1 Timothy 3:11
Qualifications for Deacons
We come today to a verse that gives us pause, and integrity demands we treat it with care and consideration: “Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.” The trouble is that the word “their” is assumed; it is not in the Greek text. Most important, the word translated “wives” (Γυναικας / Gynaikas) can also be translated, “women.” In other words, the passage could be translated, “The women likewise…,” signifying that we have the prospect of women deacons. How are we to understand this?
This passage affords us a lesson in hermeneutics, a fancy word meaning, the science or art of interpretation. To sum: When the grammar of the ancient language fails to provide the precise meaning of the text, context should be considered; indeed, I am of the opinion that context is just as important as grammar and far better than word studies that take one out of the immediate context of the passage under study. After this, we refer to the “analogy of faith,” that is, the entire teaching of Scripture upon the matter—what the old folks called, “letting Scripture interpret Scripture,” –an excellent method of interpretation as it assumes that the word of God is one.
In this letter, Paul has already told us that in the church women are not permitted to teach or exercise authority over men (2:12). Would this exclude women as deacons? To the extent that the office of deacon is not a teaching office, no; to the extent that the office of deacon is a ruling office, yes. And here is the place where Baptist churches (and I suppose some others) have muddled things by intermingling the tasks of the pastor and deacon: it is for the office of overseer/bishop/pastor/elder to teach and rule, and the office of deacon to serve. But in practically all Baptist churches, deacons generally conduct themselves as a board of elders ruling with (or overruling) the pastor. In such a setting, women would not be deacons.
But let us imagine a church wherein several men teach and rule as elders. Beneath their leadership are the deacons whose sole purpose is ministry, first to the needy within and then outside the church. Within such a context, a group of women could be set aside to minister specifically to the needs of other women in the church. We shall call them deaconesses (Romans 16:1). There is evidence for such groups in early church history. This would fit the context in that such a role does not contradict Paul’s instructions in 2:12. This interpretation also explains why there is no mention of women under the discussion for the qualification of bishops since any such possibility is excluded by the nature and tasks of that office (i.e., teaching and ruling). Thus, the office of deaconess so construed is not contrary to the text; the question as to whether such an office is mandated by the text is a matter for which I do not know that we shall ever be able to provide a satisfactory answer. For some, that we cannot answer that question with assurance means we cannot have the office, and I cannot gainsay their opinion.
But whether we are speaking of the wives of deacons or deaconesses, like the deacons, they must be dignified, noble, highly esteemed, and respected. They must not be “slanderers,” which mirrors the qualifications of deacons who must not be “double-tongued,” but with the added specificity that these women speak no ill or falsehood of others—certainly behavior beneath anyone calling upon the name of Christ. “Sober-minded” repeats what is necessary of the bishop, indicating that not all of these qualifications are exclusive to certain offices or people, as Moses said, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets” (Numbers 11:29). God’s people, and especially pastors and deacons and their wives, must be people who are serious about the faith and live it, knowing that the days are short and the times are evil (Ephesians 5:15-17). Finally, these women or wives of deacons must be faithful, for this is the primary task of both the church local and universal—fidelity to God’s word.
If a church had such leaders, and such believers as would follow, such would be a rightly ordered church, and an army for the Kingdom. Would that God would give us such armies.