Report of the Study Committee: Women as Deacons
1. “Do the Scriptures allow women to serve in the office of Deacon/Deaconess?” This was the question assigned to this study committee by Annual Conference. The conclusion of the committee is that the Scripture does not explicitly say yes or no, but that the evidence of Phoebe in Romans 16, along with the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy 3, implies that women did serve as deacons. Therefore, Scripture allows women to serve as deacons.
This conclusion will be supported by three areas of evidence:
1. the explanation and interpretation of the passages of Scripture;
2. the agreement of previous BFC study committees on the same subject; and
3. the agreement from church history.
This report also includes suggested applications and recommendations for our Faith & Order.
PART 1: THE EXPLANATIONS OF THE PASSAGES OF SCRIPTURE
First, clarifications of the words “office” and “deacon”:
• There is no formal, feminine title in Scripture called "deaconess.” Hence, no office of deaconess exists in Scripture. Women served in the capacity identified as "deacons." Moreover, this committee recognizes that there is a tension in concluding that women can serve as deacons. The tension arises in the appearance that women serving in an office seem to have authority. However, the Faith & Order clearly defines deacon as an office “not of ruling, but serving.” A survey of the words translated into English “office, officer and/or official” shows that this category of people in the New Testament usually served in a military or political capacity; none refer to church positions. Even in 1 Timothy 3 someone who desires to be an overseer/elder is said to desire a “good work,” a “noble task”, as opposed to a commendable “office.”
• The office of deacon is seen in Scripture as an office of serving not ruling; as noted in the Faith and Order, Article 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 man of deep spiritual life, exemplary conduct, and sound judgment (1Tim.3; Acts 6:1,8). 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.” Therefore, having women deacons is consistent with the biblical injunctions concerning women and authority in the church. Article 204-3.1 excludes the view that the office of deacons confers authority on either men or women.
• Furthermore, we agree with the 1980 report when it states: “these women are not to be regarded as constituting a third office in the church, the office of ‘deaconess’ ….” Deacon is the term to be used. This is congruent with the Greek usage of diakonos as both a male and female noun: the word diakonos is one of fifteen nouns used in the New Testament that can be either masculine or feminine gender” (see the list in Trenchard, 296). A separate feminine word for “deaconess” (diakonissa) does not arise until the fourth century (Cross, 377).
• Diakonos is used in both a broad and narrow sense. It was most often used to refer to all kinds of servants of God. So, church leaders saw themselves as servants of God, Christ, the gospel, and the church. Paul called himself a servant of the church (Colossians 1:25) even though he was an authoritative apostle. However, this broad use of the word does not eliminate its use in a more formal way as identifying an office.
• The committee recognizes that some cultural background may affect a perception of these terms. For instance, deacons in some churches are viewed as holding authority rather like elders. This cultural context may be the reason for the warning from the 1980 committee: “The possibility of women holding the office of deacon in the Church will cause difficulty to some pastors in accepting a call to that particular Church.”
Second, a discussion of the passages:
• Romans 16:1 – “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant [diakonos] 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.”
• Here diakonos is clearly applied to a woman. The form is masculine. As noted above, the lexicons say diakonos can be either masculine or feminine. Paul did not use a distinctively feminine word despite Phoebe being “our sister.”
• In verses 1-5 two specific churches are mentioned and two specific women associated with those churches are mentioned – Phoebe and Priscilla; the one is called a deacon and the other is not. Several other women are mentioned in the greater context none of whom are called deacon: Priscilla; Mary; Junias; Herodion; Tryphena and Tryphosa; Persis; Julia; and Olympas (vs. 3-15). This suggests that diakonos is here used in the narrow sense of a church office.
• Furthermore, Phoebe is described as functioning in a specific church. So is Priscilla. Priscilla is connected with a specific church which, in fact, meets in her home (v.5). We note that she is not called a deacon but a fellow worker alongside her husband (v.3). Phoebe thus seems to be serving in a distinctive role. Again, this seems to indicate that the term diakonos is not being used here as a generic term for worker or servant but as a specific office.
• In addition, Paul commands the Roman believers to “give her any help she may need.” This sounds like a more formal appeal on behalf of someone with a good history of serving as a deacon (“for she has been a great help to many people, including me” v.2).
• 1 Timothy 3:11 – “In the same way [hosautos], their wives [gunaikas] are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.”
• This is admittedly a difficult passage to interpret/translate. One of the specific problems is that the Greek gunaikas could be translated “wives” or “women.”
• “Women” seems to be the better translation for these reasons:
– If one suggests “wives,” why not similar instructions for elders’ wives? “It would seem even more important that elders’ wives have certain qualifications than it would that deacons’ wives have them.” – 2001 study committee.
– “Paul could have clarified the issue if he meant to speak of deacons’ wives by adding the word tas (the) or auton (their) before gunaikas (wives/women), but he did not.” – 1977 study committee. – The use of hosautos [“In the same way”] seems to be a grammatical marker for introducing another category within a larger group. In 1 Timothy 2:9 and Titus 2:3 it refers to a shift from male to female in the same category. It is reasonable to think that this shift is happening here within the category of deacon.
Third, broader theological considerations:
• The Scripture teaches that the Holy Spirit distributes His gifts to all believers (Acts 2:18 quoting Joel 2; 1 Corinthians 12:4-7). Unless all believers use their gifts “for the common good” the church will not be all God intended it to be. All those who name Jesus as Lord by the work of God’s Spirit are also given gifts by the same Spirit. There is no textual evidence that these believers are only male believers. Women then, as much as men, should be encouraged to use their gifts.
