What About Deaconesses?

by Phil Ryken September 5, 2008

Their wives [or women] likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, 
faithful in all things (1 Timothy 3:11 ESV).

More needs to be said about the “wives” of deacons (1 Tim. 3:11). The Greek word that Paul uses here is gunaikas, which can mean either “wives” or “women” (as it is translated several times in 1 Timothy 2:9-12). Some scholars suggest, therefore, that in verse 11 gunaikas does not refer to wives but to deaconesses, or female deacons. So the question arises whether women served as deaconesses in the New Testament church.

The strongest reason for thinking that these women were deaconesses is the way they are introduced. Both verse 8 and verse 11 contain the word “likewise” which sounds like it introduces a new office. Furthermore, these women are to be “dignified” (1 Tim. 3:11), which is the same phrase used to describe deacons (1 Tim.3:8). Both of these verses are grammatically dependent on the main verb in verse 2, which strengthens the connection between them. Taken together, these parallels make it sound as if the women Paul had in mind were to fulfill a separate but equal office in the church. Furthermore, if the Bible meant “wives,” we might expect it to say “theirwives” so as to eliminate any possibility of confusion. 

Nevertheless, there are several reasons for thinking that “wives” may be the better translation. The first is that if Paul meant deaconesses he would have said so. Theword “woman” is such a common term that it hardly seems sufficient to designate an office in the church. Furthermore, the word gunaikas appears in the very next verse (1 Tim. 3:12; cf. 3:2), where it clearly means “wife.” It would make perfect sense,therefore, for Paul to have the same women in view in both verses. Then there is thefact that the instructions for these women (or wives) are very brief. One short verse hardly seems adequate to cover the qualifications for deaconesses, especially since it is embedded within the qualifications for deacons.

We are bound to conclude that by itself, 1 Timothy 3:11 is not sufficient prove that women should serve in the office of deaconess. Indeed, the very fact that these women are singled out from the deacons shows that the ministry of these women must not be identical to that of the deacons. Donald Guthrie gives a balanced summary: “The reference is too general to postulate with certainty a distinct order of deaconesses, but some feminine ministration was necessary in visitation. . . . For such work certain moral qualities would be essential whether for deacons’ wives or for deaconesses in their own right.”2 Since the meaning is not certain, perhaps it is best to translate the word gunaikas as “women helpers.” Indeed, it is possible to argue that these women were neither deacon’s wives, nor deaconesses, but women who assisted the deacons.

If the office of deaconess is not established in 1 Timothy 3, the diaconal ministry of women is certainly present elsewhere in the Bible. New Testament women frequently carried out diaconal ministry, in the broad sense of the word. Consider Dorcas, who was “full of good works and acts of charity” (Acts 9:36). Or Lydia, who clothed the Philippians in purple (16:11-15). Or Tryphena and Tryphosa, women described as “workers in the Lord” (Rom. 16:12). Or especially Phoebe, who was “a patron of many” and is identified as “a servant of the church at Cenchreae”—literally, “a deaconess” (Rom. 16:1-2). To summarize, many New Testament women carried out diaconal ministry and one, at least, was called a “deaconess,” even if she was not ordained as an officer of the church. The obvious conclusion is that, whatever title they are given, women must be deeply involved in the mercy ministries of the church.

It is helpful to recognize that deaconesses have been a longstanding tradition in the church. In Egypt during the second century they “provided nursing mothers who sat in the public squares, often under pagan statues, while other women went up and down the streets to collect the unwanted babies abandoned in the night. They brought them, nursed, bathed and raised them.”3 Such ministry was characteristic of women throughout the Christian world, at least by the third century. In his survey of the women’s ministry in the early church, J. M. Ross shows that deaconesses served as doorkeepers, visited the sick, helped when women were baptized and cared for orphans.4 In the fourth century, John Chrysostom described the order of deaconesses to be “necessary and useful and honorable in the Church.”5

