Church 2.0: Part 10.20: Deacons, Part 5 (Female deacons)

Church2Female deacons

I am not very interested in the question of whether women may wear the deacon title, because I’d rather not bother with the title. Granting “deacon” as an honorific title only gets in the way of humble, servant-hearted volunteer work.

Several years ago, I was assigned to call several young men in the church and invite them to be deacons. My favorite calls — most of them, actually — were with men who said, “I don’t want the title. I’m happy doing the job you’ve asked me to do without the title. But if the elders think my having a title will help the church some way, I’ll accept it. But I’d rather not.” This is ideal, I think. Except more ideal would be for me to have not made the calls at all.

I don’t want to be heard as saying that all male deacons are useless or in the way. In fact, I’ve been very impressed with the work and heart of many a deacon over the years. Rather, I think deacons are as victimized by the system as those excluded. That is, the system is unfair to married men because it forces them to take on roles they may not be gifted for and imposes expectations on them that God may not have equipped them to meet. And it tells them and the church that a title is important, which is worldly thinking.

Just so, the traditional system is unfair to the single, the women, and the childless by imposing on them the supervision of unqualified men and by denying them the ability to work directly with their elders in their service.

So rather than appointing female deacons, let’s just call them all “servants” or forget having a title altogether.

However, just for the record, I should point out that —

  • The early church appointed female deacons at least as early as Clement of Alexandria (early Third or late Second Century). This is the same guy who is the earliest early church father to oppose instrumental music (because instruments are associated with the military), although he only addressed music at banquets, not in the assembly. That came even later.
  • Clement interpreted 1 Tim 3:11 as addressing female deacons.

(1 Tim. 3:11 NRS)  Women [or wives] likewise must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things.

  • The Greek is ambiguous as to whether the meaning is wives or women. But it is hard to  imagine Paul imposing a standard on the wives of deacons and not on the wives of elders. I can tell you from experience that the wives matter — a lot — and the wives of elders being women of high character is far more important than for deacons’ wives. Therefore, I agree with Clement. Regarding female deacons. Not the instrument thing.

From Ministry Magazine,

The existence of deaconesses. Somewhere between A.D. 111 and 113, Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia, wrote to the Emperor Trajan asking how he should deal with Christians. In the letter, he tells of questioning two women, who were called ministrae, the Latin equivalent of diakonos.7

Of the ministry of women, Clement of Alexandria wrote: “But the apostles in conformity with their ministry concentrated on undistracted preaching, and took their wives around as Christian sisters rather than spouses, to be their fellow-ministers [“fellow deacons”] in relation to housewives, through whom the Lord’s teaching penetrated into the women’s quarters without scandal.”8

The Didascalia Apostolorum [Teaching of the Apostles], undoubtedly from the eastern part of the empire and composed in the third century, gives specific instructions about the role of men and women church workers: “Therefore, O bishop, appoint yourself workers of righteousness, helpers who cooperate with you unto life. Those that please you out of all the people you shall choose and appoint as deacons: on the one hand, a man for the administration of the many things that are required, on the other hand a woman for the ministry of women.”9
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7 Pliny, Letters 10.96.

8 Clement, Stromata 3.6.53; English translation from Clement of Alexandria, The Fathers of the Church, vol. 85 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America, 1991), 289.

9 “Concerning deacons and deaconesses,” The Didascalia Apostolorum in Syriac, ed. Arthur Vööbus, Corpus scriptorum christianorum orientalium, 407 (Louvain: Sécretariat du Cor.pus SCO, 1979), 2:156.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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8 Responses to Church 2.0: Part 10.20: Deacons, Part 5 (Female deacons)

  1. Price says:

    Exactly..

  2. Jim H says:

    Totally agree! Cole Mill Road Church of Christ in Durham, NC is gender inclusive. They have ministry teams where men and women serve together, which includes some husband and wives serving together. This is very unusual in most churches, but not in the spiritual kingdom.

  3. Craig Baugh says:

    Totally agree. Titles usually just feed our egos and detract from the main point — service to the Body

  4. Bob Brandon says:

    Titles are one thing (which seem to be expendable when not exclusive), but the appointment (regardless of gender or marital status) that is important: it is the public dedication of the service to God for his kingdom (and not just the Church or the local congregation) that is blessing, expectation, and hope.

