I believe answering the question “What meaningful role can and should women play in congregational life?” is as important a practical and spiritual question we can consider. It’s a question that affects at least half (usually much more) of our congregations. It’s a question that touches directly upon gospel-ordered congregational life. It’s a question that potentially restricts or broadens Christian freedom for women in our churches. It’s a question that either employs or unemploys the gifts the Lord himself sovereignly grants to our sisters.
How we answer the question must be shaped and limited by the word of God. But we approach the word of God with assumptions, presuppositions, biases, historical understandings, and personal filters. None of us come to the word as empty slates; we have “tilts” that may or may not be known to us. That’s why humility, openness, and community become so important in discussions like these. We need others to help us see and learn. The way you all have commented and participated in this discussion has taught me much and modeled the kind of conversations Christian people ought to have about potentially contentious issues. Thank you.
Let’s attempt another answer to the question, “What meaningful roles can and should women play in the local church?” In other articles, we will discuss the ways in which women can teach, serve in missions, and pray in public services. Today we turn to an office–the diaconate.
A Personal Note
Since I acknowledge that we come to these issues with historical and personal experiences and assumptions, perhaps I should at least list some of my own. Before my conversion, growing up, we periodically attended a small Baptist church with a senior pastor and deacons. The church’s deacons were all men and their was a kind of “complementarian” spirit in the church. The church held to male leadership but I don’t recall any intentional teaching about it. Women served on a lot of committees (boy, were there a lot of committees!) and there were the “mothers of the church,” a kind of informal office comprised of senior ladies of the church.
My next church experience was very similar. Again, a senior pastor accompanied by a strong group of elders who “ran the church.” This second church was slightly different in this respect. In the first church, “pastor was in charge” and the deacons largely assisted him, though they determined things like salary and housing stipends. In the second church, there was no mistaking the authority of the deacons in the governance of the church. Women were not deacons in this church either, and there were no “mothers of the church.”
Then there came a stint with a church plant. My family and I had the privilege of serving with the core group of families who helped launch the church. I had the further privilege of helping to adopt the church’s statement of faith and constitution, which identified two New Testament offices: elders and deacons. The church had a healthy emphasis on a plurality of elders and made important distinctions between the work of elders (prayer, teaching, oversight, etc.) and that of deacons (practical care of the body). Women neither served as elders or deacons in this work.
Afterward, as most of you know, I spent several years as a member and elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church. Like the church plant, CHBC has elders and deacons. The elders lead through prayer, teaching, oversight, etc., while the deacons are assigned to specific areas of ministry (i.e., child care, audio/video, etc.). At CHBC, the eldership is restricted to qualified and gifted men. However, women serve as deacons.
Finally, I have the joy and honor of serving as senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman in the Cayman Islands. Here, too, the congregation is led by a plurality of elders and served by deacons assigned to particular areas of ministry (i.e., finance, school, etc.). And here, women may and have served as deacons.
So, that’s the background I bring to this discussion. The Lord has given me the privilege of being in a range of settings, witnessing a range of approaches on the question of women serving as deacons. All of these churches would in some way define themselves as “complementarian,” yet they had differing views of how sisters could serve.
So, can women be deacons?
The short answer to that, in my opinion, is “yes, women can serve and ought to serve as deacons.” That won’t be controversial for a lot of you. You’re currently involved in churches where this is the practice and understanding of the Scripture. But for some of you, that may be a new idea or it may not be the practice of your church. So, let me offer just a sketch of the biblical support for this position and then offer an important caveat.
A Brief Case for Women Deacons
First Timothy 3:8-13 contain some key instruction on this matter. For me, the issue turns in part on verse 11: “In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything” (NIV). Or as the ESV renders it, “Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.”
Both the NIV and ESV contain marginal notes for the word “wives,” indicating the term may be translated “women.” So, the text could either have in view the wives of deacons (if you accept the supply of “their” in the verse), women deacons, or women who assist deacons but are not themselves deacons. Because “their” is not explicit in the text, and the word “likewise” seems to indicate another category in the list, I lean with many others in understanding this verse to refer to women deacons or at the least women who assist deacons.
Moreover, there are instances elsewhere in the New Testament that seem to indicate the apostolic church had women deacons. I think of Romans 16:1 where Phoebe is described as a “deacon.” True, the word “deacon” has a range of meanings wider than the office itself. Paul could refer to his own ministry as an apostle using the word “deacon” (1 Tim. 1:12). Most of the prohibitions have to do with the qualifications for male deacons-”husband of but one wife.” But if the assumptions I make in the previous paragraph are correct, then it would seem the Bible does not forbid women from playing this role.
An Important Caveat
As I recounted earlier, I’ve been a member at churches that do not have elders but are governed by a group of deacons. If the church does not have elders and deacons perform the teaching and oversight responsibilities biblically belonging to elders, then women should not serve as deacons. I’m a complementarian, so I believe the basic pattern of qualified male leadership in the church should be maintained in joyful obedience to the Lord.
But having said that, the more important “fix” to such a situation is not to restrict women from serving in what may be a permissible area of service in the church, but to conform the church itself to the New Testament pattern of governance. We shouldn’t restrict women in an effort to maintain irregular governance; we should conform our governance of the church to the word of God and deploy women to serve wherever and whenever appropriate.
The pattern of leadership in the church should be qualified men serving as elders.
This is not at odds with women serving as deacons.
But if the church does not have elders, and instead deacons perform
the teaching and oversight that biblically belongs to elders,
then women should not serve as deacons.
To my brothers serving in churches without elders and with ruling deacons, for the blessing of a well-ordered congregation, for the liberty of our sisters, and for the flowering of gospel ministry, re-examine why you currently neglect so clear a New Testament office as elders, which was established in all the apostolic churches (1 Tim. 3; Titus 1). And test yourselves to see if the failure to obey the Lord’s word on elders gives opportunity for denying our sisters an opportunity to serve their Lord and their churches as deacons. Structures do matter. Sometimes the wrong structures prevent spiritual growth, service, and gospel advancement.
Thabiti Anyabwile is Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church, Cayman Islands. Pastor Thabiti is the author of What is a Healthy Church Member?, The Decline of African-American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity, and The Faithful Preacher: Recapturing the Vision of Three Pioneering African-American Preachers. He also blogs regularly at Pure Church.