This paper is written in response to some questions from friends of the Biblical Studies Foundation web site. The opinion expressed here is not one borne out of extensive interaction with various commentators and scholars. Rather, it is developed from an inductive study of the New Testament text. I welcome any and all responses. My one desire is that we serve the church of Jesus Christ with integrity, grounding all that we do on the Word.
In Rom 16:1, Phoebe is called a “servant of the church of Cenchrea.” This word, ‘servant,’ is what is occasionally translated as ‘minister,’ or less often as ‘deacon.’ It is used 29 times in 27 verses in the NT: as mere ‘servant’ in Matt 20:26; 22:13; 23:11; Mark 9:35; 10:43; John 2:5, 9; 12:26; Rom 13:4 (twice); 15:8; 1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 6:4; 11:15 (twice), 23; Gal 2:17; 1 Tim 4:6. ‘minister’ in 2 Cor 3:6; Eph 3:7; 6:21; Col 1:7, 23, 25; 4:7; and as ‘deacon’ in Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:8, 12. At the same time, the cognate verb, ‘to serve’ (or ‘to wait on tables’) is found in 32 verses. The key text is Acts 6:2 which seems to set a pattern for the church, for here the apostles ask the congregation to choose seven men to wait on tables. Some students of scripture would argue that although the root DIAKON- (from which we get ‘deacon’; this root helps to form the noun ‘deacon’ as well as the verb ‘to serve’ and the noun ‘ministry’) was a general idea, once it was employed in Acts 6, it took on a new meaning—the technical idea of ‘deacon.’ The problem with this is twofold: (1) Two verses later (Acts 6:4), the apostles say that they will devote themselves “to the ministry (DIAKONIA) of the word.” Thus, if DIAKONEO means ‘to serve as deacon’ in v. 2, then its cognate should mean ‘the office of deacon’ in v. 4. And, of course, to claim such mitigates the very point that some people want to make of Acts 6:2. (2) Further, if the word-group became technical terms, then why are the majority of instances in the NT still used very generally? It seems that the better approach is to assume a non-technical nuance unless there are very clear contextual indicators otherwise.
Some would indeed argue that there are clear contextual indicators in Rom 16. Their argument is that Phoebe is associated with a particular church, Cenchrea, and as such, would therefore be a deacon of that church. To be sure, deacons were associated with particular churches. Phil 1:1 makes that very clear, and 1 Tim 3:8 and 12 also imply such (since Paul was writing to Timothy while he was stationed in Ephesus). But although this may be a necessary requirement, is it sufficient? (Further, if we want to bring in the analogy of Acts 6 as giving us the first glimpse of the new ecclesiological pattern, we should note that these very ‘deacons’ spread the gospel far away from Jerusalem!) When one compares the description of Phoebe in Rom 16:1 to other texts, it is discovered that a few people are both associated with a particular church and are called by the same term. Note, for example, Epaphras, a man associated with the church in Colossians. In Col 1:7 he is called a DIAKONOS, yet no translation (that I know of) regards him as a deacon; in 1 Tim 4:6 Paul calls Timothy a DIAKONOS—and Timothy was associated with the church in Ephesus. But he obviously was not a deacon. So, why then should we call Phoebe a ‘deacon’? The term is thus rather flexible and it seems gratuitous to call Phoebe a deacon in Rom 16:1.
Second, 1 Tim 3:11: This text does not even mention the word DIAKONOS.1 Rather, it used the word ‘women’ (or ‘wives’). It is wedged in the middle of a discussion of the qualifications for deacons (vv. 8-13). The argument that it refers to women deacons is precisely this: it is in the context of deacons. Further, a second argument is that if wives were intended, why does Paul mention nothing about wives in his section on elder qualifications (1 Tim 3:1-7)?
In response are five arguments: (1) If women deacons are in view in v. 11, it seems rather strange that they should be discussed right in the middle of the qualifications for male deacons, rather than by themselves; (2) Paul indeed seems to go out of his way to indicate that women are NOT deacons in the very next verse, for he says “Deacons must be husbands of one wife”; (3) as to why he didn’t mention wives in the section on elders, there are one of two possibilities that come to mind: (a) since Paul was addressing some real problems in Ephesus, it may well be that the deacons’ wives had been a major concern; (b) concomitantly, since deacons’ duties involved taking care of physical needs, they would have been in control of the mercy funds in the church—and, if so, it would be imperative for their wives to be ‘dignified, not scandalmongers, but sober, and trustworthy in everything’ (REB). One can readily see the psychological realities of such instructions to deacons’ wives: they must be tight-lipped when it came to discussing the very personal needs of the body. (4) Again, if v. 11 is addressed to women deacons, why are most of the qualifications not listed—that is, the only qualifications that pertain to the women would be the four items listed in this verse. But would they be allowed to be addicted to strong drink? Wouldn’t they have to prove themselves blameless before serving as deacons? Wouldn’t they have to hold fast to the mystery of the faith in a good conscience? The very fact that all these requirements seem so universal and yet are given specifically only to the men seems to argue against women deacons being in view in v. 11. (5) Finally, the original manuscripts of the New Testament were not divided by chapters and verses. And sometimes our divisions get in the way of seeing the overall context. There seems to be an unnatural break between chapters 2 and 3—or, at least, one that is too abrupt. I take it that 2:8 through 3:16 are all addressing conduct in the church. The issues revolve around men and women throughout these two chapters. And the very fact that Paul says in 2:12 that women were not to teach or exercise authority over men seems to govern what he says in chapter 3 as well. Thus, if deacons are in a role of exercising authority, then I would argue that Paul implicitly restricts such a role to men. As I read the NT, I do see deacons functioning in an authoritative capacity. If my understanding is correct, then the only way for one to see women deacons in 1 Tim 3:11 is either to (a) divorce this verse from the overarching principle stated in 1 Tim 2:12 or (b) reinterpret 2:12 to mean something other than an abiding principle for church life. On the other hand, if deacons were not in roles of leadership, then what is to prevent women from filling such a role? To be sure, there are some who believe that women can be deacons, but who also believe that a female deacon functioned on a different level than a male deacon2 If such a qualification is made, then I have no problem with the category.
One has to be cautious today about shifting how the church should look just because of society’s critical evaluation of us. The world has always been critical of the church; and, although we don’t wish to cause unnecessary offense, we must never violate our conscience nor our understanding of scripture. I may well be wrong in my interpretation of this particular issue, but I am sure of one thing: the only arguments that will convince me otherwise must resonate with the Word of God.
1 Of course, there may well be a good reason for that: The word diavkono" is a double-terminal noun. That is, it is in the second declension whether referring to men or women. Thus, unless Paul were to use the article (not customary in 1 Tim 3 in his direct addresses) or some other indicator, no one would understand that he was addressing women deacons in v. 11 if he called them diavkonoi.