A Biblical Case for Deaconesses

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. This week Keith Kauffman will argue for the eligibility of women in the deaconate and next week Ray Heiple will argue against their eligibility. It is our prayer that this discussion will provide an example of how to exercise charity while expressing conviction.

The war over the role of women in the church rages on. But for the evangelical, the answers to these questions must be found in Scripture. This article does not seek to answer every question, but rather it is a simple attempt to offer a biblical argument for the rightness and goodness for women to serve as deacons. This is not an open and shut case, and there is room here for good disagreement done with charity in the Lord. I want to examine three primary paths of argument: first, by nature of the role itself; second, by exegetical argument from 1 Timothy 3; and third, by proof of biblical example.

Famously the Greek word used by Paul when referencing the office of deacon is διακονος (diakonos). Derived from the occupation of ‘table-waiter’, it is a general reference to a servant or helper. The origination of the office seems to occur in Acts 6, where the apostles ask the church in Jerusalem to appoint for themselves seven men of good repute and full of wisdom (we’ll return to this later) who will administer the daily distribution of food for the widows. The idea of table waiter is used explicitly here by the apostles at the end of verse 2. The apostles were being burdened with activities that were better left to others, thus allowing them to continue in their apostolic, and dare I say elderly role. The apostles were functioning as elders of the Jerusalem church, and they needed deacons to fulfill a deaconly role. In the biblical framework, elders oversee and deacons serve. Without stretching the analogy beyond virtue, it does not seem coincidental that this beautifully aligns with the original created role of men and women in Genesis 1-2, where God has tasked men with overseeing the family and women with coming alongside to help and serve. Although διακονος is not the Greek word used in Genesis 2:18 for ‘helper’, that word (βοηθος) is only used in the New Testament for Jesus or God. Eve was created to come alongside Adam and help him, a helper to the overseer if you will. Within the family structure, women serve as helpers to the husband, and so it should at least make sense in our minds to see women serving in the helper role within church as well, those who come alongside the overseers to help by taking burden off them.

The context and meaning of Paul’s instructions to Timothy also lend credence to the argument that women can serve as deacons. At the beginning of 1 Timothy 3, Paul gives qualifications for the office of elder. In verse 8, Paul then moves to qualifications for the office of deacon. He does so by saying, “Deacons, likewise…” and then proceeding to list off qualifications which are remarkably similar to elders with the exception of the ability to teach, a role which he has already limited to men in chapter 2. In 3:11 he then literally says, “women, likewise…” and then proceeds to list a few more qualifications. Many translations will make the interpretive decision to add the word “their” and translate γυνη (gune) as “wives” instead of women, thus concluding that Paul must be giving qualifications for the wives of deacons. This is a strange translation, however, for several reasons. First, there is no warrant for adding “their” to the translation, as there is not even a textual variant that does include it. It is purely interpretive. Second, the syntax is exactly the same as verse 8, seemingly putting the women meant here in parallel to both the elders of verse 1 and the deacons in verse 8. It would seem odd for Paul to mention that the wives of deacons have qualification but not the wives of elders, a role which Paul places greater emphasis on throughout the rest of his letters. It is a bit of an argument from silence and thus not in any way conclusive, but Paul not giving qualifications for elders’ wives lends support for the women mentioned in verse 11 to be included in the office being discussed. Finally, there is the larger context of this passage. Why translators see the need to translate γυνη in chapter 3 as wives when they translate the multiple uses of γυνη in chapter 2 as ‘women’ is also rather odd. Paul seemingly lays out the distinct roles that men and women can play within the church. When it comes to corporate worship, the men are to teach and exercise authority, but not women. Yet as Paul lays out qualifications for the two offices of the church immediately after, it would seem most natural to translate consistently as ‘women.’

Thirdly, there is argument from biblical example. In Romans 16:1, Paul commends to the church in Rome their sister Phoebe, whom he calls a “servant of the church at Cenchreae.” The word Paul uses here is διακονος. He further describes her as a patron of many and of himself. Phoebe is not the only individual Paul does this with, as Tychicus is also mentioned in Colossians 4:11 in a similar fashion. Paul could indeed be using the general usage of the word in reference to these two people and not referencing their role as church officers. But at the very least, Paul is perfectly fine with using the term itself for Phoebe. Furthermore, nowhere in the New Testament does Paul restrict the office of deacon to men as he does the office of elder. Yes, the apostles in Acts 6 instruct the church to appoint seven men, but this is a narrative account of actual events, not inherently instructive for church practice. Had Paul wanted to restrict the office of deacon to men, he surely would have done so, as he had no qualms about doing so in other areas of the male/female dynamic.

None of these arguments by themselves are conclusive that women can serve as deacons. Yet taken together, they are a strong body of evidence in support of the conclusion. As an elder, I am thankful for the godly women in my church who serve faithfully as deacons. They serve lovingly and selflessly, often unnoticed, yet pivotal in their role of freeing the elders to be ministers of the Word, a role which the Bible seems to indicate that women are not only capable but eligible.  

Keith Kauffman attended University of Maryland (B.S.) and Capital Bible Seminary(M.Div.). Keith currently works at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD, working in the Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases studying the immune response to Tuberculosis. Keith serves as an elder at Greenbelt Baptist Church.


Keith Kauffman