Report of the Study Committee on The Role of Women in the Church [2001]

Report of the Study Committee on The Role of Women in the Church [2001]

EDITOR’S NOTE: Based on an elder board request to the 1999 Conference, this committee was formed to examine what role women have in the church. The findings of this report led to two proposals by the committee including (1) women could be deacons and (2) women could not teach men. The Minutes of the 2001 Annual Conference record the following outcomes of the Committee’s work and proposals:

“Report of the Committee to Study the Role of Women in the Church
Resolved, that the report be accepted.
Resolved, that the proposed legislation be referred back to the committee for further revision.
LeRoy O. Herb prayed for continued guidance for the Study Committee on the Role of Women in the Church during this coming year.”

In subsequent reports, the committee never returned to their second proposal (regarding teaching) and instead focused on deaconship in their 2004 report. Ultimately, Conference did allow churches to elect women as deacons in 2007. The question of women teaching came up again in 2021 and that committee is still at work.


            The role of women in the church is rich and varied. As Eve was God’s gift to Adam, so is each woman to the local church. Each believing man or woman is part of “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God” (1 Pet 2:9).1 Believers – both men and women – have “put on Christ” (Gal 3:27) in order to reflect His glory, to make His name famous, and to be His ambassadors as we reach out to others and implore them to be reconciled to God (2 Cor 5:20).

            We as men and women have been given gifts that enable us to represent Christ to others. To each, the indwelling Spirit has been given, and He manifests Himself through these gifts. We are all commanded to use our gifts, since the Holy Spirit has given them for the good of all. All of us have been called to love, witness, pray, teach, exhort, help, share and otherwise do the work which God has entrusted to us. Some have been given the message of wisdom, others the message of knowledge, still others faith, gifts of healing, prophecy, discernment, and so forth. “All of these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines” (2 Cor 12:11). Though the list Paul gives here is not exhaustive, the message is the same, whatever the gift. Each of us is called to be an active part of the body of believers.

            In studying the role of women in the church, this committee is seeking to affirm the clear teaching of Scripture. As a previous study committee in 1977 noted, “Although the Scriptures teach that there is creative equality and dignity of man and woman in terms of having been created in the image of God, it is also clear from the Scripture that there is a divinely ordained order in terms of authority and function.”2 We believe this is a fair representation of the Biblical teaching. In this paper we seek to address these issues and unpack their implications in the following pages.

Galatians 3:26-29 and the Nature of Sexual Distinctions

            One passage in the New Testament has often been used to argue that, although God gave a certain authority structure in Old Testament times, He has replaced it with another since the coming of Christ.

26. You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27. for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

            In recent years, this passage has often been used to tell us that Christ has done away with the distinction between male and female that existed under the old covenant, and that women are therefore now free to fill any office in the church. Is this the proper understanding of Paul’s teaching here?

            The passage, taken in its context, does indicate that some sort of change has taken place with Jesus’ coming, but what sort of change? The three-paired distinctions – Jew/Greek, slave/free, male/female – seem to have been chosen so that each pair covers all of humanity. Taking Greek to mean “non-Jew” (as often in the New Testament), everyone is either Jew or non-Jew. In a society where slavery was common, all were either slave or free. And of course, each of us is either male or female. It thus appears that Jesus has done something that affects all sorts of people.

            But what has He done? Has He abolished certain authority relations? This is not the subject Paul is discussing. He begins this passage with the statement, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” Apparently God has made all sorts of people – Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female – into “sons of God” if only they are trusting in Christ. What does that mean? And why does Paul say “sons” of God rather than “sons and daughters” of God?

            Paul ends this passage by saying that, if we belong to Christ, we are heirs. In the preceding verses (Gal 3:23-25), Paul says that before faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, that the law was our pedagogue to lead us to Christ – the pedagogue being a slave who made sure the child got to his lessons and stayed out of trouble. In the following verses (4:1-5), believers under the old covenant are again seen as children – heirs, but under age – subject to guardians. With the coming of Christ, these children “come of age” and receive the full rights of adult sons, including the inheritance.

