There were deaconesses, so there can be female elders and pastors

by Matt Slick

Another argument raised by the egalitarians is to say that since there were female deacons, i.e., deaconesses as was Phoebe in Rom. 16:1, then it is possible to have been elders and pastors as women also.  Some even cite early church literature which has various women deacons mentioned in different contexts.  Let's take a look at both of these arguments.

First of all, the word "deacon" διάκονος (diakonos) and its cognates occur 31 times in the NT and is used in many different ways. Paul calls himself a minister (diakonos) of the gospel in Col. 1:23, 25.  Paul went to Jerusalem to serve (diakonos) the saints (Rom. 15:25).  Mary spoke to the servants (diakonos) at the wedding in Cana (John 2:5).  It is used of serving tables (Luke 17:8 and Acts 6:2).  Jesus came not to be served, but to serve (diakonos), (Mark 10:45). The government is called a minister (diakonos) of God (Rom. 13:4).  Tychicus is a minister (diakonos) of the Lord (Col. 4:7) as is Timotheus (1 Thess. 3:2).

Rom. 16:1 says, "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant (diakonos) of the church which is at Cenchrea." Many argue that since Pheobe is called a deacon, then it means women are eligible to hold the formal office of deacon.  But this is not conclusive at all.  Phoebe is simply called a servant (diakonon) which can be rendered differently in different Bibles:  "minister" (Darby, YLT), "servant" (ASV, ESV, HCSB, ISV, KJV, NASB, NIV, NKJV), "helper" (NCV), "deacon" (NLT, NRSV), and "deaconess" (RSV).

The term "diakonos" is used of an office with special requirements that women cannot meet. "Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain," (1 Tim. 3:8). And, "Let deacons be husbands of only one wife [lit. one woman man'] and good managers of their children and their own households," (1 Tim. 3:12).  See also Phil. 1:1.

So, we can conclude that there is a broad sense of how the term is used regarding being a servant, a minister, a helper, etc.  We can also conclude that there is a special requirement for the office of deacon that limits eligibility to men.  This requirement is that deacons be the husband of one wife and good managers of their children and households.   Also, we must note that we see the same criteria here as we do for elders and bishops.  It is quite apparent that there is a special office of Deacon that is intended for men only.

Still, some egalitarians claim that early church writings show that women held the office of Deaconess within the first few centuries.  Even if this is so, and we are not saying it is in any official church office position, each citation would have to be examined in context.

"Ecclesiastical usage institutionalized and narrowed the NT conception. Early non-canonical literature recognizes a class of deacons without specifying their functions (cf. 1 Clement 42; Ignatius, Magnesians 2.1; Trallians 2. 3; 7. 3). Later literature shows the deacons undertaking functions such as attending the sick, which must have been part of Christian diakonia in apostolic times."1

If the early church did have deaconesses, how were the offices defined?  Were they in places of authority and were they teaching?  If women held the office, how were they husbands of one wife?  Or, as the Scriptures show, were they servants of the church--helping to take care of the needs of God's people?

Again, even if the early churches actually had women in the office of Deacon, those same churches would have to deal with the issue of the scripture proclaiming the requirement of that office to include being men--the husband of one wife.  It would make much more sense to say that deaconesses were seen as servants in the church and were not filling the specific, official church office with its requirement of being males.

In today's Christian setting, churches define the office of Deacon differently.  Some see the deaconate as a service to God's people while others see it as an office having authority.  It would seem that both could be supported in Scripture but the latter definition belongs to men who are the husbands of one wife.

"She is referred to as a ‘deacon’ (in the Greek, there is no distinction between the masculine and feminine forms) of the church in Cenchreae. Despite Phil. 1:1, it is unlikely that this term designates any official position, as in modern ecclesiastical organizations; it may be paraphrased as ‘co-worker in the missionary enterprise."2

One last thing to think about.  It is the way of the world to impose its will upon the church and try to make God's people conform to its ways.  This should never be the case with God's church.  Christians should never wet their fingers, stick them into the air, and see which way the secular wind is blowing so as to appease those outside its doors.   Rather, its job is to speak the truth no matter what the world says.  We are to do it with gentleness (1 Pet. 3:15), but we are to defend the truth--not compromise its teachings.  And, in this case, God has said what he has said.  Let his word stand and may those who contradict it answer to God.  The deacon is to be a man of dignity (1 Tim. 3:8) just as Paul has stated is the case in the operation of the household of God (1 Tim. 3:15).

  • 1. The New Bible Dictionary, Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1962.
  • 2. Achtemeier, Paul J., Harper’s Bible Dictionary, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985.

About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.