Does Scripture permit women to hold the office of deacon? In addressing this important question, we must bear a couple of things in mind. First, Reformed pastors and theologians, fully committed to the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, have disagreed about what the Bible teaches concerning women and the diaconate. This state of affairs calls for particular humility in discussing this question. Second, all sides recognize that women in some way have served in the diaconate in various periods of church history. Believers who argue for women in the diaconate, then, should not be automatically accused of sneaking the Trojan horse of modernity into the church.
We must be clear as to what the question is and is not. The question is not whether the Spirit gifts women to serve in the church. He manifestly does, a point the New Testament underscores by way of principle (1 Cor. 12:7; Eph. 4:7) and example (e.g., Rom. 16:1–5, 6, 12). The question is not whether women may actively participate in the church’s service ministries. The New Testament highlights the hospitality of the women mentioned in Luke 8:1–3, of John Mark’s mother (Acts 12:12), and of Lydia (Acts 16:14–15), even as it commends the charitable service of Dorcas (Acts 9:36). The question is whether the Bible permits women to serve in the office of deacon. The Bible opens the office of diaconate to men only.
The Case for Men Only
The diaconate is one of two ordinary offices the New Testament prescribes for the church. The diaconate is an office of “service both to the physical and spiritual needs of the people,” and the eldership is an office of ruling and teaching (The Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America, 7-2).
While deacons are not tasked with governing the church, they possess and exercise authority to carry out their calling of serving the church. We can see this point, for instance, in what is likely the establishment of the office of deacon in the church, Acts 6:1–6. The deacons take up from the apostles the work of daily distributing food to the church’s widows (Acts 6:1). The details of this kind of work find elaboration in 1 Timothy 5:1–16. Here, Paul’s instructions regarding diaconal ministry to widows assume spiritual authority on the part of the deacons. These deacons, after all, are charged with determining which widows qualified to receive the church’s benevolence. As officeholders in the church, deacons possess and exercise God-given authority to serve the congregation’s needs.
The New Testament limits the holding of office in the church to men. Paul writes to Timothy, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” (1 Tim. 2:12). To be sure, the context of Paul’s statement is the church gathered in worship, and particularly the work of preaching (1 Tim. 2:8–15). Paul’s statement, however, is not limited to the preaching of the Word in public worship. Paul here forbids women from exercising authority in the church. The fact that proper household management—the due exercise of authority in the home—is a qualification for men seeking both the office of elder (1 Tim. 3:5) and also deacon (1 Tim. 3:12) indicates that Paul’s prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:12 concerns the offices of the church generally. In light of the fact that the offices of elder and deacon entail the possession and exercise of authority in the church, Paul forbids women from holding either office.
Two Crucial Passages
Two passages understandably surface related to this issue. Proponents of women in the diaconate appeal to either or both as evidence that women served as deacons in the apostolic age. On closer examination, however, neither passage yields clear and decisive support for this view.
Here Paul writes to the church in Rome, “commend[ing] to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well.”
The word that Paul uses in verse 1 to describe Phoebe (diakonos, ESV, “servant”) is the same word he elsewhere uses to denote the church officer (“deacon”). For this reason, some have argued Phoebe should be regarded as a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.
There is no doubt Phoebe is a believer distinguished for her service to the church and particularly to Paul. The question is whether the context requires that the word translated “servant” be more precisely translated “deacon.” The New Testament authors, after all, use this word of officeholders and non-officeholders in the church, and Paul even uses it of the civil magistrate (Rom. 13:4). It is doubtful the word here bears the more precise sense of “deacon.” The context of Romans 16 requires only that Paul be commending Phoebe as a dedicated servant of God’s people. It does not require that she was a church deacon.
1 Timothy 3:11
A second passage to which some have appealed in support of female deacons is 1 Timothy 3:11: “Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things” (ESV; “or women,” ESV margin).
The Greek word (gynaikas) Paul uses at the beginning of this verse may be translated as either “wives” or “women.” The possessive pronoun (“their” in the ESV) has no corresponding word in the Greek text. Paul could be referring to the wives of deacons or to a separate group of women altogether. Conceivably, women in such a group could hold the office of deacon, could hold an office (“deaconess”) alongside that of the diaconate, or could be a chosen body of assistants to the deacons.
It is noteworthy that Paul refrains from assigning a title to these women as he earlier has to elders and deacons (1 Tim. 3:1, 8). No matrimonial qualification is assigned to these women, as for elders and deacons (1 Tim. 3:2, 12). No provision is made for testing these women, as for elders and deacons (1 Tim. 5:22, 3:10). Paul immediately resumes his discussion of the diaconate in 1 Timothy 3:12–13. All these things point away from understanding 1 Timothy 3:11 as speaking of women holding either the office of deacon or a parallel office.
Paul, rather, may be describing the qualities that must characterize wives of deacon candidates. In light of the sensitivities surrounding deacons’ work, and in light of the fact that wives may be called on to assist their husbands—particularly in addressing the needs of the church’s women—one could see why Paul might have desired that the church be satisfied with the character of a candidate and his wife as they assessed his suitability for the diaconate.
Use the Gifts of Both
The New Testament, then, opens the office of deacon to men only. To leave matters here, however, would be out of step with the character of diaconal ministry in the New Testament. As we have seen, the New Testament routinely singles out individual women believers, distinguishing them for their selfless service to Christ and his church. It’s Paul’s expectation in 1 Timothy 3:11 that women will have a part in the church’s ministry of service to the needy.
This reality lays a particular burden on the deacons. As Acts 6 and 1 Timothy 5 show us, deacons are called “to develop the grace of liberality in the members of the church, to devise effective methods of collecting the gifts of the people, and to distribute these gifts among the objects to which they are contributed” (The Book of Church Order, 9-2).
To do this effectively, the church’s deacons must identify, encourage, and promote the exercise of the gifts of men and women. They must acknowledge, with Paul, that aspects of the church’s diaconal ministry call for the contribution of the gifts, wisdom, and labor of believing women. And, as Luke and Paul routinely did, deacons must recognize and honor both men and women who selflessly and fruitfully minister to the needs of the saints. To aim for anything less would be unbiblical.