At our last business meeting, the question of whether a woman could serve as Deacon was brought up. At the time, I shared that women had served on the Official Board in the past and that there was nothing that prevented women from serving as Deacons in the church according to our current constitution and bylaws.
This has been a cause of concern for some in the church since that time who have a traditional interpretation of what scripture says, believing that the Bible does not allow for a woman to serve as a Deacon. One very well meaning person asked me how I justified this from scripture. I told them I would get back with them with a thorough response. Another called to express concern that we were wandering from scriptural standards that men must submit to women. Others have expressed concern, and others have wondered silently and in the background.
I want to discuss this scriptural issue, explaining why I believe that female Deacons are permissible in the Bible, Before I begin this discussion, though, I want to set up some fair groundwork for this theological discussion:
- Those that have expressed these concerns are not trying to be sexist. In fact, both men AND women have expressed concern about women serving as Deacons. This is not a war on women on their part. They are not trying to be mean or divisive. They have a sincere concern that springs from an honorable desire to make sure we act in conformity with the Word of God. Nothing more, nothing less.
- For myself and many who find it appropriate to have a female Deacon, we have equal concern that the precepts and principles found in the Word of God be followed. We are not “liberal Christians” who are trying to ignore scripture and make up our own rules. We agree that we must conform to scripture, but our interpretation of scripture differs from those who believe this practice not to be biblical.
- It doesn’t matter what has been traditionally taught, it only matters what the Bible actually says. If the traditional teaching is in accordance with scripture, it should be held to and treasured. If it is not, it should be cast aside as rules made by men that weigh down the freedom that we have in Christ.
- We are allowed to disagree. We don’t have to have the same opinion about what the scripture teaches, as long as we take an honest look at God’s Word and do our best to serve Him in the way we believe that the Bible instructs us. We can have this disagreement and still serve together in the body of Christ, lift one another up and encourage each other, and- yes- remain part of the same congregation. This article is for the purpose of expressing why we believe this practice is Biblically & doctrinally sound to those who have raised questions and concerns. This is in no way an attack on those who hold the traditional view, merely an open dialogue and a closer look at what God’s Word is speaking to us on the subject at hand. I would ask for your prayerful consideration of the position laid out here.
First, we should understand one issue that complicates Biblical interpretation. The fact is that translators have to apply their own interpretation of a scripture during translation because a word in Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic will not have an approximate English equivalent or can have multiple meanings. This is true in the New Testament concerning the Greek language. Whenever you see the word woman or wife in it’s various tenses, it is the same Greek word. The same is true for man and husband. The translator had to apply his or her own interpretation of a scripture to determine whether to use the marital terms or the gender terms. This is not the translator’s fault; we have multiple English words for one word in Greek. But a translator’s interpretation is not what is inspired- it is the actually word in the original language that is inspired.
Translators have a tendency to use the more traditional interpretation of scripture, sometimes in direct contradiction to the context provided in scripture. A great example of this in 1 Corinthians 14:34, a scripture that I believe is errantly used in very traditional circles to say women cannot preach:
Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.
There are several key contextual evidences that indicate the appropriate interpretation here is “wives” and not “women.” They are as follows:
One clear evidence is what follows in verse 35 (emphasis mine):
If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
The reference to husbands (“their men” or “their women” is always indicative of husbands and wives) is strong scriptural evidence that the related term “women” should have been translated as “wives.”
Another key contextual evidence is when verse 34 says women should remain in submission “as the law says.” Understand that there is nothing in the law of Moses that says all women should remain in submission to all men. Numbers 30 indicates that wives are under the spiritual authority of their husbands (and unmarried women who live at home are under the authority of their fathers).
As further evidence that women were in fact allowed to speak in the church, turn your Bible back three chapters to chapter 11, when Paul talks about women both praying and prophesying in the church! All contextual evidence points to a translation of “wives” rather than “women” in this scripture.
Now, since I’ve opened this can of worms, let me very briefly try to close it without going into the further discussion that this could merit. So let me say:
- Yes, husbands do have spiritual authority over their wives. They are responsible to God for the spiritual direction of their homes and are responsible to lead. Wives answer to the spiritual authority of their husbands and husbands answer to the spiritual authority of Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:3, Ephesians 5:23) Of course, men, you are not called to dominate, but to lead through serving (Mark 9:35, 1 Peter 5:3), lay down your life for your wife (Ephesians 5:25), love her as yourself (Ephesians 5:33), be understanding (1 Peter 3:7), honor her (1 Peter 3:7), and practice mutual submission (Ephesians 5:21).
- Paul was not punishing married women in 1 Corinthians 14 when he says they were not allowed to talk! This chapter focuses on order in the church (1 Corinthians 14:33,40). Paul said that “if they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home” in a period of history where men would tend to be educated and women would not. Instead of causing disorder by speaking up and asking questions in a church service, they we to ask their husbands at home so that they could gain understanding. As a Pastor, I can appreciate that people don’t stand up and ask all kinds of questions while I’m trying to preach! But I digress. Back to the question of female Deacons.
The fact is that a female Deacon is mentioned by name in the Bible:
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. (Romans 16:1, NIV)
If you are reading a different translation, you may see the word “servant” here instead of Deacon. However, the word that has been traditionally translated as “servant” in this scripture is the exact same word that is translated as Deacon in 1 Timothy chapter 3. The title “Deacon” is literally the word “servant” in the original Greek. Other translations, such as the NLT, ISV, and GWT, also use the word “deacon” here, and some other translations that use “servant” note that this can be translated as “deacon” in the footnotes, such as the ESV. The only real reason not to translate this word as Deacon is tradition, which arose during a time where they simply would not have considered a female for leadership based on society’s attitude toward women.
The strongest argument used against women as Deacons is the scripture in 1 Timothy 3 that describes the position:
8 In the same way, deacons are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. 9 They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.
11 In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.
12 A deacon must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well. 13 Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus.
(1 Timothy 3:8-13, NIV)
“Women” here is traditionally translated as “wives”, but the translators of the NIV and other modern English translations have started to use “women” instead because they recognize that merely mentioning men and women in the same scripture does not necessarily qualify translating those words into “husbands” and “wives.” In fact, the NIV footnote on the word “women” in verse 11 here provides further explanation (emphasis mine):
1 Timothy 3:11 Possibly deacons’ wives or women who are deacons
While some translations have held to the traditional interpretation of wives in this scripture, an equal number have simply used “women” instead. Take a look here. In fact, the Weymouth New Testament goes as far as translating this word as “Deaconesses.”
One argument people make here is that this cannot refer to women versus wives because the same restrictions are not applied to women. For example, there is no reference against “not indulging in much wine.” This argument doesn’t hold water, though, because you are then implying that it is okay for a Deacon’s wife to be a drunkard!
So why mention women? That question is easily answered. Misogyny has existed in many societies for thousands of years. It was necessary for Paul to specifically mention women in this scripture so they would be included, considering the attitude of so many societies before, since, and after that time, even to this day.
The real crux of the matter is that Paul cannot be excluding women as Deacons in 1 Timothy 3 yet commend a female Deacon in Romans 16:1. Textual criticism demands that the traditional interpretation of 1 Timothy 3:11 cannot stand. Equally powerful is another assertion about gender made by Paul, one that is fitting to conclude this article:
For additional information, see the Assemblies of God position on women in ministry.