A Biblical and Pastoral Vision for the Office of Deacon (Part Three)
Whereas the NT is quite clear that the office of Elder is restricted to qualified men, there is considerable and on-going dispute among evangelicals on the question of whether women can serve in the office of Deacon. Here are my reasons for saying Yes to this question.
(1) Although the word for “deacon” can describe a non-technical ministry of serving to which all Christians are called, I believe Romans 16:1 is speaking of the office of deacon to which one may be appointed. Phoebe is not merely said to be a servant or minister but is “a servant of the church at Cenchreae.” She is also said to be “a patron of many” and of Paul himself, an indication that she likely supported the apostle financially.
(2) Benjamin L. Merkle (40 Questions about Elders and Deacons) confirms this and points out that “When the generic meaning of diakonos (i.e., “servant”) is intended, the text usually reads, “servant of the Lord” or something similar. This is the only place Paul speaks of someone being a diakonos of a local church. Tychicus is called a “minister [or servant] in the Lord” (Eph. 6:21), Epaphras is named a “minister [servant] of Christ” (Col. 1:7), and Timothy is labeled a “servant of Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 4:6). Because only Phoebe is specifically said to be a servant of a local congregation (the church at Cenchreae), it is likely that she was a “deacon” of her church” (251).
(3) Robert Strimple, long-time professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, points out that when Paul refers to Phoebe as (literally), “being (ousan-feminine accusative present participle) . . . diakonon” he is using a participial phrase that is consistently used to identify a person’s performance of office in the New Testament. Examples of this usage are found in John 11:49 (‘Caiaphas, being high priest that year’), Acts 18:12 (‘Gallio, being the proconsul of Achaia’), and Acts 24:10 (‘Felix, being a judge to this nation’). The case for reading Phoebe’s description as one of office is a strong one. Indeed, Calvin says that Paul is commending Phoebe ‘first on account of her office’ to aid her as she discharges her ministry in Rome.”
(4) In 1 Timothy 3:8-13 the question is whether Paul is referring to the “wives” of deacons or to “women” as those who, much like men, can be appointed to this office. The evidence seems to be evenly weighted in this debate, but I find the arguments for women as deacons to be persuasive. Among the several considerations are these.
First, contrary to the ESV translation, the possessive pronoun “their” at the start of v. 11 does not appear in the Greek text. The insertion of this word reflects the view of the translators that the females in view here are the “wives” of the male deacons. In fact, if Paul had wanted to speak unmistakably of the wives of deacons it seems reasonable to think he would have included the possessive pronoun. It speaks loudly to me that he didn’t.
Second, Paul introduces the office of Elder and their qualifications in vv. 1-7. He then introduces the office of deacon in v. 8 with the phrase, “Deacons likewise . . .” He begins v. 11 in much the same way, suggesting that he is introducing yet another office, namely, deaconess. He writes in v. 11, “Women likewise . . .”
Third, although there is evidence for both sides, the word translated “women” in v. 11 (or “wives” in the ESV) can refer either to females generally or to wives in particular. The word itself does not provide decisive proof of either position. However, it must be admitted that the use of gunaikas in vv. 2 and 12 to refer to “wives” suggests that it might also means the same thing in v. 11. But this alone is not sufficient to convince me that Paul is talking about the “wives” of deacons rather than “female” deacons.
Fourth, an argument that carries much weight with me is the fact that Paul says nothing about the qualifications of Elders’ wives. Why would he list qualifications for the wives of deacons but say nothing at all about the wives of Elders, especially given the fact that being an Elder carried far more spiritual authority and responsibility than being a Deacon? Why would Paul hold the wives of deacons to a higher standard than the wives of Elders?
Therefore I conclude that there are two offices in the NT: that of Elder and that of Deacon, and that whereas the former office is restricted to men, the latter may be filled by both qualified men and women.
One final question is whether we should refer to a female deacon as a deaconess. Although it is surely permissible, I don’t think it is helpful. In fact, in the one text where a woman is specifically said to be a deacon (Rom. 16:1), the masculine form of the noun is used, not the feminine form. So, there are not three offices in the local church: Elder, Deacon, and Deaconess, but only two.