            It appears that Paul’s point in this passage relates to inheritance. Under the old covenant, only Jews shared in the inheritance; Gentiles were outside (Ex 12:43; Deut 23:1-8). Slaves would typically inherit only if there were no children (Gen 15:2-3; 21:10), and Jewish people who got into debt might lose their inheritance as well as their freedom (Lev 25:25-29; 39-43). Daughters would inherit only if there were no sons (Num 27:1-11; 36:1-12). Thus typically only Jews, and they non-slave and male, would inherit the land into which God had brought His people. But under the new covenant, all believers – whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female – are considered “sons” and thus have the same status as full heirs in the inheritance God will give. The passage is thus not speaking about office in the church, but about our heavenly inheritance – eternal life – pictured under the figure of Israel’s earthly inheritance.

            But might this inheritance include office in the church, so that women – like those Gentiles and slaves who were men – are now allowed to hold any office in the church? Well, it would be a mistake to take the passage as claiming that there is no longer any difference between these three pairs of groups. Clearly biological differences continue between men and women. And Paul and other New Testament authors will on occasion address one of these groups as distinguished from the other – males as distinct from females, Jews rather than Gentiles, and slaves in particular rather than those who are free. The question of authority in the church is just such a matter which several passages in the New Testament seem to address, so it is these passages which we must eventually consider.

Some Practical Applications. Women are co-heirs with men in the promises of God. This passage relates to inheritance rather than to church office. Women are “fellow workers.” – Unless otherwise specifically restricted in Scripture, women should be encouraged to share in all the work of the ministry.

Women and Authority

            In Genesis one, at creation, God made mankind, both male and female, both in His image, and both to have authority (1:26-28). Yet, the following chapter is a closeup of the former, and it gives us further details. It shows us that God did not make man and woman simultaneously, but made Adam first and charged him with certain responsibilities, later making Eve to be a suitable helper for him. The term “helper” used here need not indicate a subordinate authority position, as God is sometimes spoken of as our helper (e.g., Ex 19:4, Deut 33:29). Likewise, the order of creation need not indicate subordinate authority, as though Adam is superior in authority merely because he was created first; after all, mankind is made after the plants and the animals. But the fact that Adam names his wife (Gen 2:23, 3:20), just as he had named the animals (2:19-20), and that naming is a regular prerogative of authority, points us to an authority relation between them. So does the fact that God commissioned Adam rather than Eve (2:15-17), and did so before Eve was created (2:22)..

            In the family, the universal testimony of Scripture is that the husband is the head of the wife, but that mothers and fathers share parental authority over the children. These authority relations, like all others, have been distorted by the fall, so that in each authority relationship one in an upper position may sometimes abuse authority by oppression, and one in a lower position may likewise subvert authority by rebellion. This is a prominent and appropriate feature of the curse that we humans have earned for ourselves by rebelling against God.

            Throughout the pages of Old Testament salvation history, authority outside the home is mainly in the hands of men. Only men are priests. The only queen regent in Israel is an usurper. There is only one female judge. There are just a few female prophets. The exceptions are of interest, though we will not follow them up here. They certainly show that God does not put the question of male and female authority on the level of the weightiest matters of the law. These passages suggest it is sometimes better for women to lead if men will not.

            Coming into the New Testament, there are some changes for women, but not to the point of canceling the distinction among the sexes with regard to authority. Jesus has a number of female disciples, but none among the twelve apostles. The apostles have the right to take their wives around with them in their traveling ministries, but we don’t have any indication what the wives were doing. Phillip has four unmarried daughters who prophesy, but we don’t know who their audience is. Priscilla is mentioned (with her husband Aquila) as teaching Apollos, but this is a private situation. Since this goes no further than Deborah’s instructions to Barak in the book of Judges, it indicates no advancement in the authority of women in the New Testament.. Besides the women disciples who accompanied Jesus on some of His journeys, we have the example of Paul’s associates. He mentions Priscilla (Rom 16:3), Phoebe (16:1), Mary (16:6), Tryphena and Tryphosa (16:12), all of whom are clearly Christian workers of some sort. We will return to Phoebe when we discuss the question of deacons.

Practical Applications. Women are fellow workers with men in the body of Christ, yet they do not appear to exercise an equal role in leadership.

