What We Believe

August 07, 2005 Q & A

OPC Position on Deaconesses


What is the OPC position on deaconesses? Can an unmarried woman of good standing as stated in I Timothy 3:11 be a deaconess? My understanding of this verse is that a married woman, whose husband is a deacon, qualifies to be a deaconess as long as she meets the other character qualities mentioned.



You ask, "What is the "OPC position on deaconesses?" Our Form of Government states (Chap.25, Part 1): "Every congregation shall elect ruling elders and deacons . . . Those elected must be male communicant members in good and regular standing in the church in which they are to exercise their office."

We debated this very question in our 55th General Assembly (1988). In support of the church's position, here is part of the report to that General Assembly of the committee which had been assigned to study the matter (the full report can be found here).

C. The Office of Deacon

1. Biblical

Is the office of deacon open to women? Admittedly this is a difficult question to settle exegetically but not, we think, impossible. Therefore we offer the following considerations in support of the position that Scripture does not authorize the ordination of women deacons.

a. Acts 6:1-6 records the first official appointment, not of deacons in the sense of that office mentioned in 1 Timothy 3:8ff., but of those who were to oversee the distribution of what was given to meet the needs of the church's poor in Jerusalem. The difference between the Seven and the later deacons appears from the fact that at least two of the former (Stephen, 6:7ff., and Philip, 8:5ff., 26ff., 21:8) continued to carry on substantial word-ministries, the kind of ministry apparently excluded from the activity assigned to the latter. The apostolic appointment of the Seven seems to have been a temporary, ad hoc arrangement, which nonetheless quite properly guided the church "analogically" in the later development of the diaconate.

In the light of the preceding paragraph it would be precarious to draw a conclusion from the exclusively male character of the Seven to the exclusion of women from the diaconate. At the same time, however, we should not overlook or minimize the authority vested in the Seven (and hence, eventually, in the diaconate). Specifically, they were entrusted with authoritative oversight of distributing to the poor; in that sense they were overseers (v. 3 "appoint over" A.V.).

b. Philippians 1:1 ("the overseers and deacons")—the only New Testament passage where the two offices are paired in a single phrase—says nothing directly about the issue of women deacons. It is worth noting, though, that no conclusions ought to be drawn from either this pairing or the respective designations concerning the authority of each office, either absolutely or relative to the other. There is to be sure, no New Testament instance of elders being called "minister" or "servant" (diakonos), but Christ himself is so designated (Rom. 15:8; cf. Matt. 20:28) as is Paul, as an apostle, repeatedly (e.g., 2 Cor. 3:6; Eph. 3:7; Col. 1:23, 25). Conversely, as we noted, in the light of Acts 6 deacons can be viewed as overseers. Certainly the eldership, in view of its assigned responsibility for the ministry of the word, has a certain priority or leading function in relation to the deed/mercy ministry of the diaconate. But, we submit, it would have been entirely in keeping with New Testament teaching for the elder also to have been called a diakonos (after all, "minister of the word" has become a customary description of some who occupy this office, cf. Acts 6:4); nor would there have been anything inappropriate in the occupant of the office of mercy being designated by episkopos. An element of authority resides in the office of deacon; authority, oversight, in that sense, "rule" is at issue for the office of deacon as well as the office of elder.

c. Romans 16:1, 2 and 1 Timothy 3:11 are the two passages usually appealed to as referring specifically to (official or ordained) women deacons. Careful exegesis of the two passages in context, however, shows that such a reference is by no means certain nor, in the case of 1 Timothy 3:11, more likely; the result in each case is an exegetical standoff.

In the case of the Romans 16:1, 2, taken by itself, diakonon, applied to Phoebe, is naturally, perhaps even more likely read as a fixed or official designation. (To observe that such a reading would hardly be questioned if the person referred to were a male is gratuitous—male deacons are clearly mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament, while this would be the only reference, without any other New Testament support, to a woman deacon.)

