The role of women in the church. It can be a sticky wicket sometimes, you know? Some things are pretty clear. Like, women aren’t to pastor churches. That’s clear in Scripture. Complementarians and egalitarians disagree on this point for various reasons, but none of those reasons include disagreeing on what a pastor is. Both camps pretty much agree that the pastor is the primary undershepherd of the church.
But sometimes, the sticking point is the fact that, even within our own camp, we disagree, or have different perspectives on, the definition of a term. And that can leave doctrinally sound, complementarian, brothers and sisters in Christ in a bit of a quandary. We start off with the same orthodoxy but end up with differing orthopraxies.
Such is the case with the question of women serving as deacons or deaconesses. Different churches define these terms differently. But what does the Bible say?
We find the English word deacon in only two passages in the New Testament: in 1 Timothy 3:8-13, where God spells out the biblical qualifications for deacons, and in Philippians 1:1, Paul’s greeting to “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.”. Although the English word “deacon” isn’t used in this passage, a significant sector of Christian thought considers Acts 6:1-6 to be a description of the appointment of the first deacons in the New Testament church. In fact, this idea is so widely accepted that one reliable English translation titles this passage with the section heading “The First Seven Deacons Appointed”.
The Greek word διάκονος (diákonos), “deacon,” used or implied in these passages, simply means “servant” and “a waiter- at table or in other menial duties”. It comes from the root διάκω (diákō), which means “to run on errands,” and involves neither teaching nor authority. As you can see, this is a position of humility, anonymity, and servanthood, not power, influence, and rulership. We can see this from the description of the duties of the seven chosen men – presumably the first deacons – in Acts, who “waited on tables” providing food for the church’s widows.
Most churches would basically be in agreement with all of this (at least “on paper”) up to this point. Where we start to diverge is, how does this flesh itself out in practice in the local church body? Though there are undoubtedly more, I’ve run into five main perspectives on the diaconate in the church (the descriptors that follow are only general touchstones based solely on my own personal experience, they are not universally definitive / applicable. I gotta call them something, folks.) :
- The traditional Southern Baptist perspective: The office of deacon exists and is restricted to men. Deacons must meet the biblical qualifications for the office, and are set apart to the diaconate by way of the ordination process (nomination, examination, voting, and the laying on of hands). There is no category of deaconess. All Christians are expected to be servants.
- John MacArthur’s perspective: Because diákonos means “servant,” and all Christians are to be servants, all church members who serve in some way are deacons. There is no office, position, or official title of deacon.
- The Baptistic hybrid perspective: Various blendings of the traditional Southern Baptist and John MacArthur perspectives. Some churches have the traditional, ordained male diaconate with a separate, non-ordained, less formal group of women deaconesses who see to the tangible needs of women and children when called upon by the deacons. Some churches have a group of non-ordained deacons and deaconesses a bit more set apart than the “everybody’s a deacon” perspective. The deacons generally minister to men and the deaconesses to women and children, or each deacon or deaconess is attached to a specific ministry in the church (deaconess of media, deacon of benevolence ministry, etc.)
- The progressive – egalitarian perspective: Usually found in “mainstream” (i.e. theologically liberal) Protestant churches. The office of deacon does exist and is open to both men and women who undergo the same ordination process, perform the same duties, hold the same positions of authority (if any), etc. There is no need for a separate category of deaconess.
- The Charismatic – egalitarian perspective: Usually found in Charismatic churches with female “pastors” or co-“pastors”. The formal office or position of both deacon and deaconess exist and may operate somewhat independently from one another. Both deacons and deaconesses seem to function as elders in some ways. Deaconesses often operate in a “ruling elders meets women’s ministry” sort of way.
The two final categories are obviously unbiblical because they are fruit of the poisonous tree (egalitarianism), but what about the first three?
The issue of deaconesses and female deacons recently placed itself in my path, so I wanted to take a fresh look at it to make sure my beliefs and position are as much in line with Scripture as possible. It never hurts to do that, right? We grow in Christ, we grow in the Word, and we strive to increasingly align with Scripture accordingly. Let me share with you where I currently am on all of this in case it might help as you think through your own beliefs.
I continue to hold to the “traditional Southern Baptist perspective” on the diaconate. I think the Bible more robustly supports this perspective than the “John MacArthur” or “hybrid” perspectives for the following reasons:
- I have long said on the issue of women pastors and elders that if you will take out the chapter and verse markings and look at 1 Timothy 2:11-3:7 as one continuous stream of thought (as it was originally written), the passage starts off by describing who is not qualified for the office of elder (women) and why, followed by who is qualified for the office of elder (men) and how. I do not usually extend that passage to include 3:8-13, because what I’m usually asked about is women preaching and pastoring, not women being deacons. But when dealing with the topic of women serving as deacons, there is no reason not to include 3:8-13 in that continuous stream of thought (i.e. women are excluded in 2:11-15, qualified men are described in 3:1-13), and every reason to include it, as the word “likewise” in verse 8 indicates that 8-13 is part of the same thought as 2:11-3:7.
- The word “likewise” in 3:8 also indicates the similarity of 3:8-13 to the form and content of 3:1-7. There’s no transition or contrast between the two passages indicating that “pastor/elder is a set apart office for qualified men only” in 1-7, but “deacon is not a set apart office for qualified men only” in 8-13. In fact, “likewise” would seem to indicate to the contrary – that they are both set apart offices of the church for qualified men only.
