I’m sure some readers will assume that I’m trying to launch a feminist campaign. I intend nothing of the sort. I fully affirm the Baptist Statement of Faith and Message article that specifies that the office of pastor is for males only. Still, I find the question of deaconesses (female deacons) an interesting exegetical question. This topic came to mind one Sunday morning, as my wife and I drove to church. We were listening to Dr. Robert Jeffress (pastor of FBC Dallas) on the car radio, and he was preaching about deacon ministry. As an aside, he stated that he had no objection to women serving as deacons IF the deacons of that church performed servant ministries; however, he said that he did object if the deacons ruled the church. In many SBC churches, the deacons do function like a board of directors.
Well, what about female deacons? Two Bible passages must be considered: Romans 16:1 and 1 Timothy 3:11. In Romans 16:1, Paul states that Phoebe served as a diakonon of the church in Cenchreae. The Greek word diakonon can be translated in several ways. Literally, it means “servant,” and that is how Romans 16:1 reads in several English Bibles—NKJV, ESV, NASB, NIV, and CSB. The Revised Standard Version and the New Living Translation translate diakonon as “deacon” in this verse. Which is correct?
New Testament scholars debate the answer. In the New American Commentary Robert Mounce quotes John Murray–“There is neither need nor warrant to suppose that she (Phoebe) occupied….an ecclesiastical office comparable to that of the diaconate.” Mounce also quotes James Dunn—“Phoebe is the first recorded ‘deacon’ in the history of Christianity.” The NIV Study Bible states that this “probably refers to a specific office—woman deacon or deaconess.”
In 1 Timothy 3 the Apostle Paul explains the qualifications for pastors and deacons. In our discussion, we focus on verse 11. The Greek word used here is gunaikas, which simply means “women.” Many Bible translators and interpreters believe Paul is referring to the wives of deacons. Indeed, that is how the translators of the New King James Version translate the verse: “their wives.” On the other hand, the NASB and RSV simply translate gunaikas as “women.” Which is it then—deacons’ wives or deaconesses? Often in biblical interpretation, the debaters can be divided into two camps, liberals and conservatives; however, in this matter, conservatives arrive at different conclusions.
John MacArthur wrote a pamphlet, entitled “Answering the Key Questions about Deacons.” About 1 Timothy 3 he writes, “The Greek word for ‘women’ in 1 Timothy 3:11 is gunaikas. That refers, most likely, to women who are in the office of deaconess. The only way Paul could refer to women in verse 11 would be to use the Greek word gunaikas, because there is no feminine form of diakonos. The same form of the word diakonos is both masculine and feminine; it would have been unclear for Paul to use just the term diakonos if he wanted to refer to women servers. He had to identify them as women. So, there are three distinct offices advocated in 1 Timothy 3—elders, deacons, and deaconesses” (20).
Warren Wiersbe has it both ways, he writes that Phoebe served as a deaconess in Cenchreae, while he holds that 1 Timothy 3:11 refers to wives of deacons. The late Dr. Tommy Lea, Dean of the School of Theology at Southwestern Seminary, wrote this in the New American Commentary on 1 Timothy: “The early church did have women whose special responsibility was to work with women and children (see Titus 2:4). They performed pastoral work with the sick and poor and helped at baptism” (120).
Here are my practical observations about deaconesses. First, the Baptist Statement of Faith and Message does not mention deacons, whether male or female. Most SBC churches have only male deacons. Some SBC churches have both male and female deacons. Ultimately, this falls under congregational autonomy. Second, it seems to me that women could serve well in providing care for a congregation. They can provide pastoral care for women, children, and the sick better than most men.
Why would we deny them the opportunity to do so? Why should we deny the congregation their care? Third, the matter of deaconesses would be divisive in many churches. There is no doubt about that. When I served as a pastor in Kentucky, the church was 200 years old and conservative in doctrine and practice. All our deacons were men. So, I organized a Care Corps of female church members. They ministered to the sick and elderly, and they did a great job. We did not call them deaconesses. They just did the ministry deaconesses.
What do our readers think about deaconesses?