The scriptural argument normally centers on 1 Timothy 3:11.
11 In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.
As indicated by italics in the KJV, “their” is not found in the Greek. Moreover, “women,” as translated in the NIV, is not in the Greek. Thus, a more literal translation would be-
11 In the same way, wives are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.
The word translated “wives” in the NIV is gune. It can mean “women” or “wives” depending on the context, and it is perfectly ambiguous. The same word is translated “wife” in verse 12, but could be translated “woman” just as well (“husband of one wife” is better translated “one-woman man”).
Thus, our translation becomes-
11 In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.
The arguments in favor of verse 11 referring to female deacons are as follows:
First, notice these parallels:
|men-verse 8||gune-verse 11|
|worthy of respect||worthy of respect|
|sincere||not malicious talkers|
|not indulging in much wine||temperate|
|not pursuing dishonest gain||trustworthy in everything|
These striking parallels between verses 8 and 11 demonstrate that the verses are both talking about deacons, first the men and then the women. The requirements are virtually identical.
Second, if verse 11 refers to wives, you have the peculiar requirement that Paul imposes a standard for deacons’ wives and none for elders’ wives. Anyone who has spent much time in church knows how much more important the wives of elders are, due to the far greater responsibilities the elders have.
Third, Phoebe was a deacon (not “deaconess”). Romans 16:1 refers to her using the same masculine Greek word that is found in 1 Timothy 3. First Century Greek had no word for “deaconess,” the masculine word diakonos being used both for men and women. By the Third Century, the Church had invented the word deaconess to indicate what had become distinct offices.
Phoebe is referred to as a “deacon of the church in Cenchrea.” It is not natural to translate the phrase as “servant of the church in Cenchrea.” “Of the church in Cenchrea” certainly seems to belong with a title.
She is also called a prostatis, which means patron or protector. It is a title given to men and to women and reflects great honor. Cities built monuments to celebrate both men and women who were a prostatis to the city. To translate “great help” as in the NIV is unjustified. To take the traditionalist view, she would be called a servant and a helper, which would be redundant.
Fourth, early church history makes clear that deaconesses were common (Sandifer at pages 85-98). The earliest reference to female deacons comes from a report, written in Latin, from Pliny, Roman governor of Bithynia, to the Emperor Trajan, in AD 112. Pliny describes having tortured two female ministrae to learn about the Christian religion. Ministrae is the Latin word that translates “deacon” in Romans 16:1 with respect to Phoebe in Latin translations of the Bible (Sandifer at page 85).
The Shepherd of Hermas 1:2:4 (c. AD 120) refers to a female “deacon” named Grapte, whose work was to admonish widows and orphans (Sandifer at page 86).
Clement of Alexandria (AD 180-220) states that “we know what the honorable Paul in one of his letters to Timothy prescribed regarding female deacons.” Stromata 3:6:53.
Didascalia Apostolorum (AD 220-240) refers to women deacons who assisted in the baptism of women, ministered to those in need, visited the sick, and distributed communion to women and children (Sandifer at page 87).
During the same period of history there were also a number of references to a church office for enrolled widows, evidently following the command of 1 Timothy 5:9-10.
Clement of Alexandria refers to a list of “chosen persons,” being presbyters, bishops, deacons, and widows. Instructor 3:12:97. Tertullian (AD 208-217) criticizes a church for appointing a 20-year old virgin to the “order of widows.” On the Veiling of Virgins 9:2-3 (Sandifer at page 86). The Didascalia Apostolorum clearly states that the order of widows and female deacons are two different offices (Sandifer at page 87).
Fifth, there is no good reason that women could not be deacons. Even if women cannot have authority over men, they can perform many of the duties we normally charge deacons with: handling the money, dispensing it to the poor, maintaining the building, etc. In the modern interpretation, they can head programs (which primary department is not headed by a woman?), lock the doors, be responsible for the building and grounds, make bank deposits, count the money, etc. If we deny women the role of deacon, what responsibilities are we making exclusively male, other than ruling over others?
Sixth, even if verse 11 deals with the wives of deacons, in the same book where Paul said that women cannot teach or usurp authority, we would not expect that women would be allowed to be elders or deacons — not necessarily for any eternal reason, but due to the same temporary cultural limitations that kept women from becoming teachers. Therefore, while at best 1 Timothy 3′s listing of deacon qualifications may specifically approve women deacons, at worst the list merely indicates that women could not be deacons at that time and place.
But there are arguments against this interpretation [followed by rebuttal in brackets].
First, there are further qualifications for deacons that are not in parallel. [But notice that the deacon list in 1 Timothy begins with two parallel lists, one for male deacons, the other for female deacons. After the two parallel lists, Paul adds additional requirements, including that the deacon be the husband of one wife (literally, a "one-woman man"). However, we understand that Paul sometimes uses male references while meaning an indefinite gender. For example, in 1 Corinthians 7:1, Paul says that it is good for a "man not to touch a woman." Certainly, he also meant for us to understand that it is good for a woman not to "touch" a man. It would make good sense to interpret Paul's reference to deacons' wives accordingly, and impose the same guidelines as to male deacons as female. It would be very inelegant to expect Paul to say "the spouse of one spouse." And we shouldn't expect him to say everything twice, once for men and once for women, in an informal letter to a fellow missionary. Moreover, there is no requirement that the qualifications be absolutely parallel. After all the requirements for elders in Titus 2 are not exactly parallel with the requirements for elders in 1 Timothy 2.]
Second, if verse 11 does not refer to wives, then there is no requirement for wives to meet as to elders or deacons. We all know how important the wives are. [But isn't it really odd to imagine Paul imposing requirements on wives of deacons and not elders?]
Third, it is argued that Phoebe is not a deacon but a servant. Prostatis should be translated as “helper.” [This is, of course, circular reasoning. Whether diakonos is used as "servant" or as "deacon" must be gleaned from the context. It is not enough just to say that Phoebe was not a deacon because women can't be deacons.]
Fourth, the early church missed the boat. At the time deaconesses were being appointed, single bishops were beginning to rule the elderships. [It is true that we cannot rely on post-biblical sources to clinch this or any other argument. However, we clearly see that women deacons were an ancient practice -- remarkably so given the extreme prejudice against women that was common in First and Second Century society. There is no rational explanation of the Second Century church's appointment of women as deacons other than as a continuation of First Century practice.]
Fifth, women shouldn’t be greedy for a title. The fact that they want the title of deacon proves their lack of merit. [Yes, the argument really is made.]
Sixth, God’s listing of qualifications is eternal. It just looks and feels like an eternal law. [But doesn't 1 Timothy 5:9-10 have the same look and feel?
No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband [literally, a one-man woman], and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the saints, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds.
[Here we have a "list" of widows who only qualify for the list if they were the wife of one husband, along with many other requirements remarkably similar to the qualifications for elders or deacons. And we rarely study this in church, and we make no effort to apply its teachings. I doubt that one out of 20 church members is even aware of the requirement for a list of widows over age 60.
[Here we have an easily understood list of qualifications for a list of widows, and we do not maintain such lists and, to my knowledge, never have in the history of the Restoration Movement. Why is it that we've never put this list of qualifications for women into place? Doesn't this passage have the same look and feel of the elder and deacon passages? Why do we feel comfortable ignoring this inspired list of qualifications and feel uncomfortable at the thought of a woman being called a deacon?]