We aim to be a church shaped by God’s word. This applies to how we live, what we believe, and how we are ordered. Part of our role as Directional Pastors is to oversee the spiritual health of our church. As a result, we regularly evaluate our church’s faith and practice to assure we are functioning in a manner consistent with the Scriptures. One area we have been evaluating is related to the office of deacon. Our current practice restricts this office to men only. Following a significant amount of prayer, study, and discussion, we believe the Scriptures allow for both men and women to serve as deacons within the church. We believe this same allowance should be reflected in the practice of our church. The goal of this paper is to explain what led us to that conclusion.
Before addressing this question directly, two clarifications may be helpful. First, the decision to make this allowance does not indicate any change in our complementarian convictions. “Complementarianism” is the belief that men and women are both created in the image of God, and therefore are equal in value and personhood. It also affirms that men and women are distinct from one another in role, specifically within the institutions of the family and the church. We believe that God intends for men to serve in positions within the church that possess ecclesial authority over the doctrine and direction of the church. We believe this order is a part of God’s intentional design, reflecting both the nature of the Trinity and the gospel, rather than a social or cultural construct. You can find a fuller explanation of our church’s complementarian convictions in our statement of belief, Complementary Roles of Men and Women, located on our website. We do not believe establishing female deacons in our church contradicts these convictions. To the contrary, we believe this change is a better representation of biblical complementarianism.
Second, we believe this particular question is one where Christians can disagree and remain in fellowship. The particular question of female deacons is one where likeminded believers do indeed disagree. Further, the dividing line of this question is not between those who deny a distinction in roles between men and women and those who do not. Even those who agree that the office of pastor/elder in the church is reserved for men only sometimes come to different conclusions regarding the question of female deacons. We understand that there may be members of our church who have a different perspective on the question of female deacons, but we do not see this difference of belief as one that would prevent us from remaining in fellowship as brothers and sisters within Christ’s church. This is an important question, but it is not a first order question of the Christian faith.
Doctrine is best developed by considering at least three different types of factors: Biblical, theological, and historical. This paper will address questions related to each of these factors. While all three factors are important, they do not all carry the same weight. Our supreme authority is the word of God. For that reason, we will begin by considering what the Bible says on the question of female deacons.
Biblical: What does the Bible say?
Part of the challenge with this particular question is that the Bible does not provide as much detail as we might like regarding the office of deacon. That in itself, however, is noteworthy. God could have provided greater detail, including clear prohibitions for this office, if that was indeed what He intended for His church. What He has revealed in the Scriptures, however, is sufficient for us to order ourselves as a church in a manner that pleases Him. Three key texts warrant consideration.
The first is Acts 6:1-6 where seven men were set apart by the church to address the problem of the Hellenistic Jews being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. It is believed by many that this was the beginning of what would ultimately become the formal office of deacon within the church. The seven people selected in Acts 6 were all male. The question is whether or not this was intended to be prescriptive (i.e. only men should serve in this office) or descriptive (i.e. simply describing who happened to be selected in that instance, at that time, and for that situation). There is nothing in the passage itself, or in the broader context, that would warrant a firm conclusion that Luke intended this to function prescriptively, limiting the office to men only. Additional biblical support would be needed in order to draw this conclusion.
The second key text is Romans 16:1, which says, “I recommend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea” (NASB). The Greek word translated “servant” is diakonos. This is the word used in the Bible to refer to the office of deacon. So, it is grammatically possible to translate this verse as saying, “I recommend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a deacon of the church which is at Cenchrea.” However, diakonos is also the word for “servant” and is often used more generally to refer to any Christian as a servant of Christ. If Paul intended diakonos in this more general sense, then he is simply saying that Phoebe was a faithful servant within the church. It is difficult to know definitively which use of the word Paul intended merely by looking at it grammatically—both uses are grammatically possible. Similar to the passage in Acts 6, Romans 16:1 does not provide a definitive answer to the question.
The final key passage is 1 Timothy 3:11 which is a part of a section that outlines qualifications for those who would serve as deacons. The verses around 3:11 that provide the biblical qualifications utilize masculine language (e.g. “men of dignity… These men must also first be tested… must be the husband of one wife…” emphasis added). Verse 11, however, reads, “Women [or wives] must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things” (NASB). The Greek word translated as women/wives is gyne, which is the word in Greek that is used to refer both to women generally or wives in particular. Again, the challenge is determining which use of the gyne Paul intended here. If he intended it as “wives,” then this verse would refer to additional qualifications for the wives of those men serving as deacons. If he intended it as “women,” then this verse seems to be providing qualifications for women who serve as deacons (i.e. female deacons). Grammatically, both translations, “women” or “wives,” are possible. One must draw from the context in order to arrive at an interpretive decision.