            There are three passages in particular that need to be examined in connection with authority. These are Eph 5:21-33 on authority in the home; 1 Cor 11:2-16 on authority in the church; and 1 Tim 2:8-15 on women exercising authority and teaching.

Ephesians 5:21-33 and Authority in the Marriage Relation

            This passage occurs in the application section of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Chapters 1-3 have detailed the theology of our new relationship with God. Chapters 4-6 build upon this foundation a set of practical life-centered applications. Chapter 4 addresses our walk with Christ and our relation to fellow Christians in unity, use of gifts and maturity, contrasting our old lifestyle before Christ with our new lifestyle in Him. The key to living this new life, and the power to do so, come from the Holy Spirit, and our continual yielding to His authority in our lives (5:18). A life so controlled by the Spirit will show itself outwardly in spiritual speech, thanksgiving to God and submission to one another in the body of Christ (5:19-21).

21. Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22. Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 25. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26. to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27. and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church. 30. for we are members of his body. 31. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. 32. This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

            This command to “submit to one another” (5:21) seems to function as a heading introducing what follows. It is not an egalitarian command that everybody should submit to everybody else – husbands to wives, parents to children, and masters to slaves! Rather, we are instructed in proper submission and exercise of authority. This is worked out for us in three common examples – wives and husbands (5:22-33); children and parents (6:1-4); slaves and masters (6:5-9). Each begins with an injunction to the parties under authority to subject themselves to that authority. Each continues with commands to prevent the one in authority from abusing the position.

            The wife is to “submit” to her husband (22) – to subordinate herself to one who is worthy of respect (by his position, even if he is not doing a good job; compare 1 Pet 2:18 for the duty of slaves to masters who are harsh rather than considerate). Her motivation is “as to the Lord”; her submission pictures that of the believer to Christ, and is counted by Christ as submission to Himself. The extent of the command is “in everything,” though this must be qualified (as in all human authority relations) by the principle that we must obey God rather than man (Acts 4:19; 5:29).

            The husband must love his wife as Christ loved the church (25). How is that? He gave his very life for her, that she might be holy (26-27). The purpose of the husband’s leadership of sacrificial love is apparently parallel to this, to aid in his wife’s sanctification. Paul does not spell out for us how this will work when the wife is more mature than her husband, but there are certainly plenty of examples even in secular society where a less-talented person can aid in the success of one who is more-talented. The marriage relation is a good opportunity for the husband to put into practice the command to love his neighbor as himself (28-29). Finally, the marriage relationship is a “profound mystery” (32), an acted parable of the relationship between Christ and the church.

Practical Applications. Men and women as fellow-heirs should conduct themselves toward one another as befits this relationship. Married couples are to depict in their marriage the relationship between Christ and His church. Husbands need to be thinking how Christ would act in each situation, and wives how they would behave if Christ were their husband.

1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and Headship in the Church

            This passage is a section on propriety in worship. From the beginning of chapter 7 through the end of chapter 15, the letter is apparently responding to a series of questions which the church at Corinth had directed to Paul. Unfortunately we have only Paul’s side of the exchange, so we are rather in the position of listening to one-half of a telephone conversation! Chapters 8 through 10 start out with the matter of stronger Christians eating food sacrificed to idols which is sold in the market place (This is permitted with some cautions urging respect for the scruples of the weaker brethren). This section ends with Paul’s rebuke of those who would presume to take part in pagan feasts in the idol temples. Paul ends with a recap, and with exhortations to do all for God’s glory, to avoid being a stumbling block, and to follow his own example.

            This passage involves the matter of head-covering in worship, and apparently relates to its symbolic significance in that culture. Paul speaks of the teachings or traditions which he has passed on to them (11:2), and of his practice and that of the other churches (11:16). From the placement of these remarks, Paul’s teachings here may be partly cultural, yet his argumentation seems to be more deeply founded than that.

2. I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you. 3. Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 4. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head – it is just as though her head were shaved. 6. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head. 7. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. 8. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9. neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head. 11. In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. 13. Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14. Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15. but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. 16. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice – nor do the churches of God.

