These days I don’t hear much about deacons. Maybe our culturally-driven preoccupation with prominent pastors and other high profile Christian leaders draws our attention away from the multitude of faithful deacons who serve Christ anonymously in churches all over the world. As in the image above, Jesus showed and taught us how to serve. As we will see below, Paul viewed himself as a servant and his teaching featured godly deacons who assisted pastor/elder/bishops. He spoke glowingly of the diaconate in these words: Those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus (1 Tim 3:13).
Let’s spend a little time reviewing the New Testament teaching on deacons and then consider a couple controversies about them.
Deacons in the New Testament
The word translated “deacon” (διάκονος, diakonos) occurs 27 times in the NT. The word was commonly used in ancient Greek literature to describe any number of individuals who worked in various ways to assist others, working under their authority. For example, in the Septuagint (LXX), the ancient translation of the Old Testament into Greek, the word occurs in Esther to describe King Xerxes’ assistants who attended to his needs in the palace (1:10; 2:2; 6:3, 5). The ancient Jewish historian Josephus describes Elisha as Elijah’s assistant and disciple (Antiquities 8.354).
As you will see, the word is used to describe what we call “deacons” only four times in the NT. When thinking of deacons we should also consider Acts 6, where the choice of seven men to serve the needs of widows enables the apostles to focus on prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:1-7; cf. 1 Tim 5:3-16). In the NT the word occurs only sparingly in the Gospels (never in Luke-Acts)—it’s found mostly in Paul’s letters. Here is a survey of its range of meaning in various NT contexts:
- In the teaching of Jesus the word describes his followers as humble servants as opposed to powerful leaders (Matt 20:26/Mark 9:35; Matt 23:11; John 12:26).
- The word is also used occasionally in the Gospels to describe household servants (Matt 22:13; John 2:5, 9).
- Paul sarcastically asks the Galatians whether Christ is the servant of sin (Gal 3:17). In case you’re wondering, the answer is no!
- Most common in the NT is Paul’s use of the word to describe himself and other ministers of the gospel as intermediaries who assist God in ministering to people (1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3:6; 6:4; Eph 3:7; 6:21; Col 1:7, 23, 25; 4:7; 1 Tim 4:6). Paul even uses the word for his opponents, who masquerade as servants of Christ while actually serving Satan (2 Cor 11:15, 23).
- Paul uses the word once to describe government authorities as God’s servants (Rom 13:4).
- Paul uses the word once to describe Jesus’ messianic ministry to Israel (Rom 15:8).
- Finally, Paul uses the word deacon to describe officially recognized servants of local churches (Rom 16:1; Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:8, 12).
We would associate the ministry of deacons with the spiritual gifts of serving (Rom 12:7; 1 Pet 4:11) and helping (1 Cor 12:28). For me the striking thing about the Paul’s teaching on deacons is that he does not speak of their education, management skills, or professional accomplishments. Paul is concerned that their character be exemplary. Period. That pretty much stands what we typically look for in potential deacons on its head.
Two Issues with Deacons
In conservative evangelical circles I’m familiar with, two controversies about the diaconate are commonplace. I hope I’m not playing the fool who rushes in as I discuss these volatile matters. Our conclusions here will have serious consequences for our churches. We don’t want to lower biblical standards. Neither do we want to impose human standards that don’t acknowledge the renewing power of the gospel.
The answer to this question begins with our understanding of Phoebe in Romans 16:1. Phoebe is called a deacon of the church of Cenchrea, a town near Corinth. Paul commends her highly as a person who used her resources to help many, including Paul himself. It’s possible Paul was only speaking of her in the general sense of the word servant, but he calls her a deacon/servant of the church. This makes it very likely that she was a person who held the office of deacon. By the way, the word deaconess is not used for female deacons until it appears later in the writings of the early church.
Paul’s teaching on deacons in 1 Timothy 3 is also relevant to the question of women deacons. As in Philippians 1:1, this passage refers to the two church offices of overseers (3:1-7) and deacons (3:8-13). Women are mentioned in connection with deacons in 3:11, but the question is whether these women are the wives of deacons or female deacons. The Greek word gyne (γυνή) can be translated either way, depending on the context. English translations of 3:11 tend to opt for deacons’ wives (ESV, HCSB, KJV, NET, NLT), with some adding a marginal note that female deacons may be in view. Other English translations simply speak of women (NAB, NASB, NIV, NRSV), some with a note explaining that female deacons or deacons wives may be in view.
It seems best to understand 1 Timothy 3:11 as an aside dealing with the special case of female deacons, with 3:12-14 resuming the general discussion of deacons that began in 3:8-10. Paul does not mention the wives of overseers in 3:1-7, so why would he single out the wives of deacons in 3:11? Also, 3:11 begins with “likewise” or “in the same way,” linking the special case of female deacons to the discussion of deacons in general (who would tend to be men), that began in 3:8 and resumed in 3:12. Paul’s reference to Phoebe as a respected church deacon in Romans 16:1 also supports female deacons in 1 Tim 3:11. Looking past the NT, references to female deacons or deaconesses are common in the early centuries of the church. The Roman governor Pliny the Younger writes to the Emperor Trajan around 120 CE, asking what should be done with those accused of being Christians and mentioning the torture of female slaves called deaconesses (Latin quae ministrae dicebantur). Clement of Alexandria (c. 200 CE) understands Paul to be speaking of deaconesses in 1 Corinthians 9:5 and interprets 1 Tim 3:11 as a reference to deaconesses (Stromata 3.6.53). Chrysostom also took this view (Homily 11 on 1 Timothy). Origen understood Phoebe to be a deacon and argued that women deacons should be appointed to the ministry of the Church (Commentary on Romans, 10.17-18). The Didascalia Apostolorum (Teaching of the Apostles, c. 250 CE) speaks of women deacons who minister to women and assist in the baptism of women. The Apostolic Constitutions (c. 380 CE) includes instructions on the ordination of women to the office of deacon.
