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

"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." (Also Alex’s answer and Tom’s response.) - 9 Marks

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Mark_Smith's picture

deacon to mean a church appointed servant, yes, a man or woman can be that. If you rather use "deacon" to mean an elder, then no. So, it all depends upon how faithful you are to the word deacon. If I understand it correctly, many Baptist or Baptist-like churches have historically not used the word "elder" to distinguish themselves from Presbyterians or some such thing. This decision is the cause of the confusion, not Greek exegesis.
 

Ron Bean's picture

I think we all agree that if we use Biblical definitions that deacons and elders are two separate offices., and come to Mark's conclusion. The challenge is that tradition (and a  "fear" of looking like we're granting credibility to Presbyterians as well as a denial that historic Baptist churches did have elders) has led many Baptists to allow deacons to act as elders. I knew a pastor in New England who spent 6 months teaching his Baptist church and deacons about the differences between elders and deacons. When he finished, his deacons agreed that the Bible did, indeed, teach a difference but they weren't going to change. He became a successful Baptist church planter in Panama---with elders and deacons!

 

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

TylerR's picture

Editor

The problem is that many Baptist churches use deacons to perform elder/pastor duties. Spiritual care is a pastoral duty. If you draw that line, and restrict deacons to the kind of activities you see in Acts 6, then you can maintain a healthy distinction between the two offices. For example, why on earth should deacons meet with candidates for membership to "vet" them and hear their testimony, etc? This is a common practice in some Baptist circles. That's a pastoral function!

Personally, I believe when you make this hard distinction and restrict deacons from spiritual care, you basically ... have all sorts of people already doing "deacon" functions who aren't deacons - including men and women. I'm admitting that I'm at the point where I don't believe a church MUST HAVE deacons, because in church so many people are already involved in helping out the pastors in so many, non-spiritual care sorts of ways. 

Our congregation has no deacons, because the eligible men were divorced at one point long ago. I personally don't believe this is a disqualification, but our bylaws do believe it. I'll fight that battle in the next year or so. But, honestly - does a church HAVE TO have deacons? I don't believe so.

I am very open to interpreting the office of deacon as helping the pastors with the physical needs of the church (broadly defined). Thus, there can be many deacons who assist with these matters in many ways, both men and women. They're "servants" who help the elders, so the elders can focus on spiritual care.

So, I'm ambivalent about the office. I think it's often inappropriately expanded to a quasi-pastoral office. I also believe a lot more people COULD be appointed to the office if we restrict it from spiritual care functions. Maybe we ought to have MORE deacons; both men and women.  Regardless of whether you have "official" deacons, I suspect many churches have people fulfilling the same non-spiritual care functions without holding the official title.

No, this isn't a systematic theology on deacons, and I hope folks don't take it that way. This is me thinking out loud.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

That's the one thing that sticks out as a distinction, and if we divide it per Tyler with "spiritual care", it's hard for me to imagine those serving the widows--what I'm told was the original task of deacons--would do so without providing some level of spiritual care for them as well.  But if you're providing spiritual care--e.g. "counseling" and such--aren't you also teaching?  Shouldn't you be apt to teach?  

Or might we also suggest that a key attribute of an "elder" or "overseer" be their .....age and seniority in the church, and we would then differentiate on the basis of "apt to teach" not on book knowledge, but on life experience to pass on?  And hence we might suggest that the "spiritual care" that would be dispensed by a deacon to the widows (etc..) would be comfort while the deacon himself learns the art of life from the very people he's serving?

And then once the deacon learns that art of life and becomes apt to teach....he becomes an elder?  Now granted, this is not an exhaustive systematics of church office, but if we would find that deacons became elders in the ancient church, that would be one other indication that deacons....

...ought to be male, because there is no ambiguity about the sex of elders/overseers in the same way that the article sees with "wives"/"women" in the deacons section.

On the light side, glad to see Tyler veering off towards the abyss of Presbyterian church polity.  :^)  (j/k)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Paul Henebury's picture

Making women into deacons (re. the church officer) is a case of taking the Greek word for "servant" and applying it in certain contexts where it refers to the office of "deacon."  It is poor exegesis.  1 Tim. 3:12 ought to settle it.  No female qualifies!

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

TylerR's picture

Editor

We can think about this question by coming at it from the standpoint "what do the deacon duties tell us about the gender of those who hold the office?" So,

  1. what deacons actually do
  2. what makes their duties so special that we need a separate office for the duties
  3. what makes their duties so unique that women are exempt
  4. and what is the necessity of the office itself

I get that they're in the NT. Most discussions I've seen have them fulfilling a quasi-pastoral role. I know Strauch has a book on deacons. I'll have to make time to read it one day.

In the article (linked above), Strauch says the title ought to be translated to mean something like "assistant to the elders," thus giving deacons authority over the congregation. Acts 6 is the only descriptive passage we have of deacons in action (some don't see deacons here, though), and it's a stretch to make Acts carry the freight of "deacon = assistant to pastors = authority over congregation." Big stretch.

