While Paul’s first letter to Timothy is very clear that “overseers” (episkopos) are to be men, the question about women “deacons” (diakonos) is not so clear at all.
1 Timothy 3.8-13 lists the qualifications of those who are to serve as deacons. Most of those verses talk about the role in male terms, just like those above that discuss the qualifications of overseers. Especially significant is the fact that v.12 says a deacon must be the husband of one wife, just like v.2 says of the overseers. Opponents of women serving as deacons point to v.12 as proof, reasoning that a woman can’t be the husband of any wives.
The sticking point is v.11: “Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things.”
The Greek word there is gune, variously translated in the New Testament as “bride,” “wife,” and “woman.” Opponents of women serving as deacons point out that it is not diakonos, the word transliterated as “deacon” in v.8 and v.12. If Paul had meant to write about women deacons, then he would have used diakonos. They suggest the verse should be taken to mean the wives of deacons. Gune is, after all, the same word used in v.2 and v.12, where it is translated “wife.”
On the other hand, if Paul meant to address the qualities of the deacon’s wife, why didn’t he say “the wives of deacons” or “their wives”? Doesn’t the fact that he uses “likewise” indicate that he is setting up a parallel construction to talk about women who serve in the role?
All that would leave us, at best, with an uncertainty that perhaps leans in the direction of saying Paul was writing about the wives of deacons.
Then we notice Romans 16.1: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea.” On the surface, no problem – until your research shows you that the word translated “servant” is diakonos. Why should the translation call Phoebe a “servant” and not a “deacon”?
Diakonos appears in the New Testament 29 times, and 26 times it is translated “servant,” “servants”, or “minister.” But three times, instead of translating diakonos into the English word that means the same thing, Bible translators changed the Greek letters to English letters and created a new English word, “deacon.” That’s called “transliterating.”
Early translators of the Bible did the same thing with baptizo, which actually means “immerse.” Because their churches practiced baptism by sprinkling instead of immersion, they could not bring themselves to translate it, so they changed the Greek letters to English letters and created a new English word, “baptize.”
Why do that with diakonos in those three cases? Perhaps because at those points the Scripture seems to refer to official positions in the church. Or perhaps the translators held an unjustified prejudice against women serving in that role because the “office” of deacon had become something it was never intended to be.
The key question is whether Phoebe held a church office or was “just” a church member with a servant heart. It is impossible to tell from the context of Romans 16, and 1 Timothy 3 does not settle the matter beyond reasonable doubt.
The real problem, however, is not in the Scripture. The real problem lies with us.
In many churches, deacons function more like overseers than servants. The seven men chosen as the first “deacons” were selected to serve food (Acts 6.1-6), but deacons today are more often rulers, a “deacon board.” If they understood that the biblical role of the deacon is that of servant, most men would insist that the positions be filled with women!
Too many men want to keep women out of positions because they are positions of power, rather than because God has clearly said the positions should be filled only by men. Too many women want those positions for the same reason. We have failed to understand Jesus’ teaching on greatness (Mark 10.42-45) when we are busy wrestling for power and position in the church.
If the biblical deacon role involved public teaching or making decisions for the congregation, then the question of women serving would be easier to resolve.
Frankly, I think there are two questions that are far more interesting:
– Opponents of women serving as deacons, if you discovered that the Scripture really does teach that women can serve as deacons, could you accept it?
– Advocates of women serving as deacons, if you discovered that the Scripture teaches that women cannot serve as deacons, could you accept it?
I suspect that the real issue we wrestle with is living like the Servant who “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
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