Can Women Be Deacons?

Uncategorized // July 31, 2022 //

That’s a loaded question! I write this post at a strategic time as the office of deacon is on our minds. Each August our church selects new deacon candidates for the next calendar year. As a point of perennial tradition, I try to help our church think about polity — particularly, deacons—at this time of year. However, please do not misunderstand, I write not to spark a change or confusion, but merely to add to your intellectual capital on what the Bible says about deacons. I trust the engagement of this touchy subject will prove beneficial to our church (and to you, dear reader) for years to come.

Short answer: Yes.

For those who just want the gist of things, here it is: “yes.” Women can serve as deacons. That is my view. However,  that comes with a caveat: that the office of both elder and deacon are rightly understood and functioning accordingly. My view of deacons is derived first by my understanding of the elder, his office and his responsibilities. According to Scripture, only the office of elder is restricted to men. The office of deacon, however, seems to be open to both men and women. That said, I know many conservative, Bible-believing brothers and sisters in Christ who differ with me on this issue.

Longer Answer: It depends.

Let’s be honest. Scripture doesn’t provide a clear answer. The issue of female deacons is not as clear as, say, the issue about the virgin birth of Christ. However, one can navigate the biblical material to arrive at a reasonable response to the question. The rationale for allowing women to serve as deacons considers much grammatical context, pastoral sensitivity and theological conviction. So, let’s dive in.

Allow me to offer a gentle disclaimer: This is a long blog post, not of typical length. Please read the entire post. I trace not only the biblical arguments for and against women deacons, but I make specific applications for Coats Baptist. In sum, this post is more about the function and role of elders and deacons than it is simply about women serving in ministry. Whether or not a woman can serve as a deacon is only a slice of the greater conversation.

Deacons in Scripture

First, let’s think for a moment about deacons in general. What is a deacon? Well, the Bible doesn’t say much about deacons. The term is only used four times: Phil. 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:8, 10, 12, 13. (Some, as I am persuaded, see deacons represented also in Acts 6:1-7 yet devoid of the term and without a formalized office as the early church was still… well, early.) To be sure, Scripture does indicate that deacons are one of two official leadership positions in the local church—the other being: pastors (also known as “overseers” and “elders,” cf. Acts 14:23; 1 Tim. 3:1). The apostle Paul for example opens his letter to the Philippians in this way, “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.” But where do we get the term deacon? Knowing the terminology will help us better understand the role and function of this office.

The English word “deacon” is a transliteration of the Greek word diakonos (Gk: διάκονος). The Greek occurs many times throughout the New Testament and is most often translated “servant.” In Matthew 20:26, for example, Jesus said, “It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant.” But when the context points to an official service role of the church, the word, diakonos (Gk: διάκονος) is translated “deacon,” which you now know is actually a transliteration from the Greek.

So, what do “deacons” do? Given that the very word “deacon” means “servant,” the deacon office is a servant role in the church. Thus, as servants serve, so do deacons — they “deacon” (to invent a verb!). Deacons… serve. Yes. They are the lead servants, if you will, of the church. Elders (i.e., overseers and shepherds) serve the church by leading, whereas deacons lead the church by serving. Deacons, in effect, are the lead servants of the church. The New Testament places a high calling upon both elders and deacons.

We stop here and note at least three possibilities of what “service” could mean for the role of a deacon, and the Scripture designations (the only three) for each. Depending on which Scripture is stressed, one may see the service of deacons in a slightly different light.

Deacons function in one if not all three of these roles of service:

1. Pastoral assistants to the elders (Philippians 1:1)

Example: Elder focused. An extension of the elders. Doing what the elders don’t have time or effort to do. Think staff director position.

2. Benevolent servants to the church (Acts 6:1-7)

Example: People focused: Visiting and caring for the congregation. Think deacon family ministry.

3. Practical help to the ministry (1 Timothy 3:8-13)

Example: Ministry focused. Serving as lead servant, point person for specific operational ministry assignments and tasks. Think deacon of children’s ministry.

