I realize that I’m not going to win any popularity contests with this one, but I feel led of the Lord to weigh in on the topics of women preachers and women deacons. In these days of social media, it seems that everybody else is typing out his or her opinion on these topics. So, I might as well join the fray. As always, I’ll back up whatever opinion I have with scripture. I guess God is having me write this because, quite frankly, there are some downright asinine interpretations of scripture floating around out there.
In regards to preaching, our English translations of the New Testament use the words “elder,” “bishop” (some translations use “overseer” instead of “bishop”), “pastor,” and “shepherd” interchangeably to describe the office we typically call “pastor” in our society. With this in mind, the classic passages on the qualifications for a pastor are 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. You can read those passages frontward, backward, and sideways in any credible translation you can find and you’ll see that the gender language they use is exclusively male.
To make that gender specificity even more extreme, 1 Timothy 3:4 mentions the mandate for a potential pastor to rule his own house well. Since the Bible plainly teaches in multiple passages (Genesis 3:16; 1 Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 5:22-23; Colossians 3:18) that the husband is the God-appointed head of the home, that one qualification right there proves that God doesn’t make allowance for women in His listing of the qualifications for a pastor. Furthermore, Titus 1:6 mentions that the man must be the husband of one wife. That’s a far cry from saying the pastor must be the wife of one husband or even the spouse of one spouse.
Coming at the question another way, 1 Timothy 3:2 says the potential pastor must be “able to teach” (N.K.J.V.) and passages such as Acts 20:28; 1 Timothy 3:1-5; Hebrews 13:7,17,24; and 1 Peter 5:1-4 leave no doubt that a pastor has the God-sanctioned authority over the congregation. Okay, so now let’s place the words of 1 Timothy 2:12 alongside these ideas of a pastor teaching and having authority. There, the apostle Paul, writing under the inspiration of God, says:
Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. (N.K.J.V.)
None of this is hard to understand. It’s not like God is being vague or inconsistent. You tell me how any woman can legitimately do any type of preaching if that preaching involves use of the Bible. If she’s preaching from the Bible, that equates to teaching the Bible, and that cuts straight across Paul’s words, “And I do not permit a woman to teach…” (to say nothing of his words, “…but to be in silence”). Along the same lines, if she is serving as a pastor in a church, that equates to having pastoral authority over men, and that cuts straight across Paul’s words, “…or to have authority over a man.” I’m sorry to be so blunt, but sometimes a little straight talk is needed.
Now let’s move on to the question of women deacons. The fact is that the New Testament’s qualifications for the office of deacon follow this same pattern of gender specificity. The passage here is 1 Timothy 3:8-13. There, in verse 12, we read that a potential deacon must be the husband of one wife and that he must rule his own house well. I really don’t know how much clearer God has to make it. Again, if the Bible teaches nothing else, it teaches that the husband is the God-appointed head of the home. Additionally, if Acts 6:1-7 describes the church’s first deacon election — and many excellent preachers and commentators do favor that interpretation — it’s worth noting that the apostles specifically say:
“Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men (emphasis mine) of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.” (Acts 6:3, N.K.J.V. )
“But what about Phoebe?” is the counter argument heard from those who believe that she was a female deacon (a deaconness). Well, admittedly, in Romans 16:1 Paul does refer to Phoebe as a “servant” (N.K.J.V.) of the church in Cenchrea, and what makes that description so significant in the eyes of many is the fact that “servant” translates the Greek word diakonos. That’s the same word used in 1 Timothy 3:8 in reference to the office of deacon. Even more than that, it’s literally the Greek word from which we get the English word “deacon.” So, doesn’t all this prove that Phoebe was a woman deacon?
It might if the word diakonos wasn’t used numerous times in the New Testament simply to refer to “servant” in a general way. For example, in Matthew 23:11, Jesus says, “But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant (diakonos).” Likewise, in John 12:26, He says, “If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me, and where I am, there My servant (diakonos) will be also…” Additionally, the plural of diakonos is used in John 2:1-12 to describe the servants that filled the waterpots, and the verb form of the word gets translated as “serve,” “serves,” “served,” or “serving” in: Luke 10:40; 12:37; 17:8; 22:26; and John 12:2,26.
In light of all these generic usages of the word, it’s just not a sound interpretation of scripture to say that Paul describing Phoebe as a diakonos must mean that she was a female deacon. Remember, the same Paul who used that word in reference to Phoebe also wrote the 1 Timothy 3:8-13 passage where he uses gender language that is exclusively male in its orientation. Obviously, the difference between the two passages is that in the 1 Timothy passage he moves from using diakonos in a generalized way to using it in reference to the specific office of church deacon.
Now let me work in yet another thought about that passage. In translations such as the K.J.V. and the N.K.J.V., 1 Timothy 3:11 provides the qualifications for the “wives” of deacons. However, the word that gets translated as “wives” in the original Greek is gune, and that’s a word that can refer to either a married or an unmarried woman. Actually, gune is nothing more than the New Testament’s basic word for any kind of woman and is used as such dozens of times. The point is that the question of whether gune should be translated as “woman” or “wife” in a text depends upon the context. For example, the Samaritan woman (gune) at the well clearly wasn’t married (John 4:7), but Herodias, the wife (gune) of Philip, clearly was.
