A Biblical Case Against the Deaconess
Editor's note: Theology for Everyone (TfE) recognizes that churches and denominations hold different views on the deaconate. We also recognize that these are intramural debates among those who embrace the essentials of the faith. However, we also believe that iron sharpens iron. We believe that Christians should be able to discuss differences without becoming angry or defensive. In that spirit we are going to run two articles on the diaconate that express different views on who is eligible for the office. Last week Keith Kauffman argued for women functioning as deaconesses and this week Ray Heiple will argue against the eligibility of women in that role. It is our prayer that this discussion will provide an example of how to exercise charity while expressing conviction.
The question of women deacons, like all doctrinal questions, must be resolved by recourse to Scripture. If the Scriptures speak clearly on the matter, then nothing else matters. If the Scriptures do not speak clearly on the matter, then we have no right to take a dogmatic position on it. Accordingly, what the persecutor Pliny the Younger thought of his two women captives, or what the Apostolic Constitutions say, or how Calvin’s office of “widow” might apply, or anything else we might see speaking to the issue are all beside the point. If Scripture teaches that God calls women as deacons, how dare we not fully ordain them to the office of deacon? If Scripture teaches that men only are to hold the office, how dare we ordain women to it?
Acts 6:1-6 is the locus classicus for the distinction between elders and deacons. The apostles created the office to “wait tables” (literally “to deacon”) so that they could give their focus to “prayer and to the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:4). Hence, the distinction of the office of mercy and service of the deacon, with the office of word and prayer of the minister. In creating the office of deacon the apostles instructed, “Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business” (Acts 6:3). They explicitly charged them to select men even though the dispute concerned exclusively women (widows). Moreover, the apostles said these deacons were to be “appoint[ed] over this business.” Some claim that the office of deacon is not one of authority and so women can be appointed to it. On the contrary, the Greek word used in this text means “to assign someone a position of authority, appoint, put in charge” (BDAG Lexicon). And Scripture explicitly teaches in 1 Tim. 2:12 “And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.” Furthermore, it appeals to the order of creation in making this restriction “For Adam was formed first, then Eve” (1 Tim. 2:13). In other words the restriction of church authority cannot be culturally bound.
Now because Acts 6:1-6, clearly ascribes authority and requires the choosing of men, some claim that this text does not refer to the office of deacon, but something unique—the office of Evangelist—and the examples of Phillip and Stephen (two of the seven) are then claimed as evidence. But the problem with this solution is that if this text is not about the office of deacon, then we have no idea what deacons do! There is no other text in the New Testament that describes the work of deacons. And if we lose this text with reference to the diaconal office, then we do not know how deacons differ from elders and ministers. With regard to Phillip and Stephen, there is nothing preventing them from being both deacons and evangelists.
Sometimes Phoebe in Rom. 16:1 is said to hold the office of deacon because the Greek word diaconos is used to describe her. This word (as a noun) is found thirty times in the New Testament. Eight times in the gospels, where it is always translated “servant,” twenty-two times in Paul’s epistles, of which fourteen times it is translated “minister” (as it references ministers of the gospel), and twice in Rom. 13:4 regarding the civil magistrate. Only four times does the word diaconos refer to the New Testament office of deacon, unless this is the fifth. Thus, if we go by the presence of the word alone, we should conclude that Phoebe is a minister of the gospel, as that is what diaconos most often refers to. We notice historically other than the RSV—notorious for its removal of the word “propitiation” from Scripture—no major English translation translates the word here in reference to Phoebe as “deacon” but always as “servant” (so ASV, BBE, ERV, ESV, GNV, KJV, NASB, NET, NIV, NKJ, TNT, WEB, YLT). Recently, however the translation “deacon” or “deaconess” is becoming more popular as it is the Bible translators, and not Paul, who show themselves to be culturally bound. Thus, the original NIV of 1984 rendered it “servant,” and the original Living Bible “woman.” The updated NIV of 2011 and the New Living Bible say “deacon.” Both of these translations are known to be among the modern “gender neutral” Bibles that purposely remove many masculine pronouns to appeal to the current view of sex and gender.
When Paul commends Phoebe to the Roman church, he does it at the beginning of a list of some twenty-six personal greetings, by which he closes his letter. A sound hermeneutic does not find normative instruction in narrative description. Accordingly, if we want to know what the Bible says about deacons, we must turn to the one didactic passage of 1 Tim. 3:8-13, where the explicit purpose of the text is to set forth what deacons must be. Verses 8-10, and 12-13 describe all deacons, for clearly all and not merely male deacons must be “reverent, not double-tongued, holding the mystery of the faith with a clear-conscience, tested,” etc. And just as clearly all and not merely male deacons “who have served well obtain for themselves a good standing and great boldness in the faith” promised in v.13. Verse 11 which we left out reads “Likewise their wives must be reverent, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things” (NKJ). The Greek word for “wives” is the same word for “women.” If Paul wanted to say wives he would have used this word, if he wanted to say women he would have used this word. However, if we are to understand this verse as referring to female deacons exclusively, then why are there no similar male only instructions? Paul never begins “Men,” but v. 8 “Deacons must be,” and again v. 12 “Let deacons be.” And why are female deacons again commanded to be reverent in v. 11, when all deacons were already commanded to be reverent in v. 8? But the real clincher that this verse must be about deacons’ wives and not female deacons is found in v. 12 where Paul commands “Let deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.” This verse must be talking about all deacons as the particle “for” at the beginning of v. 13 makes clear, for it makes the promise of reward to all faithful deacons in v. 13 contingent upon requirement of being the good husbands and fathers of v. 12. And female deacons cannot be “husbands of one wife, ruling… their own houses well.”
Ray Heiple (M.Div. RPTS, D.Min. RPTS) is the Senior Pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church (PCA), host for the TV program Origins (CTVN), teacher of Bible and Apologetics at Robinson Township Christian School (RTCS), and author of Preaching with Biblical Motivation (P&R, 2017), and Pocket History of the PCA (CDM, 2017).