• Although Scripture precludes women from using their gifts in the office of elder or minister, it certainly allows and describes women serving in any capacity other than those. Women are “fellow-workers” and “servants” of the church; some of them were “deacons”; (Romans 16:1; 1 Timothy 3:11). Even when some women had difficulties and caused problems, Paul instructed the church to aid in resolving their problems so that their valued service could continue (Philippians 4:2).
• The use of spiritual gifts does not dictate the exegesis of these texts. Rather, the exegesis of these passages is in conformity with biblical teaching about spiritual gifts.
PART 2: THE AGREEMENT OF PREVIOUS BFC STUDY COMMITTEES
There is a certain strength in this committee’s conclusion agreeing with previous study committee conclusions. These study committees reported to Annual Conference in 1977, 2001, and 2004. There was another smaller report in 1980 that concluded an “alternate understanding” of the role of women. Please note their conclusions:
In 1977 - This committee officially recommended “that we permit women to serve as Deacons and that our legislation be revised….”
• Commenting on the difficulty of applying biblical principles of authority and women’s roles to actual situations within the church, the committee states: “the Scriptures know only two specific classes with respect to ecclesiastical authority – elders and non-elders.”
In 1980 – This study disagreed with women serving in the office of deacon. However, it is important to note the following:
• The study was shorter in nature to the 1977 and 2001 reports. Moreover, the study did not include comments on the Romans 16 passage.
• The point of disagreement was women serving in an “official office” of the church that would seem to bestow an unbiblical authority on the women.
• However, in this committee’s study of gunaikas in the 1 Timothy 3 passage they concluded:
• “She may be something else that would carry out the same function, but she can not be a deacon.”
• “They are a group by themselves, not just the wives of the deacons nor all the women who belong to the Church.”
• “Un-married women such as widows who planned not to re-marry served in a deacon-servant capacity but not on an elected deacon board with men…”
In 2001 – This study was just as broad in scope as the 1977 study. The conclusions on women as deacons were as specific and similar to ours.
• “Unless otherwise specifically restricted in Scripture, women should be encouraged to share in all the work of the ministry.”
• “ 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 two passages in particular that suggest that women may serve as deacons, though there are none that definitely command this.”
• “It is thus not unreasonable to suggest that Paul’s early churches had women deacons as well as men.”
The conclusion of this report (2005) agrees with the conclusions of previous study committees of 1977, 2001, and 2004.
PART 3: THE AGREEMENT FROM CHURCH HISTORY
The Witness of Church History
Evidence from early church history indicates that women were serving as deaconesses. Moreover, there does not seem to be any early material forbidding women to serve as deaconesses. Church history indicates that the church has operated a long time without the benefit of women deacons. This fact may be part of the sense of hesitation or reticence the present church may have with accepting female deacons. “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 ….”
The earliest extra-Biblical reference comes to us from a pagan source, from Pliny, the governor of the Roman province of Bithynia, in northern Asia Minor. Pliny is writing to the emperor Trajan, explaining how he has been conducting trials of Christians, and asking for advice. In the midst of this explanation, Pliny says:
“This made me decide it was all the more necessary to extract the truth by torture from two slave-women, whom they call deaconesses. I found nothing but a degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths.” (Pliny, Letters 10.96.8)
The fact that Pliny speaks of the women as those “whom they call deaconesses” points to some sort of named office rather than just some informal term meaning servant. This letter is dated at about 112 A.D. “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.”
Thus, church history supports our conclusion.
PART 4: APPLICATIONS
Here, this study committee offers suggested applications to our conclusion. It not only seemed appropriate to do so, (“be doers of the words, not hearers only”), but it seems to follow protocol by former study committees.
Some introductory comments:
• Similarities – Our recommendations for changes in the Faith & Order are similar to those of the study committees of 1977, 2001, and 2004.
• Freedoms - Churches in which the leadership is satisfied that the Bible permits women deacons should be allowed to do so. The study committee wants to emphasize that we think Annual Conference should not require the practice of using women in the role of deacon. However, the committee encourages that the door be open to this biblical practice.
• Cautions – For churches beginning this practice, caution should be taken to teach carefully the nature of the office of deacon in light of the authority passages in Scripture.
Whereas, our study of the text of Scripture and church history and, moreover, several previous studies in the BFC for the past 30 years have come to similar conclusions, we therefore recommend approval of the following changes in the Faith and Order:
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.
Article 18 – The Church
A properly constituted local Church must include the ministry of God’s Word, the observance of the ordinances, the oversight by elders (replaces officers), and the exercise of discipline. The overseers of the Church are to be prayed for, obeyed and honored.
Article 204 – The Officers of the Church
Having called and assembled His church our Lord provides for the government of each Particular Church by conveying responsibilities (replaces authority) to officers whom He enables. The continuing officers of authority and ruling in the church are Ministers and Elders, while the continuing officers of service are Deacons. The endowed person (replaces man) does not create the office, nor does the office clothe the person (replaces man) with power, but the Lord endows the individual (replaces man) with gifts and qualifications that enable him/her (replaces him) to fill the office that God Himself has created.
Women Serving as Deacons Study Committee: Carl C. Cassel, Chairman; Michael J. Tannous, Secretary; Clifford B. Boone, David W. Eisenhower, Richard A. Moyer, Robert C. Newman, Ralph E. Ritter