In this fourth and final post of women in ministry, I will deal with one that has brought significant discussion in NAPARC churches: the issue of deacons.
The issue itself goes back to the previous General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, in which an overture to the Assembly’s Overtures Committee about allowing presbyteries to allow for women to serve as deaconesses. The sending presbytery did rescend the overture but has not made the issue go away. For many, the question of women deaconesses goes back a few years, more than I am presently aware. Thus, this article will deal with the subject of the Bible’s teaching on who can serve as deacons in the church.
I want to begin by stating my position, and then proceed to argue from there: I hold that there is a place for deaconesses. I have tried working through it myself for quite a long time, going back and forth on whether or not the Bible’s witness allows women to serve as deacons. Note: I am open to having my mind changed, and I am thoroughly expecting pushback on my position in some capacity or other from my brothers and friends in my tradition.
I am also not saying that, given the PCA’s position in the Book of Church Order, I would not recognize deaconesses as an ordained office, but would see them as commissioned aids. I believe that there is no problem in identifying the gifts of particular women in service to the local church, and have no problem setting women apart as helpers or facilitators to the ordained male deacon board.
My view is not entirely without precedent in church history. For one thing, Princeton greats Charles Hodge and B.B. Warfield both recognized that there is a place in the local church for having deaconesses. In another instance, one of my biggest ministry heroes, James Montgomery Boice, implemented a board of deaconesses during his ministry at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. There are more things that I could pull from in church history, but I do think this is sufficient for this brief post to recognize my position is not without precedent in history.
How to Understand 1 Timothy 2:8-13
One must note at the outset that the word “likewise” in v. 8 marks a transition into a new subject, from discussing elders to discussing deacons. This point will become important shortly. In v. 8-10, one can see clearly that many of the qualifications for deacons are similar to that of elders: “men of dignity,” “not double-tongued,” or “addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain,” and holding the faith with a clear conscience. Also, deacons ought to be above reproach, as all elders must be as well. Why? Because personal holiness and spiritual qualifications matter when one is representing the local church, i.e., the people of God.
It also notes in v. 12-13 that deacons also ought to be good managers of their homes, that male deacons must be the husbands of one wife and be able to keep their children in line. The nobility that comes with maintaining these standards obtains for themselves “high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.”In a word, the office of deacon is a high calling and one that mustn’t be filled by just anyone. People of great spiritual maturity and wisdom ought to be the ones who serve the church in this sort of capacity.
What About 1 Timothy 3:11?
It is clear, especially from v. 12, that men specifically are called out to be deacons, given the fact it says a deacon must be the husband of one wife. It makes sense that this would be the case, since many churches that I am familiar with end up seeing some of their deacons become elders in the church. One should expect that, at least in some cases, men who serve as deacons will someday become elders. I have a friend who is in seminary now who is hoping to become an ordained pastor in his Reformed denomination still serves his local church as a deacon. It is helping him to serve the church and cultivate his love for the church, both of which will be necessary for him as a pastor.
But, what about v. 11? It says in the NASB, “Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things.”There are two ways of understanding who this verse is talking about: 1.) Women in general, or 2.) The wives of deacons. Some translators take the liberty of going one way or the other with how to translate the text. The English Standard, New King James, and King James versions all translate the Greek word for “women” or “wives” as “their wives.” The New American Standard, New International, and Douay-Rheims versions translate it merely as “women.” So, which is it?
Those who translate it as “their wives” do so is for consistency. In 3:2 and 3:12, the same word is “their wives.” Second, if we are to understand it broadly as “women,” then why does Paul not mention the marital status of these women as he does with elders and male deacons? It’d make more sense to see it translated as “their wives.” Third, it would also make sense for this qualification is made in the middle of male deacon’s qualifications, instead of breaking in the middle to address women deacons and the move back male deacons.
Now, I maintain that this should be translated as “women” broadly, and not merely “their wives.” First, the usage of the word in v. 11, against v. 2 and 12, lacks the definite article necessary for me to believe that I should understand the concept narrowly as “their wives” against “women” broadly speaking. Second, it does not make sense to me that if this were the wives of deacons, Paul would not also have done the same for elders. Why would Paul list the qualifications for deacon’s wives and not elders? The logic of “consistency” does not seem all that consistent! Third, and closely related to the second point, just as the entire discussion has moved on to deacons with “likewise” in v. 8 to deacons, so I think an argument could be that the “likewise” in v. 11 for deaconesses as well.
Fourth, if Paul is talking about their wives in v. 11, then why does he again say that male deacons must be the husbands of one wife in v. 12? Wouldn’t it make more sense to take into account his wife’s conduct after he’s already laid out his requirement to be the husband of one wife? It may be a stretch even to bring this point up, but it does seem to be a bit confusing why Paul would single out a deacon’s wife’s conduct, before going into naming it as a requirement. And then fifth, I would be remiss if I did not bring up Phoebe from Romans 16:1. I am more than willing to grant that the word for deacon has a few different uses in the New Testament that do not pertain to the office of deacon. However, it seems odd for Paul to bring her up at all, let alone recognizing her need for help in serving the church, or commenting on her diligent service to Paul and others if she were not serving the church in some capacity like a deaconess.
I want to conclude with this: my mind is open to change on this issue. I am not dogmatic on the topic, and if someone is willing to converse with me on it, then I would be happy to discuss it! I am also not advocating that women deacons be necessarily ordained. All I am arguing for is that we recognize particular women for their service and commission them to fulfill that service in aid to the male deacon board. I like how Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia does it, in which the commissioned deaconesses serve as a “board of deaconesses” to help the deacon board in facilitating the work the ordained deacons are to do.
At any rate, this should not be an issue that Christians should divide over. Many good and faithful brothers and sisters fall differently on the subject of women deacons. While I still maintain male headship in the family and church, I also maintain that recognizing women’s service to the church is a good and necessary thing.