What Does Refuge Church Believe About Female Deacons?

Jonathan Brooks   -  

As our church begins the process of establishing a deacon ministry, this is one of the most important questions we need to answer. As I mentioned in our elder installation sermon a few weeks ago, while we affirm that 1 Timothy 2:12 limits the role of elder to men, we do believe that the Bible allows for women to serve as deacons. Refuge’s Constitution puts it this way:

“Men and women may both serve as deacons. The Scriptures provide that only men may serve in the office of elder. However, the Scriptures indicate that both men and women are able to serve in the office of deacon. In 1 Timothy 3, the term translated wives in verse 11 can actually be translated either as women or wives depending on the context. In Romans 16:1, Phoebe is identified as the deaconess or servant (as some translations choose to translate rather than transliterate the word deacon in this verse) of the church at Cenchreae. This likely indicates her role in a more official office of deacon/servant within the church.”

Of course, what Refuge Church’s Constitution says is not the final word. What we must care most about is what the Bible says. Therefore, we (the elders) felt it would be helpful to provide the biblical arguments in favor of women serving as deacons in the local church.

A Few Points of Clarification

Before I get into the main biblical arguments for female deacons, I want to make a few points of clarification.

1. Refuge affirms the biblical teaching that the elders (pastors) are those who carry spiritual authority in the local church. Therefore, those who serve as deacons do not have the responsibility to teach or to exercise spiritual authority in their role as a deacon. Therefore, establishing female deacons does not compromise 1 Timothy 2:12 (“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man.” ESV).

2. While we feel the weight of the biblical evidence tips the scale toward the freedom to have women serve as deacons, there are many godly, faithful, elder-led churches that have made a different decision on this issue. In other words, we want to acknowledge that this is not a black and white, crystal clear issue. Every local church, however, has to make a decision on where they feel the weight of the biblical evidence lies.

Biblical Arguments in Favor of Female Deacons

With those two issues clarified, I want to briefly walk through the arguments in favor of female deacons. There aren’t a lot of details in the Bible about deacons in general. As a result, there are really only two main passages that will inform a decision on this issue, Romans 16:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8-13.

1. Romans 16:1

In the ESV this verse is translated, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae.” The NIV translates the word “servant” as “deacon”. The word in the original language is the same word used for “deacon.” It can mean either servant or deacon, depending on the context.
I lean toward believing Paul was using the specific term for the office of deacon and not servant because he attaches it to a local church. He says that she is a “servant of the church at Cenchreae” or a “deacon of the church.” That seems to indicate that she may have held an official office in the church. Having said that, Romans 16:1 on it’s own is not conclusive. Therefore, we have to look at 1 Timothy 3.

2. 1 Timothy 3:11

1 Timothy 3:11 is in the midst of the qualifications Paul is giving for the office of deacon. The ESV says “Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.” In the original language the word is not wives, but simply the generic term “women.” There are, however, times the word woman can be translated wives. Only context can determine the correct translation. So, what does the context seem to indicate in this scenario?

a. The word “their” is not in the original. So, a literal translation would read, “Women likewise . . .” If the word was translated as wives without supplying the “their” then it would just say, “Wives likewise” which would make it sound like Paul is giving qualifications for someone to be a wife in general. Clearly that’s not the case. That seems to indicate that Paul is talking about women deacons and not wives of deacons.

b. The word “likewise” is a transitional word. It’s the same word used in 1 Tim. 3:8 when Paul transitions from talking about elders to talking about deacons. So, it would be odd for Paul to use that transitional word in verse 11 to refer to the wives of deacons. It makes more sense if he’s transitioning to a sentence about female deacons.

c. It seems odd that Paul would require the wives of deacons to meet certain criteria, but not the wives of elders. When Paul gives the qualifications for elders just before this, he never mentions anything about the elders’ wives. That would indicate that a better understanding of verse 11 would be female deacons. Some argue that Paul is giving qualifications for wives of deacons because they would need to be trustworthy in their husbands’ dealings with sensitive matters. But, surely that would be true of elders’ wives as well.

d. Some feel that the requirement in verse 12 that deacons be the husband of one wife limits the role to males because only a male can be the husband of one wife. A better way to understand the passage, however, would be that if a male deacon is married, then he must fulfill this obligation. If he is not married then it doesn’t apply to him. In other words, we don’t believe that pastors and deacons must be married. We don’t require them to meet that qualification. They can’t meet it because they’re not married. In the same way, we would not require a woman to meet the qualification of verse 12. Therefore, because verse 12 doesn’t require a deacon to be married, nor does it require a deacon to be a man.

e. It seems that verse 12 is actually giving specific qualifications for male deacons. So, in some ways it would be legitimate to view verses 8-10 as requirements for deacons in general, verse 11 addresses female deacons, and then verse 12 addresses male deacons.

I look forward to seeing how the Lord blesses Refuge Church as we establish deacon ministry for the purpose of serving the church for the glory of God. Please continue to be in prayer as the elders discuss deacon roles and potential individuals to serve in those roles. We’re excited to share our thoughts on these soon! If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to us anytime.

Trusting Christ,

Elders of Refuge Church