            Paul says (4-5) that men who pray or prophesy with head covered dishonor their head, but women who pray or prophesy with head uncovered dishonor their head. This is somewhat puzzling, as Jewish men in Paul’s day (and even today) pray with head covered. Apparently some distinction has already by Paul’s time developed between Jewish and Christian worship.

            Paul introduces all this with a series of headship relations (3) – God is the head of Christ; Christ is the head of man; man is the head of woman. As Wayne Grudem has effectively shown, the claim that “head” never means headship or authority in ancient Greek usage is contradicted by the linguistic evidence.3 Paul is apparently making some point on authority relationships and how they are depicted in the culture.

            God the Father is in authority over Christ, as we can see from all Jesus’ statements in John about His obedience to the Father. Christ is in authority over every man at His second coming, as He is the Son of Man who will receive the eternal, universal kingdom over mankind. Meanwhile He is in authority over all believing men. The man is in authority over the woman. “Man” is probably here to be translated “husband,” though possibly the woman’s father is to be included. Scripture nowhere pictures all men as in authority over all women.

            This authority need not imply any inferiority in essence, person, or the like. Just as Christ is not intrinsically inferior to the Father, but has voluntarily placed Himself under Him (Php 2:5-8), so women are not intrinsically inferior to men, but have been placed under them by God (Eph 5:22-24).

            As Thomas Schreiner notes, a woman who failed to wear a head-covering in public in the first century sent a signal that she was not under the authority of a husband or father, and this was often the practice of prostitutes. By extension, he suggests that for a woman to do this while praying or prophesying in a worship service would be to send a signal that she was rejecting the authority of the church’s male leadership.4 The reference to shaved head (5-6) apparently refers to a punishment (or practice) of prostitutes in the first century, which it would be a shame for respectable women to imitate.

            Verse 7 is puzzling. “A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man.” Since Gen 1:27 explicitly tells us that both man and woman are made in the image of God, Paul must have something else in mind here. It seems that he is looking at the marriage relationship in particular as a picture of the relationship between God and man (see Eph 5:32). In that relationship, the husband images God and the wife images (believing) man(kind). So for the man to have his head covered while praying would be to picture the submission of God, whereas for the woman to have her head uncovered would be to picture the rebellion of mankind.

            Verses 8 and 9 expand on this, noting that man was not originally created from woman, but woman was created from the man; that man was not created for woman but woman was created for man. For these reasons, says Paul (v 10), the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head. Apparently the head- covering reflects the creational order and purpose of man and woman, and may be intended to reflect the order and purpose of God and mankind, as suggested in our comment on verse 7, above.

            The phrase “because of the angels” in verse 10 is also puzzling. It may relate to the cryptic events of Genesis 6, or may reflect the concept of angels being present with Christians when they worship, who would be offended by acts of rebellion.

            The remainder of the passage reminds us: (1) that God has made man and woman inter-dependent since creation, and all dependent on Him (11-12); (2) that God has naturally given woman a head-covering in her hair, that He has not given to man (13-15); and (3) that head-covering for women in worship services is the practice of the church (16).

            There is a functional difference between the sexes in the human race that reflects the voluntary functional differences within the Godhead between Father and Son. This difference refers primarily to an authority structure. This functional authority structure is to be reflected in the customs and practices of the people of God. It in no way indicates superiority or inferiority of essence, personhood, or worth in the Body of Christ. There are specific functions (prophecy and prayer are here mentioned) which women may assume in the worship of the local church, provided that they conduct themselves therein with a decorum that reflects this authority structure.

Practical Applications. Since the worship service is under the spiritual authority of the pastor and elders, there are no specific prohibitions for the participation of women in leading corporate or choral singing.

