"Deacons likewise must be dignified...Their wives likewise must be dignified," (1 Tim 3:8, 11, ESV)
Does the Bible restrict the office of deacon to men only? Much of this depends on how you interpret 1 Timothy 3:11. Depending on what translation you read, the answer may differ. The English Standard Version cited above (as well as the KJV) implies that what is discussed in verse 11 is the requirement for the wife of a deacon--thus, assuming the office is limited to men only. However, the NASB (and NIV) translate verse 11 as such: "Women must likewise be dignified." This seems to leave the door open to women "likewise" serving as deacons (or deaconnesses) just as men are able to.
Why the disparity between translations?
The Greek word in 1 Tim 3:11 γυναῖκας (gunaikos) can mean either "women" or "wives" depending on context. For instance, in 1 Timothy 2:9, we read, "...likewise also that women (γυναῖκας) should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire." It is up to the reader to understand whether "wife" or "woman" is implied. So, when Bible translations differ, they are revealing an interpretation decision made by the translation committee.
Admittedly, this is a difficult issue to be definitive on, and there are very good arguments on both sides. Nevertheless, I am inclined to see the arguments in favor of female deacons (deaconessess) to be more persuasive. Briefly, here they are:
- The possessive pronoun "their" in the ESV, KJV and other similar translations, as in, "Their wives likewise must be dignified," doesn't actually exist in the original Greek. Translated woodenly, the sentence reads: "Women/wives likewise dignified." Paul often ellides certain words, assuming you the reader will fill in what is obvious. The translators of the ESV and KJV have supplied the possessive pronoun "their" because they think it is what Paul intended. But it is just as likely--I would argue more likely--that Paul didn't intend that.
- The word "likewise" in 1 Tim 3:11 makes a comparison with the office of deacon that was just described in 1 Tim 3:8-10, just as it was used in 1 Tim 3:8, "Deacons likewise must be dignified..." There Paul was comparing the office of male-deacons to that of the office of elders. Just as elders are an office in the church that require qualifications, likewise, deacons are an office that require qualifications. But because Paul again uses "likewise" in verse 11 it seems to imply that just as an office was introduced with the "likewise" in 1 Tim 3:8, so too another office (female-deacons) is being introduced in 1 Tim 3:11.
- If verse 11 is introducing qualifications for a deacon's wife, why are qualifications for an elder's wife not mentioned in 1 Tim 3:1-7? The office of elder certainly carries more consequences than the office of a deacon, so it seems odd for there to be a more stringent qualification for deacons than for elders. Some claim that the wives of deacons serve as assistants to their husbands as they perform their diaconal work, therefore they need qualifications. But Tom Schreiner helpfully explains, "That is a very interesting argument, but it begins to sound like the wives are deacons along with their husbands since they serve as their husbands do and the wives must meet the same kind of character qualifications as their husbands. Instead of solving the problem for those who don’t think women are deacons, it makes it worse."
- In Romans 16:1-2, we are told of Phoebe who is described as a "a servant of the church at Cenchreae." The word for "servant" in Greek is just the word διάκονος (diakonos), the same word for "deacon."
- The moral qualifications for elders and male-deacons and female-deacons (or deacons' wives) are very similar. Both male and female deacons must be "worthy of respect" (1 Tim 3:8, 11) and elders must be "respectable" (1 Tim 3:2). Both elders and female-deacons must be "sober-minded" (1 Tim 3:2, 11). Female-deacons must also be "faithful in all things" and "not slanderers," which corresponds with male-deacons' requirement of being "not double-tongued" and "blameless" (1 Tim 3:10).
- Most people who are hesitant to affirm female-deacons do so out of a desire to honor Paul's teaching in 1 Tim 2:11-12, where Paul forbids women from teaching or exercising authority over men in the church. However, teaching and exercising authority in the church are exclusivley restricted to the office of elders (1 Tim 3:1-7). Nowhere in the New Testament are Christians commanded to submit to deacons, thus this concern is never materialized when deacons are functioning Biblically (i.e. not acting like elders).
- Proponents of the deacons' wives position point out the awkward structure of the paragraph: 3:8-10, qualifications for male deacons; 3:11, qualifications for female deacons; 3:12, qualifications for male deacons. It makes much more sense, they argue, for Paul to not interrupt his thought by presenting a new office of female-deacons, only to then return to male-deacons in verse 12. This is a good point, but even according to their own position, Paul interrupts his explanations of the qualifications for a deacon by inserting the qualifications of a deacon's wife! Either way, Paul's structure seems jumbled.
One final point worth adding to this: women serving in the role of deaconesses has been the historic position of the church. We see the practice of deaconesses begin very early in the church. In a letter to the Roman emperor Trajan, a Roman governor named Pliny explains how he is persecuting Christians who fail to worship Caesar. He writes, "Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses." This letter is dated between 111-113 AD. While arguments from history are obviously not as definitive as Scripture, they are still instructive that the earliest Christians outside of the Bible understood the office of deacon to be open to women.
Practically speaking, while churches that reserve the office of deacon to men certainly can still use the gifts of the women in their church, having women serve as deaconessess is a powerful way to both utilize and honor the gifts of women. There can be a danger in complementarian churches to functionally sideline women so that they begin to feel as if there is no way for them to serve the congregation outside of women's ministry and childcare. This is by no means necessary--I know of several churches who reserve the office of deacon to men who do not do this. But it is something to always be watchful of. Inviting women to not only use their gifts, but be installed in an office in the church, is another way our church seeks to honor the gifts and calling of women in our local congregation.
For more information, see Matt Smethurst's helpful book Deacons.