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.

Does 1 Timothy 5 Teach That Women Can Be Elders?

One of the arguments for egalitarianism or the belief that there are no distinctions of roles between men and women in the church is Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 5:2 where he refers to a group of women as presbuteras. Since the word for an elder in the church is presbuteros, some argue that Paul is affirming in this verse that women can serve as female elders.

But there is a reason why scholars translate the word as “older women” rather than “female elders.” The word presbuteros in Greek simply refers to an older man. This word was chosen to describe the elders of the church because those who are pastors must be mature in their walk with the Lord. Whether it is being used to describe elders or older men in general as it does in 5:1 must be determined by the context. In 5:2, the feminine form of the word is contrasted with the younger women indicating that Paul has age in mind, not an office of elder. In 5:1, Paul is referring to older men in general because it is contrasted with younger men. The context in which Paul is speaking is that of widows who need to be taken care of by the church, not a position of pastoral leadership.

Another take on this passage is that of Robert Morey who argues that while women cannot teach men in the church, they can serve as female elders. He notes that verses 9-11 speak of an enrollment of certain widows in the church which distinguishes them from the rest of the older women in the congregation. This group is known as the order of widows who have all but disappeared from the modern church. Morey argues that the order of widows are female elders who are the counterpart to the male elders of the church. While Morey is correct that the order of widows has fallen into disregard (see canon 11 of the Council of Laodicea), he is incorrect that they are female elders.

It is true that the qualifications for an elder in 1 Timothy 3 parallel the qualifications for the order of widows in 1 Timothy 5:9-10, but they just as equally parallel the qualifications for a deacon. If one person can argue that the order of widows are female elders, another person could just as equally argue that they are female deacons. The qualifications demonstrate that this is about more than just taking care of older women. These women were called to serve the church through their gifts in their old age in exchange for being taken care of by the church. The money they were given would go towards supporting themselves and the orphan children they cared for. That is why they must have the gifts of hospitality and the ability to care for the afflicted. This order is different than the office of elder and deacon because these qualifications are distinct from them.

Because the order of widows is limited to older widows, limiting an office of female elders to these women alone would not make the feminists happy anyway. So, to conclude his essay by saying, “If this biblical program would have been carried out in obedience for the last 1,900 years, we would not have the feminist issue today” is simply untrue because egalitarians want for female elders to be able to do all the things that male elders can. Limiting female elders to those who are older widows and saying that they cannot teach men would not make egalitarians happy since equality is incompatible in their minds with role differentiation. The feminist issue is the product of the sexual revolution, not the church’s neglect of using its widows.

What Is Novatianism?

Novatianism is the belief that Christians who commit apostasy can never be readmitted back into membership in the church. The historical background which led to Novatianism is the Decian persecution of 250 in which Emperor Decius ordered that all Roman citizens make a sacrifice to the Roman gods on his behalf. Because Christians cannot engage in idolatry, many of them chose to die for their faith rather than comply with the emperor’s orders. But many professing Christians did apostatize from the faith by offering sacrifices to the gods so they could procure a libellus or document which would ensure their safety. Those who denied the faith by this act were called lapsi or those who lapsed in their commitment to Christ.

But what should the church do when those who are among the lapsi want to return to the church after engaging in idolatry? Some in the church, such as Bishop Cornelius of Rome, allowed the lapsi to return to the church after a period of penance while Novatian opposed all attempts to allow repentant apostates to return to the church. Those who followed Novatian were known as katharoi or “pure ones” who advocated for a pure church in which those who left could not return. The later followers of Novatian expanded the list of sins which permanently excluded one from the church to include murder and sexual immorality. The Novatians were in general agreement with Tertullian that God could forgive all sin, but that there were some sins the church could not forgive.

Now why would anyone believe that apostasy cannot be forgiven by the church? The Novatians came to this conclusion based on their understanding of Hebrews 6:4: “For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened.” Because it is impossible to restore to repentance those who had apostatized in the Book of Hebrews, restoration is impossible for apostates. They also argued that we should not restore those who commit mortal sins that lead to a loss of salvation based on 1 John 5:16: “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life – to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that.”