1 Timothy 2:8-15, Teaching and Exercising Authority

            Paul, in writing to his spiritual son Timothy, provides him with instructions on “how people ought to conduct themselves” in the church (3:15). In chapter one, he warns about false teaching, especially in regard to misuse of the law, and tells how God had rescued Paul himself from this. He provides instruction on proper worship in chapter two, on qualifications for elders and deacons in chapter three, how Timothy should conduct himself as a leader in chapter four, the enrollment of widows and treatment of elders in chapter five, proper attitudes that slaves should have and how we should view money in chapter six, before closing the letter with a personal charge to Timothy. Paul’s instruction on proper worship in chapter two includes:

8. I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing. 9. I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10. but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God. 11. A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. 13. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15. But women will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

            In chapter two, Paul urges that, in our praying, we ought to include prayer for government authorities and remember that God wants all sorts of people to be saved. He then mentions the prayer of men in particular (v 8), perhaps because they are especially prone to anger and disputing even in prayer. The behavior of women should be modest, decent and proper, with their adornment coming from their good deeds rather than their dress or jewelry (9-10).

            Paul continues (11-12) by instructing Timothy that women should learn in quietness and full submission, indicating that he does “not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man.” This passage has been the center of considerable controversy, but several points should be made here.

             “I do not permit” is not to be understood merely as Paul’s advice or preference. Much of the letter is constructed this way: “I urged” (1:3), “I give you this instruction” (1:18), “I urge” (2:1), “I want” (2:8), “I do not permit” (2:12), “I am writing these instructions” (3:14). These and Paul’s use of imperatives are his way of exercising his apostolic authority in this letter to his associate Timothy, who has himself some considerable authority over the functioning of the church at Ephesus (1:3; 3:14-15), one of the largest cities in the Roman empire.

            The remark about not permitting a woman to teach is not to be taken absolutely, but as qualified by the object “a man,” which it shares with the following verb. Elsewhere, older women are clearly instructed to teach younger women (Titus 2:3-5), and mothers to teach children (Prov 1:8; 31:1; 2 Tim 1:5; 3:15). There will be differences of opinion among Christians about when a boy becomes a man, and this will probably vary from culture to culture.

            “I do not permit a woman … to have authority over a man” (12). Again, this does not apply to male children. The word translated “authority” here (authentein) is a rare one, occurring nowhere else in the New Testament and only rarely in the surviving Greek literature outside Scripture. Its meaning has been a focus of the debate on women and authority. Some give it the emphasis “to control in a domineering manner” and deny that this passage restricts women from having authority over men. Yet the word can clearly have a more neutral meaning than “domineer,” so that various lexicons also mention “have authority over,” “have full power over,” “act on one’s own authority” and such. Given that the word is used in tandem with the neutral verb “to teach” in our context, there is no reason to think that it should be limited to the negative idea of “domineer” here. Particularly when the Scripture teaches that Christian leaders are not to domineer over their followers, but they are certainly to teach. The whole point of Paul’s context here is some contrast between men and women, as the following verses indicate. The command should obviously not be understood to prohibit such activity as Priscilla and Aquila teaching Apollos in private, nor wives their husbands. Only a fool refuses to consider advice from others (Prov 12:15; 13:10; 15:22; 19:20), and that surely includes husbands getting advice from wives (e.g., Abigail and Nabal, 1 Sam 25).

            Paul’s reasons are given in verses 13-14. “Adam was formed first, then Eve” is probably not intended to argue that the order of creation by itself proves Paul’s point. As we noted above, Paul may have the whole context of the creation account in mind. Adam is created and God commissions him with his responsibilities before He makes Eve, and she is made to assist him in this work. Even the references to God as our helper may be understood to refer to God’s work assisting us in jobs where He has given the decision-making to us.

            Eve was deceived and Adam was not (14). Paul is here picking up on Eve’s remark in Gen 3:13, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” This hardly alleviates Adam’s guilt over against Eve’s! It may, however, indicate that Eve usurped an authority that was not given to her. Notice God’s remark to Adam (Gen 3:17): “Because you listened to your wife…” which in Hebrew parlance probably means “because you obeyed her.” Perhaps there is some hint here that women are wired to be more trusting than men are, and this can be dangerous for leaders in a fallen world. Paul doesn’t tell us.

            “But women will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety” (16). This verse is another puzzler, but does not appear to have any bearing on the basic teaching of this passage. The following suggestion could be made: Throughout most of human history, the main life-threatening hazard for women has been giving birth. Every time a woman becomes pregnant, there is the possibility she might die in childbirth. As a result, she may want to resist her husband’s authority over her in the matter of sexual intimacy. But Paul says she does not have to worry about this. Because she is really a Christian, she will be safe. Either God will protect her through the childbirth, or God will take her home to be with Him, which is far better.