In reality, most deacon service is a combination of all three. But whichever is the case, deacons have typically served in unique capacities leveraging their gifts and skill sets for the building up of the church as a whole. It is worth noting that the term deacon is always used in close proximity with the office of elder. Whatever service a deacon renders to the church, the New Testament has it closely related to the ministry of the elders. Deacons assist the work of the ministry.

What else do we know about deacons? When looking at the biblical material, as limited as it may be, one obvious piece of information is clear: deacons are people of exemplary character. Their character is their qualification for official service. The congregation recognizes it as such. The language used in 1 Timothy 3 gives us this much for sure, mentioning various facets of life required from the deacon. 1 Timothy 3:8-13 reads,

[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.

Character is king. That much is obvious. If Acts 6:1-7 refers to deacons (assuming those men were indeed prototype deacons), the case for character is even stronger. But Paul teaches us more about deacons than does Luke. Understanding the 30 years or so that has passed between writings, the office of deacon is more formalized in Ephesus (1 Timothy) than it was in Jerusalem (Acts 6). In terms of character, Paul seems to double-click on what Luke provides. But as one continues to study the character qualifications for deacons, a significant question is sure to arise.

But, “Can women be deacons?”

Embedded within the six verses of 1 Timothy 3:8-13 is a prickly point of debate among conservative evangelical Christians. And the the textual water is not all that clear. Can women be deacons? Or stated differently, is the office of deacon reserved only for men? A bit of background may be helpful.

Just above our text in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Paul outlines the qualifications for “overseer” – the other office in the church responsible for leadership, teaching and shepherding (cf. Titus 1:5-9). The office of elder is reserved for men. No where do we see women elders mentioned in the New Testament. Neither is there any evidence of apostolic endorsement for women serving as elders. Furthermore, and most importantly, the apostle Paul connects male leadership in the church and home to the creation order of Adam being created first before Eve. (cf., 1 Timothy. 2:11-15). Thus, the office of elder (same office as “overseer” and “pastor”) is reserved for men only.

But the issue is not so cut and dry when it comes to deacons. Why? The word Paul uses in verse 11 of 1 Timothy 3 the Greek word gynaikas (Gk: γυναῖκας) which is actually the word for “women.” However, in some English translations it is selectively translated “wives,” often with a footnote. Verse 11 literally states in the Greek, “Women likewise must be…” Which begs the question: “What women? Women who are deacons or women who are wives of deacons?” That’s the question. The interpretation of verse 11 has been a mixed bag over the years. To save space let me reduce the debate to outline form.

Arguments for women serving as deacons:

  1. The Greek: The possessive pronoun for “their” is not used in 1 Timothy 3:11, but rather supplied by some English translations. A similar structure is found in 1 Timothy 2:9 where the women are clearly not wives. Also the word “likewise” in v. 11 seems to continue the list from “deacons” in v. 8 to a third group of women deacons.
  2. The setting of Acts 6:1-7 is too early in the development of the church to frame a normative case for gender roles of deacons or the legitimization of the office at that time. In short, that men are seen as selected does not bind the gender of deacons thereafter. Furthermore, nowhere in Scripture do we find a prohibition against women serving as deacons.
  3. Paul does not refer to the wives of elders. Why then would he refer to the wives of deacons? He doesn’t, the argument follows. What is likely happening is that Paul is bookending his qualifications of deacons in v. 8-10 and v. 13. In the middle are more specific qualifications: v. 11 addressing the women deacons, while v. 12 speaks to the men.
  4. The character qualities in verse 11 seem to mirror those listed for elders, and the aforementioned deacons in v. 8-10, signaling an official role for these women.
  5. The mention of Phoebe in Romans 16:1 seems to indicate an official capacity as Paul states her to be a “servant of the church at Cenchreae.” Paul uses similar terminology in Ephesians 3:7, as he is a servant “of the gospel;” and in Colossians 1:7 to note that Epaphras was a “servant of Christ.”

