Deaconesses in the church?

 

Office of Deaconess?

The question under consideration is, “who are the ‘women’ of 1 Timothy 3:11?”  The question is a simple one, yet it is difficult to answer dogmatically. Popular translations are:

  • ESV  1 Timothy 3:11 Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.
  • KJV  1 Timothy 3:11 Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things.
  • NAU  1 Timothy 3:11 Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things.
  • NKJ  1 Timothy 3:11 Likewise their wives must be reverent, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things.
  • NIV  1 Timothy 3:11 In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.
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    Bible interpreters suggest several basic answers as to the identity of these women:

  • Female deacons who serve with male deacons.
  • A separate office composed of selected women in the church perhaps called deaconesses who perform special services to the church. 
  • A distinct group of non-office bearing women who perform special services to the church. 
  • Wives of deacons.
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    Observations

    A diagrammatical analysis is helpful but answering the question does not hinge on understanding the diagram. Note the Greek text and the diagrammatical analysis below (Leedy New Testament Diagram in Bible Works for Windows 8.0, 2008, Virginia Beach, VA).  However, as noted herein, word usage and points of grammar do shed light on how best to answer the question.

    Regarding the view that the “women” are female deacons who serve with male deacons.

    • The distinctly male only qualifications make this option improbable. The qualifications “…men of dignity…” (v8); “…men must be…” (v10); “Deacons must be husbands…” (v12) (all quotes are NAU unless stated otherwise).This option is also problematic if the “seven men” of Acts 6:3 were the first deacons. Some might argue that the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:8-10, 12-13 are limited to male deacons whereas the qualifications for female deacons are found in 3:11. Certainly this distinction is not clearly substantiated in the text. If this distinction is the case, then we are left to conclude that the only qualifications for female deacons are those of 3:11 and that the non-gender specific qualifications of 3:8-10, 12-13 do not apply to woman. This is hardly acceptable.
    • Even though deacons possess no independent authority, are assistants to the elders, are servants of the congregation, and are not charged with teaching as are elders, nonetheless, deacons must be considered key leaders in the congregation. Elevating women to the office of a deacon or to a separate office altogether (see below) seems to be out of step with the immediately previous discussion about women in the church (2:9-15) as well as Paul’s discussion dealing with women in the public life of the church in 1 Corinthians 11:1-5; 14:34-35.  Of course one might argue just the opposite – because of servant role of deacons women are appropriate candidates for the office.
    • Paul’s  commendation of Phoebe, “who was a servant (διάκονος) of the church which is at Cernchrea” (Romans 16:1-2) is also seen as support for women who hold the office of deacon especially in light of the strong language in v 2 urging the readers to “…help her in whatever matter she may have need of…” However, this reference could just as easily, if not likely, be understood as a general reference to service in the church apart from functioning in an office bearing capacity. This is often the case in the New Testament.
    • The categorical structure argues that the women are distinct from and compared to deacons (see 2b below). Speaking of female deacons runs counter to this distinction. Further, the female form of “deacons” is not used of these individuals in 3:11 in parallel to the masculine “deacons” of those in 3:8, 12.

    Regarding the view that the “women” are a separate office composed of selected women in the church perhaps called deaconesses or just “the women” who perform special services to the church.

    • The flow of thought is captured by the use and flow of key terms in 1 Timothy 3. Note that “An overseer then must be (δεῖ) …” (v2) is followed by “Deacons likewise (ὡσαύτως) must be…” (v8) and then follows “Women must likewise (ὡσαύτως) be…” (v11). This structure suggests three separate categories – overseers, deacons, and women.
    • The observations under 1b above are equally, if not more so, applicable here as well. Elevating women to a separate office is incongruous (in my view) to the tenor of the New Testament teaching regarding the role of women in the church.
    • It may be noteworthy that, “must be” (δεῖ) is repeated in v 7 and no separate category is apparent there; bishops are still under discussion. However, the key point of argument lies with “likewise” rather than “must be”.
    • The fact that only two offices are listed in the salutation of Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi (Philippians 1:1).
    • It makes sense that if a separate office is in mind surely a separate paragraph would have been devoted to this office as the case with elders and deacons. 

     

    Regarding the view that the “women” are a distinct group of non-office-bearing individuals who perform special services to the church.

