Does the Bible Allow for Women Deacons? No, Says Alex Strauch (with a Response from Tom Schreiner)
Editor’s note: We asked two scholars—Tom Schreiner and Alex Strauch—the question, «Does the Bible allow for women deacons?» Below, you’ll find Alex’s answer, as well as Tom’s response. (You can read Tom’s answer and Alex’s response here.)
* * * * *
To determine the identity of the women in 1 Timothy 3:11, we first have to accurately identify the deacons of v. 8. Everything from church coffee-bar servers to the governing body of the local church has been proposed.
Based on the newest lexical research, I contend that we should translate the Greek word diakonoi in 1 Timothy 3:8 not as “deacons” or “servants,” but as “assistants.” This translation tells us immediately the role of the diakonoi and fits well with the preceding context regarding the overseers (episkopoi). These officials are designated diakonoi, “assistants,” because of their close and dependent relationship with the episkopoi.
Paul most likely intended this special usage of diakonos because, as Clarence Agan III succinctly and correctly explains, the term:
better captures the intermediary function Paul had in mind. He was thinking of a role that involved being simultaneously in-and-under authority—under the authority of the elders, but having authority over the congregation to carry out tasks as needed. Diakonos provided a clear way to say this while still leaving room for flexibility as to the nature of the specific tasks deacons might undertake.
The view that diakonoi means assistants is built on more objective linguistic and contextual evidence than the undefined, leading-servant or table-serving views. The diakonoi work closely with the overseers/elders to relieve them of many duties so the overseers/elders can concentrate more fully on teaching and leading the church. As delegated representatives/agents of the overseers, deacons exercise authority and supervision within the congregation. Our view of the function and role of the deacon will be a significant factor in understanding the gynaikes of 1 Timothy 3:11.
If the “women” of verse 11 are understood as formal assistants to the overseers, then an obvious problem exists (gynē is the singular, and gynaikes is the plural, and can mean either women or wives depending on the context). The idea of women assistants to the overseers/elders conflicts with the preceding context of 1 Timothy 2:8–3:7, particularly verse 12: “I do not permit a woman [gynē] to teach or to exercise authority over a man.” Paul is very serious about the proper roles the Creator has assigned to godly men and women in the family and church.
Paul’s instructions on Christian men and women in the church (1 Tim. 2:8–12) are intimately connected to and governed by his instructions for the overseers and assistants of 3:1–13. In light of Paul’s explicit restrictions in 1 Timothy 2:9–14, it is doubtful that the women of 1 Timothy 3:11 are women assistants in the sense of being equal partners with the male assistants to the overseers/elders. (If the women of verse 11 are women assistants, the most accurate understanding of them is that they are full-fledged assistants, and not women helpers in some general sense, or deaconesses, a third, separate office, or assistants to the male deacons, or unmarried women helping widows. All these views are speculative.)
Another reason for viewing the women of verse 11 as the wives of the assistants is Paul’s choice of the word gynaikas (= women/wives) rather than a specific identifiable title, e.g., women deacons (gynaikes diakonoi). If these women are deacons (= assistants), calling them gynaikes seems odd, ambiguous, and even inconsistent. Previously, Paul gave specific identifiable titles to two officers—overseer (episkopos, v. 2) and assistants (diakonoi, vv. 8, 12). But for the women in verse 11, he chose the general designation gynaikas (= women/wives) without any modifying word or phrase to explain their relationship to the male assistants.
If Paul is singling out women deacons in 1 Timothy 3:11, why would he use the ambiguous and general word gynaikas and not diakonous with the feminine article—tas diakonous (“female deacons”), or gynaikas diakonous (“women deacons”)? Paul had no problem using the term diakonos for Phoebe in Romans 16:1.