But there is nothing in the passage that demands an official sense. Nor is there anything—in either the syntax or the reference to Phoebe as prostasis—that makes it unnatural to take diakonos here in the less specific, nonofficial sense it has elsewhere in the New Testament. The view of Cranfield, for instance, that a general reference here is "perhaps just conceivable" is too grudging as well as exegetically unwarranted; such a reference is quite natural. It should be noted that in only three out of thirty New Testament uses of diakonos is the official sense clearly warranted (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8, 12).

In 1 Timothy 3:11 the perennial debate, going back at least to the Greek Fathers, is whether "women" (gunaikas) refers to (a) women deacons (deaconesses) or (b) deacons' wives. That all the women in the congregation are in view, as sometimes proposed, can be dismissed, since the immediate context is concerned with special or particular groups within the church.

In favor of (a), apparently the view inclined to, more or less decisively, by the majority of modern scholars, and against (b) are the following arguments:

(1) the adverb "likewise," "similarly" (hosautos) repeated from verse 8, points to a new category or class of officials, as does the list of qualities parallel to those in verses 8-10;

(2) if deacons' wives were in view, we should expect an article (tas) before "women," or at least the pronoun "their" (auton);

(3) to single out deacons' wives while making no mention of overseers' wives would be very strange;

(4) although the New Testament does not know the technical term "deaconess" (diakonissa), this verse, together with Romans 16:1, hints at that office, alluded to already in Pliny's letter to Trajan (A.D. 112) and firmly in place in the church's life by the third to fourth centuries.

In favor of (b) and against (a) are the following considerations:

(1) to interrupt a description of the qualifications for (male) deacons (verses 10, 12) by injecting qualification for women deacons would be awkward and unlikely; much more plausible, despite (2) above, is that the "women" of verse 11 have some auxiliary or dependent identity in reference to deacons, most likely, that of being their wives;

(2) if Paul had wished to introduce a separate class of women deacons it would have been easy for him to make that clear by introducing tas diakonous either directly after or instead of "women;"

(3) that Paul would mention the wives of deacons but not of overseers may be explained by the likely suppositions (1) that, like deacons themselves, their wives would be younger and therefore relatively unknown and their lives subject to more intensive scrutiny, and (2) that by virtue of the differences between the two offices deacons' wives could be more directly and extensively involved in the official activities of their husbands than would be the case with overseers' wives;

(4) later in the letter a lengthy section is devoted to ordered women workers or ministrants in the church (the "enrolled widows" in 5:9-16); note the similarity between the requisite qualities in 3:11 and those for older women in Titus 2:3, where there is no question of women deacons;

(5) the most likely antecedent to the eventually emergent office of deaconess is the order of widows;

(6) "if some women were deacons, further qualifications would be unnecessary" (Gordon H. Clark, The Pastoral Epistles, The Trinity Foundation, 1983, p. 61).

A perusal of these two sets of arguments reinforces the aptness of Kelly's remark that 1 Timothy 3:11 "contains a puzzle which will probably never be solved to everyone's satisfaction"; neither set is decisive.

d. For both passages, then, the issue of women deacons will have to be settled by other relevant considerations, if present, from their immediate and wider contexts. The context of Romans 16:1, 2 appears to provide nothing pertinent; the description of Phoebe as a diakonos remains ambiguous. But the immediate and larger context of 1 Timothy 3:11 definitely weighs against a reference to women deacons.

Our reasoning is as follows. As shown above (III B), Paul's exclusion of women from the eldership in 1 Timothy 2:12 rests, not on a presumed constitutional inability of women to teach or exercise authority but on the unique, covenant-based analogy between the family and the church ("God's household" 3:15). The structure of authority in the home and in the church mirror each other; the headship of elders in the church answers to the headship of father (and husband) in the family.

The question, then, is this: is the diaconate, too, an office from which women are excluded by the church-family analogy? Is the point of that analogy special office as such or only the office of elder? Put another way, does the exercise of authority over men prohibited to women in 2:12 only have in view the offices of elder or the office of deacon as well?

At least three contextual considerations favor the more comprehensive exclusion.