  5. Lum says:

    Every good Elder and Deacon had a wife that sure helped in making good decisions. Many a discussion with her was done before the man gave his opinion on many things.
    Maybe not a deacon at church, but sure an equal to one at home.

    By the way: MERRY CHRISTMAS to all you that post on here.

    I remember well how the church of Christ around here would withdraw from you for having a Christmas tree as this was not Jesus birthday since he was born in the spring when baby lambs were born. No one would dare wear any new clothes til the next week as we didn’t celebrate Christmas if we were biblically correct as as we were supposed to be in all things as an example to the world, and especially to the denominations down the road. My mother would put one up in the front window of our wooden home facing the dirt road and how many of our members, men and women would privately tell her they wished they had the nerve to do that!!! Elders finally just gave up on Dad and Mother.

  6. I am fine with the shedding of titles, but am curious as to why we voiced no objection to the title of deacon until we started accepting women in that role. “We’ll accept their work, but try to low-key it by eliminating the title,” seems a bit slippery to me. I can hear it: “Does your church have female deacons?” “No, nobody here has that title; they are just servants.” This is dissembling, a practice we should avoid.

    I remember discussing the work of apostles with my father, a CoC preacher who had been doing apostolic work for many years, both at home and abroad. He acknowledged that this was what God had long ago called him to do, but was afraid of spooking the brethren if we used the “A-word” to describe it.

    I wonder how many generations will pass by until our first consideration in discussions about church life is no longer, “Don’t wake the baby!”

  7. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Charles,

    So if dropping the label is dissembling, just who gets the title? Program heads? Bible class teachers? Children nursery workers? The bookkeeper? The kitchen volunteers? The teen minister? The groundskeeper? The people who pass the Lord’s Supper? Who is/isn’t a servant? Who is/isn’t assisting the elders in their work?

    I’ve observed that over the last 15 or 20 years, larger, growing churches have either dropped the title or de-emphasized the office because the traditional use of the title doesn’t fit what they’re being led to do. It’s just not helpful even in a church that won’t feud and fuss over who gets the title. After all, the Bible just doesn’t give us much in the way of guidance.

    Now, in a very, very few churches, the elders organize themselves to each be responsible for pastoring a particular group of members. In many churches, there aren’t enough elders to handle the load, and so they recruit other men/women who might not qualify as “elder” but who can help — something like elders in training. The insider term for those who help a shepherd do his shepherding is “sheepdogs,” but that doesn’t look particularly complimentary on the church website. So perhaps these become the deacons. But only in churches that handle their pastoral care in this manner.

    But if we were to follow Collins’ suggestions, we’d give the title to Bible class teachers and/or small group leaders — whoever assists the elders in their teaching ministry.

    But either of these changes require the membership to understand “deacon” in a way that’s contrary to American Christian practice (not just the CoC). And I’m not sure I see any upside to the time and trouble required to explain what a deacon really is and why. I mean, the idea that deacons handle “secular” work is deeply ingrained from the Baptists and others. Most denominations associate deacons with works of mercy. So I’m not sure I see the point in fighting the battle. In fact, I find far more advantage to getting away from the notion that we have to have deacons to be “scripturally organized.” And it’s easier to teach that lesson by dropping the title altogether. So long as we insist on tagging someone with a title, we encourage our members to consider the office essential, even salvific.

  8. Larry Cheek says:

    Jay,
    If that be true about Deacons then we might do the same with Elders. As you have committed there are some good Elders and many who are, you could say title only, have no clue as to their purpose and duties to Christianity. But, as you have also noted that there are sometimes men who are natural leaders (members recognize them as examples to the flock and it becomes natural for them to relate or to follow their guidance as they should Elders) yet these men may not be appointed as Elders because of a technicality in their lives. Some of the criteria that seems out of place; single now because wife has past away, some of the children have abandoned the faith, not all of the children were faithful to the church (you know they may still be faithful to Christ but not to the church that we associate with), etc. As I remember some of your communications that we are ignoring the work that we should recognize that God or The Spirit is performing through individuals. Men who have natural leading abilities should be using their ability for the kingdom with the blessing of the church.

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