    • Given the location of v 11 in the text the reference reasonably might be to select group of women who specifically assist deacons in their service to the church. The line of thought is that Paul interrupts his discussion about deacons in order to describe a group of women who formally assist deacons in their tasks. He then returns to his discussion of deacons.
    • Furthermore, some services the deacons accomplish and some ministries in the congregation in general are more suited to women. Ministries such as assisting widows (1 Timothy 5:9-10) or mentoring younger women (Titus 2:3-5) come to mind.
    • The same observations regarding grammatical structure used to argue for a separate category of women are applicable here except that no separate office is in view (see 2a above).
    • In any event, the reference is to only a select group of women who must meet the qualifications in 3:11 rather than to all women in the church.
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  • Regarding the view that the "women" are wives of deacons. 

     

    • The general term γυνή is most often translated “woman”, however when the English word “wife” is used as it frequently is, it is a translation of γυνή.
    • The use of “women” in 3:12 clearly refers to the wives of deacons. The back-to- back use of “women” in 3:11-12 ties the two verses together and leads to the conclusion that the women of 3:11 is now clarified as wives of deacons by the use of the same term in v 12. Even the literal translation “one woman man” (3: 2, 12, Titus 1:6) clearly refers to the man’s wife. Thus, this context opens the legitimate possibly of translating γυνή as “wives” in 3:12.
    • This view might help explain why there is no qualification that these women must be a “one man woman” as is the case with deacons and elders (also widows in 5:9). As George Knight explains, “This omission can, however, be explained if the requirement is inherent in their position as wives of the deacons (New International Greek Commentary p 170 George Knight). I am not convinced.
    • An open question is whether these wives are viewed as functioning assistants to their deacon husbands or whether the thought is simply that the wives must exhibit the characteristics of 3:11 as part of the qualifications that their deacon husbands must meet with no reference to a particular function of the wives in the church. If the view that the women refer to wives of deacons is preferred, it makes more sense that the reference has nothing to do with the wife’s function per se.
    • This view results in an easy to follow line of reasoning – first qualifications for elders in 3:1-7 and then for deacons in 8-13.
    • However, the possessive “their” is supplied and there is no article in the text (the wives) which might be expected if deacon’s wives are in view. Or Paul could have cleared the matter up easily by saying, “women of deacons” – thus deacon’s wives. But he did not!
    • Further, if 3:12 refers to wives of deacons, why is there no similar qualification stated for elders? The argument that the statement in 3:4 that the elder “must manage his own home well” implies a wife who meets the expectations for deacons wives in 3:11 is asking too much of the text. The view that deacons wives are mentioned because of the unique ministry of deacons is also inadequate in that it fails to grasp the similarly unique role of elders.
    • This view has much to commend it, but it still is a stretch in light of the categorical language discussed above (see 2a above). 

     

    Conclusion

    The student is really left with having to make a choice based on what view he/she thinks best fits the features of the text, the larger context of the New Testament, and best answers all contingencies. Certainly is nearly impossible; thus dogmatism is unwise. Grace and humility are essential in sorting out this issue.

    I personally think the biggest driver is the categorical structure of the passage beginning at verse 2. In trying to identify who these “women” are, I give greatest weight to the structure. For me, this rules out viewing the women as female deacons (answer #1) or viewing them as wives of deacons (answer #4). I believe the answer that the women described are a third office in the church is too problematic in light of New Testament teaching regarding male leadership in the church.

    This leaves the answer that these women are a select group of women who perform unique and special ministries in the church.  The mention of the “women” in the middle of a discussion about deacons may suggest that they serve the church primarily as assistants to the deacons. Regardless, viewing them in a standalone category also fits the New Testament description of women playing a key role in the life of the early church (see my paper The Role of Women in the Church). However, these women are not office bearers. The text does not designate them other than the “women”.

    Of course, there are unresolved issues such as how these women are selected, the general scope and identity of their primary ministry, what to call them, and their precise relationship to the deacons

    Failing agreement to the view that the “women” of 1 Timothy 3:11 are a category of servants as I have described, I believe the second best option is that they are wives of deacons.

    Diagrammatical Analysis

    1Timothy 3:11

    BNT  1 Timothy 3:11 Γυναῖκας ὡσαύτως σεμνάς, μὴ διαβόλους, νηφαλίους, πιστὰς ἐν πᾶσιν. 

     


    © Copyright. Joseph Flatt. 2014. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source.