In support of understanding gyne as referring to deacons’ wives is the awkward flow of thought (if Paul intended this to refer to female deacons). Paul resumes to address deacons (masculine) in verse 12. Why would he insert qualifications for female deacons right in the middle of his list of qualifications for deacons? This leads some English versions of the Bible (e.g. ESV, CSB, etc.) to translate gyne as “wives.”
In support of understanding gyne as referring to female deacons is that Paul provides no similar qualifications for the wives of elders in the qualification list related to that office in the preceding verses. Why would there be qualifications for deacons’ wives but not the wives of elders, who are often engaged in as much ministry as the wives of deacons?
Also in support of understanding 3:11 as qualifications for female deacons is the absence of any qualifier before the word that would grammatically identify these women as the wives of deacons. He does not utilize a pronoun like “their wives” as you might expect, nor does he utilize a Greek case that implies a possessive idea. He simply says, “Women must likewise…” It is an odd grammatical structure to use if one is attempting to reference deacons’ wives. These considerations lead many other English versions of the Bible (e.g. NASB, NIV, etc.) to translate gyne as “women.”
If gyne is intended to refer to female deacons, the flow of thought in Paul’s qualification list may be as follows:
Qualifications for elders (1-7)
General qualifications for deacons (8-10)
Specific qualifications for female deacons (11)
Specific qualifications for male deacons (12)
Summary for all deacons (13)
This proposed structure does have grammatical support in the consistent language used to introduce each new section in the chapter:
“An overseer, then, must be…” (2)
“Deacons likewise must be…” (8)
“Women must likewise be…” (11)
“Deacons must be…” (12)
As we have demonstrated above, there are indeed interpretive challenges with each of these three primary texts on the question of female deacons. That said, after a thorough process of studying these texts, we do believe the Bible allows for women to serve as deacons within Christ’s church.
Looking at what the Bible says is very important in the formation of doctrine. It is also important to consider broader theological issues to help answer specific theological questions. It is to these theological issues that we now turn.
Theological: What type of office is the deaconate?
Since we do not see specific biblical prohibitions that limit this office to men, another important question to consider is: What type of office is the deaconate? Or more specifically: Is there anything inherent to the office of deacon that would limit those serving in this office to men, considering the other parts of scripture that make distinctions in the roles of men and women? If the office of deacon is an office that carries ecclesial authority over the doctrine and direction of the church (like the office of pastor/elder), then one could argue that other biblical teaching that assigns this type of authority to biblically qualified men alone would implicitly limit the office of deacon to men.
It should be acknowledged that the office of deacon in some churches does function as some type of ecclesial authority (e.g. as a board of directors). The unfortunate reality for many Baptist churches is that deacons function as elders (i.e. overseers) rather than deacons (i.e. servants). This, in part, explains why many Baptist churches have limited the office of deacon to men only. For women in the church to fulfill these types of elder-like functions would contradict our complementarian convictions. However, we believe that this is an unbiblical use of the deaconate, and this is not how the deacons at MacArthur Blvd function. Nevertheless, our church has held onto the practice of restricting the deaconate to men only, even though we have rightfully rejected the practice of deacons functioning as elders.
The biblical vision of the office of deacon is one that serves various needs of the church, allowing pastors to devote their focus to the ministry of the word and prayer. This does not imply that deacons play an unimportant role within the church or that they are ‘merely servants.’ The problem in Acts 6 was substantial and posed a significant threat to the unity of the body. Deacons serve a vital role; they are servant-leaders and peacemakers in the body. The office of deacon, however, is categorically different than the office of pastor. It is not an office that carries a headship function within the church. Unlike the office of pastor, there is nothing inherent to the office of deacon that would prohibit women from serving in that office.
Therefore, if there is no compelling biblical evidence that prohibits our sisters in Christ from serving as deacons, and there is nothing inherent to the office itself that would cause female deacons to violate broader biblical teachings regarding the distinct roles of men and women in the church, then there is not biblical reason to limit this office to men only? As mentioned earlier, we want our lives, beliefs, and church to be shaped by the word of God—not the culture, our opinions, the way we’ve always done things, or fear—but the word of God. We believe the biblical and theological teachings of Scripture allow for female deacons, and therefore, it is important to have this allowance be reflected in our practice as a church.
Historical: What is the testimony of church history?
A final consideration is the testimony of church history. While church history is not the primary consideration in our formation of doctrine, it is nevertheless an important consideration. If we are believing or teaching something that has never been believed or taught in the history of the church, that ought to be of great concern to us. So, what is the testimony of church history on this issue?