            The differences between men and women extend into the areas of teaching and authority. Women may teach and have authority over children and over other women. They are not to have this authority over adult men. The exact boundaries of this restriction are not spelled out. When does a boy become a man? Does the prohibition extend to team-teaching a mixed Sunday School class? Serving on a committee? Clearly a wife can minister salvation to her unsaved husband (1 Pet 3:1-2, but notice the suggested tactics), and so presumably to a male boss or coworker. And the biblical criteria for anyone teaching or exercising authority are different from worldly standards. There is to be no lording it over another. Even the apostles were to be tested to see whether their teaching accords with the Scripture.

Practical Applications. Women may teach and have authority over children and other women, but not over adult men. Recognizing that the issue of when a boy becomes a man may be affected by both culture and tradition, this determination should be reserved for the local church.

Women as Deacons

            If women are not to teach or exercise authority over adult men, then they are not to be elders, since teaching and ruling are the essence of that office (e.g., 1 Tim 5:17). But is the same true for the office of deacon? This will depend on how the office of deacon actually functions in a given local church. In many churches today, deacons exercise the sort of authority the New Testament assigns to elders. But our question is, what is the biblical role of deacons, and is it the sort of office that women may not fill according to 1 Timothy 2?

            There are two passages in particular that suggest that women may serve as deacons, though there are none that definitely command this. Consider first of all Rom 16:1-2, where Paul says, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me.”

            The word which the NIV translates “servant” is diakonos, the standard NT word for “deacon.” Yet this word is not limited to the NT office of deacon; it is rather a generic word for servant. The word occurs some eight times in the Gospels and is translated “servant” or (once) “attendant.” In Paul’s letters, it occurs nineteen or twenty times, mostly translated “servant” or “minister.” It is definitely “deacon” in Paul’s greeting to the Philippian church (Php 1:1) and in its two occurrences in the qualifications for deacon that Paul gives in 1 Tim 3:8, 12. Given the predominance of the translation “servant” in the NT, it is not surprising that the NIV only put the alternative “deacon” in a footnote at Rom 16:1. But if the early church had women deacons, it is certainly possible that Phoebe was one such, and that Paul is referring to her office here. Two other occurrences of the term in Paul’s writings may refer to deacons, though the NIV has not so translated them, references to Tychicus in Eph 6:21 and Col 4:7.

            The second passage which may point to women deacons involves a peculiar phenomenon which we see in Paul’s list of qualifications for deacon in 1 Tim 3:8-12:

8. Deacons, likewise, are to be men worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. 9. They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. 10. they must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons. 11. In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything. 12. A deacon must be the husband of but one wife and must manage his children and his household well. 13. Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus.

            In verse 12 the deacons are clearly men. But verse 11 seems to allow for women in the office, too. Though the passage has traditionally been translated as though referring to the deacons’ wives, it may perfectly well be translated “in the same way, women [deacons] are to be worthy of respect,” since the Greek word gune is used both as the generic word for woman and the specific word for wife. The peculiar feature here is that there is no parallel passage in Paul’s list of qualifications for elders which he has just given in verses 1-7. From what we know about the responsibilities of elders and deacons in the NT, it would seem even more important that elders’ wives have certain qualifications than it would that deacons’ wives have them. But if this is a reference to women deacons, the lack of such a passage in the elder section is understandable, given Paul’s remarks in 1 Tim 2:12. It is thus not unreasonable to suggest that Paul’s early churches had women deacons as well as men.

            That there were women deacons in the early church seems undeniable from extra-biblical sources. See the articles entitled “Deaconess” in the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church and the New International Dictionary of the Christian Church (see Appendix). The earliest such reference goes back to about AD 110, when the Roman governor Pliny the Younger is conducting trials of Christians in Bithynia. He has two women called deaconesses tortured to find out what is really behind the Christian movement, but finds no spectacular crimes such as opponents charged.

