What is a deacon? Who may serve in the office of deacon? Though Scripture prohibits women from serving as pastors, does the Bible permit women to serve as deacons? These are important questions for each local church to answer.
To review: there are two offices in the local church—elder and deacon. These two offices are outlined in 1 Timothy 3, and we see in Philippians 1:1 that the pastors and deacons of Philippi are the recipients of Paul’s letter. Pastors govern, teach, and exercise shepherding authority over the congregation. The word “deacon” means “servant.” Deacons serve the congregation. But how?
When you compare the qualifications of elders with the qualifications of deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8–13, the lists of requirements are nearly identical. The primary difference in qualifications between pastors and deacons is that pastors must be able to teach. Deacons do not need to be able to teach. This difference is an important one, because Paul has tied teaching and authority together in 1 Timothy 2. Teaching in the corporate gathering is an exercise of authority over the congregation. It’s important, for the purposes of our questions today, to recognize that teaching and authority are tied together, and deacons don’t have teaching authority as a part of their office. So, if deacons don’t exercise authority through teaching, what do they do?
As you zoom out and look at the entire New Testament, you’ll see that deacons are called to various acts of service in the local congregation. Deacons are seen as being given the task to help meet the material needs of the saints. They are “premier servants” in the church. Deacons help meet the mercy needs of the saints and free up their pastors so that their pastors may be wholly devoted to teaching, prayer, and leading the local church. In Acts 6, you see the early stages of what would later become the office of deacon. 7 men are chosen in Jerusalem to ensure certain widows aren’t being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. Now, we have to be careful in saying that Acts 6 becomes the standard by which deacons are selected because, at this time right after Pentecost, the local church in Jerusalem doesn’t have elders or deacons. The apostles are doing it all. I think Acts 6 does help us see what kind of ministry future deacons would carry out once the office was established by Paul in 1 Timothy 3.
So, may a woman serve in the office of deacon? Yes, I think Scripture and church history teach that the office of deacon is open to qualified women. I’ll give a few reasons.
First, in 1 Timothy 3:11, many English Bibles read “their wives.” That’s one possible translation, but the Greek word there means “women” or “wives.” Paul doesn’t include the possessive pronoun “their” in his letter. English translators have added that word. In 1 Timothy 3:11, it’s more likely that Paul writes “women,” not “their wives.”
Second, why would Paul make a point to give qualifications for the wives of deacons—deacons don’t teach or shepherd—but not give qualifications for the wives of elders? That seems odd, unless Paul’s not referring to deacons’ wives, but rather to women qualified for the office of deacon.
Third, some argue that since Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:12 that deacons are to be the “husband of one wife,” that must disqualify women. That idea, however, misunderstands Paul’s point. A better translation is that a deacon should be a “one-woman man.” Paul’s point in 3:12 is that a man being considered for deacon should be faithful to his wife, not that a man must be married in order to be a deacon. Paul’s referring to marital fidelity, not marital status. If only married men could be deacons in the church, then single men, including Jesus and the apostle Paul, are disqualified from the office of deacon. That doesn’t make sense.
Fourth, we have good New Testament evidence of a woman deacon. A straight-forward reading of Romans 16:1 indicates that Phoebe very likely served as a deacon in her local church. Paul’s not describing Phoebe as simply a servant. The phrase that Paul uses in Romans 16 to describe Phoebe as deacon at Cenchreae is consistently used in the NT to identify a person who held a particular office. Paul is using the same grammar and language to describe Phoebe’s official status in her office at a particular church—namely, deacon at Cenchreae. Phoebe is described as a helper in 16:2 to differentiate from her official position as deacon in 16:1 and to demonstrate that she served well in the office of deacon.
Fifth, the early church had women deacons. The 1st century Roman leader, Pliny the Younger, wrote a letter to the Roman Emperor Trajan detailing his efforts to get Christians to worship the Roman gods. Pliny describes torturing two Christian women who were called deacons in the church.
Many local churches do not allow women deacons because they misunderstand the office of deacon. Deacons do not exercise authority over the congregation and they do not teach. But if a local church only has one pastor and a board of deacons, those deacons are actually serving as elders. In a local church where deacons are functioning as elders, a woman should not be a deacon because she’d actually be serving as a pastor, which Paul forbids. That local church needs to fix their views on deacons.
Deacons are wonderful servants in the local church and give a clear picture of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who came not to be served, but to serve. All Christians in the local church should aspire to the office of deacon because deacons gain a good standing for themselves and great confidence in the faith.