I have written elsewhere on Hebrews 6 explaining why it is impossible to restore these people to repentance. The mistake Novatian made with regards to Hebrews 6 is that he misunderstands why it is that repentance is impossible for them. The reason it is impossible is because such people will never desire to return to the church again because they will never be given the gift of regeneration by the Holy Spirit. But if a person believes that the act of baptism results in regeneration rather than it coming about by the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of his elect through the gospel, then he will badly misunderstand the apostasy passages of Scripture.

Novatian’s interpretation of the passage is the only consistent way to interpret it if one believes that a Christian can lose his salvation because baptism brings about regeneration and not everyone who is baptized endures to the end. Those who use Hebrews 6 to argue that a Christian can lose his salvation are not being consistent because they believe that a person can be saved and lost many times during his life. If Hebrews 6 and 1 John 5 are describing mortal sins that cause a Christian to lose his salvation, then salvation cannot be restored and we should not pray for that person. But because those who believe in a category of mortal sins believe that salvation can be restored and that we should pray for apostates demonstrates that they really don’t believe what the text says. The Novatian controversy exposed the inconsistency of baptismal regeneration and the belief that salvation can be lost when the very texts used to support such beliefs taken literally in the sense in which they were interpreted resulted in the absurd conclusion that truly repentant people cannot be restored to repentance. But the fact that they are repentant demonstrates that they have not committed the sin of Hebrews 6 or 1 John 5.

Why Do We Have So Many Shut-ins?

Why do churches have so many older people on the membership roll who never attend the gathering of the church on Sunday morning? I have come to the conclusion that a large portion of them are not really shut-ins at all. It is not so much that they are unable to attend church, but that they are unwilling to attend. The same people who are on the membership roll as shut-ins still leave the house to go to the doctor when they need to or have a friend drive them where they need to go. Most shut-ins could go to church if they really wanted to. They could ask another member of the church to give them a ride on Sunday morning or call the pastor to ask him to send someone to pick them up so they can go to church. But they choose not to.

So why is this? I believe the reason is because they are bitter and angry with God. Because God has not given them what they wanted in life, they refuse to go to church as a means of getting back at God. Because God has not given them what they want: health, prosperity, a happy marriage, and children who do not die before they do, they refuse to give God what he wants: worship. In their old age, they are revealing the true condition of their heart. By removing themselves from the fellowship of the church on Sunday morning, they are unknowingly practicing church discipline on themselves when the church did not have the courage to remove them earlier when they first stopped attending. To leave the church is to leave Christ (1 John 2:19). True Christians are marked by love for God and for one another (1 John 3:10, 14). But if someone is not part of the gathering of a local church, how can he show love for the brothers of Christ?

So what should churches do about all the shut-ins on the membership roll who are not really shut-ins? Of course there are some people who really are shut-in and confined to their bed. But those people usually do not have much longer to live and their absence from the church is only temporary until they are taken into glory. But for those shut-ins who are able to come to church on their own power or through the assistance of others, the church should admonish them gently to return to the fellowship of the church and offer them any assistance they need (1 Tim 5:1). If they still refuse to listen, then the church should begin the process of church discipline in Matthew 18 which may end with that person being removed from the membership of the church. By not attending, they have already removed themselves from the membership of the church and the final stage of church discipline is only making formal what has already happened informally.

Notes on Church Revitalization

Last weekend I had the privilege of attending a conference on church revitalization. I would like to share with you my notes from the conference:

The only people who like change are babies when they need their diaper changed. Change is painful and it is easier to learn from other people’s mistakes than your own. No church ever died from a lack of opportunity. There will always be a shortage of helpers but take care of the laborers you have. Win people over to your vision instead of forcing them. The message cannot change but our methodology can. Everyone must know the vision of the church. We must be engaged in life-changing ministry, not just fixing the building. Simplify the church’s schedule to focus on ministry.

