27 October, 2021

Where Have All the Deacons Gone? (Part 3 of 3)

by | 14 September, 2021 | 3 comments

Read Part 1 (“What Deacons Are and Do”) and Part 2 (“Who to Select and How They Should Function”).

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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.

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  1. Sonny Reeves

    We have enjoyed reading Bro. John Mark Hicks’ refreshing look at Women in the Ekklesia, “Women Serving God: My Journey in Understanding Their Story in the Bible” and the Lord’s Supper, “Come to the Table: Revisioning the Lord’s Supper” and Immersion. “Down in the River to Pray, Revisioning Baptism as God’s Transforming Work.” We are surprised and delighted to see this refreshing study from our brother in the Restoration Movement. When we find unity it will be harmony in balance with our diversities and cultures. 1 John 3:22-24

  2. Ermal Allen

    First, do you think Phoebe, if she was a deacon in Cenchrea, that this made her also a deacon in Rome? Does the help they were to give her have anything to do with her service in Cenchrea? Or does not the most common definition (servant) fit better?

    There is a grammatical reason for translating it as servant, for that is the most common use of the word. Only the context (such as in Philippians 1 and 1 Timothy 3), where the persons are set apart from the regular members, would justify a more specific translation than deacon.

    Second, who says it is not a checklist? Perhaps we are too strict in our interpretation (e.g., does the elder have to have at least two children), but that does not mean that there is no meaning (such as one-woman husband is not the same thing as a one-man wife).

    Third, after discussing the women/wives, he goes back to the male deacons. That would seem to imply a connection with the deacons (such as their wives) unless there is no distinct work (viz., deaconess) but only deacons who happen to include both sexes (in which case why did he not mention the one-man woman as he does in 1 Timothy 5?

  3. Mike Gillespie

    Seems to me the way was lost long ago when the various leadership terms were elevated to “office” level in human nomenclature. Jesus is our “head,” of course: the Eldership is His designated overseeing entity and leading servants; deacons are also leaders among those who serve. Somewhere along the way, we wandered away by falling into the organizational structure of the US federal government: elders as the Senate; deacons (and deaconesses) and/or general board as the House of Representatives; the minister/staff as the Executive branch and the congregation as the Supreme Court (maybe). In the process, we took our eyes off Jesus. . . . Surely there are those who will consider this to be a “silly over-simplification” . . . but it’s no less real.

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