The passage about deacons in First Timothy stipulates that “deacons each be the husband of one wife” (3:12). Since this brief statement seems to assume that deacons are men, some Christian churches and denominations do not allow women to serve as deacons. However, this exclusionary conclusion is based on a narrow view of the early Jesus movement. First, Paul acknowledges female deaconship and describes women as overseers of the ekklesia. Second, the pertinent passage in First Timothy can be read in a way that includes women as deacons. Third, Roman correspondence about early Christians mentions female deacons in the Jesus-believing assemblies. Women have served as deacons since the beginning of formal organization in the Jesus movement.

Near the end of his letter to the Romans, Paul begins a list of fellow believers by mentioning “Phoebe our sister, who is a deacon (διάκονος) of the assembly in Kenchrea” (Rom 16:1). While the fundamental meaning of διάκονος is “servant,” the context supports the notion that Phoebe is a formal leader or “deacon” over the believers in Kenchrea. Paul goes on to describe her as a “patron (προστάτις; prostátis) of many and also of myself” (16:2). The Greek word for “patron” literally means one who “stands over” another. For instance, Paul reminds believers about “those who labor among you, and stand over (προΐστημι; proistemi) you in the Lord” (1 Thess 5:12). In the passage from 1 Timothy, the male deacons are described as “standing over (προΐστημι) their children and their own households” (1 Tim 3:12). When Paul refers to Phoebe as a “deacon” with this exact same language, readers can know that she holds an official leadership role, not only over her city’s assembly, but even over Paul himself.

The language about deacons in 1 Timothy is somewhat ambiguous, but it could well refer to women as deacons alongside men – which would make sense, since Paul underwrites Phoebe as a deacon explicitly. The discussion in 1 Timothy begins, “Deacons (διακόνους; diakónous) likewise must be dignified” (3:8). Then, some English translations state that “their wives” must also act in dignified ways (3:11). However, there is no “their” in the original language; instead, the Greek merely refers to γυναῖκας (gunaikas), which can mean either “wives” or “women.” If we choose the latter, then 1 Timothy 3:8 begins with discussing male “deacons” (διακόνους is a grammatically masculine noun), and then 3:11 adds to the discourse on deacons by saying that “women”—that is, women who are deacons—must also act in dignified ways that mirror those of the men.

Outside the New Testament, there is early evidence of female deacons as leaders of Jesus-believing assemblies. Around the year 112 CE/AD, the governor of Pontus/Bithynia writes a letter to the Roman emperor Trajan. Pliny, the governor, asks the emperor what should be done about a religious group that some have denounced to him as “Christians.” Pliny embarks on a fact-finding mission, telling Trajan, “I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deacons” (ministrae). The Latin ministra can mean a female “minister,” “handmaid,” or even “nurse.” Pliny notes that these women “were called” ministrae among the believers, which indicates that the term was a known title in the assembly; thus, the best way to understand ministrae is as official ministers or deacons. When most English New Testaments speak of Jesus, Paul, or other apostles as “ministers” who serve in spreading the gospel, the underlying Greek word is actually “deacon” (e.g., Rom 15:8; 1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3:6; Eph 3:7; 1 Thess 3:2), so Pliny’s Latin term maps on to the Greek notion of “deacon.” More, the fact that Pliny tortures these two particular women in the hopes of extracting meaningful information shows that he understood them to hold leadership roles. Based on the multiple attestations of female deacons as leaders, it is clear that the office of “deacon” was open to women at the outset of the Jesus movement.

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24 COMMENTS

  1. Acts 1:14 Women and Mary worshiping with apostles. Acts 12:12 Many people meeting at Mary's house (wealthy to hold many people); Acts 6:3 Apostles say "Brothers" - only males are leaders. Seven male deacons were chosen - no women. Women may not be deacons even though they are helping widows.
    • Glenn, the Greek word for "deacon" (διάκονος) appears nowhere in Acts. Thus, Acts cannot be used to either support or deny female deaconship.
    • Glenn, In Greek, grammatical masculine plural nouns can include females, it is just the way the grammar works. That is, Greek words commonly translated as men or brothers can include women or sisters.

      + More answers (3)
    • Glenn, think in terms of modern English word… “mankind” for this verse, and remember Gen 2:18 and that "behind every great man is a .... "
  2. I would like to learn more about Hebrew revelation. As a quick aside, could men become elders who had but toddler children? Moreover, could women become elders?
    • Sally, this might help: Read Titus 1:6 It would rule out toddler. It states "a man whose children believe ad are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient".
  3. Dear All, It was nice to know about this important matter. Women are always equal to men and in all Religions they must be respected as equal as men. No genuine religion can ever downgrade women who play an important role in our society.
  4. Many thing to say about this subject. If your culture well comes women to minster let them be allow for God uses every member of his kingdom to overcome the kingdom of darkness through preaching, giving, counselling, ... After all, they have been ministering.
  5. Dr. Nicholas ,Thank you so much for this article!!! I must think & research more on this. If I remember correctly Timothy's faith was due to his grandmother Lois & his mother Eunice. So to say that women cannot teach a teenage boy after they have been immersed into baptism, is wrong.Your mother is always your mother. I know men that will walk out of a room if woman is teaching or preaching, leading songs or prayers because a woman is not to teach a man or lead over men I Tim. 2:12 These men would never recognize a women deacon, preacher or elder. But you show that there were women in the early church helping the cause or movement, which only makes sense. 1Cor..14:34-35 Paul writes women are to remain silent in the churches & let them ask their ow husbands at home.Yet not everyone gets married & he even states I Cor.7 the the married woman is concerned about the Lord's affairs.Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord. Married women are concered about the affairs of this world ,how she can please her husband. I know we don't have all of the correspondence written by Paul & written to Paul to have better understanding of what was said. We can respectfully learn from each other. It is sad that talents may be wasted instead of helping with the Lord's work.
  6. Thank you Dr. Schaser for your thoughts. I am unclear why you call Phoebe an "overseer" though. How do you derive this title from προστάτις (prostátis) meaning “patron/benefactor"? Wouldn't the Greek be from ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos)?
    • You're right, Ryan. ἐπίσκοπος literally means "overseer," and it's a different office than Phoebe's deaconship. I used the English term with respect to Phoebe because "over-stander" or "before-stander" are awkward terms, and the Greek προστάτις expresses more than just a "patron" or "benefactor" who gives money to a cause (as English speakers use the terms today). Still, as you note, it's technically imprecise, so I'll alter the article. Thanks for your comment.
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