This chapter in Vintage Church is summarized by Mark Driscoll in this sentence: “Elders are the male leaders of the church.” Driscoll gives a host of verses (especially 1 Timothy 2:11-3:5) to support his view which he calls “a soft complementarian interpretation of Paul’s commands.” His view permits only men to be elders or pastors but does allow women to be deacons (the hard complementarian interpretation does not).
Driscoll sees three different views on the leadership of a local church.
The first is the liberal or Egalitarian View which advocates that women can lead as pastors and deacons.
The second is the Complementarian View (“a soft complementarian interpretation”) which espouses only men as pastors but women can be deacons.
The third is the Hiearchical View (the hard complementarian interpretation) which does not permit women to serve as deacons nor pastors.
There are arguments for and against women being deacons. We will look at both arguments beginning with arguments for the church office of deaconess.
Arguments for Women Deacons
1. The Greek word gunaikas in 1 Timothy 3:11 can be translated “women” (NASB) or “wives” (NIV). KJV translates gunaikas “women” 129 times and “wives” 92 times. Therefore, goes the first argument, gunaikas does not have to be translated “wives” of deacons.
2. After Paul describes the office of pastor in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, he introduces the office of deacon in (v.8) with “likewise” (Gk. hosautos) which is the same way he introduces women in verse 11 with hosautos as if he were introducing a third office. This is one of Driscoll’s arguments. If Paul were speaking of the wives of deacons, he could have written “wives of deacons” (diadonon).
3. The qualifications in 3:11 are similar to those required of deacons and therefore suggest that an office is in view. This cannot refer to all women because this text is dealing with church officers (Homer Kent, The Pastoral Epistles, pages 140-141).
4. This reference cannot be limited to wives of deacons because no qualifications for pastor’s wives are given which would seem more important. This is another argument used by Driscoll.
5. Paul in Romans 16:1 calls Phoebe a diakonon which is the same word he used in Phil.1:1 for the office of deacon. Paul also calls Phoebe a prostatis or leader in Rom. 16:2 which is claimed to be a technical term for a legal protector or leader. Since there was an office, the qualifications for that office are given in 1 Tim. 3:11.
Proponents of the position also claim that Titus 2:3-5 describes deaconesses. No where in this text are these older women called deacons. Lastly, deaconesses have served the church throughout history as the following cited examples disclose. The order of deaconess first takes concrete form in Didaskalia Apostolorum (Syria, AD 230). “There are houses to which you (the bishops) cannot send a (male) deacon to the women, on account of the heathen, but you may send a deaconess” (R. Hugh Connoly, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1929, pp.146-148). This was a service office not a leadership office.
The Apostolic Constitution (Syria, fourth century) indicated that deaconesses supervise the seating and behavior of the female part of the worshiping community and prevent men from mingling among these women.
The Testament of Our Lord Jesus Christ (Syria, fifth century) permitted deaconesses to bring communion to pregnant women unable to attend Easter mass. The office disappeared in the twelfth century. This office revived in Germany in the early nineteenth century. The deaconesses were trained primarily as nurses and secondarily as teachers who focused on the care of the sick poor, the orphan, discharged women prisoners, and the mentally ill. Florence Nightingale was a deaconess in Germany. (Biblical Manhood, pages 264-265).
Arguments Against Women Deacons
1. The word diadonos is a general word for servant used to describe Christ (Mk. 10:45), Paul (1 Tim.1:12), Apollos (1 Cor. 3:5), Timothy (1 Tim. 4:6), and all believers (Mt. 20: 26, 27). So the word does not have to be a technical word for an office.
2. Since 1 Tim. 3:12 reverts back to deacons, then v. 11 would seem out of place if it meant deaconesses as an office of leadership. Not so, however, if this is not a leadership position. These women are mentioned in 1 Tim. 3:11 because they serve alongside the deacons who are also the wives of the deacons or a group of women serving but not leading.
3. If this is an office, then why would the requirements be less than those for male deacons? Because this is not a leadership position.
4. These qualifications could be limited to the wives of the deacons or women serving in the church if both of these persons are service oriented and not leadership. That is the reason why qualifications are not given for the pastor’s wife. Pastor’s wife is not a separate position or ministry in the church.
5. Phobe was unofficially called a deacon in Romans 16:1. Most translations translate prostatis as “help” or “helper” (RSV, NASB, NIV, and KJV) in Romans 16:2. If Phoebe is a leader, then she was the leader over the apostle Paul and held a position of authority over the apostle Paul which he denied of even the other apostles (Gal. 1:11-24).
The following men in Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womenhood (John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds.) argue that even if there is an office called “deaconess” it would only be an office of service and not leadership like the office of deacon and pastor.
“Whichever position is adopted as to whether women are to be ‘deaconesses,’ there is still consensus that women should be involved in ‘diaconal’ or service ministries in the church, whether they are elected as ‘deaconesses’ or not” (George Knight III, Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, page 354).
“With respect to women deacons, we need not come to a firm decision, for even if women were deacons this does not refute our thesis regarding male governance in the church” (Thomas R. Schreiner, Recovering Biblical Manhood, page 220).
Conclusion on this issue. This is not an office of leadership in the local church. 1 Timothy 3:11 is either referring to the wives of deacons or women who serve in a capacity as recorded in the above examples from church history: Women ministering to other women or other people in need. Such a ministry could be called “Helping Hands.”