            But is the office of deacon a position of authority? The fact that there were early churches having women deacons is no guarantee the practice is biblical, since many early churches were known to have been engaged in questionable activities. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians deals with a number of such problems.

            What constitutes the office of deacon?

            The NT does not give us much information on this subject. The passage in 1 Timothy 3 deals with qualifications but not with duties. Traditionally, the account in Acts 6, where the apostles appoint seven men to oversee the distribution of food to widows, has been seen as the origin of the office of deacon, though the word diakonos does not occur there. Two words from the same word-group do appear, however. The apostles’ reference to “waiting on tables” (6:2) uses the related verb diakoneo, and the phrase “distribution of food” (6:1) is the noun diakonia. Thus the earliest evidence for deaconal work is a sort of benevolence ministry of providing food to destitute widows. Oversight of church property shows up in later centuries, when the churches had some property to be cared for.

            In fact, the basic terms for church offices in the early church were not invented words, but were borrowed and specialized from existing terms. Thus “deacon” is our English transliteration of the Greek word diakonos, a generalized word for servant which was distinguished from doulos, a slave. Diakonos sometimes was used to refer to a table waiter, as in the verb in Acts 6:2 and probably in the noun in Matt 22:13, where the king orders his “attendants” to bind the improperly-dressed wedding guest and throw him outside. In general, the word is used for a personal servant, and in the NT letters, for servants of Christ. The word “deacon,” then, is not an authority word, but a service word.

            By contrast, the terms for the office of elder imply authority. Our English term “elder” itself is a translation of the Greek word presbuteros, from which we get “presbytery,” board of elders. It refers to a more mature person and was used for synagogue officers and for one class of leaders in both Jewish and Gentile government. The Latin term was senator. The other NT term which appears to refer to elders is episkopos, which is sometimes transliterated “bishop” or translated “overseer.” It explicitly refers to the authority of the office of elder, to have the oversight of the local congregation of believers.

            Thus from both the name given to the office and its responsibilities (as best we can make them out), it does not appear that the office of deacon was intended to be one of exercising authority over others or teaching them. It would appear, then, that there is no biblical objection to women functioning as deacons, so long as elder-like responsibilities are not given to this office.

Practical Applications. Churches in which the leadership is satisfied the Bible permits women deacons should consider instituting such if they don’t have them already. The job description should be adapted, if necessary, to avoid conflict with 1 Tim 2:12. Some such churches may wish to appoint wives of deacons to these positions. Such woman deacons could well handle various matters which would be more problematic for men, such as helping widows, or counseling women.


1. All Scripture references are to the New International Version.

2. The Role of Women in The Church: Reports to the 94th and 97th Annual Conference. Bible Fellowship Church, p. 15.

3. John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1991), p. 467.

4. Ibid., p. 138.


Article “Deaconess” in The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church (1974):

            DEACONESS. In the early church, a woman involved in the pastoral ministry of the church. Exactly what her function or official status may have been is a matter of dispute. Paul mentions Phoebe, “deaconess” (ousan diakonon) of the church at Cenchrea (Rom 16:1) and there is also an ambiguous reference in 1 Timothy 3:11. The “widows” mentioned in 1 Timothy 5:3-10 may also be connected with the role. Not until the end of the fourth century is much known about the office of deaconess (Gr. diakonissa). The “Didascalia” and the “Apostolic Constitutions” describe their functions as assistants to the clergy in the baptizing of women, ministers to the poor and sick among women, instructors of women catechumens, and in general intermediaries between the clergy and women of the congregation. Fears of the usurping of priestly functions and other considerations led to the extinction of the office in the church at large by the eleventh century.

            The modern deaconess movement began clearly in 1836 when the Lutheran pastor T. Fliedner founded a Protestant community at Kaiserwerth, near Dusseldorf, devoted chiefly to nursing. The movement spread rapidly through the Protestant world. In the second half of the nineteenth century, deaconesses were established in the Church of England, the Methodist Church, and the Church of Scotland. They act as pastoral assistants to the minister.

