Deaconesses in the New Testament and Early Church

Can women serve as deacons? The first indication from Scripture would seem to be no. According to 1 Timothy 3:12, a deacon is required to be “a one-woman man” which could never apply to a woman since no woman could ever be a man. In Acts 6:3, only men were considered for the role of deacon in serving the widows of the church. But on the other hand, Romans 16:1 makes reference to “Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae.” The Greek word translated as “servant” here is diakonon which can be interpreted as either an office of service within the church since this is the same word used to refer to a deacon or as being a servant of the church in general without having an office tied to it.

A document which sheds light on the early church is the letter of the Roman governor Pliny to the emperor Trajan written between 111-113 AD. Pliny makes reference to torturing two female Christians “who were called deaconesses” (Letters 10.96). The Latin word translated as “deaconesses” here is ministrae which is the equivalent of the Greek word diakonoi referring to servants. Since they were called ministrae by the church, this was an official title given to them by a local church. Interpreting “servant” (diakonon) as “deaconess” in Romans 16:1 is consistent with the practice of the early second century church. Since Phoebe is a listed as a servant of a particular church and not in a general sense, we should interpret diakonon here as deaconess.

Since deaconship is not a position of teaching or having authority over men, it would not be in violation of 1 Timothy 2:12. However, a distinction needs to be made between the offices of deacon and deaconess because a deacon is required to be a “one-woman man” which could never be said of a woman (1 Tim 3:12). Distinguishing between the offices of deacon and deaconess is the only way to avoid a contradiction between 1 Timothy 3:2 and Romans 16:1. This means there are four offices in the local church: elder, deacon, deaconess, and the order of widows who care for the orphans of the church and infants who had been abandoned (1 Tim 5:9-10).

Another argument used to support deaconesses in the church is 1 Timothy 3:11 which is normally translated as “their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.” But because the Greek word for “wife” is the same as for “woman,” the context must determine whether verse 11 should be translated as “their wives” or “women” referring to deaconesses. “Their” is not in the Greek text. Since verse 12 uses the same word to refer to the wife of the deacon, it is more likely that verse 11 is referring to the deacon’s wife for the same reason an elder must manage his household well (1 Tim 3:4-5).

In the early church, the office of deaconess eventually became tied to the concept of a vow of perpetual celibacy. Deaconesses were required to remain unmarried parallel to how priests would eventually be required to remain celibate. This unbiblical requirement is likely the result of interpreting 1 Timothy 5:9-12 to be a reference to deaconesses instead of a separate order of widows. But if 1 Timothy 5:9-12 is describing the office of deaconess, then that would mean only widows of at least 60 years of age can serve as deaconesses. But most of those in the early church who believed deaconesses had to take a vow of perpetual celibacy did not require all of them to be widows of at least 60 years of age. Also, these requirements are different than those for a deacon in 1 Timothy 3 demonstrating that it is not the same office. Eventually, women were forbidden from serving as deacons altogether.

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