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Deaconesses? Six Reasons

In November 2015 Glamour Magazine named, as its “Woman of the Year”, Caitlyn Jenner. The audacity of this selection sparked a seismic social media commotion of polarized opinions about the magazine’s bold move to name as its woman of the year… a man. Yes, Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner, is a male.

His erstwhile fame was well-earned by winning the gold medal in the men’s decathlon event at the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympic Games. His newfound celebrity comes from simply declaring that he believes he is actually a woman. What makes him a woman is that a) he says he is one, b) he dresses in feminine clothing and make-up, c) he had some cosmetic surgery to give his face the appearance of femininity. And that was enough to become a covergirl for Vanity Fair and so validate and celebrate his delusion.

If a man believes he is Napoleon Bonaparte, we recommend therapy. It would be a cruel joke for anyone to suggest putting him on the cover of Leadership Magazine as dictator of the year.

As followers of our compassionate Savior, Christians need to demonstrate a sincere compassion for people who are so confused about who God made them to be that they resort to cross-dressing. But that sympathy does not mean we should ignore what the word of God says about gender roles in the family, in society, and in the church.

I don’t know of a biblical topic on which there is no debate, but women’s roles are one of the most controversial. And of all gender-related matters, the question of women deacons is the one on which there is the most disparity of application in churches that otherwise agree on gender issues. Gender wars have no place in the church, because God has left us with clear instructions on the topic. But this is one issue that still causes great confusion.

 

There is only one text that explicitly mentions the qualification of deacons, (1 Timothy 3:8 – 13), without any reference to their function (besides the word “deacon” meaning servant), and in the middle of that passage there is a set of qualifications for “women.”

The question is “which women?” The reference could be to female deacons, a group of women who assist deacons, or deacons’ wives (which many English translation committees apparently favor).

Bear in mind that the word “deacon” is not native to English at all, and is a transliteration from the Greek diákonos which means “servant, minister, waiter.”

The other consideration is whether or not the recognition of a position of deacon in a church is one that necessarily implies a level of authority, which would make appointing a lady to that role a violation of 1 Timothy 2:12.

Without being dogmatic about my interpretation, I still feel quite convinced that women may biblically be referred to as deacons. And here are my six reasons, in no particular order…

  1. Pheobe is called a deacon by Paul

Romans 16:1 “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant [diákonos] of the church at Cenchreae…”

Paul had an array of suitable terms for servant in his Greek thesaurus that he could have employed to describe Phoebe as an unofficial serving saint. But he appears to go out of his way to choose the only term that could also refer to the qualified, appointed office of deacon.

I can think of at least five other words Paul could have used to describe Phoebe as a servant who was not a deacon:

  • sundoulos – fellow bondservant
  • doúlos – servant or slave;
  • therápōn – attendant;
  • hupērétēs – a servant;
  • leitourgós – a public servant, usually one serving at the temple or one who performs religious public duties.

Without falling into the trap of intentional fallacy one has to ask, “Why would Paul pick the only tool in his shed that could cause confusion with the office? Is he really going out of his way to be ambiguous?” I doubt it. So, either Paul knew no one would think Phoebe was in the office because it was reserved for men (as opponents to my view would say), or he did mean to refer to her as a deacon, and knew that his readers would recognize her as such. If I’m right, deacon is the only word he could choose; if I’m wrong he had several other options which he eschewed.

 

  1. Phoebe is called a deacon of the church of Cenchreae

This argument comes from Paul’s use of the possessive genitive construction: Paul calls Phoebe a deacon “of the church of Cenchreae.” She isn’t just a servant at the church, but a servant belonging to that church. Again, it seems like Paul chooses language that seems to be singling her out as occupying a more special place than just any other serving member.

 

A. T. Robertson, a highly respected Baptist Greek scholar—the Yoda of Baptist seminoids—believes Paul uses language that is clearly “in favor of the technical sense of ‘deacon’ or ‘deaconess.’” A convincing argument to me that is.

 

  1. The term diákonos itself has no connotation of authority or teaching

In every Greek resource I checked the word always means “serving, helping, assisting, waiting on, ministering to” and never ruling, managing, organizing, overseeing, teaching. So there is no reason a woman could not occupy that role in the church as she would not be teaching or exercising authority over men.

 

  1. The presence of deaconesses in the first 1000 years of church history

There were churches that did have deaconesses and churches that did not, just as today. But this fact is an important part of replying to the false accusation that churches today who have deaconesses are simply caving in to our cultural pressure or feminist efforts at introducing egalitarianism to the church. There were deaconesses long before Rosie the Riveter.

Alongside the deacons there were also deaconesses. Their history begins with Rom 16:1 where Paul describes Phoebe as [a deacon] It is, of course, an open question whether he is referring to a fixed office or simply to her services on behalf of the community. … It is indisputable, however, that an order of deaconesses did quickly arise in the Church. … there was an independent office of deaconesses, this fell into decay in the early Middle Ages.” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament).

 

  1. The lack of the possessive pronoun “their” in 1 Tim 3:11

In the flow of giving qualifications for deacons, Paul suddenly introduces a new group of people who need to be qualified. And he calls them, very simply: “women.” Not their wives, just women.

In Greek, like in French, Dutch, Afrikaans, and many other languages, the word for “woman” and “wife” are identical, and the meaning can only be determined by context. So if Paul said “their women” he would indisputably be talking about deacons’ wives. But he leaves off the word “their” which in similar usage just means “women” not “their women/wives.”

 

  1. The absence of qualifications for elders’ wives

If Paul meant to provide qualifications for deacons’ wives, then why not elders’ wives? In the passage in Titus 1:6-9 elders’ qualifications are reiterated, with no mention of their wives needing to be qualified. It seems odd that the wife of an overseer escapes the need for official qualifications, but not the wife of a servant in the church.

 

There are other reasons for or against this view, which you should feel free to share in the comments in a polite manner, but these are the six that I found most convincing.

 

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