children. In the modern culture, for a church to “ordain” a woman to the diaconate does not carry the same connotation as referring to a woman as a “deacon” (transliterated and thus coined word meaning “servant”) in the first century. Most deacon bodies in churches in this era operate almost as an executive committee, transacting varying degrees of business for the church, and as extensions to the pastoral team in administering the ordinances and guiding the church spiritually. For that reason, my own heart cautions me that I must be careful not to allow even my heart for service to become a stumblingblock in the kingdom work. I can serve—and do that very effectively throughout the church and community—without the title, thus eliminating any confusion to others on understanding the role of divinely appointed officers for the church.