Should Women Serve As Deacons In Southern Baptist Churches?

August 27, 2017 at 11:35 pm Leave a comment

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I am currently preaching through the book of 1 Timothy at Fairview Baptist Church. This morning we examined the qualifications of pastors/elders and deacons from 1 Timothy 3:1-13. During this particular sermon, I argued the following:

“Based on Scripture, I do believe it’s possible for women to serve as deacons in some settings.”

This statement flowed from an exegetical study, and a willingness to reexamine my own assumptions, presuppositions, biases, historical understandings, and personal filters. I am conservative in my theology. To some people, a statement like the one above is often associated with moderate or liberal Baptists.

Therefore, I would like to explain why I believe this can be the case from Scripture, and then consider how church context plays into the discussion.

The Biblical Evidence

There are basically two schools of thought. Good conservative Bible-believing scholars and pastors differ on this complex issue. Therefore, I think we should be careful by approaching it with wisdom and grace.

In 1 Timothy 3:8-13 Paul lays out the qualifications for deacons. In general, I would argue that deacons provide leadership in the service-oriented and administrative matters pertaining to the physical needs of the church (Acts 6:1-4). This is important for the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy 3:8-13, in the sense that deacons serve in areas like finances (1 Tim. 3:8), administration (1 Tim. 3:12), visitation (1 Tim. 3:11), and meeting to the needs of the church family (Acts 6:1-4).

In reference to women serving as deacons, the debate centers around verse 11 and its surrounding context, namely, does Paul mean deacons wives, deacons along with their wives, or women serving as deacons? Consider a few translations:

  • “In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything” (NIV).
  • “Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things” (ESV).
  • “Wives, too, must be worthy of respect, not slanderers, self-controlled, faithful in everything” (CSB).
  • “Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things” (NASB).

One of the first things you will notice is that the text, depending on the version, translates this verse as “their wives”, “wives too”, or “women”. First, the pronoun “their” is actually not in the Greek, the original language of the New Testament. Some Bible translators argue that it is implied, but it’s certainly not explicit. Therefore, we must admit there is some ambiguity here. Even still, it is very possible that the best translation for verse 11 is not “their wives”, but wives or women. It seems that Paul is referring to women in general or married women (wives).

Some have argued that Paul is referring to deacons as a married couple (male and female) serving together in this office. Both husband and wife could inevitably be involved in the deacon ministry to some extent and, therefore, needed to be of good Christian character. However, the absence of the pronoun “their” (as in “their wives”) makes this interpretation less likely.

The second thing to notice is the adverb “too” or “likewise”. This is important for the context. The argument is, Paul begins by addressing deacons in general, switches the attention to women in verse 11, and then to men in verse 12 (one woman man, the leader in the home), and back to deacons in general in verse 13. Paul used the word “too/likewise” in order to transition from talking about elders in verse 7 to talking about deacons in verse 8. Paul then used this same word “too/likewise” in verse 11 to transition into talking about wives or women. The more natural reading of the original language is first pastors/elders (men) likewise, to deacons likewise.

Third, why does Paul not give qualifications for pastor/elders wives? After giving specific responsibilities for male elder’s in the home (1 Timothy 3:1-7), why is there no mention of their wives?

Fourth, some may argue that based on Acts 6:3, deacons should only be men. That is because the text reads “select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task.” Acts 6:1-6 records the choice of “the seven” to diaconal service. While it does not use the technical term and noun “deacon” for their status or work, it surely provides the background to and informs the content of the New Testament office of deacon. (The Greek verb from which we get the English word deacon, to serve, is used in 6:2.) The question is, should we read this passage as descriptive of the early church or prescriptive for all churches? If we read it as prescriptive, then how does one deal with Romans 16:1, where the word often translated deacon is used of Phoebe (a woman)? Phoebe is referred to as a “servant of the church” (a specific church), which would seem to point to a diaconal role. Moreover, the description of her ministry in Romans 16:2 fits well with the type of ministry associated with New Testament deacons.

Fifth, the qualifications for deacons do not require the “ability to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2), which is a requirement given to men as pastor/elders. To be clear, I believe that the pattern of the New Testament presents the case pastoral ministry is limited to men (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6). That is much easier to argue than the case for deacons as men only. Even the Baptist Faith and Message (2000), the conservative standard of doctrine for Southern Baptist Churches makes this clear, arguing that the “…scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

The Contextual Considerations

Depending on what tradition you were raised in, you’re probably already inclined to lean toward a specific position regarding women as deacons. However, this should not be decided from our preference or tradition; it’s up to the Word. Personally, I believe that God’s word is authoritative. As the Baptist Faith and Message (2000) reads, “The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God’s revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter.”

Yet, even while we agree that the Word is the final authority, the Word is not entirely clear or explicit in this instance. While one’s tradition may lean towards a certain understanding, conservative biblical scholars are on both sides of this issue. What is clear? The primary focus of deacon ministry is centered on the service-oriented and administrative tasks primarily related to the physical needs of the church, allowing the pastors/elders (called men) to be fully devoted to the spiritual needs of the church. This is why I argued, “…it’s possible for women to serve as deacons in some settings.”

Why the qualifier “some” settings? In many Southern Baptist churches, the deacons serve as quasi-elders or a board of directors. In these cases, the deacons play a significant leadership role in the church that blurs the lines between pastor/elder and deacon. In these cases, I would argue that women should probably not serve in a deacon capacity. In other cases where the men serve as pastor/elders, and the role of pastor/elder and deacon is clearly differentiated, I think women can and should serve as deacons. Even if your church holds to deacons as men only view, I would challenge you to consider how women are serving the body. I would be willing to bet (no, I don’t gamble), many of the women are already serving in a deacon-like manner.

The central issue here, and how we answer the question, should women serve as deacons, must be shaped and limited by the word of God. All of us would recognize that we approach the word of God with assumptions, presuppositions, biases, historical understandings, and personal filters. There are Southern Baptist Churches that limit the role of deacon to men, there are other Southern Baptist Churches that have men serving as elder/pastors, and both men and women serving as deacons. This is why it is important to consider the context of the church, and why humility, openness, and community become so important in discussions like these.

Further Resources 

Entry filed under: Biblical Theology, Christian Theology, Christianity, Faith, Ministry, Pastoral Ministry, Pastoring, Religion, The Southern Baptist Convention, Theology, Thoughts.

The 2017 Together for Adoption National Conference Sam Allberry, Matt Capps, and The Nashville Statement.

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