To say that the subject of this article is a live issue in the church today is to state the obvious. There has been considerable debate in the church for the admittance of women into the special office of deacon. Many churches have been very busy with this question in the last few years, and it appears will continue to be occupied with the issue for some time to come. The journals and church magazines carry many articles, both pro and con, on the question. But can this debate over ‘female deacons’ be resolved within the Reformed churches? Are the biblical passages used in the debate so difficult that the best one can hope for is an “exegetical standoff”? Does the evidence from church history support the pro-women deacon view, as many assert? Is it possible that in certain ways both sides have been wrong and that there is a third alternative? These are some of the questions this article seeks to answer.

As I read in preparation for this article, I found Brian M. Schwertley’s book, A Historical and Biblical Examination of Women Deacon, very helpful and thought provoking. 1 I think he may be right in defending what is essentially an unpopular view that was put forth-in essence at least-by John Calvin, and defended (unsuccessfully) by some of the great men at the Westminster Assembly. But in reading the material assembled in this book, I could see much more clearly what led these men to virtually the same conclusion.

  1. The Historical Evidence

I will not run through the entire course of church history, but just pick out important epochs relevant to our argument. It is important to state here that that an early possibly first reference to a woman deacon comes not from Christian literature but from a secular source in a letter Pliny the governor of Bithynia wrote to the emperor Trajan (c. A.D. 113).

  1. The Early Church

Those in favor of ordaining women to the diaconate argue that the early church had deaconesses, as did Calvin’s Geneva. There is no question that there existed in the early church an order of women  modeled after the order of widows in 1 Timothy 5:9ff. and not after Acts 6:1-6 or 1 Timothy 3:1-10, 12 (more on this later). Those who argue in favor of women deacons who are of the same office and function as male deacons should note that the evidence from church history starting with the earliest church fathers and ending with the 19th century is overwhelmingly against women deacons who are in the same office and have the same function as male deacons.

  1. a) The Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, c. A.D. 100)

The Didache, in a section which deals with the affairs of the church, shows that the office of deacon is restricted to men.

Appoint, therefore, for yourselves, bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men meek, and not lovers of money, and truthful and proved; for they also render to you the service of prophets and teachers. Despise them not therefore, for they are your honoured ones, together with the prophets and teachers.

The word aner is used, which can refer only to the male sex. There is no record of an official order of deaconesses in the church at the time the Didache was written.

  1. b) The Council of Nicea (A.D. 325)

The first ecumenical council of Nice in Bithynia (A.D. 325) was the largest assembly of bishops held up to that time. Nicea is important to our study because it was primarily an eastern council (the Latin or western church had only seven delegates present). It was in the eastern church that the female diaconate flourished. Nicea gives an indication of the eastern church’s view of deaconesses throughout the empire. This was the general view of the church. Canon 19 of the council of Nicea indicates that in A.D. 325 the general practice of the church as a whole was not to ordain women deacons.

Likewise in the case of their deaconesses, and generally in the case of those who have been enrolled among their clergy, let the same form be observed. And we mean by deaconesses such as have assumed the habit, but who, since they have no imposition of hands, are to be numbered only among the laity. 2

  1. c) The Teaching of the Apostles [Didascalia Apostolorum] (c. A.D. 250-300)

The first clear reference to deaconesses in the early church is found in the Syrian church order called the Teaching of the Apostles. Even here, the deaconess’s ministry was solely to women. Deaconesses were needed to visit poor women because it would look inappropriate before the heathen to send a man. Deaconesses would baptize women, because it would be improper for men to see women naked (baptism in the early church was immersion in water, apparently with little or no clothing, to represent the new birth). Deaconesses also instructed new female believers in the faith. The intimacy involved in nursing a sick Christian woman back to health could only be done properly by a deaconess.

  1. The Reformers
  2. a) John Calvin (1559)

Calvin taught that deaconesses were founded not upon Acts 6:1-6 but on 1 Timothy 5:9-10. Calvin believed in two separate functions for deacons and deaconesses. The male deacons administered church finances and the affairs of the poor. This no doubt included oversight of the deaconesses. The deaconesses were not involved in the administration of the church’s financial affairs but were involved “in caring for the poor themselves.” The only difference between Calvin and the church fathers is that there is no indication by Calvin that the deaconess’s ministry was limited to women. And women clearly were not permitted to baptize other women. (Since immersion while in the nude was no longer practiced but was replaced by sprinkling while remaining fully clothed, one could see why deaconesses were no longer needed to baptize.) The early church and Calvin had an order or office of widows who happened to be called deaconesses. They were not the same as deacons, as modern advocates of deaconesses assert. While Calvin may have considered the deaconess a subset of an auxiliary office to the deacon, he makes it very clear that deaconesses are fashioned upon Paul’s order of widows in 1 Timothy 5:9-10, and not upon Acts 6:1-6. 3

