A Word on Women and Wives
The Greek noun word Γυναῖκας (Gynaikas) has been translated with both the English word “women” (NASB 1995) and with the word “wives” (NKJV and ESV) in various places in Scripture.
In 1 Timothy 3:11, we read:
Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things (1 Tim. 3:11, NASB 1995).
Likewise their wives must be reverent, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things (1 Tim. 3:11, NKJV).
Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things (1 Tim. 3:11, ESV).
Γυναῖκας ὡσαύτως σεμνάς, μὴ διαβόλους, νηφαλίους, πιστὰς ἐν πᾶσιν (1 Tim. 3:11).
This same Greek word is used in 1 Timothy 3:2: “An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2, NASB 1995); “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2, NKJV); “Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2, ESV); δεῖ οὖν τὸν ἐπίσκοπον ἀνεπίλημπτον εἶναι, μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα (1 Tim. 3:2). It is of interest to note that at 3:2 it is translated as “wife” in the NASB 1995, NKJV, and ESV. In fact, it is translated “wife” at 3:2 in all the major English translations I checked. This same Greek word is also translated “wife” in 3:12 (“Deacons must be husbands of only one wife” (1 Tim. 3:12, NASB 1995). Paul uses the same Greek word in 1 Timothy 5:9, “A widow is to be put on the list only if she is not less than sixty years old, having been the wife of one man” (1 Tim. 5:9, NASB 1995) and Titus 1:6, “namely, if any man is above reproach, the husband of one wife, (Titus 1:6, NASB 1995). Both instances are translated “wife.” He does the same thing outside the Pastoral Epistles. Ephesians 5:22 says, “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (Eph. 5:22, NASB 1995; he uses the same Greek word in Col. 3:18 and it is translated “wives” there as well).
The question that we must bring to 1 Timothy 3:11 is this: Why the change in translation in some English versions from “wife” in 3:2 and 12 to “women” in 3:11 (e.g., ASV 1901; NASB 1977; NASB 1995) and what does Paul intend by the word Γυναῖκας (Gynaikas)? Because I have not spoken to the various translation committees of these versions, I do not know why they made the change. There are, however, good reasons to translate both uses of the word the same, as will be displayed below. This verse has at least four options as far as its intended meaning goes: 1. the women are part of the deaconate; 2. “they are ‘deaconesses’ distinguished from but comparable with the διακόνοι [diakonoi; deacons]” (Knight, Pastoral Epistles, 171); 3. “they are female assistants to the διακόνοι [diakonoi; deacons]” (Knight, PE, 171); 4. they are the wives of the διακόνοι [diakonoi; deacons]” (Knight, PE, 171). I will argue for the fourth view.
If a form of γυνή (gynē) is translated “wife” in 3:2, 3:12, 5:9, Titus 1:6, Ephesians 5:22, and Colossians 3:22 for contextual reasons, could it be the same for 1 Timothy 3:11? I think the answer is yes and here’s why. It is clear in 3:2 that Paul is referring to the wife of an overseer. The context of the use of γυνή (gynē) makes this clear. The same could be said of 1 Timothy 3:12, 5:9, Titus 1:6, Ephesians 5:22, and Colossians 3:18. Though our interest is in 1 Timothy 3:11, these texts give us a flavor for Pauline usage and intent. Does the context of 1 Timothy 3:11 warrant “women” or wives” and what does Paul intend by Γυναῖκας (Gynaikas) here?
Note that 1 Timothy 3:8-13 moves from the qualifications of overseers (1 Tim. 3:1-7) to the qualifications of deacons. It does so in these words: “Deacons likewise must be men of dignity” (1 Tim. 3:8, NASB 1995). The Greek word translated “Deacons” is Διακόνους (Diakonous). It is a masculine plural noun. A slightly different form of this word, διακόνοι [diakonoi], is used in verse 12. There it is masculine plural as well. Verses 8-9 deal with the personal character of deacons and verse 10 deals with the testing of deacons. The Γυναῖκας (Gynaikas) of verse 11 are distinguished from the Διακόνους (Diakonous) of verse 11 in two ways. This distinction is first indicated by the adverb “likewise.” The same adverb functions to distinguish “overseers” from “deacons” in 3:8. The distinction is indicated secondly by the fact that the group discussed in verse 11 are called Γυναῖκας (Gynaikas) . Verses 8-13 move from the overseers to the deacons. Verse 11 moves from the personal qualifications of deacons to other qualifications. Verse 11 moves from the deacons themselves to their marriages (vv. 11-12a) and families (v. 12b). This order from personal to marital and then family is the same as is found in 3:1-2a (personal), 2b (marital), and 4-5 (family) with reference to overseers. The transition from personal qualifications (3:8-10) to marital and family (3:11-12) is a natural one given the pattern with the overseers. There is good reason, then, to translate Γυναῖκας (Gynaikas) as “wives.” It follows the pattern just mentioned and sets the stage for the domestic life of deacons. It also follows a pattern in Paul that when he uses a form of γυνή (gynē) in the context of marriage the word indicates wife (e.g., 1 Tim. 5:9; Titus 1:6; Eph. 5:22; and Col. 3:22).
Something else is of interest. If 3:8 begins the section on deacons, it would seem awkward for Paul to intend “deaconesses” or “women” not the wives of deacons in 3:11 only to go back to deacons and their own wives in verse 12. Viewing 1 Timothy 3:8 and 11-13 may help with this observation. Here is the ESV on those verses:
Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain" 91 Tim. 3:8).
"Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus" (1 Tim. 3:11-13).
Here's the point: To view verse 11 as indicating deaconesses or women other than the wives of deacons seems forced, given that Paul is clearly referring to deacons in verses 8-10 and 12 and 13, Paul deals with the wives of overseers earlier in the chapter, and Paul uses a form of γυνή (gynē) in other passages (e.g., 1 Tim. 3:2, 5:9; Titus 1:6; Eph. 5:22; and Col. 3:22) while discussing those who are married to someone mentioned in the context.
Another final observation is this: Every time a noun form of the word for “deacon” (vv. 8 and 12) or a participial form (v. 13) is used in 1 Timothy 3 it is always masculine and plural. When Paul talks about overseers he refers to them in the masculine gender. He does the same thing for deacons.
For these reasons, I think it best to understand verse 11 as referring to the wives of deacons.
Richard C. Barcellos, is pastor of Grace Reformed Baptist Church, Palmdale, CA and Associate Professor of Exegetical Theology at IRBS Theological Seminary. He is the author of Getting the Garden Right: Adam’s Work and God’s Rest in Light of Christ, The Covenant of Works: Its Confessional and Scriptural Basis, The Lord’s Supper as a Means of Grace: More than a Memory, and Trinity and Creation: A Scriptural and Confessional Account (forthcoming from Christian Focus/Mentor).