Paul was not, as some think, lacking for words or titles when referring to these women. He utilized the words diakonoi and gynaikes deliberately and precisely. He used diakonoi for male deacons in verses 8–10, and again in verse 12. Between these two clear designations as diakonoi, Paul intentionally employed gynaikas to identify these wives as those closest to the male assistants. Since there were no women assistants to the overseers, as I understand it, the Ephesian readers knew that these gynaikes had to be wives. Thus, there was no need for a modifier of any kind.
In New Testament Greek, there was no distinct feminine form of diakonos. The noun diakonos, although appearing masculine in its inflection pattern, is among a number of second declension nouns that can be either masculine or feminine. Since the inflectional pattern of diakonoi can be either masculine or feminine in gender, it can refer to both men and women. Although the diakonoi of verses 8–9 could include men and women assistants, the insertion of gynaikas in verse 11 strongly implies that Paul is referring only to males in verses 8–9. If the women are assistants like the male assistants, it would have been unnecessary for Paul to insert verse 11, which (according to the proponents of women deacons) states qualifications similar to those of verses 8 and 9. But there is nothing particularly gender specific about the qualifications listed in verse 11. If Paul was singling out women assistants for special mention, we would expect him to add some uniquely important qualifications for women assistants such as “the wife of one husband.” But that is not the case.
After assessing the different arguments and especially Paul’s teachings regarding the proper roles of Christian men and women in the local church, I conclude that 1 Timothy 3:11 is best understood as the wives of the assistants to the overseers/elders.
Alex has written an excellent defense of his view. I cheerfully admit the matter isn’t as clear as we would wish. We all have to make a choice on what is the most plausible reading. I am happy to call deacons “assistants” since their main task was serving, but I think the word deacons connotes serving and assisting in any case, and so I will retain it. The main problem with women serving as deacons for Alex is that in his understanding, deacons don’t just serve but also lead. But Alex doesn’t comment on the fact that leadership and teaching (see my first article) are restricted to elders, and the biblical text never says that deacons lead. Alex assumes deacons exercise authority, but I don’t see in the biblical text where they lead. Instead, as I point out in my first article, teaching and exercising authority separate elders from deacons.
Alex says that if the women are really deacons in 1 Timothy 3:11, then Paul would call them deacons. But I am not convinced. First, I argue Paul calls Phoebe a deacon in Romans 16:1, and so we do have an example of women being called deacons. Second, we have to be careful about specifying how Paul would write his letters. If women already served as deacons, he can move on to women deacons without using the title because deacons are the subject of the paragraph (1 Tim. 3:8–13). Paul often writes in ways that surprise us. He doesn’t always follow the patterns we might expect. Third, Alex doesn’t answer why the wives of deacons are mentioned but not the wives of elders. I don’t understand why the wives of deacons are discussed while ignoring the wives of elders since elders lead and teach the church, and thus the wives of elders would be more important than the wives of deacons. Of course, if he is talking about women deacons, as I argue, the problem vanishes.
Some have said that wives are mentioned because they assist their husbands who are deacons. That is a very interesting argument, but it begins to sound like the wives are deacons along with their husbands since they serve as their husbands do and the wives must meet the same kind of character qualifications as their husbands. Instead of solving the problem for those who don’t think women are deacons, it makes it worse. At the end of the day, however, I don’t think Paul describes wives who are deacons but female deacons.
Finally, we see very early in church history that women served as deacons. In the correspondence between Pliny the younger and the emperor Trajan (AD 98–117), one part of the conversation applies to the discussion before us. Pliny refers to two Christian women, who were called ministrae in Latin. In English this word means “ministers. “Ministers” is a Latin translation of the Greek word diakonoi, which means “servants” or “ministers” or “deacons.” We see from this account that early in the second century women served as deacons. I conclude that the Bible and early church history support women deacons, and so should we.
* * * * *
 Personal correspondence with the author, July 7, 2016.
 1 Cor. 11:2–16; 14:33–38; Eph. 5:22–33; Col. 3:18–19; Titus 2:3-4; see too Acts 6:3, 5.