Space will not allow for a full treatment of the history of the deaconate or women serving as deacons throughout the history of the church. However, we do see historical evidence that supports the conclusion that both men and women are free to serve as deacons. Here is a survey of some of the relevant historical references:
Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215):
“We are also aware of all the things that the noble Paul prescribed on the subject of female deacons in one of the two Epistles to Timothy.”
Origen of Alexandria (AD 184-253):
“[Romans 16:1] teaches . . . two things: that there are . . . women deacons in the church, and that women, who have given assistance to so many people and who by their good works deserve to be praised by the apostle, ought to be accepted in the diaconate.”
Apostolic Constitutions (AD 380):
“Ordain also a deaconess who is faithful and holy, for the ministrations toward women. For sometimes he cannot send a deacon, who is a man, to the women, on account of unbelievers. Though shalt therefore send a woman, a deaconess, on account of the imaginations of the bad. For we stand in need of a woman, a deaconess, for many necessities.”
John Chrysostom (AD 349-407):
“Some have thought that [1 Tim. 3:11] is said of women generally, but it is not so, for why should [Paul] introduce anything about women to interfere with his subject? He is speaking of those who hold the rank of deaconesses.”
John Calvin (1509-1564):
“Deaconesses were appointed, not to soothe God by chantings or unintelligible murmurs, and spend the rest of their time in idleness, but to perform a public ministry of the church toward the poor, and to labor with all zeal, assiduity, and diligence, in offices of charity.”
Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892)
“Deaconesses, an office that most certainly was recognized in the apostolic churches…”
Early church history indicates that female deacons did function in churches at least by the second or third centuries, if not earlier. A natural question to the conclusions presented in this paper may be: Are we simply attempting to placate modern cultural sensibilities with this change? This brief survey of church history demonstrates, however, that female deacons existed in the church well before modern cultural ideologies.
Conclusion: Why should we remove this restriction, and why now?
Having weighed the various biblical, theological, and historical factors, we are proposing that we allow for biblically qualified women to serve as deacons within our church. Why? First and foremost is because we want to be shaped by God’s word. We do not want to build a wall in our church practice that does not exist in the Bible.
We are also motivated by a love for our church family. The reality is that we have many sisters in our church who are biblically qualified, skilled, and would add a great value to our ministry of deacons at MacArthur Blvd. We prevent the church from receiving what the Spirit wants to provide through these sisters by adding unbiblical prohibitions to our practices.
Some may worry that this type of change is a slippery slope—a step in the direction of removing all distinctions between men and women in the church. To this concern, we need to remember that when we stand on God’s word, we are not standing on a slippery slope but a firm foundation. If we tether ourselves to the Bible, our church will be faithful in our calling to be the “pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). It is when we add to God’s word that we are in danger of sliding down a slope into error. We need to make this change in our church because of our conviction that God’s word is true and sufficient. It is this same conviction that will guard us from worldly ideologies. Is this a first step in the direction of female pastors/elders? No. This is a step toward what we believe to be a more biblically shaped deacon ministry.
Why are we asking the body to consider this now? This proposal does not represent a sudden change of conviction in reaction to anybody or anything inside or outside the church. Though we are only now asking our church to consider this question, many of our pastors have had the conviction for many years that both men and women are free to serve as deacons in the church. In addition, the question of why we restrict the office of deacon to men alone is one we have and do receive from a number of members of our church (male and female) somewhat regularly. Multiple sisters of our church have been nominated to serve as deacons during times when we’ve asked the congregation for nominations. We recognize that there are brothers and sisters in our church wrestling with this question, not from a heart of anger or self-ambition, but from desire to understand biblical teaching and practice. We have delayed in bringing this before the body for consideration in the past because of the variety of exceptional challenges our church, nation, and world have been working through the past three years. We now believe our church is in a place in the current season where we can work through this question together in a healthy manner.
Our pastoral exhortation to all is simply to consider this with us prayerfully and humbly with a spirit of love and with Bible in hand. We understand changes in long-held beliefs can be heavy and difficult. Let us simply work through this together as we seek what the Lord would have for our church. As we do so, let us assume the best of one another and be eager to protect the unity of the body in our speech, attitude, and conduct. May Christ be glorified, not only in our conclusions, but also in the process.
Matt Smethurst’s book entitled Deacons.
Here is a podcast by Matt Smethurst on deacons, and he answers the question about women deacons. https://www.crossway.org/articles/podcast-the-meaningful-work-of-church-deacons-matt-smethurst/#women
TGC Article by Thomas Schreiner: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/bible-support-female-deacons-yes/
TGC Article by Paul Carter: https://ca.thegospelcoalition.org/columns/ad-fontes/can-women-be-deacons
Article by John MacArthur: https://www.gty.org/library/articles/451020/answering-key-questions-about-deacons-