Does the Bible Allow for Women Deacons? Yes, Says Tom Schreiner (with a Response from Alex Strauch)

Article
12.10.2019

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 Tom’s answer, as well as Alex’s response. (You can read Alex’s answer and Tom’s response here.)

* * * * *

Whether women should be deacons is a difficult matter. It’s not easy to decide—and besides, I don’t like disagreeing with Alex Strauch because he is one of my favorite pastors! He may be right, and I may be wrong. The issue of whether women should serve as deacons is restricted to a few verses: Romans 16:1, 1 Timothy 3:11. Here are five arguments why they should serve as deacons.

First, Phoebe is called a “deacon of the church in Cenchreae” (Rom. 16:1, NIV). The word translated “deacon” (diakonon) could mean “servant” (CSB),[1] but the reference to the church and to the congregation suggests an office that Phoebe held in the church.

Second, 1 Timothy 3:11 is inserted in the middle of a discussion about deacons (1 Tim. 3:8–13). The words “in the same way” (NIV) are most naturally taken to mean that the women serve as deacons, just as men did.

Third, the character qualities required are the kinds of things said about others who hold official positions: women are to be “worthy of respect” (1 Tim. 3:11), and male deacons are to be “worthy of respect” (1 Tim. 3:8); women must not be “slanderers” (1 Tim. 3:11), and male deacons must not be “double-tongued” (dilogous);[2] women are to be “self-controlled” (1 Tim. 3:11), as elders are to be “self-controlled” (1 Tim. 3:2); women are to be “faithful in everything” (1 Tim. 3:11), and elders are to be “above reproach” (1 Tim. 3:2). The character qualities for elders and deacons are the same, so I am not saying women should be elders. But I am saying that the reference to character qualities indicates that Paul refers to an office, to women deacons.

Fourth, if Paul wanted to talk about the wives of deacons. He could have made this clear in Greek by adding the word “their” (autōn) or “their own” (idiōn). But he doesn’t add these words, and the word used in Greek for “women” (gynaikas) does not necessarily mean wives. Whether it means wives or women must be determined by context, and the context is talking about deacons.

Fifth, why would Paul give requirements for the wives of deacons but not for the wives of elders? That seems very strange since elders have a greater responsibility for the leadership and teaching of the church. But if he is talking about women deacons, we don’t have a problem because he isn’t talking about the wives of deacons at all!

Sixth, having women as deacons doesn’t contradict 1 Tim. 2:12 because deacons don’t teach or exercise authority over men. The office of deacon is one of service, not leadership. Two things are said about elders that are never said about deacons: 1) elders lead and exercise authority in the church (1 Tim. 3:4–5; 5:17; Titus 1:7); and 2) elders teach the gathered congregation (1 Tim 3:2; 5:17; Titus 1;9). But deacons don’t do either of these things by virtue of their office, and so women deacons don’t contradict male leadership. Deacons serve, and women serve wonderfully in many churches as deacons.

*****

Alex Strauch’s response:

Tom’s commentaries and other writings prove him to be one of the fairest Bible commentators I know, especially when addressing difficult passages. I am confident he will give me a fair hearing. He is also a church elder worthy of “triple honor” (1 Tim. 5:17; my new translation of the Greek).

To answer Tom’s sixth point, we must come back again to the question, “Who are the diakonoi?” Actually, this is a far more important issue to get right than whether or not Scripture teaches women deacons. In light of recent research, I contend that we should translate the word diakonoi in 1 Timothy 3:8 and Philippians 1:1 not as “deacons” (which doesn’t tell us anything) or “leading-servants” or “table-servants,” but as “assistants.” As such, these diakonoi are “under the authority of the elders, but having authority over the congregation to carry out tasks as needed.”[3] They are the official representatives/agents of the elders. Therefore, they hold authority and a place of leadership over men and women within the congregation.

Concerning Phoebe, if we correctly understand Paul’s particular usage of diakonos in 1 Timothy 3:8 and Philippians 1:1, then Paul should have stated that Phoebe was “an assistant to the overseers,” and not “assistant to the church,” which makes no sense. Furthermore, Clarence Agan III has demonstrated that “servant” or “assistant” are not the only legitimate renderings of diakonos in Romans 16:1. He argues that a better translation of diakonos in Rom. 16:1 is “courier” or “envoy” of the church in Cenchreae. Agan’s article on Romans 16:1 is a must-read for anyone concerned about this issue.[4]

Perhaps the strongest argument for rejecting the wives-of-the-deacons views is the absence of the word “their” (autōn) with gynaikas. But it’s far more difficult to explain why Paul doesn’t used the identifiable title, tas diakonous or gynaikas diakonous (= “women deacons”) if he is really talking about women deacons, instead of the general designation gynaikas (= women).

Regardless of how one interprets verse 11, problems and perplexing questions challenge either interpretation. Objections to the view that gynaikas means wives, such as (1) the omission of the pronoun or article with gynaikas, (2) the grammatical structure of the passage beginning with the introductory adverb “likewise,” and (3) the omission of the elders’ wives’ qualifications can all be countered by reasonable answers and have been by preeminent Greek scholars (see www.deaconbook.com). There’s no one grammatical point that is decisive in determining the identity of these women. So I return to my first point, who are the diakonoi?

* * * * *

[1] I cite the CSB unless specified otherwise.

[2] My translation.

[3] Personal correspondence with Clarence Agan III.

[4] “Deacons, Deaconesses, and Denominational Discussions: Romans 16:1 as a Test Case,” Presbyterion: Covenant Seminary Review, 34/2 (Fall 2008), 105-08.

By:
Alexander Strauch

Alexander Strauch has for over forty years served as an elder at Littleton Bible Chapel near Denver, Colorado. He has taught philosophy and New Testament literature at Colorado Christian University. For the detailed evidence for this argument, go to www.deaconbook.com or read Paul’s Vision for the Deacons: Assisting the Elders with the Care of God’s Church.

Thomas R. Schreiner

Thomas R. Schreiner is a Professor of New Testament Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Pastor of Preaching at Clifton Baptist Church. You can find him on Twitter at @DrTomSchreiner.