For this reason, those who believe that women can serve as deacons contend that “wives” in 1 Timothy 3:11 is nothing more than a male chauvinist’s interpretation of gune and that the verse’s use of that particular word allows for women deacons. To bolster this argument, it can also be questioned that since Paul didn’t give any qualifications for the wives of pastors (bishops/overseers) in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, why would he give them for the wives of deacons? Also, the verse’s use of the word “likewise” might be taken to indicate that Paul had in mind a third group (women deacons/deaconesses) in addition to pastors (bishops/overseers) and male deacons. Finally, it should also be mentioned that the word “their” in the phrase “their wives” isn’t even in the original Greek of the text. That’s why the K.J.V. and N.K.J.V. italicize the word. This is an important distinction because if we eliminate “their” we have no reason to connect verse 11 with deacons’ wives.
You say, “Russell, it sounds to me like you are defeating your own interpretation.” No, I’m just giving the other side a fair hearing. In my defense, here’s another question: “If Paul really is talking about women deacons in 1 Timothy 3:11, why does he immediately follow that verse by saying in verse 12, “Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well” (N.K.J.V.)? You see, if Paul thought it was alright for a woman to serve as a deacon, why didn’t he mention something about her being the wife of one husband? For that matter, in light of his prohibition about women ruling their own houses (see again 1 Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 5:22-23; and Colossians 3:18), how could a woman deacon possibly meet the qualification of ruling her own house well? She couldn’t.
Here’s another question: “If Paul is talking about male deacons in verses 8, 9, 10, and 12, why would he cram in a word about female deacons in verse 11?” Common sense dictates that if he wanted to start talking about a different class of deacon, women deacons, he would have done it either after verse 12 or after verse 13, not in a blatant interruption of the natural flow of the passage. Remember now that “wives” is a perfectly acceptable translation of gune. It’s the context that decides which way the translation of gune should fall, and 1 Timothy 3:11 is found within the context of a whole bunch of language that is heavily slanted toward male deacons. And as for the use of that word “likewise,” I would point out that the same word is used in verse 8 to begin the deacon qualifications list, and the natural kickback for that “likewise” is verse 1, which says: “…If a man (emphasis mine) desires the position…”
Of course, I realize that there are many who will disagree with me on these matters, and I also realize that these folks know how to use scripture as well. So, let me finish up this post by briefly tackling some of the other so-called “proof texts” that supposedly make allowances for women pastors (preachers) and women deacons. Here goes:
- “We shouldn’t place restrictions upon what women can do because Galatians 3:28 says there is neither male nor female in Jesus Christ but that we are, instead, all one. Also, Romans 2:11 says that God doesn’t show partiality.” Please, give me a break here. Do Galatians 3:28 and Romans 2:11 mean that Christian men can get pregnant and give birth? Of course not. Therefore, I assure you that those two verses don’t cancel out God’s unique roles for the sexes.
- “Women should be allowed to preach because the first people to preach the gospel were those women who rushed back from Christ’s empty tomb to tell the apostles what had happened.” Again, please, give me a break. How in the world does what those women did equate to preaching? All they did was report that the tomb was empty.
- “In Philippians 4:3, Paul talks about “these women who labored with me in the gospel” (N.K.J.V.). No one denies that women helped Paul in his ministry. Perhaps some of those women were even effective soul-winners themselves. But that’s not nearly the same as preaching (teaching) the Bible in the authority of God.
- “Women should be allowed to preach because the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42) proved that she was one of the greatest evangelists in the New Testament by leading the men of her city, Sychar, to Jesus.” Not to minimize that woman’s efforts, but all she really did was go to those men and say, “Come, see a Man who told me all things that I ever did. Could this be the Christ (Messiah)?” The fact that she tacked on that question doesn’t exactly qualify her to be called a preacher.
- “Women should be allowed to preach because God used Priscilla to teach the preacher Apollos, and her and her husband Aquilla were the co-pastors of a church in Ephesus.” While it’s certainly true that a church met in Aquilla and Priscilla’s house (1 Corinthians 16:19), the Bible doesn’t say who served as that church’s pastor. The best interpretation is that the couple merely hosted the church without shepherding it. As for Priscilla (alongside her husband Aquilla) correcting the errors in the preaching of Apollos (Acts 18:24-26), the correcting was done outside the church with her as a part of a husband-wife team. It’s not like Apollos attended her church and she corrected him by preaching right doctrine to him.
In closing, I’d like to offer yet another passage from Paul. In 2 Timothy 4:3-4, he writes:
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. (N.K.J.V.)
I suppose the time of which Paul wrote arrived a long time ago, perhaps centuries ago, but it’s hard to deny that we are definitely living in them now. There was a time when we interpreted culture through the lens of scripture, but now we interpret scripture through the lens of culture. We used to ask, “What does God say?” Now we ask, “What does the mainstream say?” We do this, of course, to our own detriment as God sits up and heaven and lets us sow the seeds of our demise as a culture.
Unfortunately, this seed-sowing has filtered down into our churches, and there doesn’t seem to be any indication that it will stopping anytime soon. So, what can you and I do about it? The best each of us can do is take a stand with a true interpretation of scripture and remain steadfast amidst all the bluster that comes with wrong interpretations and wrong applications. This won’t always be easy to do, but it will always be worth doing because, after all, if those of us who know and practice the truth fold our tents, God’s voice in the world will only grow that much more silent.