  1. b) The Westminster Assembly

The Westminster Assembly of divines (arguably the greatest gathering of Reformed pastors, elders, and theologians the world has ever seen) debated the office of deacon between December 15 and 28, 1643. Out of the numerous and somewhat diverse pastors and theologians present, not one argued that women should be ordained into the diaconate. But many eminent divines (including Rutherford, Gillespie, and Goodwin) argued that the widows of 1 Timothy 5:9ff. were church officers. The issue of widow-servant officers was debated from December 29, 1643 to January 1, 1644. When the divines refer to servant-widows as officers of the church, does this entail ordination? Not necessarily. Calvin and Rutherford both advocated a servant-widow “office.” But both were against the ordination of women. Rutherford says so explicitly in his comments on 1 Timothy 5:9ff.4

  1. The Biblical Evidence

Here, I will look at the pivotal texts that are at the battlefront of this debate.

  1. Acts 6:1-6

When the apostles commanded the church to choose seven men (andres), women were automatically excluded from the ordained diaconal office. If one wants to remain faithful to the regulative principle and have ordained women deacons, one must prove either that Acts 6:1-6 has nothing to do with the diaconal office or that subsequent revelation teaches, either explicitly or by inference, that women were ordained to the office of deacon. But does Acts 6:1-6 refer to deacons or temporary officers (e.g., proto-deacons)?

The church throughout its entire history has interpreted Acts 6:1-6 as the institution of the diaconal office. Though the apostles may not have been fully aware of all the details and requirements of the diaconal office at this early date, surely God was aware and inscripturated the institution of this office. The great Puritan theologian John Owen says of Acts 6:1-6:

“It was the institution of a new office, and not a present supply in a work or business, which they designed.” And again; “Nor was this a temporary institution for that season, and so the officers appointed extraordinary; but was to abide in the church throughout all generations.” 5

Those who favor the ordination of women as deacons argue that even if Acts 6:3 does refer to the permanent office of deacon, the fact that only men were chosen should not be considered significant or binding on the church, just as the number seven is not. But we need not doubt that the Apostles called for the selection of men. The regulative principle teaches that whatever is not commanded is forbidden. If one can prove by command or inference from subsequent revelation that women were admitted to the ordained diaconal office, then one could say that Acts 6:3 was not meant to be binding on all generations of the church. But anyone who claims to be Reformed and who claims to adhere to the regulative principle must admit that at least at the point in time that the events in Acts 6 occurred, women were not allowed by God to be deacons.

The institution of the diaconal office occurred almost at the very beginning of God’s new covenant church. Schwertley argues that the events in Acts chapter 6 probably occurred in the spring of A.D. 30, according to the Julian calendar. The New Testament book which gives us the most detailed information regarding the diaconal office is 1 Timothy. Orthodox scholars date 1 Timothy from A.D. 64 to A.D. 67. He further writes that “the institution of the office of deacon and Paul’s instructions to Timothy regarding deacons are separated by a period of 35 to 38 years. This period of time encompasses almost the entire writing of the New Testament. If God had introduced women into the ordained diaconate sometime after the events in Acts 6 were recorded, then we could expect such a change to be reflected in Paul’s detailed instructions regarding deacons recorded in 1 Timothy chapter 3. But instead we find the opposite.” 6

Galatians 3:28

One of the standard methods used to circumvent the regulative principle by those who desire to ordain women to office is to interpret Galatians 3:28 as applying not just to a Christian’s salvation in Christ but also to role relationships within the church. If Galatians 3:28 teaches that all role distinctions have been eliminated by Christ, then one could legitimately argue that distinct prohibitions against women serving as elders or deacons are needed in order to justify reserving church offices (e.g., pastor, elder, deacon) for men alone.

The idea that role differences between men and women in the church are eliminated by Christ cannot be supported by Gal. 3:28 and would involve the New Testament in a whole series of glaring contradictions. Such contradictions are impossible. The standard orthodox interpretation of Galatians 3:28 (which was held by the Reformers and was universally accepted until the church was influenced by feminism in the nineteenth century) is that it speaks of the oneness of male and female as beneficiaries of God’s grace in Christ. John Calvin says:

The meaning is, that there is no distinction of persons here, and therefore it is of no consequence to what nation or condition any one may belong…. The apostle’s object is to show that the grace of adoption, and the hope of salvation, do not depend on the law [or status], but are contained in Christ alone, who therefore is all. 7

Thus Galatians 3:28 cannot be used to turn the regulative principle upside down, and the burden of proof still rests with those who want to put women in the diaconate.