Acts 6 does show us all men, though ...

Again, more interested in coming at this from angle of whether the duties suggest men only; moving beyond the grammar disputes.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Paul Henebury's picture

can a woman be a Church deacon.  I answer, Yes, as long as she can be the husband of one wife and be in charge of the home!  End of argument. 

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Larry's picture

Moderator

I think the view that 1 Tim 3:11 is addressing deaconnesses is a legitimate view though I disagree with it. 

Even absent a biblical directive, a church could have deaconnesses in the same way it has a church clerk, a treasurer, a financial secretary, a SS superintendent or another such position that helps the church to carry out its mission.  

Mark_Smith's picture

Can a woman be a deacon? No. But can they be a deaconess? Yes.

The question is one of role. Is a deacon a decision-maker and doctrine-choser in the church, or a servant? They are servants. If you refuse to call a woman a "deacon" yet use women to disciple, help, and serve other women (which I'm betting you do in some capacity) you have a "deaconess" you just aren't using the title.

This is an argument that has been going on for far too long because people infused into the position of "deacon" the role of the elder. Period.

Mark_Smith's picture

Every conservative church, and even fundamental Baptist church, has a group of women leaders and "go-to" servants who have no title or formal role. Can we admit they are "deaconesses"?

TylerR's picture

Editor

You wrote:

every conservative church, and even fundamental Baptist church, has a group of women leaders and "go-to" servants who have no title or formal role. Can we admit they are "deaconesses"?

Precisely.

You also wrote:

The question is one of role. Is a deacon a decision-maker and doctrine-choser in the church, or a servant? They are servants. If you refuse to call a woman a "deacon" yet use women to disciple, help, and serve other women (which I'm betting you do in some capacity) you have a "deaconess" you just aren't using the title.

Precisely again.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Ken S's picture

Paul Henebury wrote:

can a woman be a Church deacon.  I answer, Yes, as long as she can be the husband of one wife and be in charge of the home!  End of argument. 

Can an unmarried man or one without children be an elder or deacon?

Paul Henebury's picture

Many of these counters are far too pragmatic.  Basing arguments on pragmatism makes it very difficult to stop the train once you're on it.  Saying "if they're doing it shouldn't we call them deaconesses" is how egalitarians argue, and they use the same ploy to argue for female pastors.

We shouldn't ask what they are doing, but should they be doing it according to Scripture.  Furthermore, there are several men in our Church who serve the body in many ways but they are not deacons.  That goes for women, and addresses Mark's argument, although women (we believe) should not be deacons.

Ken's argument is daft.  I said "as long as she CAN be the husband of one wife or in charge of a home."  A women CAN'T, but a man CAN.  But, as I say, this is how egalitarian reasoning goes (I'm not claiming anyone here is one). 

If Paul had e.g. called Phoebe an "apostolos" that would have been a perfectly good term.  It means "messenger" or "one sent", UNLESS in terms of a particular office in the Body of Christ, it then takes on a technical meaning.  To then use "apostolos" in reference to Phoebe (in this example), or "diacon" in fact, is a case of illegitimate totality transfer.  Ergo, you can't argue from someone like (e.g.) Phoebe to deaconesses.

To Tyler, I simply say there are not enough instances in the NT to decide whether there were perchance "deaconesses."  We do have clear statements about the office in 1 Tim. 3 and, as I have shown, women are excluded.

Feel free to disagree, but I believe I have good grounds for my position. 

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

TylerR's picture

Editor

I'm really not interested in whether women can be deacons. I'm more interested in what a deacon's duties should and shouldn't be. I'm also interested in what, precisely, makes a deacon's duties different from those of an "ordinary," mature and actively serving church member. Not much, I believe.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Ken S's picture

Paul Henebury wrote:

Ken's argument is daft. 

Wow, ok.

I didn't make an argument though, just asked a question. I had a professor in college who believed that if you interpret that passage to require that a deacon or elder must be male, then consistent interpretation also requires him to be married and have children. His position was that a deacon or elder must be a man, and married with children.

Mark_Smith's picture

I tend to agree with Tyler on this. My main concern is the ROLE of deacon. Deacons are not elders. Period.

As you know, deacon means servant. These are people appointed by the church to serve its people. They make no spiritual leadership decisions whatsoever. Do you agree with that?

As for your "rock solid" exegesis of 1 Tim 3, if verse 11 is just the wife of a male deacon, why does it appear before the command for a deacon to be a husband of one wife? That's just plain weird. And why does the wife of a deacon need to be qualified, when the wife of an overseer/elder is not mentioned in such a manner? I suspect that the gunaikas of verse 11 does not mean wife, but females who are deaconesses! But, that is just an opinion. It makes no sense to be wife when wife is mentioned in the next verse as a qualification for deacons.

I will never tell a church to have female deaconesses. I don't even know that I would call the women servants deaconesses. But what I will not do is confuse deacons with elders, which is what almost every Baptist church I have attended did.

