1 Timothy 3:11 and women deacons

Proponents of female deacons use 1 Timothy 3:11 to argue the case in favor of female deacons. Here is a brief exegesis of that passage, which presents the arguments against this interpretation.
As I understand verses 11 and 12, Paul is laying down the domestic qualifications for deacons: “Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things. Deacons must be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households.”
In verse 11, he begins with the qualifications of the deacon’s wife. The word translated “women” in the NASV may also be translated “wives.” This term has been interpreted in three ways: wives of deacons, a sub-class of female diaconal assistants, or deaconesses (female deacons).
Grammatically, any one of the three is permissible. As has been noted, the term may be translated “wives” or “women.” Notice that this verse is connected to verses 2 and 8 by the term “likewise.” As elders and deacons must possess certain qualifications, so must the women. Therefore, Paul is designating a third category. Hence, grammatically he could be referring to any of the three interpretations.
With respect to the sub-class of formally designated female assistants, there is no biblical evidence for such a formal structure. There is a clear relationship between the three offices in the Old Testament (prophet, priest, and king) and the three offices of the New Testament (minister, elder, and deacon). In chapter 5 of 1 Timothy Paul designates a class of widows a to be enrolled, but there is no evidence that the list entailed a church office or formally designated female assistants. Therefore, the concept of a fourth office is foreign to anything in the Scriptures. With respect to the other two options, there are clear arguments in the text that compel us to interpret this term as meaning wives.
There are certain things in the text that suggest that Paul is not talking about women deacons. First, it must be noted that although the reference to women is grammatically separated by the term “likewise,” the verse is sandwiched between Paul’s discussion of the qualifications of deacons. If Paul’s purpose were to establish the teaching that women should serve as deacons, would it not make better sense to place the reference after verse 12 and then refer to both in verse 13? Or, could he not have repeated the phrase from verse 10 with respect to women: “Let [the women] serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach.”? In other words, he could easily have written in a way that would have made it clear that he was talking about female deacons.
Second, if he were discussing the qualifications for female deacons, he would have given a more comprehensive list of qualifications. In fact, it should be noted that several necessary qualifications for deacons are omitted. He repeats three requirements of male deacons: “dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate.” He requires male deacons to possess all three of these qualifications and the elders are also to be dignified and temperate—not gossips would be implied in the words “beyond reproach.” Notice, however, that he omits some very important qualifications for deacons. It is not adequate to say that he assumes them, when he does not assume for deacons what he says is required for elders. At least six qualifications for elders are repeated for deacons: respectable, husband of one wife, temperate, free from the love of money, mange household, and manage children well. But, the list in verse 11 omits important qualifications for deacons: not greedy, moral purity, doctrinal integrity, domestic qualifications, and the need for testing. It is very significant that he does not discuss the matter of greed, which is particularly important with respect to the work of the deacon. Please note, as well, the missing reference with respect to family life. Now, you might say that that is not important because the woman does not lead the household. But, in the other place where the Apostle Paul gives qualifications for a woman in the church who was to be placed on the list, he gives domestic qualifications: “A widow is to be put on the list only if she is not less than sixty years old, having been the wife of one man” (5:9). Even as an elder and a deacon must be a one-woman man, so must the widow have been a one-man woman. This omission would be quite strange if he were speaking of female deacons. Moreover, there are no provisions for testing or for proving of the gift of service. Both the office of elder and deacon require maturity and testing, as does the widow placed on the list (5:10). Surely, a female deacon would need to be tested. Furthermore, there is no requirement for doctrinal maturity.
Of course, there are the broader theological arguments that we must never forget, because Scripture interprets Scripture. The New Testament offices parallel the Old Testament offices of prophet, priest, and king. In the Old Testament, a woman was never placed in any of those offices and, in the New Testament, there is no example of a woman in any of those offices.
Some will cite, as an objection, Paul’s reference to Phoebe in Romans 16:1: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea; that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you; for she herself has also been a helper of many, and of myself as well.” The proponents of female deacons assert that we have here an example of a female deacon. The word translated “servant” is the word translated “deacon” in 1 Timothy 3:8. The term, however, is often used to mean servant (Matthew 20:26; 22:13; 2 Corinthians 6:4; 11:23; 1 Timothy 4:6). It can be illustrated from the word “apostle” that a word may be used both as a reference to a New Testament office and in a broader way. The word “apostle” has a technical meaning, necessary to our theology of Scripture. It refers to the twelve apostles and the Apostle Paul (Ephesians 4:11; 1 Timothy 1:1). But it is also used more broadly to refer to those sent out by the church on some special mission. Most often the term is then translated “messengers” (2 Corinthians 8:23; Philippians 2:25). When Paul says that Phoebe was a servant of the church, he means that she faithfully served the saints in Cenchrea. For this reason, the church in Rome ought to minister to her needs.
Another argument against women being in the office of deacon is the matter of authority. Paul teaches in chapter 2 that a woman is not to exercise authority in the church. It stretches the imagination to say that the person who makes decisions about the property of the church and handles church funds—determining who gets aid or interest-free loans, and recommending the budget to the elders—does not exercise authority in the church.
Having shown that Paul is not referring to a class of women who assist the deacons or to female deacons, we may conclude that Paul is writing about the qualifications of the wives of deacons. There is, however, one argument offered against this interpretation. It is that Paul fairly consistently uses the definite article the with the word women, when he is writing of wives. There is, though, a good reason why Paul does not use the definite article here. Remember that the term likewise places the word women in a list with bishops and deacons. Paul does not use the definite article with either bishops or deacons. Therefore, since the term women is part of the list, he omits the definite article.
Therefore, I conclude that women are not authorized to serve as deacons.


  1. Phillip Shroyer Phillip Shroyer
    May 26, 2017    

    Seeking biblical truth within scriptural context; avoiding the error of the pragmatist

  2. James James
    May 28, 2017    

    Thank you for your excellent exegetical work.

    I think it is also relevant to note the institution of the office, seen in Acts 6:3. There, the apostles tell the church to pick out seven men of good repute. The word used for men is not the more generic “anthropoi” which could be translated “persons,” but refers specifically to adult males of marriageable age. It may be objected by some that the passage never explicitly uses the word “deacon,” which is correct. However, the work which these men are to do, ministering to the physical needs of the congregation with the distribution of goods, is diaconal work and that work is described with the infinitive from which the title “deacon” is derived. Thus, it should be concluded that Acts 6 is describing the institution of the office of deacon, and at its institution we see that it is only open to men.

  3. Mark M Mark M
    September 14, 2018    

    I’m not sure you make a compelling case for your position. While I think it’s reasonable to conclude there is no fourth office, your conclusion that, because it does not specifically call out a few offye characteristics listed should not disqualify it as a reasonable assertion that “likewise” would imply the same. And the way you allow “scripture to interpret scripture, comparing the office of minister, elder, and deacon to prophet, priest, and king is tenuous at best. Agabud, who is mentioned in Acts was a “prophet”. And which of the three offices would be equivalent to “king”? I respect your position, but am not persuaded that your interpretation is correct.

    • March 10, 2019    

      Mark, thank you for your comment. The ruling elders function under Christ as rulers in the congregation.
      The office of prophet is carried on by preachers (Rom. 12:6).

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