Take care of yourself before the day starts. Finish your sermon preparation early in the week so you can devote the rest of it to pastoral ministry and family. Get away for a week every few months. Meet with those who may oppose your ideas individually before meeting as a group. Do not build the church on your personality. There should be a holy discontent with the way things are. Discover and develop informal relationships by spending more time with the members of the church. Buy credibility and build trust. Trust is more powerful than disagreement.

You are going to make mistakes, but how you respond to them determines whether you live or die. You can’t die on every hill. Perseverance is key to pastoral ministry. Jesus did not come to them immediately because he wanted them to first strain at the oars to show them that they can’t do it on their own. Maintain the spiritual disciples of the Christian life. Work harder at winning over skeptics and pray for them. Make hires based on character, competency, and chemistry. Just because I love you doesn’t mean I won’t fire you. Place the strengths of your employees on a board outside their office.

You have to put coins in the bank before you can take them out. As a pastor, you have a relational account and an authority account. Draw from your relational account instead. Find things that you can be successful at. Lots of early successes builds credibility. Cast a vision for growth – a plan that others can get behind. It takes time to build credibility. The power of a defining moment. Call other pastors and ask to take them out for coffee. Find a person you can be honest with. Life change keeps pastors going. Fellowship is the most valuable commodity you have.

Every church has its own culture. The church is more than an organization, but it is not less than an organization. Is the organizational culture of your church sabotaging your vision? Vision is the seed; organization is the soil. The DNA of a church is fashioned by its values. The church must be outreach focused and expect to see new members join. A new members class is essential and creates an expectation that guests will visit. Inject the DNA of your church into new members at this class. Start new ministries to give new members opportunities for service. The DNA of a church is its purpose and passion. Make members partners in ministry. “Member” implies perks as opposed to a ministry partner. Small groups are places for ministry. These growth groups are where community happens.

Reallocate resources for the purpose of discipleship. Design the facility to reflect the mission of the church. There needs to be a clear front door and community room to hang out in. Use transparent glass whenever possible. Install massive windows to see outside. Tell stories about the church. Every church needs a creation story. It’s not about us, it’s about serving, it’s about reaching people.

Some people will not change. Pray and seek counsel before each decision. There is no such thing as too much counsel. Leave cow patties alone and don’t kick them or else they’ll stink. Some people should not be disturbed and the best thing that could happen is for them to leave the church. Meet with a mentor regularly. Ease into change, don’t force it. Don’t spin the merry-go-round faster when you want people to get off. Make sure people know you love them when trying to bring about change. Don’t keep changing your vision. Barking dogs don’t bite. Have a volunteer huddle once a month: feed them, do giveaways, birthday stickers, encourage two people not in your ministry. What you celebrate is what gets repeated. Celebrate the wins. We’re in a party inviting those on the outside to join us. Show them instead of telling them. No one likes a party pooper.

Tell compelling stories to build a new church culture. Make the preaching more conversational – like Jesus taught, instead of behind a pulpit. Use an illustration every 2-3 minutes to keep the attention of the audience. Allow people to download the slideshow to their smartphones. Create ministry apps and be connected through social media. Serve your volunteers every quarter. The cumulative effect of change will make some people change who once resisted.

How Often Should We Celebrate the Lord’s Supper?

Some churches celebrate the Lord’s supper once a quarter, others once a month, and some celebrate it every week. Are churches free to decide for themselves how often they will observe this meal or does the New Testament tell us how frequently we should celebrate it? Paul assumes that Christians celebrate the Lord’s supper every time they gather together as the church: “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk” (1 Cor 11:20-21). The early church always broke bread together when they met: “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread” (Acts 20:7).

The Lord’s supper was an actual meal, not a chiclet-sized piece of bread and a sip of grape juice. Paul rebukes them for allowing members of the church to go hungry during this meal. He assumes that the amount of food consumed during the meal was enough to satisfy the desires of a hungry man. If the Corinthian Church did not celebrate the Lord’s supper every week, then everyone would have gone hungry. Some were neglecting the body of Christ by beginning the meal before everyone had arrived. They failed to discern the membership of the body of Christ which resulted in Christians missing out on this fellowship meal.

