The issue is addressed directly in only two verses (Rom. 16:1; 1 Tim. 3:11), and the meaning of both is disputed. The disagreement surfaces in English translations. Romans 16:1 in the NIV reads, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.” The CSB translates the same verse, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church in Cenchreae.”
A similar difference shows up in 1 Timothy 3:11, rendered in the NIV: “In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.” The CSB translates it as, “Wives, too, must be worthy of respect, not slanderers, self-controlled, faithful in everything.” The NIV in using the word “women” suggests they were deacons, while the CSB inclines to “wives” of deacons. Local churches don’t have the luxury of leaving the matter undecided. They have to decide whether women will serve as deacons, and I will argue that the best reading of the evidence supports women serving as such.
First, sometimes those who dissent from women serving as deacons and who don’t know Greek point to English translations which have the term “wives” (e.g., CSB, ESV, KJV), thinking that settles the issue. The ESV and KJV actually translate as “their wives,” but the Greek lacks the word “their,” and its insertion reflects an interpretation by translators. The word used here is gynaikas, which could be translated as either “wives” or “women,” and thus the Greek doesn’t really help us here. However, there is actually a hint that Paul refers to deacons rather than women, for if he’d used the pronoun “their,” we’d have no doubt that wives of deacons were intended. The bare use of the word “women” suggests that women deacons rather than wives are in view.
Second, the word “too” (CSB) or “likewise” (ESV)—hosautōs—in 1 Timothy 3:11 is most naturally interpreted as continuing the list of those who serve as deacons, especially since Paul returns to male deacons in verse 12. A sudden reference to wives is of course possible, but in this chapter it seems Paul is referring to offices and conduct in church (cf. 1 Tim. 3:15).
Third, another argument in support of female deacons is from silence, but it’s an important one. The argument goes like this: If the reference is to the wives of deacons, why does Paul omit a reference to the wives of elders, particularly since elders exercise pastoral oversight and overall leadership in the church? It would seem the character of the wives of elders would be even more important than the wives of deacons—and thus focusing on the wives of deacons, but not on the wives of elders, is strange. Yet if the reference is to female deacons, we have an elegant explanation for why the wives of elders aren’t mentioned—for the wives of deacons aren’t included either. In other words, Paul isn’t referring to wives at all, but to female deacons.
Fourth, the character qualities required for the women in 1 Timothy 3:11 are also mandated for elders and male deacons, which makes sense if an official capacity is intended. Just as deacons are to “be worthy of respect” (1 Tim. 3:8), so too female deacons must “be worthy of respect” (1 Tim. 3:11). Elders are to be “self-controlled” (1 Tim. 3:2), and female deacons must also be “self-controlled” (1 Tim. 3:11). Two other character qualities are required of female deacons: They are not to be “slanderers,” and they must be “faithful” (1 Tim. 3:11). Such qualifications point to official responsibility.
It is imperative to recognize that Paul isn’t attempting to give a comprehensive list of character requirements for any of the positions listed in 1 Timothy 3. He sketches in quickly what is mandated, leaving it to the wisdom of readers to discern whether someone is qualified. Some object that women serving as deacons can’t be in view, since Paul refers to male deacons in 3:8–10 and then returns to that theme in 3:12–13. They think the one-verse insertion about women in 3:11 can’t, therefore, refer to female deacons. But the argument is not persuasive. On either view, Paul interrupts the discussion!
We saw in translations of Romans 16:1 that Phoebe was either a “deacon” or “servant” of the church in Cenchreae. With so little to go on, the decision could go either way, for the word diakonos in Greek may refer to a servant without having the idea of a particular office. Nevertheless, the addition of the words “the church in Cenchreae” suggests an official capacity. Verse 2 supports this understanding, since Phoebe is designated as a “patron” (ESV) or “benefactor” (CSB), which means she regularly helped, perhaps financially, those in need.
In addition, many commentators believe Phoebe actually carried the letter of Romans to the Roman church, which would fit with a diaconal position.
My argument from church history is not determinative, since it isn’t from Scripture. Nevertheless, we see an early example of women serving as deacons in the correspondence between Pliny the younger and the emperor Trajan (AD 98–117). In a fascinating conversation, Pliny asks Trajan for advice about what he should do as the legate to the province in Bithynia with Christians.
We want to think about one small piece of the conversation. Pliny refers to two Christian women, who were called ministrae in Latin. In English we can translate this word as “ministers,” and that is a good translation into Latin of the Greek word diakonos, which means “servant” or “minister.” We thus have an early example—in the second decade of the second century—of women serving as deacons. Obviously, such an example doesn’t prove women should serve as deacons, but it suggests women functioned as deacons in the early church.
Some worry that appointing women as deacons violates 1 Timothy 2:12, where women are prohibited from teaching or exercising authority over men. We must recognize, however, that deacons occupy a different position from elders/pastors/overseers. The latter is one office, as Ben Merkle has convincingly argued, in which two qualities are required that are not required of deacons. First, elders must have an ability to teach biblical truth and correct deviant teaching (1 Tim. 3:2; 5:17; Titus 1:9). Second, they must have gifts of leadership (1 Tim. 3:4–5; 5:17; Titus 1:7). And remarkably, teaching and exercising authority over men is the very thing disallowed for women in 1 Timothy 2:12. Women therefore may serve as deacons because the diaconal office is one of serving, not leading. Deacons don’t teach and exercise authority, but rather help in the church’s ministry.
In many Baptist churches, deacons along with the staff pastor or pastors lead the church, but in these instances the deacons are really functioning as elders—and in such cases the deacons should be called elders, pastors, or overseers.
The earliest evidence we have is that deacons helped care for the poor and sick. There is some freedom in how deacons serve, since the New Testament doesn’t prescribe precise responsibilities. In the church I serve as an elder, deacons carry out many responsibilities. We have role-specific diaconates—that is, deacons of finance, of hospitality, of ushering, of greeting, of building maintenance, of sound, and so on. The deacons don’t meet together regularly as a group, since their tasks differ dramatically.
Christians who love God’s Word differ on whether women may serve as deacons, but the evidence presented here suggests they may do so. And in such a ministry they are a great blessing to the church, and the women who serve are encouraged as they use their gifts.