Women Deacons: Defining the Terms

Several months back a good friend of mine and I got in a discussion about women deacons. This lead to research and study on my part. I am going to blog on this topic here and there over the next few weeks. 

One of my pet peeves is people who write on a subject, but never really define what they are talking about, especially if the subject is controversial. I am sure I have been guilty of this in my writing. Insisting on precise definitions can seem tedious, especially in an age dominated by short blog posts. However, it is kind to the readers for a writer to give a clear definition of what he is talking about. I am about to embark on a series of blog posts exploring the issue of women deacons/deaconesses. Before I start I wanted to note what someone can mean when they say women deacons/deaconesses.  Here are the options when it comes to women deacons and deaconesses. If you can think of other options put them in the comments. By the way, I use the term office throughout this post to refer to both ordained and unordained positions within the church.

Summary of the Options
1. Ordained deacons, some male and some female, but with all having equal status and function.
2. Non-ordained deacons, some male and some female, but with all having equal status and function.
3. Male and female deacons with equal status, but different functions.
4. Ordained deacons with an office of deaconess, ordained or not ordained, under the authority of the deacons.
5. Non-ordained deacons with a non-ordained office of deaconess under their authority.
6. There is no office of deaconess/woman deacon at all.

Explanation of the Options
Option 1: All deacons are ordained. Women deacons can do everything a male deacon can do. Both men and women deacons have the same status, role, and function. There are not male and female deacons. There are just deacons. If there was a head deacon a woman could fill that role.

Option 2: The exact same as #1, except the deacons are not ordained.

Option 3: There are male and female deacons with equal status, but distinct roles and functions within the church.  These could be ordained or not ordained. I have not heard anyone endorsing this particular position, though it is possible.

Option 4: There are ordained men deacons. There is a separate office of deaconess (or even women deacons). These women could be ordained or not ordained, but either way they serve under the authority of the deacons. Deaconess is not equivalent to deacon in either status, role, or function, though is some overlap between the two offices. There are several possible ways for widows and deaconesses to relate under this position: 1) Deaconess and widow could be the same office, 2) Widows could be part of the deaconesses, but other women are included as well, 3) Widows and deaconesses could be distinct offices in the church, 4) Widow is not an office, but deaconess is.

Option 5: This is the same as option 4, except neither group is ordained. I have not heard this particular position put forth by anyone though it is possible. Usually a two office view, deacons and deaconesses, has either both ordained or ordained deacons only.

Option 6: There is no office of deaconess in the church. There are a couple of options here. One could say that widows, not deaconesses, are the only proper biblical office for women. This would be basically option 4.1 above but instead of calling them deaconesses they would be called widows. Or it is possible to say there are no officially recognized offices for women in the church.

Thoughts on the Options
For all practical purposes #1 and #2 are the same: one office with both genders included. Most people I have read who are advocating “women deacons” are advocating one of these options. They just are not as clear about it as they should be.

Those who hold to #1 or #2 should jettison the phrase “women deacons” and “men deacons.” They should just have deacons. If the men and women have the same status, role, and function then they are equals. The whole point of 1 and 2 is that whether they are male or female is irrelevant to the tasks they can perform.

For all practical purposes #4 and #5 are the same: two distinct offices divided by gender. This group could have the office of “woman deacon” and not mean what #1 and #2 mean.

Option 3 is a bit of a wild card. I have not heard this exact position put forth.  It is an awkward position because it gives equal status, but not equal function. It would be like those who hold to a two office view (elders and deacons) saying that ruling elders could not preach while teaching elders can. I think some who are officially #1 or #2 function like #3. However, if a church has things women deacons cannot do, but men deacons can then they are not equal. For example, if a church has deacons that are men and women, but female deacons cannot visit a sick man in the hospital or cannot serve communion, but a male deacon can then they are not equal, at least not in function. My question would be, “Why give equal status, but not equal function?” That seems to be a contradiction. I am not saying deacons who are women must do everything men do in this type of a system. But if they are equal in status then they should be able to do everything men do. Otherwise you need two offices, not one.