Arguments against women serving as deacons:

  1. Only men are mentioned in Acts 6:1-7, which is understood by some to present seven prototype, early deacons. They set the pattern that would become a formalized position in the church. If such is the case, one could reason that their male gender is part and parcel of the other qualifications listed in v. 3 for service as a deacon.
  2. Phil. 1:1 seems to indicate deacons are to be assistants to the elders, holding a spiritual authority over the congregation in their services of helps and care. Some measure of leadership authority will naturally occur, albeit a service ministry, when discharged through the congregation. As Matt Smethurst has noted, “the prohibitions in 1 Timothy 2:12 should inform our reading of the qualifications of 3:11 such that, however we apply the latter passage, we do not practically undermine the former.” (Deacons, 140)
  3. The deacon wife is able to serve alongside her husband in a way that an elder wife cannot, given his leadership and teaching ministries (1 Tim. 3:1-7). Such disparity of roles explains qualifications are given to one and not the other.
  4. The grammatical context does not require Phoebe (Rom. 16:1) to be named as a deacon, but simply a servant of the church. To see her role in an official capacity is conjecture. The use of the term diakonos (Gk: διάκονος) is almost always informal. The text here does not demand a formal use. Phoebe, as an informal servant of the church, is a prime example of how women are greatly used in the church yet without formal office.
  5. No marriage qualification is assigned to the women (wife of one husband, for example), nor a provision of testing. If Paul had women deacons in mind, verse 11 seems to be an inadequate set of qualifications considering what he puts forward concerning men.

Here’s a couple of great articles you may find helpful:

https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/bible-support-female-deacons-no/

https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/bible-support-female-deacons-yes/

Let me also recommend Matt Smethurst’s book: Deacons: How They Serve and Strengthen the Church

So, what do you think? Can women be deacons? I am persuaded they can. Women can serve as deacons. In my mind, the evidence for women serving as deacon outweighs the counter-arguments. Furthermore, I believe that such a position is not a trend towards liberalism or a rejection of Baptist polity (see BF&M 2000 Article 6 “The Church”) but rather a fair plain reading of the text. Many conservative, evangelical Christians are on both sides of this debate. Though my position is just that—my position, it is not the position of Coats Baptist, which I respect and support.

I see deacons as open to both men and women, based first upon the textual evidence, and secondly on their function as biblical deacons. A point I must make emphatically: I understand Scripture to permit women deacons only if in fact they function as servants of the the church and not as elders in any sense of the role. The office of elder is reserved for men. Only when a church makes much of office of elder through a robust plurality of qualified men “able to teach” will the church be on safe ground to open their diaconate to women.

“Male Only” Deacons Churches  

Churches holding such a “male only” position need to provide a sufficient answer as to why they reserve the office of deacon for men only. Given the biblical evidence provided above, why do some churches take such a position? With much respect to those who see a purely male diaconate, below are some reasons that I would expect a church like ours may give to support their position. I have listed them in order of their strength.

1. Interpretation: The church simply believes Paul meant “wives” in 1 Timothy 3:11. A reasonable argument can be made and should be respected. Many thoughtful Christians hold such a position. Male only diaconates should never be seen (in and of themselves) as setting a culture of devaluing the role or service of women in the church. Women can flourish in these types of churches, while not holding an official office. However, I do think such churches may miss out on the benefits of women serving among the diaconate in official capacities.

2. Tradition: The church has always and only had male deacons. As a result, their historical precedent overshadows any difference in textual interpretation, or consideration of change. As a general rule, tradition is a poor substitute for conviction. Operating a ministry on the ground of tradition is a slippery slope towards stagnation, or this third rationale below.

3. Dysfunction: The church does not have biblical deacons. That is, the deacon body may be well intentioned but is in name only. Rather than serving as a biblical deacon, these men function as more of as quasi-elder body. They meet to deliberate issues in the church, make decisions and set direction, all under the title of deacon. In effect, these men are hybrids: they are “elder-deacons,” an office Scripture doesn’t identify. These type deacons smell like elders and assume the role yet without the qualifications, save one — they must be male.