Paul Henebury's picture

My apologies Ken.  I took your comment the wrong way.  Now you have explained more I see I am in the wrong.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Paul Henebury's picture

I never equated deacons with elders.  The original deacons were "servants" and were men.  It was clearly an elected office.  We see them involved in "spiritual work" in Acts, but basically I agree with Mark that that is not their main function. And having a wife is not said to be a qualification.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Bert Perry's picture

It strikes me that the phrase "man of one woman" is key here.  If we translate it according to what kind of relationships deacons and elders had most of the time--marriage--then we might conclude that the single are not allowed.  At some point, we might even wonder whether the life experience of marriage might be helpful for a church officer--ignoring of course the obvious objection "Jesus and Paul were single." 

But if we admit that objection, and translate the phrase as its more generic "one woman man",  that might seem to make more allowance for what we'd have to guess from Jesus' and Paul's singleness; that the single are not banned from church office.  Key here is that I think a single prooftext is not sufficient to close the case.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Larry's picture

Moderator

And why does the wife of a deacon need to be qualified, when the wife of an overseer/elder is not mentioned in such a manner? 

Perhaps because the role of an elder is primarily teaching and leading, two things women are forbidden to do. Thus their wives are not directly involved in their ministry. Deacons have a much more "hands on" ministry including visiting and caring for widows and those "on the list." Their wives would be much more likely to be involved in their ministry. 

As for making "no spiritual leadership decisions whatsoever," that probably overstates the case. Pastors would be wise to listen to the godly men that the congregation has chosen to serve. Pastors have to be able to lead their family to demonstrate that they can lead the church (v. 4-5). Deacons also have to be able to manage their own families (v. 12). Why? Perhaps the same reason. Deacon run churches are a problem. I don't like the term "board" or "Deacon board" because that implies a ruling authority to me. But they do lead in many ways because the congregation has chosen them to lead. They are more than go-fers for the pastors. 

Larry's picture

Moderator

Paul, I agree with you in the main but I wonder this: If a church had deaconnesses as an official position, would you label them out of order, disobedient, or something else? Is there a place for deaconnesses alongside of a clerk, a treasurer, a SS superintendent, etc?

Bert Perry's picture

And why does the wife of a deacon need to be qualified, when the wife of an overseer/elder is not mentioned in such a manner?

I'd suggest that it's very simple; it was likely implicit in the "manages his own household well."  If an elder's wife was (to use the NASB phrasing) an undignified gossip who was intemperate and unfaithful....wouldn't we conclude that the elder was not managing his own household well?  That he had some things to attend to before he got behind a pulpit and such?

Regarding Tyler's justifiable question of what differentiates a deacon from an ordinary church member, the emphasis on the demonstrated character of the man indicates that he's suitable to be the public face of church service--e.g. serving the Grecian Hebrew widows.  Notice also that he holds the mysteries of the faith with a clear conscience--again, to say that they have no real spiritual care is probably incorrect.  Again, if you can bring meals to the widows without hearing of their troubles...I don't think you've done half the ministry or received half the blessing that you ought.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

Editor

Bert wrote:

Again, if you can bring meals to the widows without hearing of their troubles...I don't think you've done half the ministry or received half the blessing that you ought.

Every Christian who is involved in the lives of fellow church members is, at some level, involved in "spiritual care." I meant "spiritual care = pastoral care." A deacon is nothing more than a mature, serving church member. I see little in Scripture to justify more than that. If that is the case (and I realize some may disagree that it is, indeed, the case!), then I really fail to see (1) why there are often so few deacons, and (2) why they must be men, given the legitimate grammatical issues Schreiner outlined in the article. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Paul Henebury's picture

Good reasoning

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Paul Henebury's picture

Larry,

I think the issue is over the name (which I would not advocate for the reasons already given).  But certainly women can have named roles in the Church body.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Larry's picture

Moderator

I'd suggest that it's very simple; it was likely implicit in the "manages his own household well."

So why is it stated for deacon's wives rather than implicit as you suggest with elders' wives?

Bert Perry's picture

Larry wrote:

I'd suggest that it's very simple; it was likely implicit in the "manages his own household well."

So why is it stated for deacon's wives rather than implicit as you suggest with elders' wives?

Larry, I'm not quite sure, and it'll take a lot to move me from that position.  :^)  You could argue, as you did, that it's even more critical to make sure deacons' wives are of good character, hence the repetition, or it could be just how Paul expressed things--a near-parallel being used as a tool for emphasis--or finally (and this would be a rejection of my thought) it could be something that is truly not well described as "manages his own household well."  I don't see it, but...

We might even "tweak" your thoughts to be "everybody knows the pastors' wives are involved and how critical it is that they be on board....but since not everybody interacts with the deacons' wives all the time, maybe we ought to repeat this so it doesn't get dropped."

That noted, to the main point of the thread here, I tend to regard the verse as referring to the wives of deacons, and that you have "one woman man", as well as the logical progression from deacon to elder/overseer, among other factors, suggesting that this particular sort of "servant" ought to follow the Biblical pattern of male headship as well.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.