The origin of observing the Lord’s supper once a quarter or once a month comes from a compromise between John Calvin and the city of Geneva. Calvin wanted to celebrate the Lord’s supper every week while the city council wanted to celebrate it as infrequently as possible. They had become afraid of the Lord’s supper because it reminded them of the Roman Catholic doctrines of Eucharistic sacrifice and adoration which they had recently abandoned. So they came to a compromise position where each parish would celebrate the meal once a quarter and the city would celebrate it once a month as the different parishes alternated celebrating the Lord’s supper each month. This tradition became ingrained in Protestantism and has remained with us ever since. But Scripture determines how and when we are to celebrate this meal, not human tradition or an overreaction to Rome’s doctrine of the Mass. When the supper is celebrated as an actual meal, it looks nothing like the Catholic Mass.

One of the arguments used against the weekly observance of the Lord’s supper is that weekly observance makes the meal less memorable than monthly or quarterly. Not only is this not a biblical argument, but the same argument could be applied to any activity of the church. If it is more memorable to observe something infrequently, then why not sing hymns once a month instead of once a week? Imagine how much more memorable the preaching would be if the pastor only preached once a month!

The real reason the church does not celebrate the Lord’s supper every week is because we do not understand it. We have become afraid of the meal because it is no longer celebrated as a meal, but as a Protestantized version of the Mass. A celebratory meal has been replaced by a somber relic of Roman Catholicism. Of course we would want to observe that as infrequently as possible because it looks nothing like the New Testament. We should seek to recover both the theology and frequency of the Lord’s supper. As Charles Spurgeon once said: “How can it be thought right to leave the celebrating of this ordinance to once a year or once a quarter I cannot understand, and it seems to me that if brethren knew the great joy there is in often setting forth Christ’s death they would not be content with even once a month.”

Why that Lesbian Eskimo Bishop Lady Is Not a Christian

In his book, Reformed Is Not Enough, Douglas Wilson argues that baptism is the objective sign of the new covenant. Those who are born into the church and baptized as infants are members of the new covenant and therefore Christians. He anticipates an objection to his position: “You mean that you are saying that lesbian Eskimo bishop lady is a Christian?” He replies, “She is not a Buddhist, she is not a Muslim, yes, in the New Testament sense, she is a New Testament Christian.” But would the authors of the New Testament call such a person a Christian? What is it that defines a Christian?

The authors of the Westminster Confession of Faith (a document which Wilson says he believes in) had a word for such a person: false professor. By “professor” they did not mean someone who teaches, but someone who professes something to be true. They are religious hypocrites who profess that they are Christians while they are self-deceived. A practicing lesbian in New Testament Christianity would not be called a Christian, but called to saving faith and repentance while being removed from the membership of the church. This was Paul’s instruction to the church in Corinth concerning the man living in unrepentant sexual immorality:

“When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people – not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler – not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you.’ . . . Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 5:4-13; 6:9-11).

Paul did not call this man a brother, but someone bearing the name of brother who demonstrated by his actions that he was no brother at all. By removing him from the membership of the church, Paul and the church in Corinth are saying to this man that they see no evidence in his life that he is a Christian because Christians do not live this way. Christians have been changed by the radical work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration. The New Testament defines a Christian as someone who is a disciple or follower of Christ (Acts 11:26). It is only those who abide in Christ’s words who are his true disciples (John 8:31). An unrepentant practicing lesbian is not following Christ or abiding in his words and therefore not a Christian (Rom 1:21-28).

As a Baptist, I can consistently respond to Wilson’s position by advocating regenerate church membership. Because only those who know God are members of the new covenant, only those whom the church recognizes as Christians may partake of the ordinances of the new covenant. Wilson’s position dilutes the purity of the church by intentionally introducing into it those who have not been born again. Wilson is right in saying that being Reformed is not enough, we must become Baptists as well.