Closer to our own times, Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield was a strong proponent of women deacons. Warfield taught at Princeton and was among the leading conservative evangelicals at the turn of the twentieth century. He based his argument for deaconesses partly on the example of Phoebe, and partly on a letter from the Roman governor Pliny to the Emperor Trajan. The letter, which was written around A.D. 112, referred to women as holding a servant office in the church. Warfield concluded that these women “constituted a female diaconate similar to and of like standing with the board of deacons which, in the New Testament, we find in every church.”6

The church of Warfield’s day did not ordain women to serve as deaconesses, but Warfield himself recognized the need for putting the gifts of women into service. He believed that returning women to the ministry of deaconess would restore order in the church. To that end, he quoted his colleague Dr. Alexander McGill approvingly: “If the people of a particular church would simply elect women as well as men to the office of deacon, making one board or two separate boards, at their pleasure, of course ordained with the same vows and responsible to the same authority, as now provided in our constitution, the order is restored.”7

The practice of the Presbyterian Church in America may come close to what the Bible teaches. Only men are ordained to the office of deacon, in keeping with the view that the women in 1 Timothy 3:11 are wives rather than deaconesses (or else that they are women who assist the deacons). Yet the elders are encouraged to “select and appoint godly men and women of the congregation to assist the deacons in caring for the sick, the widows, the orphans, the prisoners, and others who may be in any distress or need.”8 The church thus permits congregations to commission women to a ministry of diaconal service, whatever that ministry may be called.

If women are to serve, they must be qualified. Therefore, they should display the characteristics described in 1 Timothy 3:11. As the proverb says, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” In this case, what is good for the deacon is good for the deaconess. Thus the biblical instructions for the women echo what has already been said to the men. The wives of deacons (or deaconesses) are to be “dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things” (1 Tim. 3:11).

According to 1 Timothy 3:11, the women who serve in diaconal ministry must be “dignified” or respectable. They must be women who are held in high regard both inside and outside the church. They must not be “slanderers” (diabolous)—a word for malicious talk or false accusation that is sometimes used of the devil himself (e.g. Rev. 12:9-10). The reason for this qualification is that diaconal work often involves personal matters. The private affairs of a house should remain private, except insofar as they require the spiritual care of church officers. Women who serve must not be gossips. To give a further qualification, they must be “sober-minded.” This refers not simply to alcohol, but to self-control in every area of life. The wives of deacons (or deaconesses) must not be self-indulgent in their use of food, clothing or possessions. They must be stable emotionally. And these women must be trustworthy, “faithful in all things.” They must be utterly reliable and completely dependable.

The ministry of such women is vital to the health of the church. If the problem with feminist theology has been its failure to submit to divine order, the traditional church has often failed to employ the gifts of women to their full biblical extent. Here are B. B. Warfield’s last words on the subject: “A living church cannot do without Deaconesses as its organs for doing good. Deaconesses cannot do without the church as the appointed organization for doing good in the world.”9 Whether or not they are called deaconesses, women should exercise servant ministry to the glory of God. They should “minister to those who are in need, to the sick, to the friendless, and to any who may be in distress.”10

1
 Philip H. Towner, 1-2 Timothy and Titus, IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994), 91. 
2
 Donald Guthrie, The Pastoral Epistles, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1957), 85.
3
 Ray Bakke, A Theology as Big as the City (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997), 192. 
4
 J. M. Ross, “A Reconsideration of the Diaconate,” Scottish Journal of Theology 12 (1959), 153. 
5
 John Chrysostom, “Homilies on the Epistles of St. Paul the Apostle to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon,” trans. and ed. by Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, 14 vols. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 13:441.
6
 Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, “Presbyterian Deaconesses,” Presbyterian Review (1889), 286. 
7
 Alexander T. McGill, quoted in Warfield, 287. 
8
Book of Church Order, 9-7.
9
 Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, “The Deaconess as a Part of the Church,” Our Church Work (1903), quoted in Ronald G. Lutjens, “B. B. Warfield on Women Deacons,” Presbyterian Journal, May 15, 1985, 8.
10 Book of Church Order, 9-2.