Option 6 has the difficult task of explaining why throughout much of church history, including in Reformed churches, there have been offices for women.

Finally, it is odd to me that so much ink is spilled on I Timothy 3:11 and Romans 16:1, but so little ink is spilled on I Timothy 5:9-16.  Why is there not more discussion of whether or not the widow passage in I Timothy 5 should inform the office of deaconess/women deacons and if so how?

When discussing deacons, women deacons, and deaconesses, function (what they can do) and status (their office), both need to be considered, not just exegetical and historical data. A writer needs to be clear on what office is being given and what the functions of that office will be.

After posting this I thought of one more option: the reverse of #3, where there is not equal status, but there is equal function. Many of the same arguments brought to bear against #3 would be brought to bear against this position as well. Why allow women deacons/deaconesses to do everything men can do, but not give them equal status? Again this seems to be contradiction. 

2 thoughts on “Women Deacons: Defining the Terms

  1. I've enjoyed following this series! Thankful for your thoughtful research.

    I had the great joy of teaching through 1 Timothy last fall, and this was an issue I enjoyed studying through then (and when we planted).

    I hold to position two, and I thought you may enjoy hearing some of the thinking from behind this position.

    We use the word “deacon” interchangeably for men and women, but I've found there are still times when it is prudent to express the “male” or “female” deacon rather than jettisoning the gender label.

    1.) It's helpful to differentiate in our context, because many come from backgrounds where deacons were only men. For the sake of teaching, it's helpful for us to say “male and female deacons” and explain our position exegetically.

    2.) It's helpful to differentiate male and female because I believe 1 Timothy 3 provides both general and distinctive qualifications for male and female deacons.

    In 1 Timothy 3:8-10, there are qualifications for deacons. Then in verse 11, “Their wives [or the women] likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but soberminded, faithful in all things.” Then there are three additional qualifications in verse 12 and two rewards in verse 13.

    Who are the qualifications in verse 11 referring to? This verse is debated a ton, and there are three explanations generally given.

    A.) The first is this: Paul’s referring to female deacons and the qualifications for a gal that becomes a deacon. If you have an NIV and you read the footnote it says “deaconesses.”

    B.) The second option is this: these are women who assist the male deacons.

    C.) The third option is these are the wives of the male deacons, and if a guy wants to be a deacon, his wife has qualifications too.

    Three options, two where women cannot be deacons, one where women can be deacons. And it all centers on the word “wives.” The ESV and NIV translate that word as “wives”—in Greek, it literally means “women” in general. It’s the same word Paul used earlier when he said women should dress modestly. It’s not like wives should dress modestly but single women get to dress like Miley Cyrus. Every woman should dress modestly. The same word is used in 3:11.

    Additionally, Paul already covered the office of elder which is reserved for men, it’s the highest office in the church. Then he covers the office of deacon, but here there’s a pause and he says “Women, here are your qualifications.” The question is, is Paul referring to the wives of deacons or is he referring to women who are deacons? If he’s referring to deacons' wives, that’s strange because he didn’t give the elders wives any qualifications and elders are the highest office in the church. It seems strange that the elders wives wouldn’t require qualifications but the deacons wives would. Instead I believe he’s saying, “Deacons, here are your qualifications; female deacons, here are some qualifications for you specifically.”

    It's my position that he's referring to female deacons. Qualified female deacons can assist a male deacon, they can serve in the function of a deacon, or a man and wife may serve as deacons together.

    That's my take on the why we do not jettison the language of “male and female” deacons all the time.

    I didn't get into the actual function of deacons here, but only the qualifications and gender debate.

    Grace and peace,



  2. Chris, good to hear from you and thanks for the input. I am going to eventually get to the exegetical data. Right now I am covering the historical debate, as well as laying out the parameters for the debate. I Timothy 3:11 is obviously a key verse, which I will cover. Have a good Lord's Day. In Christ, Peter


Comments are closed.