What is a Deacon? Does the Bible Allow for Women to Serve as Deacons? #107
Happy Tuesday, friends! Tomorrow will mark our 4th week in quarantine here in California, a sentence I never thought I would write for a variety of reasons. Hope you guys are holding tight out there – holding tight to Jesus and His promises, holding tight to each other in love and humble service, and holding tight to the inner-workings and leadings of the Holy Spirit of God! Today, we are continuing in our pursuit of a biblical gender studies degree in discussing a topic that is somewhat controversial, but probably not as much as yesterday’s topic. Here is our big Bible questions: What is a deacon, and does the Bible allow women to serve as deacons? Today’s Bible passages are: Leviticus 18, Psalms 22, Ecclesiastes 1 and 1 Timothy 3.
So, when I was a kid, I went to church, and I remember two important things about deacons. #1 Deacons were the guys who were most likely to wear a suit to church. #2 I remember going to more than one church service where deacons were ordained, and that was a fascinating thing. The deacon being ordained would sit in a chair – or kneel on the ground – and the other deacons would come and lay hands on him, and whisper in his ear. I think that they were probably praying for him, but young Chase thought they were sharing secrets that were for deacons only, and that was pretty interesting. I’d have given up a pretty hefty amount of my childhood treasures to hear some of those secrets. So – what are deacons, anyway? Are they besuited men that are solemn and tell each other secrets a few times a year? Not really. Let’s go to the Bible:
Acts 6:1 6 In those days, as the disciples were increasing in number, there arose a complaint by the Hellenistic Jews against the Hebraic Jews that their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution. 2 The Twelve summoned the whole company of the disciples and said, “It would not be right for us to give up preaching the word of God to wait on tables. 3 Brothers and sisters, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we can appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 This proposal pleased the whole company. So they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a convert from Antioch. 6 They had them stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.7 So the word of God spread, the disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly in number, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith.Acts 6:1-7
A couple of translations of verse 2:
HCSB: “It would not be right for us to give up preaching about God to handle financial matters.
NLT: teaching the word of God, not running a food program.
Wycliffe: we leave the word of God, and minister to boards.
MAYBE THE BEST and MOST ACCURATE: International Children’s Bible stop our work of teaching God’s word in order to serve tables.
All of these are attempting to translate this phrase: Διακονέn Diakoneōn τράπεζαis trapezais, which means to serve/minister to 4 foots. Deacons were called to bring unity to the early church – to take care of the people’s needs and SERVE. A deacon, therefore, is a leader servant who ministers, or a minister who serves in a leading way, or a minister-servant, who leads the rest of the church in ministry/service. Deacons have a lead role in churches as ministers and as servants. Servant is a bad word to many people, but we must remember that Jesus came as a servant, exalted servanthood in His teaching, and proclaimed that – if anybody on earth wanted to be great, they MUST be a servant. Deacons get a head start on that. Let’s go to 1 Timothy 3 and read about the qualifications for deacons, and then return and discuss them.
There are a few named deacons in the Bible, and they didn’t just help out the church with table-waiting type things. Stephen was a deacon who preached the Word of God powerfully – with SIGNS and WONDERS accompanying his message (see Acts 6:8.) Some teach that only the apostles taught with signs and wonders, but this is not the case. Philip was also a deacon, and he also proclaimed the message of God accompanied by signs/miracles and wonders. So – deacons were and are important in the church and carry out practical and spiritual acts of ministry/service.
What about women? Are women allowed, according to the Bible, to serve as deacons? As I explained in yesterday’s show, I am theologically what is known as a Complementarian, which means that I believe men and women have equal value and worth, but different roles in the Kingdom of God and the family. Paul wrote yesterday in 1 Timothy 2, that he did not allow a woman to have authority over a man, and in 1 Timothy 3, and Titus, he is going lay out two major offices in the church: Elders/overseers and deacons. We’ll talk about elders/overseers in a few days – probably when we get to Titus, but most (but not all!) Protestants equate elders/overseers with pastors/shepherds, and I believe that, from everything I can see in Scripture, that the office of pastor/shepherd should be a male. Practically every Complementarian agrees with that position. Practically every Egalitarian – which is a school of thought that says the Bible does not differentiate at all between the sexes in terms of role and function, does not. More on that in a few days. The one area where many Bible-believing Complementarians don’t necessarily agree on is in our question of the day: Does the Bible allow for women to be deaconesses. Let’s consider a couple of Bible passages:
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church in Cenchreae. everything.Romans 16:1 CSB
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.Romans 16:1 NIV
So – two translations, with two different words! The issue, as you might have guessed, is that the Greek word ‘Διακονέn Diakoneōn’ can be translated as ‘deaconess’ OR ‘servant.’ So – was Paul commending Phoebe as a deaconess, or as a servant? That’s the rub, and our big question of the day!
Here is my take on the issue: in 1st Timothy and Titus, Paul gives qualifications for elders/overseers and deacons. That seems to me, and to many churches, to be two different offices in the church. The elders seem to be tasked with leading and teaching, and the deacons with serving and ministering. Some churches, however – particularly baptist churches – seem to blend those two offices into one office, and usually call that one office a ‘deacon.’ In those cases when that happens, the deacons usually serve as a hybrid of deacons and elders. Other churches have two separate offices – the deacons serve and minister, and the elders lead and preach. When a church is set up in that manner, I see no scriptural issue whatsoever with having female deacons, because the Bible makes it very clear that there were women who did have powerful ministry and serving roles in the early church, including Phoebe, Chloe, Philip’s daughters (who prophesied), Priscilla, and many others. When the primary role of deacons in a church is to minister and serve, then I believe that it is a good thing to have female deacons, because I believe the Bible is very clear that ALL are called to minister/serve – men and women. Three very prominent Baptists, who are also Complementarians, agree wholeheartedly with this, John Piper, David Platt, John Calvin and Thomas Schreiner:
Were Women Deacons? By John Piperhttps://www.desiringgod.org/messages/biblical-eldership-session-1
Probably yes. There are four observations that incline me 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 in1 Timothy 2:12 (or anywhere else) which is inappropriate for women to perform in the church.