But what about the elephant on the sofa, the ongoing war between the complementarians and the egalitarians? This controversy should have no bearing on the question of women deacons. The NT pattern has deacons assisting the pastoral overseers of the church, not running the church. For those who care, women serving as deacons is consistent with the complementarian approach to the role of women.
Paul’s instructions for the offices of overseers and deacons alike include a phrase that can be translated “a one-woman man” or “a husband of one wife” (μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα, mias gynaikos andra; 1 Tim 3:2, 12; Tit 1:6). Similarly, Paul also requires that a widow who is supported by the church be “the wife of one husband” (1 Tim 5:9). At its root, the expression describes fidelity to one’s spouse, as noted in the translation “faithful to his wife” (NIV, NLT). There are several interpretations of what such fidelity entails, including:
- Paul forbids polygamous church leaders.
- Paul forbids never-married church leaders.
- Paul forbids widowed church leaders.
- Paul forbids widowed church leaders who are remarried.
- Paul forbids divorced church leaders.
- Paul forbids church leaders whose divorce occurred after their conversion.
- Paul forbids church leaders whose divorce was not based on the “exception clause” of Matt 5:32; 19:8.
The list of views goes on and on, but the question is whether Paul was teaching a general principle or speaking to one item on an unending list of potential scenarios. In my view he was speaking of marital fidelity. Polygamy was not common in the Greco-Roman culture of Paul’s day. It would be strange that Paul would forbid single or widowed people to hold office in the church, since Scripture elsewhere praises singleness and widowhood as lifestyles that facilitate serving the Lord (Matt 19:10-12; 1 Cor 7; 1 Tim 5:9-10). Sadly, divorce was common in Paul’s day, as it is on ours. It is very doubtful that being divorced would in itself, apart from all the other character traits Paul mentions here, disqualify someone from office.
In this text Paul does not go into the unending litany of why or when people get divorced, or whose fault it was. Paul’s converts came from many different sinful backgrounds, yet he pronounced them clean in Christ (1 Cor 6:9-11). Paul teaches that a believing spouse may need to let an unbelieving spouse depart and end the marriage (1 Cor 7:12-16). Sadly, marriages sometimes end, but the end of a marriage does terminate the gifts and ministry of divorced believers. Each congregation’s overseers are responsible to assess the present proven character of potential office-holders, not delve into the sordid details of the past. The question is rather whether a divorced believer has dealt biblically with whatever shortcomings led to the divorce and has remained faithful to Christ. If that believer has remarried, the question is whether their second marriage has a track record of the exemplary godliness required of church officers.
Although those who hold the never-divorced view think they are upholding the highest standards for church office, that is sadly not the case at all. Let’s be real. Though we hesitate to speak of such things, we all know of never-divorced church leaders who are serial adulterers. Somehow their spouses tolerate their roving eyes and they remain married despite repeated moral failures. Here’s a fact—there are many divorced people who were never unfaithful to their spouses. Here’s another—there are many married people who have been unfaithful to their spouses. Reducing the requirement for marital fidelity to the matter of divorce actually lowers Paul’s standard for marital fidelity. Jesus taught us that adultery was a matter of our heart’s intent, not just the physical act of sexual intercourse. He taught us that murder was a matter of anger, not just an unjust act of violence (Matt 5:21-30). By that token, the presence or absence of divorce in a Christian’s past utterly fails as a standard of their marital fidelity and fitness for church office.
Are deacons serving well in your church?
Various denominations and individual congregations have different understandings of deacons. In the New Testament and subsequent history of the church, deacons have often proven invaluable in assisting pastors in keeping the doors open, in caring for the flock, and in administering the sacraments. Whatever our backgrounds, and whatever we have come to think about deacons, we should all agree that every church needs to encourage and facilitate its congregants to serve faithfully in the area of their giftedness (Eph 4:11-16).
Biblical teaching as well as biblical principle—”honor to whom honor is due” (Rom 13:7)—not to mention what we know of the practice of the early church, encourage us to recognize such people with the official designation of deacon. This should include faithful women as well as divorcees whose lives presently demonstrate a pattern of faithfulness to the Lord.
So, that’s what I think. What about you? Please comment below.
Jean Daniélou, The Ministry of Women in the Early Church, Faith Press, 1974.
Charles W. DeWeese, Women Deacons and Deaconesses: 400 Years of Baptist Service (Macon: Mercer University, 2005)
Pastor Joe McKeever, Reforming the Deacons (21): “The Divorce Issue”
Jeannine E. Olsen, Deacons and Deaconesses through the Centuries (St. Louis: Concordia, 1992).