Romans 16:1-2

This is considered to be a very more important proof text for female deacons. It specifically refers to Phoebe as a diakonos, which can be translated as servant or deacon. One of the difficulties in interpreting a passage such as Romans 16:1 is the fact that the Greek word diakonos, which was used by the early church as a title of a specific church office (i.e., deacon), was also used to describe virtually every form of Christian ministry (e.g., apostle, missionary-evangelist, presbyter, prophet, etc.). The word diakonos is used to describe table waiters (Lk. 10:40; Jn. 2:5, 9), servants of sin (Rom. 15:8), servants of the gospel (Gal. 2:17), a servant of the church (Rom. 16:1; Col. 1:25), etc. The word is used so often to describe people who are not deacons that a careful consideration must be given to all the various indicators within the text to determine if the person is in fact a deacon. Whether or not Phoebe was an official deacon, a regular servant, or a servant who holds an office separate from the regular diaconate can only be determined by examining Romans 16:1-2. She is mentioned nowhere else in the New Testament. Factors such as the biblical teaching regarding the diaconate and the testimony of church history are useful when dealing with such a disputed passage.

All the indicators within Romans 16:1-2 support the interpretation that Phoebe was in the order of widows (cf. 1 Tim. 5:9ff.). This is the conclusion of both Shedd and Calvin. Shedd remarks:

“Phoebe was probably a widow; because, according to Greek manners, she could not have been mentioned acting in the independent manner described, if either her husband had been living, or she had been unmarried.” 8

Those who argue that Phoebe was a deacon in the same office as the male diaconate make much of her official sounding introduction by Paul. But if Phoebe was in the order of widows her official sounding introduction makes perfect sense. There is excellent evidence within the text to indicate that Phoebe was a competent, rich widow. The trip from Cenchrea (a port near Corinth) to Rome was a long one. A married woman in Greek society would not have made such a trip without her husband. Phoebe was rich and independent. It is very unlikely that a young Greek woman would have had such wealth. And it is virtually certain that a young Christian single woman would not have made such a trip. The fact that Phoebe was a wealthy widow, and the fact that she was a patron or helper of many in the church, fits perfectly with the description of Paul’s order of widows in 1 Timothy 5:9ff. This is the only interpretation that does justice both to Paul’s introduction of Phoebe, her official sounding activities and the very clear teaching regarding male deacons (Ac. 6:3; 1 Tim. 3:12).

1 Timothy 3:11

In 1 Timothy 3:11 there are two things that need to be determined in order to understand exactly what Paul had in mind when he wrote this passage. First, we must determine whether or not gunaikas should be translated as wives or as women. In both classical and koine Greek it can be translated either way. Second, if gunaikas is translated women and not wives, what is Paul referring to? Since no interpreters believe Paul is referring to all women in the church the possibilities are: women deacons, women who assist the deacons and serve in an unofficial capacity, and women who assist the deacons who are not deacons but who are the servant-widows described by Paul in 1 Timothy 5:9ff.

For those who do not believe that Paul is referring to wives but to women deacons an appeal is made to Paul’s use of the adverb hosautos (likewise). The grammatical structure used by Paul which connects verses 2, 8 and 11 is considered by women-deacon advocates to be their strongest evidence for making verse 11 a proof text for women deacons.

If Paul is not referring to the wives of elders and deacons, and is not referring to women deacons in the same office as men deacons, then what does this third category of officers or servants refer to? The most logical and natural alternative would be to regard “women” as referring to the servant-widow class that assists the deacons by ministering to the needs of women.

The simplest explanation on the manner in which Paul, not yet finished with the requirements for the office of deacons, interjects a few remarks about women, is that he regards these women as the deacons’ assistants in helping the poor and needy, etc. These are women who render auxiliary service, performing ministries for which women are better adapted. 9

Paul makes a parenthetical remark to a third class of servants. The only female third class of servants in the entire New Testament is the servant-widows mentioned in 1 Timothy 5:9ff. Since they are the only third class mentioned, and since their duties are diaconal in nature, it is quite natural that Paul would mention them in his comments regarding deacons. The reason they do not receive a separate paragraph with detailed qualifications like the elders and men deacons is because Paul goes into greater detail regarding their qualifications in 1 Timothy 5:9ff.