4. In Romans 16:1, Phoebe is very probably called a deacon. “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon(ess) of the church at Cenchreae, that you may receive her in the Lord as befits the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a helper of many and of myself as well.”
It appears then that the role of deacon is of such a nature that nothing stands in the way of women’s full participation in it. 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.
Some worry that appointing women as deacons violates 1 Timothy 2:12, where women are prohibited from teaching or exercising authority over men. We must recognize, however, that deacons occupy a different position from elders/pastors/overseers. The latter is one office, as Ben Merkle has convincingly argued, in which two qualities are required that are not required of deacons. First, elders must have an ability to teach biblical truth and correct deviant teaching (1 Tim. 3:2; 5:17; Titus 1:9). Second, they must have gifts of leadership (1 Tim. 3:4–5; 5:17; Titus 1:7). And remarkably, teaching and exercising authority over men is the very thing disallowed for women in 1 Timothy 2:12. Women therefore may serve as deacons because the diaconal office is one of serving, not leading. Deacons don’t teach and exercise authority, but rather help in the church’s ministry.Thomas Schreiner, pastor and professor at the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/bible-support-female-deacons-yes/
In many Baptist churches, deacons along with the staff pastor or pastors lead the church, but in these instances the deacons are really functioning as elders—and in such cases the deacons should be called elders, pastors, or overseers.
The earliest evidence we have is that deacons helped care for the poor and sick. There is some freedom in how deacons serve, since the New Testament doesn’t prescribe precise responsibilities. In the church I serve as an elder, deacons carry out many responsibilities. We have role-specific diaconates—that is, deacons of finance, of hospitality, of ushering, of greeting, of building maintenance, of sound, and so on. The deacons don’t meet together regularly as a group, since their tasks differ dramatically.
Christians who love God’s Word differ on whether women may serve as deacons, but the evidence presented here suggests they may do so. And in such a ministry they are a great blessing to the church, and the women who serve are encouraged as they use their gifts.
Platt Secret Church 2010: And the last question there, what about women? We’ve seen that elders are men. What about deacons? And basically there are two schools of thought on this one. Can women be deacons? There are two schools of thought. One says yes and the other says no. So here’s the deal… there are Bible-believing scholars and pastors that I respect greatly that are on both sides of this picture. Some of you might be thinking, “Well, look at 1st Timothy 3, like, it’s pretty easy. Like, it says, ‘Deacons must be dignified, not double-tongued,’ et cetera. And then it says in 11, ‘Their wives, likewise, must be dignified, not slanderous, but servant-minded, faithful in all things. Each deacon can be the husband of one wife.’” So some say, “Well, that just – it’s that easy.”David Platt – Secret Church, 2010
I don’t think it’s necessarily that easy here. Four things I want you to think about that point to what I think is a possibility that, yes, yes, women can be deacons in the church. And I want you to follow with me. Number one, consider the translation. When you get to verse 11 there, and you probably have a note, and it’s not here, but in your Bible you’d have a note that’s at the bottom that says the “their” there is – the “their” there – their wives there, is it not in some manuscripts? And the picture is, many people, many Bible scholars, believe that this is just talking about women. And there’s ambiguity there. Consider the transition here. Paul transitions at that point in the same way that he transitioned when he went from elders to deacons, then to the third picture of what some would say deaconesses.
Consider the elder’s wives, like, “Why did he not say anything about elder’s wives, especially when an elder had more responsibility in the home and more leadership responsibility in the church in a sense? They said nothing about elder’s wives.” And then consider what I call the Phoebe factor. Romans 16:1, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae,” and the Word there for servant is deaconess, deaconess, which would seem to point to a deacon role.
Now, here’s the deal. What I think is important, because there are all kinds of different pictures of church structure represented around this room. And there are churches represented in this room that, if I could be honest, deacons basically serve as elders. And deacons are more of an overseeing body. If that’s the case in a church then I would not say, then, women should be deacons, because that – they’re basically serving as elders in an overall role. But when it comes to, okay, somebody leading out in a hospitality ministry, somebody leading out in a variety of different ministries and you look in the New Testament and you see 17 different women that Paul mentions that are in significant leadership positions in the church doing different things in the church, serving in different ways in the church. I think the reality is if we have a proper understanding of elders and deacons and where they fit, I think it makes total sense that it’s certainly possible. So how it all works – every member of the church as a minister of the gospel. Ephesians 4, makes that clear: Every member of the church, minister.
“He first commends to them Phoebe, to whom he gave this Epistle (of Romans) to be brought to them; and, in the first place, he commends her on account of her office, for she performed a most honorable and a most holy function in the Church; and then he adduces another reason why they ought to receive her and to show her every kindness, for she had always been a helper to all the godly.” John Calvin, Commentary on Romans.
“Deaconesses were created not to appease God with songs or unintelligible mumbling, not to live the rest of the time in idleness, but to discharge the public ministry of the church toward the poor and to strive with all zeal, constancy, and diligence in the task of love.” John Calvin, Institutes, IV. XIII. 19.