Buried Talents: Arguments for and against female deacons

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?]

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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0 Responses to Buried Talents: Arguments for and against female deacons

  1. Alan says:


    You've made a very strong case for women deacons IMO. I'm inclined to agree with you on this one.

    If you are correct, then I think it is significant that Paul specifically addresses the requirements for women deacons, but not for women elders. This would seem to be a pretty strong argument against women elders, especially since the requirements for elders and deacons immediately follow the instructions about the role of women at the end of 1 Tim 2.

  2. Alan says:

    Just a quick comment about widows. I've always taken that passage to be addressing the conditions under which a widow could receive financial support from the church. The context is talking about various alternatives for support: first, children and grandchildren; then getting married. Only those widows over 60 and etc are eligible to receive ongoing financial support from the church.

  3. Gabriel says:

    Hi Jay,

    I've been a reader of your thought-provoking blog for a while, just never commented before now 🙂 I am intrigued by this argument in regards to women deacons and plan on studying it in more depth.

    I am curious, however, about this argument of yours in response to the potential objection that Paul didn't say a woman deacon must be a one-man woman:

    "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. "

    Considering you showed that the qualities of both men & women deacons were strongly paralleled, why is it that Paul felt the need to say the same thing twice in that circumstance? In fact, why does it go like this?

    v8 Likewise deacons….
    v11 The women/wives likewise…
    v12 Deacons should be a one-woman man

    If the women under discussion are deacons, why are they singled out specifically in v11, and not just understood to be included in the description from v8-10? What I mean is, if a deacon is either a man or a woman, then v8-10 should be understood to be applicable to both men and women, making v11 redundant. I don't see anything (except the possibility that the word "deacon" implies "male deacon" – but you made it clear that Phoebe was a "deacon", undermining such a possibility) in v8-10 which limits the description to men, so why, again, is v11 necessary if a deacon is either male or female?


  4. Jay Guin says:


    Re widows, commentators disagree. Some divide the passage so that vv. 3-8 is dealing with care of widows by the church while vv 9-10 is speaking to a "list" of widows in the church's service.

    Vv. 9-10 reads very much like the qualifications for elders or deacons, and we know from history that orders of widows did exist in some early churches.

    Moreover, the qualifications in 9-10 seem more suitable to an office than to receipt of welfare. So it makes sense, but the language is less than clear.

    V. 9 speaks of widows literally "taken into the number," a term used of enrolling soldiers.

    It's hard to be dogmatic, but this seems the most likely interpretation.

  5. Jay Guin says:


    You make an intriguing point. I see nothing in the Greek for 3-8 requiring that he be speaking of a male. The reference to "one woman man" doesn't show up until v. 12.

    Vv. 3-8 have only the one noun "deacons" and no pronouns. It's a run on sentence that the translators simplify. Even "deacon" in v. 8 is a verb, a form of "deacon" meaning "let them serve."

    Hmm … you've sent me back to the books and the Greek.

    Sandifer comments (36),

    1.) Note the first seven verses of the passages which speak of bishops. The only mention of a wife is that the the bishop is "husband of one wife." It seems unusual that the wife of a deacon would be regulated while the wife of an elder is not.

    2.) If the description were being given for the deacon's wife, it would also seem more logical to provide her description after the instruction concerning the deacon's marital status, not before.

    3.) If these are the deacons' wives, why doesn't Paul use the genitive pronoun "their wives" or the article "the wives"?

    4.) Notice also the form with which Paul begins his discussion of deacons, "Likewise … (vs 8)." He uses the same formula at the beginning of vs. 11 as if beginning yet another type of church leader.

    5.) In New Testament times, the word "deacon" has no feminine form, the masculine word is used of women. Paul was obliged to use another word, such as "women," to distinguish females from their male counterparts.

    Point 5 is not so weak as first appears, as Paul is transitioning from a discussion of male elders with a masculine noun for deacons, meaning the application to women had to be made clear some way or other.

    I would add that, although we don't really know what female deacons did in the First Century, the earliest evidence is that they had different roles from the men. They helped in baptisms or pre-baptismal anointings, as converts were baptized or anointed naked — it was a birth after all!

    Hermas (early 2d century) speaks of female deacons admonishing women and orphans. Didascalia Apostolorum (early 3d century) described woman deacons who visit the sick, minister to those in need, bathe those recovering from illness, and having care of widows and orphans, even to the extent of serving them communion.
    The point is that the it may be that the offices were seen differently.

    At the least, we see in Didascalia Apostolorum that the men are called "deacons" while the women are called "woman deacons," (gune diakonos) which may suggest the correct interpretation of 1 Tim 3:11-12. (Sandifer 84-86).

    And so, on balance, I still find 1 Tim 3:11-12 as referring to female deacons, particularly as it just seems absurd that Paul would regulate the wives of deacons and not of elders.

  6. Andy says:

    I tend to agree with what I think you're suggesting. If I may make a non-scriptural argument, I think most churches I've been a part of have had women performing jobs that were essentially equivalent to what deacons do. Also, as a practical matter, a lot of church programs require many of the same skills as running a home, so it's a great opportunity (especially homemakers or empty nesters) to contribute.

  7. Jay Guin says:


    In my own church, we have countless ministries run by women. They run them because they are the most gifted and passionate for those particular ministries.

    If we had a structure where a deacon has to head each ministry, then we'd have to either name women as deacons or place women under the authority of a less-gifted, less-motivated man.

    It seems easier to get away from the notion that deacons are program heads at all.

  8. Alan says:

    It seems easier to get away from the notion that deacons are program heads at all.

    A more complete solution seems to be to get away from the notion that deacons have to be men.

  9. R.J. says:

    I could be wrong but wasn’t the idiomatic phrase “one woman man(heis gune aner)” equally gender neutral as well as masculine in Greek culture?

    I know that the reverse phrase found in 1 Timothy 5:9 “one man woman(heis aner gune)” exclusively refers to women in faithful monogamous marriages to their husbands.

  10. Jay Guin says:


    I’ve never heard that argued as to the phrase (but there’s a lot that’s true I’ve never heard argued). What I have heard argued is that “aner” can be gender neutral, just as “man” can be gender neutral in English.