- Chapter 3, verses 1-2 speak of deacons as husbands with wives, indicating that deacons are men. If Paul meant that women were qualified for the office of deacon, there is a way to make that clear in Greek. He differentiates between “wives” and “women in general” in other passages – why not here? And if he meant that women could be deacons, why not make that crystal clear in 3:8-13, since he just said basically the same things about elders being the husband of one wife in 3:2-5? (And we certainly use that qualification to help prove that only men can be pastors/elders, don’t we?)
- I think the preponderance of evidence points to the seven men of Acts 6 being deacons, or at least the precedent for deacons, regardless of whether this was an impromptu, temporary assemblage of men or whether they served the church on a permanent basis. They were a group of men, set apart to serve. No women were appointed. This was the example later codified and explained in 1 Timothy 3:8-13.
- If Phoebe, or any of the other women of Romans 16, were considered “deacons” on par with the seven men in Acts 6 or the parameters of 1 Timothy 3:8-13, why would translators not simply render Romans 16:1 as “deacon” instead of servant? Choosing those two different words in those two different passages seems to draw a distinction between someone who is qualified and set apart to the office of deacon and any random Christian who serves in some way.
- To say that all Christians are to serve, therefore all Christians are deacons is imprecise and confusing. All Christians are also to share the gospel. Should we therefore say that all Christians are evangelists in the Ephesians 4:11-12 sense?
- Look at the widows of godly character in 1 Timothy 5:3-16. These are godly women who, in addition to having served their families well, have a history of serving the church prior to being widowed. Notice verse 11: “having a reputation for good works: if she…has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work.” Does this passage – just two chapters after qualifications for deacons – indicate in any way that these women were set apart as, or carried the title of “deacon” or “deaconess”? Does it indicate that women need to be set apart as deacons / deaconesses or bear the title of “deacon” or “deaconess” in order to serve in these ways? No. The women of 1 Timothy 5 took it upon themselves to fill the needs of the saints they were aware of – no office or title needed, just as most Christian women continue to do today.
Now, I say all of that to explain how I arrived at the beliefs and position I hold on this issue. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, to be construed to mean that I think those who hold to the “John MacArthur” or “hybrid” perspectives are wrong, unbiblical, heretical, or false teachers. Not at all.
I stand shoulder to shoulder, without a second thought about it, with many who hold the “John MacArthur” or “hybrid” perspectives. I don’t think either of those perspectives, as I’ve described and understand them, are unbiblical. Personally, I would have no problem joining a church that held to either of those perspectives. My main point of divergence with those two perspectives is that calling women who serve “deacons” or “deaconesses” – because of the wide array of definitions that can be attached to those two terms – is confusing and could lead someone to think a church is doing something unbiblical when it actually is not.
Certainly, it is biblically right and good for women – individually or as a set aside group, titled or untitled – to act as servants, care for widows, run errands, wait tables, and carry out menial tasks in service to their brothers and sisters in Christ. We see Paul commending Phoebe and the other women of Romans 16 for doing these very sorts of things. In fact, most Christian women who are faithful church members are already doing things like that. The Bible says “serve one another,” so every Christian ought to be serving the church in some way.
But because of the current confusion and different perspectives in the church over what deacons actually are and who may or may not serve as a deacon, if a church wishes to set aside a group of women as servants, the pastor and other leadership might want to consider call them something other than deacons or deaconesses. Just a thought.
In the end, whatever our position on the finer points of deacons, female deacons, and deaconesses, I think we can all agree that, as brothers and sisters, we are all to serve one another in love and humility.
In the end, whatever our position on the finer points of deacons, female deacons, and deaconesses, I think we can all agree that, as brothers and sisters, we are all to serve one another in love and humility.Tweet
As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace:
For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.1 Peter 4:11, Mark 10:45, Philippians 2:3-4
The issue of women serving as deacons or deaconesses arose for me after my most recent request for recommendations of doctrinally sound churches to add to my list of Reader Recommended Churches. I noticed that a significant number of the recommended churches listed female deacons or deaconesses on their websites, and that these churches also seemed to be doctrinally sound, usually Reformed or Calvinistic churches, often pastored by graduates of The Master’s Seminary – churches I would normally add to the list in a heartbeat.
In the past, I’ve received a handful of recommendations for churches with female deacons, but they were all of the “progressive-” or “Charismatic- egalitarian perspectives,” and were excluded from the list for that reason. Therefore, my initial inclination upon seeing women listed as “deacons” or “deaconesses” on a church website was to exclude these churches from the list.
But because there is such a dearth of doctrinally sound churches available out there, I didn’t want to exclude any church that didn’t, biblically speaking, have to be excluded. So I revisited the issue of deaconesses and female deacons.
Going forward, I’ll be including these doctrinally sound churches with deaconesses / female deacons (as long as they appear to hold to the “John MacArthur” or “hybrid” perspectives). I’ve made a note on the list that some of the churches listed have deaconesses / female deacons, and that if a searcher is uncomfortable with that idea, or has questions about the church’s position, she should ask the pastor about it.
Can women serve as deacons in the church? at GotQuestions
Was Phoebe a Deaconess? at Grace to You
Can Women Serve as Deacons? at WWUTT
The Office of Deacon by New Beginnings Church
Qualified Servants for the Church–Deacons, Part 1 by John MacArthur
“No. Women May NOT be Pastors.” But Can They be Deacons? at Truth+Fire