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Imagine living in a world where waiters, politicians, maids, preachers, and all Christian believers could be described as deacons who do diaconal work. That would be something like the world of the New Testament. The word deacon is rooted in the Greek diakonos, which is used 101 times in the New Testament in various forms. It is often translated with the word “servant,” “minister,” or “ministry.” Only five instances are translated as “deacon” in the King James Version or English Standard Version. When we consider the way that the term is used, we should recognize that there is a sense in which all believers are broadly called to service, but there is also a narrower sense of an ecclesiastical office to which only qualified men are called.

Those who believe that the office of deacon can be held by women also point to Paul’s reference to Phoebe in Romans 16 as evidence for their position:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant [Greek diakonon] of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well. (vv. 1–2)

The claim is that since Phoebe is called a diakonon (from diakonos), the office of deacon must be open to women. This interpretation, however, fails to read the term in its ordinary sense. It would mean that waiters at a wedding should equally be called deacons (see John 2:5), Jesus was a deacon (see Rom. 15:8), Paul and Apollos were deacons (see 1 Cor. 3:5), governing authorities are deacons (see Rom. 13:4), and every believer is a deacon (see John 12:26). Romans 16:1–2 was intended to commend Phoebe, who was an exemplary servant. We should encourage Christian women to see an example like this and pray that there would be many Phoebes who serve in the church. This passage cannot, however, mean that Phoebe was appointed to the office of deacon, since that would contradict other passages.

What was the office of a deacon in the ancient church? An early prototype can be found in Acts 6. At that time, the church was still centered in Jerusalem, and the twelve Apostles were overseeing both the ministry of the Word and the daily distribution of food to the needy. It seems that they were juggling more tasks than it was possible to fulfill. A complaint arose that Hellenistic widows, who spoke Greek rather than Hebrew, were being neglected in the distribution of food. In response, the Apostles said:

“It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve [Greek diakone] tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry [Greek diakonia] of the word.” (vv. 2–4)

This passage reaffirms how broadly this root was used. Though the Apostles saw the need to appoint men to diakoneo tables, they were devoted to the diakonia of the Word. Both were ministries; both positions were held exclusively by men. It is notable that those called to serve had to meet the qualifications of a leader. The resources of the church needed to be distributed fairly, rather than in a “first come, first served” manner. Distributing bread among widows with cultural differences would require wisdom.

We should encourage Christian women to see an example like this and pray that there would be many Phoebes who serve in the church.

As the gospel spread and churches were planted across the world, deacons were appointed in local churches (Phil. 1:1). When the Apostle Paul gave Timothy instructions concerning qualifications for deacons, it is clear that their character would need to be consistent with that called for in Acts 6:

Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. (1 Tim. 3:8–12)

This passage indicates that those who are qualified to be deacons are mature and godly men, suitable for a leadership role over church resources and charitable works. Their wives are to meet certain qualifications as well, so that they will be a help rather than a hindrance to their husbands’ ministry.

Those who favor deaconesses, however, point to the term “wives” and note that it could be translated as “women,” which would place them in the category of deacon. This word in the form in which it appears here, however, is used for a “wife” in the majority of instances, especially when a husband is in the context (e.g., Matt. 1:20–24; 5:31–32; 14:3; 18:25). It seems that if the Apostle Paul wanted to indicate “deaconesses,” he would have used diakonon, as in Romans 16:1. Why also did he immediately afterward specify that “deacons” are to be the husband of one wife, but not vice versa? The simplest interpretation is the best: only qualified men were appointed to the office of deacon.

In the Greek-speaking world, every believer was called to be a diakonos or a diakonon in the general sense, as all believers are called to serve today. In the English-­speaking world, deacon is now commonly understood to refer to the ecclesiastical office. It is consistent with Scripture to reserve the title deacon for only those male office bearers who meet biblical qualifications, have been appointed by the church, and have the authority and responsibility to steward the resources of the church.

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From the February 2024 Issue
Feb 2024 Issue