Howard Sainsbury

Article “Deaconess” in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (1997):

            deaconess. A woman officially charged with certain functions in the Church. The practice of a woman fulfilling the office of deacon goes back to the Apostolic age. St Paul’s mention of Phoebe ‘deaconess (ou=san dia,konon) of the Church that is at Cenchrea’ (Rom 16:1) as well as 1 Tim 3:11 are usually held to refer to a special office; and Pliny, in his letter to Trajan, speaks of two ‘ancillae quare ministrae dicebantur.’ However, the term diako,nissa (Lat. Diaconissa) did not come into use until the 4th cent. Earlier documents use ‘diocona,’ ‘vidua,’ or ‘virgo canonica,’ and the distinction between widows and deaconesses is rather obscure.

            The office, which developed greatly in the 3rd and 4th cents., is described in the ‘Didascalia’ and the ‘Apostolic Constitutions.’ The age of entry, fixed at 50 by the ‘Didascalia,’ was reduced to 40 by the Council of Chalcedon. The deaconess devoted herself to the care of the sick and the poor of her sex; she was present at interviews of women with bishops, priests, or deacons; instructed women catechumens, and kept order in the women’s part of the church. Her most important function was the assistance at the baptism of women, at which, for reasons of propriety, many of the ceremonies could not be performed by the deacons. When, therefore, adult baptisms became rare, the office of deaconess declined in importance. This process was helped by abuses which had crept in, when deaconesses undertook ministerial functions, e.g., in the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Church of the East, where they administered Holy Communion to women. The Councils of Epaon (517) and of Orleans (533) abrogated the office, but it is found in other places till the 11th cent. In the E., where the prerogatives of deaconesses were much more marked, including the investiture with the stole and the distribution of the chalice, the process was somewhat slower. The reception of stole and maniple by the Carthusian nuns at the profession would seem to be a survival of the ancient office.

[rest of article sketches revival of office in 19th and 20th cents., plus bibliography]

Proposed Legislative Changes

204-3. Deacons

204-3.1 The office of deacon is presented in the Scriptures as an office not of ruling, but of service. A deacon should be a person (replaces man) of deep spiritual life, exemplary conduct, and sound judgment (1 Tim. 3; Acts 6:1-8). This (replaces His) office is one of sympathetic service to the church and to the distressed, friendless, or sick, after the example of our Lord Jesus Christ.

401-2. The Board of Deacons

401-2.1 The Board of Deacons shall be composed of all deacons duly elected by and from the congregation who meet the qualifications of the Scriptures. They shall be mature believers (replaces men) who demonstrate a spiritual wisdom and compassion so that they might serve the needy in a Christlike, merciful way.

401-2.5 Election and Installation of Deacons. Each congregation may elect deacons in keeping with the qualifications set forth in Scripture. Deacons must be (delete male) members in full communion in the church in which they are to exercise their office.

            The term of office shall be determined by the Particular Church by congregational vote, but shall not be less than three years, except when a Particular Church desires a probationary term of service for newly-chosen deacons. When possible the Board of Deacons shall be divided into not fewer than three classes as determined by congregational vote in each of the Particular Churches.

            In the event of a vacancy by death, resignation, or removal, a member (replaces man) may be elected to fill the unexpired term of office….

Questions to the congregation – end of 401-2.5

(1) Do you, the members of this church, acknowledge and receive this brother (or sister) as a deacon?

(2) Do you promise to give him (or her) all the honor, encouragement, and support in the Lord to which this (replaces his) office entitles him (or her)?

After the members of the church have answered these questions in the affirmative by holding up their right hands, the minister shall proceed to set apart the candidate by prayer to the office of deacon and shall give to him (or her) and to the congregation an exhortation suited to the occasion.

702-2 Suggested Bylaws for Sunday Bible Schools

702-2.3 Duties of teachers


(6) Women may teach and have authority over children and other women (Titus 2:3-5), but not over adult men (1 Tim 2:12). Recognizing that the issue of when a boy becomes a man may be affected by both culture and tradition, this determination should be reserved for the Particular Church.

The Role of Women in the Church:Carl E. Fischer, Chairman; David DeRonde, Betty Herb, Sandy Kline, J. Mark McCreary, Bob Newman, Gary Saggio, Robert A. Sloan, Jr.

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