Why women can be deacons

There is a debate as to whether or not women can hold the office of deacon.  Here is why I think they can:

1.  It’s biblical

One of the key passages is 1 Timothy 3:8-13 which says, Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. 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.” (ESV) 1 Timothy 3 sets out the criteria for two leadership roles in the church: overseers/ presbyters (v1-7) and deacons (v8-13).  Even in New Testament times these two roles were recognised and qualified people were set apart as overseers/presbyters/elders and deacons (cf. Philippians 1:1).  The proto-deacon seems to be found in Acts 6, where suitably qualified (in this case) men where set apart to serve in the church.  These men not only served in an administrative role, but also taught God’s word (cf. Acts 8:5, 21:8). Philip Ryken explains that the Greek word Paul uses in 1 Timothy 3v11 is gynaikas, which can mean either “wives” or “women” (as it is translated several times in 1 Timothy 2:9-12). Some scholars suggest, therefore, that in verse 11 gunaikas does not refer to wives but to deaconesses, or female deacons.  The strongest reason, according to Ryken, for thinking that these women were deaconesses is the way they are introduced.   Both verse 8 and verse 11 contain the word “likewise”, which sounds like it introduces a new office.  

Furthermore, says Ryken, these women are to be “dignified”, which is the same phrase used to describe deacons (1 Tim. 3:8). Both of these verses are grammatically dependent on the main verb in verse 2, which strengthens the connection between them.  Taken together, these parallels make it sound as if the women Paul had in mind were to fulfill a separate but equal office in the church. Furthermore, if the Bible meant “wives,” we might expect it to say “their wives” so as to eliminate any possibility of confusion. (Ryken, however, ends up holding the view that it is safest to translate “gynaikas” as “wives” and therefore thinks that deacons should be suitably qualified men, with women designated as helpers.)

RC Sproul sums up well the debate on deacons: “In the requirements for those who would serve on the diaconate, Paul in 1 Timothy 3:11 comments on the deacons’ “wives,” as the English Standard Version translates the Greek word gynaikas. But this word can also be rendered as “women,” which would make this passage have a significantly different meaning.  If the passage is to be read as talking about the wives of male deacons, then the office of deacon, like the office of elder, is limited to men alone. Yet if gynaikas means “women,” then Paul is talking about female servants or deaconesses, opening up the diaconate to women as well as men.  Unfortunately it is hard to determine the apostle’s meaning because the contextual details provide little help in choosing the most appropriate translation. Those who believe Paul allows for women deacons note that he gives no qualifications for elders’ wives and therefore no parallel to the deacons’ wives, suggesting the office of deaconess is in view. Another argument for deaconesses is that the requirements of verse 11 are the same as those mandated of male deacons (see vv. 8–9). Not to be overlooked, proponents of deaconesses note, is that Romans 16:1 calls Phoebe a diakonon, a version of the Greek word often translated as “deacon” (diakonos).

Finally, one commentator points out, there is nothing like Paul’s specific command that women may not be given authority as church elders (1 Tim. 2:12–15) in 1 Timothy 3:8–13 to bar women from the diaconate.”

John Piper also makes some helpful comments in answer to the question, “were women deacons?”  Piper answers: “Probably yes”. He says there are four observations that incline him to think that this office was held by both men and women:

1. The Greek word for deacon can be masculine or feminine in the same form. So the word itself does not settle the issue.

2. In the middle of the qualifications for deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8-13 Paul says, “The women likewise must be serious, no slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things.” This could be the wives of the deacons, but could also be the women deacons. The latter is suggested by the fact that no reference to women is made in 3:1-7. Since women were not candidates for the eldership in the New Testament (1 Timothy 2:12-13) because of its authoritative function in teaching and oversight, the absence of the reference to women in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 would be expected. But this confirms the probability that the reference to women in 3:11 is to women deacons, not merely to wives of deacons.

3. The deacons were distinguished from the elders in that they were not the governing body in the church nor were they charged with the duty of authoritative teaching. So the role of deacon seems not to involve anything that Paul taught in 1 Timothy 2:12 (or anywhere else) which is inappropriate for women to perform in the church. 4. In Romans 16:1, Phoebe is called a deacon. For Piper, that the role of deacon is of such a nature that nothing stands in the way of women’s full participation in it. He adds, “within the deaconate itself, the way the men and women relate to each other would be guided by the sense of appropriateness, growing out of the Biblical teaching of male and female complementarity.” The book Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womenhood (John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds.) argues that the New Testament does indeed presume men and women deacons, but the authoritative teaching and governing role of elder/overseer is reserved for suitably qualified men. (For the record, I am aware of the general use of the word diakonos for a followere of Christ who simply serves.  Paul even calls himself a “deacon”/ “servant” in 1 Corinthians 3:5.  It seems like there is a general use e.g. 1 Corinthians 12:5 and more specialized use of this term e.g. Philippians 1:1.)

2. It makes sense: Normative vs regulative

Our denomination, REACH South Africa, in helpful and good Anglican tradition, holds to the normative principle, not the regulative principle, concerning church practise.   In other words, as Article 34 says, we are free to establish structures and traditions in our churches so long as they are not contrary to scripture.  The regulative principle says that you are only able to do those things that are mandated by scripture (“whatsoever is not commanded is forbidden“).  

On a practical level, we are free to establish confirmation services, have wardens, and use data projectors, even though these are not mandated in the Bible.  (We hold to the regulative principle for doctrine, though.)  I’m not sure the Apostle Paul envisioned full-time women, student and children’s workers (in fact, I’m almost sure he didn’t!), but he surely would have been happy with churches honouring these men and women as gospel workers and setting them apart as deacons in keeping with the principles of 1 Timothy 3:8-13 – remembering that the deacons roll may include teaching; but they are not exercising the authoritative role of overseeing and governing – which is reserved for the overseers/ presbyters/ elder.