The Order of Widows (1 Timothy 5:9-10)

After Paul instructs Timothy regarding how widows are to be provided for (v. 3-8), he lays down various requirements for the widows who serve the church. These widows are “taken into the number” (KJV). The verb katalegestho can mean, “to choose, to note or register in a list…as, e.g., citizens, soldiers, taxpayers, are classed together, and thus publicly distinguished from others.” These women are placed on a list. They are publicly set apart from other women in the church. The question that remains to be answered is: are these widows placed on a list in order to receive aid or in order to serve the church? All the evidence indicates that what Paul clearly had in mind was an order of widows set apart in order to serve the church. There are a number of reasons why this interpretation is superior.

Why would Paul give Timothy a set of requirements regarding which widows were to receive aid after he had just done so in verses 4 through 8? Also, the qualifications given in verses 9 and 10 clearly point in the direction of service. The church elder and deacon must be the husband of one wife. The widow who serves must have been the wife of one man (v. 9). Only women who first had proved themselves as good and faithful wives could be admitted to the order. Would it make sense to deny women sustenance on the basis that they had never married, or if before their conversion they had been unfaithful to their husbands? And what about the age requirement? The idea that women under sixty would be denied food and clothing simply because of their age is absurd. But if Paul is speaking about service, the age of sixty makes perfect sense. Widows over sixty (whose children had grown) are free from family responsibilities. The temptation to remarry is remote and they are beyond the childbearing age. Women over sixty were accorded a certain respect in Greek society. For example, it would have been considered improper for young women to travel or be apart from their families. Old women could act independently and travel without causing a stir. Phoebe is an excellent example of such independence (Rom. 16:1-2).

Paul stipulates that only women who have raised children can be placed on the list. This requirement echoes the qualification to both elders (3:4) and deacons (3:12). In verse 10 Paul sets forth a number of requirements all dealing with reputation. Once again the requirements for the order of widows echoes those for both elder (3:2) and deacon (3:10). The clear implication of verses 11 and 12 is that any widow who is placed on the list of widow-servants must take a vow of celibacy. That is, they promise not to remarry, therefore they have the independence necessary to wholly dedicate themselves to the service of Christ.

Conclusion

We have looked at the biblical and historical evidence regarding women deacons. With this evidence before us, I think it is only fair that we make two cogent conclusions:

  1. There is not a shred of biblical or historical evidence to support the contention that women served in the same office as men deacons. Therefore, those who are in favour of women deacons ignore or misinterpret 1 Timothy 5:9ff. and 1 Timothy 3:11, and thus argue that “deaconesses” should be ordained and serve in the same office with the same qualification as men deacons. Such I stand ready to challenge on scriptural grounds. I think that the exegetical arguments for the ordination of women as deaconesses is not at all compelling.
  2. There evidently were widows who were cared for by the ancient church. It also seems clear that a task was committed to other widows as a part of the church’s care for the sick and needy. And it seems to me that the nature of a living congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ is such that something like this is virtually inevitable. I see no reason why a widow today could not be given responsibility by the deacons of the church if she met the standards so clearly set down by Paul (and so cogently argued by Calvin), and-under the authority of the deacons-given specific tasks within the realm of the ministry of mercy. It seems clear to me that this was done in the Apostolic Church and, that being the case, that there is warrant for doing the same thing today when the need arises.

It will be evident from the remarks above, then, that I do not want to be understood to favour the ordination of women as deacons. But just as clearly I do want to be understood as being in favor of finding ways for women-who meet the criteria set down by the Apostle-to be employed in the ministry of mercy today, thus edifying the body of Christ. The simple fact is that having women rendering auxiliary service for which women are better adapted is biblical, as to whether we should ordain them to this service, and call them deaconesses, I would emphatically say NO!

Endnotes

  1. Brian M. Schwertley, 1998. A Historical and Biblical Examination of Women Deacon: Reformed Witness, Southfield Michigan. Rev. Schwertley is pastor of Covenanted Reformed Presbyterian Church. His 155 pages book is very stimulating as it is provoking.
  2. Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:85. as quoted by Brian M. Schwertley
  3. Calvin, Institutes 4:13:19, 2:1274.
  4. (Samuel Rutherford, The Due Right of Presbyteries, or a Peaceable Plea for the Government of the Church of Scotland (London, 1644), p. 174.)
  5. John Owen, “Treatise on Church Government,” quoted in James M. Willson, The Deacon, p. 18.
  6. Brian M. Schwertley
  7. Calvin, Galatians, p. 112.
  8. (William G. T. Shedd, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids: Baker, [1879] 1980).

John Calvin, Romans, p. 543.

  1. William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Thessalonians, Timothy and Titus (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1957), p. 132.