(1) The requirements for overseer (verses 1-7) and deacon (verses 8-10, 12, 13) are linked in a parallel fashion. "Likewise" (hosautos, verse 8) functions to reinforce that parallel, but the parallel itself, as the large degree in overlap of specific requirements for each office shows, does not depend on it. Philippians 1:1 (the "overseers and deacons," distinguished within the congregation as a whole) underscores this parallel. By virtue of the parallel, then, if women are excluded from the one office—unless there be some offsetting consideration(s)—they are excluded from the other.

(2) More pointedly, the parallel is made explicit on the issue of authority. In verses 4, 5 and 12—note in virtually identical language; the parenthetical comment of verse 5 applies equally, following verse 12, to deacons—a requirement for both the deacon as well as the elder is that each must manage/lead/rule (proistemi, cf. 1 Thess. 5:12) his own family if he is to take care of God's church. Certainly the sphere of ministry assigned to each is different, nonetheless there is a parallel between the authority of the eldership and that of the diaconate.

Further, the rationale for that parallel authority is also made explicit. It lies in the analogy between family and church. In both instances, for the deacon as well as the elder, at issue, by analogy, is the authority of headship in the home, the authority of the father/husband. In that light, the parallel requirement that the overseer/deacon, if married, be "the husband of but one wife" (vss. 2, 12) is a further argument against women deacons.

(3) What in effect is the topic sentence for the entire section (2:1-3:16) is found in 3:15: "how people ought to conduct themselves in God's household." The location of this paragraph sentence, occurring immediately after the qualifications for deacons, confirms that the family-church analogy, as that analogy involves the exclusion of women from special office, still controls the argument to that point. The exercise of authority over men prohibited to women in 2:11, apparently, includes the office of deacon as well as that of overseer.

Nothing in this section of the text offsets these three observations, unless we insist, without adequate warrant as we have seen, that 3:11 by itself demands a reference to women deacons.

To resist this conclusion and seek to maintain a place for women in the diaconate, we wish to observe, seems to have some unanticipated consequences, least of all acceptable to the advocates of this view. If we hold that women may be deacons but not elders, the question is inevitable: why does the family-church analogy function to exclude women from the office of elder but not from special office in general? The answer to this question cannot now be found in the idea of office as such but will have to be sought instead in the difference, in content, between the two offices. That, in turn, (1) will involve recourse in some form to the sexist view that constitutionally women do have the capacity for deeds of mercy but not for the presumably more demanding task of expounding and teaching the word of God, and so (2) will also result in a devaluation of the diaconate as lower or less important.

Within the broader controlling context, then, 1 Timothy 3:11 does not refer to women deacons. There is some merit to the suggestion (cf. Fairbairn) that Paul is deliberately vague or general in his reference to "women;" in view are both the wives of deacons who were sometimes associated with their husbands in diaconal activities as well as other women who, without being set apart officially, were entrusted with various kinds of diaconal service (perhaps best expressed in the translation "deaconing women"), especially, in view of the greater separation between the sexes in the culture of that day, among women.

If this treatment of 1 Timothy 3:11 in its broader context is sound, then the passing, ambiguous reference to Phoebe as diakonos in Romans 16:1 must give way to that more substantial New Testament teaching that women are not to serve in the office of deacon.

Conclusion. The issue of women deacons is a difficult one to resolve exegetically. But the relevant New Testament data do fix the coordinates of a trajectory pointing to the conclusion that women are not to be ordained as deacons. Nor does the New Testament make provision for a separate office of deaconess in parallel with the elders and deacons.

There was a minority report arguing the other direction. For me the deciding issue was the question of authority. It seems to me that the "office" of deacon is an office in which authority is invested (in a narrower sphere than that of ruling elder, but real nonetheless), which we recognize in the act of ordination, so that 1 Timothy 2:12 applies.

On the other hand, I see no reason why a local board of deacons (with approval of their session) may not organize a committee of women to assist them (which might indeed have been a function of the wives of deacons at the time Paul wrote—see 1 Tim. 3:11).

I hope this answer is helpful to you. Do feel free to come back with follow-up questions or others.

The Lord bless and guide you.



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