In summary, a church with an exclusively male deacon body must hold to at least one of the preceding positions to validate the gender restriction of the deacon office. It’s been my experience that most male only deacon churches are influenced by each of these positions at some level. Yet typically there is a narrative, a progression of thought that has moved them to their current state. It goes as such: an interpretation of Scripture gives way to a long-standing tradition, which then morphs overtime to an unbiblical and dysfunctional diaconate — all of which without any real intention to arrive at such a juncture. In a sum, an albeit male only diaconates are not innately problematic, they seem to create an elder-esque environment that will function as such if given enough time. They simply arrive there seemingly by accident. Such is the story of many churches. That is why textual interpretation matters, and the honest articulation and application of such interpretation is absolutely critical.

Deacons at Coats Baptist

We have very good, qualified Christ-like men serving as deacons at Coats Baptist. Our current polity is very clear: “The diaconate shall consist of men who meet the biblical standards.” Fair enough. It’s a joy to serve Coats Baptist as pastor and work alongside some of the best men I’ve ever known. They’re called deacons. I want to be crystal clear: the fact that Coats Baptist has male only deacons is not a problem for me. Furthermore, that I hold a different position should not be seen as a problem or a threat to them either. One of the baked-in beauties of congregationalism is that the church governs herself, as led by her pastors. No change in polity would ever occur without first the consent of the deacons (because of our polity) and the approval of the congregation as a whole. What is more, I have zero agenda to change the gender requirement of deacons. A male only diaconate is not an impediment to gospel ministry, by any stretch. It is at worst a missed opportunity to leverage the gifts in an official capacity of many qualified women in the church.

What is my agenda, however, is to establish a plurality of elders—in time. Why? Not because of male deacons, but because I believe a plurality of qualified lay and staff elders represents biblical polity, which is what every church needs. Coats Baptist may never have women deacons, and that will be ok. But what I pray they will have is biblical deacons who leverage their gifts in service to the church. That will only happen under the umbrella of elder plurality. It’s my suspicion that a male only deacon body at Coats Baptist has less to do with their interpretation of 1 Timothy 3:11, and more do to with how they view the office of deacon as a whole. Historically at Coats Baptist, deacons have served as hybrid elders. And that, I would argue is the real issue, first that it’s an office not found in Scripture. Second its hybrid function weakens both the office of elder and deacon of their true God designed roles. As a result, I would argue, there is a polity cap upon our ministries severely limiting our effectiveness to make disciples and multiply the church. Polity is our ceiling.

For years, our deacon body has shouldered burdens for which they never asked. Admittedly unqualified, they have still risen to the task and persevered under God’s good grace. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. Deacons should serve as true deacons. Our deacons, our good deacons, who are serving this very hour, can assist a plurality of men called to lead, feed, guide, and protect the sheep (Psalm 23). The Bible calls them elders, overseers, shepherds (pastors). Perhaps we will get there. But that’s the deacons’ call. The purse strings of polity are in their hands. Good men, Godly men, who I hope from this post, have learned a little more about God’s high calling on their life to serve in the office of deacon.

Let’s thank the Lord for deacons, and our deacons. I’m looking forward to a new six this fall!

PS. Below is a statement that I authored as a guide to those participating in deacon nominations this August (2022). Please respect the position of Coats Baptist Church by nominating only male candidates who meet the biblical qualifications.

“The deacons at Coats Baptist Church (CBC) understand 1 Timothy 3:11 to read as “Their wives likewise,” as many English translations have rendered. As a result, CBC does not recognize women serving as deacons, but highly values the service role of deacons’ wives. Any married deacon selected for service must therefore have a wife who exemplifies the character qualifications set forth in verse 11, “dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.” (ESV) A gender restricted diaconate at CBC is informed not only by the interpretation of verse 11, but also by how the office of deacon functions within the body of the church.” (August 1, 2022, SNT)

 

 

About Neal Thornton

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