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Part 3 of 3: What the Bible Says About Deaconesses
By Jim Dalrymple
What about deaconesses?
I have intentionally left this question for last. The evidence is disputed, but I believe women did and do serve in this capacity—often without the title. I have yet to find a church without women serving and leading over various ministries that meet needs.
Too often, women have been given titles like “coordinator” or “director”—titles borrowed from a secular organization chart and an indictment of our inconsistencies. But these same women often carry out the responsibilities of the New Testament deacon more so than their male counterparts meeting in a boardroom. This phenomenon has only highlighted for me the way we have turned “deacon” into an honorific title and narrowed the tasks of deacons to building maintenance and boardroom decisions. This should not be.
There is ample evidence in both the New Testament and in church history that women served as deacons (I do not find the same evidence for the responsibility of overseer/elder). Here is a summary of that evidence:
1. Paul recognized Phoebe for her work as a servant/deacon of the church in Cenchreae (Romans 16:1). There is no grammatical reason for translating this as “servant” here and then transliterating it as “deacon” in Philippians 1:1 or 1 Timothy 3.
2. Paul is just as likely to have been referring to female deacons in 1 Timothy 3:11 as to the wives of deacons (most translations note this). Notice, however, that Paul makes no qualifications for the wives of elders in the immediate context. In addition, the word likewise puts these women in 3:11* in parallel to the male deacons of verse 8. So also, the phrase “must be dignified” is used in both 3:8 and 11. Paul seems to set this group of women as parallel to the men referred to in the immediate context. So, what about the “husband of one wife” requirement in 3:12? Remember this is not a checklist but a character sketch of someone who is above reproach. It is not that deacons must be married or have children—that was the norm—but the imperative is that they must be blameless—the family being one key place to look. This same principle could be used regardless of gender.
3. Early church history attests to the presence of deaconesses. Scholars often point to Pliny’s letter to Trajan and his reference to the interrogation of two female slaves he calls deaconesses/minister (c. AD 112). Likewise, for those of you who share a Restoration Movement heritage, deaconesses were nearly taken for granted by the early voices of our movement.
For some, the appointment of women to the role of a deacon is seen as in conflict with 1 Timothy 2:12. Can she exercise authority over a man? First, let me again suggest to you that this is not a position of authority but one tasked with responsibility. Second, after careful examination of 1 Timothy 2, I believe Paul is more specifically referring to the responsibility of overseer/elder. He says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man.” Scholars have noted the paring of these two responsibilities: (1) to teach (2) to exercise authority. Together they combine to describe the exact responsibility given to the overseers/elders in the immediate context of 3:1-2. This is not the combination of responsibilities given to the deacons (remember, deacons are not merely junior elders). The work of the deacons complements that of the overseers/elders, and deacons serve under their authority.
I want to encourage you to examine the evidence for yourself and move forward full of the Spirit and wisdom. The enemy wants nothing more than to divide us over feuds of power and position. But may we have the mind and hands of Christ as we love and serve one another.
*All Scripture verses are from the English Standard Version.
Jim Dalrymple serves as executive vice president of advancement and professor of New Testament and leadership with Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Mo.