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What should be the role of Southern Baptist women in church? (Part 2)

Popular speaker and author Beth Moore gives a Bible study to 60,000 students about the significance and symbolism in the Lord's Supper at Passion 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia on Wednesday, January 9, 2013.
Popular speaker and author Beth Moore gives a Bible study to 60,000 students about the significance and symbolism in the Lord's Supper at Passion 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia on Wednesday, January 9, 2013. | (Photo: Passion 2013 Conferences)

Read Part 1 here.

Historical considerations [35]

Before we come to personal and practical conclusions, we should note the way Christians across our faith history have addressed the subject of women as deacons.

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Women deacons in early Christianity

Deaconesses were common in early Christianity: “Certainly in the early Church there were deaconesses. They had the duty of instructing female converts and in particular of presiding and attending at their baptism, which was by total immersion.” [36] They “performed for the women of the early Church the same sort of ministrations that the deacons did for the men,” [37] since “the strict separation of the sexes made something like deaconesses necessary for baptism, visiting the women, etc.” [38]

This office was “opened to pious women and virgins, and chiefly to widows, a most suitable field for the regular official exercise of their peculiar gifts of self-denying charity and devotion to the welfare of the church.” Schaff maintains that Phoebe was a deacon, and considers it “more than probable” that Priscilla, Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis (Romans 16) were deacons as well.[39]

Several early documents attest to the fact that women served commonly as deacons:

  • Pliny the Younger, in correspondence with the emperor Trajan (A.D. 112) describes one means by which he sought to extract information about Christianity: “I thought it therefore the more necessary to try and find the truth of the matter by torture as well, (and that) from two female slaves who were called Deaconesses. I discovered nothing more than a perverse and contumacious superstition.” [40]
  • Origen (died A.D. 254) describes deaconesses as those who have given “assistance to many, and, by their good works, have deserved the praise of the apostles.” [41]
  • Clement of Alexandria (died A.D. 215) likewise speaks of women who accompanied the apostles and shared their ministry “so that the Lord’s teaching could penetrate women’s quarters without giving scandal.” [42]
  • The third-century Didascalia Apostolorum describes the office of deaconess as fully intact, and gives the impression that deaconesses have been recognized for many years. It restricts their duties, however, to serving the needs of the women in the church, including baptism and anointing, teaching new converts, and visiting sick women. [43]
  • The fourth-century Apostolic Constitutions adds that deaconesses are to be “a pure virgin; or, at the least, a widow who has been but once married, faithful, and well esteemed.” [44]

Robinson’s study of the subject concludes, “The office of Deaconess . . . is legislated for in two of the general Councils, and is mentioned by all the leading Greek Fathers and historians of the fourth and fifth centuries. Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Epiphanius, Chrysostom, Theodoret and Sozomen all bear testimony to the flourishing condition of the Order. They have preserved to us the personal history of several of its members, and have shown how important was the position they occupied and the service they rendered to the Church.” [45]

However, as this role evolved (primarily in the Eastern or Byzantine Church), a strong separation emerged between deacons and deaconesses. The liturgical tasks of the latter were much more restricted than the former: they could only baptize under the supervision of the priest; and they were never allowed to teach or preach in public. [46]

Roman Catholic theologian Aime Georges Martimort concludes,

The ancient institution of deaconesses, even in its own time, was encumbered with not a few ambiguities, as we have seen. In my opinion, if the restoration of the institution of deaconesses were indeed to be sought after so many centuries, such a restoration itself could only be fraught with ambiguity. The real importance and efficaciousness of the role of women in the Church has always been vividly perceived in the consciousness of the hierarchy and of the faithful as much more broad than the historical role that deaconesses in fact played. And perhaps a proposal based on an ‘archaeological’ institution might even obscure the fact that the call to serve the Church is urgently addressed today to all women, especially in the area of the transmission of Faith and works of charity. [47]

Thus Martimort argues that women should be given important places of ministry in the Church today, regardless of their limited role as “deaconesses” in history.

Women deacons in Baptist history [48]

“Separate Baptists” (Baptists which supported the revivalistic efforts of the First Great Awakening) regularly ordained women deacons as well as female preachers. Women served as deacons and deaconesses, and sometimes preached, among seventeenth-century English Baptists and in the American South. [49] Baptists apparently ordained women as elders and deaconesses in the eighteenth century, as Morgan Edwards’ 1774 work, Customs of Primitive Churches, indicates. But the overall role of women in Baptist leadership diminished in this century. [50]

In the nineteenth century, R. B. C. Howell believed that both Scripture and ministry practice warranted the inclusion of deaconesses in Baptist churches. [51] Dr. Howell was an architect of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a writer of vast influence. His book, The Deaconship, Its Nature, Qualifications, Relations, and Duties was most significant on this subject. He studied Romans 16:11 Tim. 5:9-101 Tim. 3:11 and concluded, “Take all these passages together, and I think it will be difficult for us to resist the conclusion that the word of God authorizes, and in some sense, certainly by implication, enjoins the appointment of deaconesses in the churches of Christ. . . . Deaconesses, therefore, are everywhere, as necessary as they were in the days of the apostles.” [52]

J. R. Graves, an extremely conservative and influential Southern Baptist leader, agreed that “there is no doubt in the minds of Biblical and ecclesiastical scholars, that in the apostolic churches women occupied the office of the deaconship . . . . Phoebe was a deaconess of the church in Cenchrea.” He added, “There is no good reason why saintly women should not fill the office of deaconess to-day in most churches. In fact, they often perform the duties of the office without the name.” [53]

While acceptance of female deacons was fairly common in the nineteenth century, some opposed the practice, and it was often debated at state and local conventions. For instance, B. H. Carroll recognized women deacons in First Baptist Church of Waco, Texas. He thought that 1 Tim. 3:11 should be translated “women deacons” and not “wives.”

However, Carroll believed that women deacons in the Bible were not ordained to this role but appointed. And he insisted that they were not to preach. His belief that women should be appointed to deacon service but not ordained to this position has provoked some debate on the subject. Frank Stagg and other historians have argued that the formal “ordination” of deacons is difficult to demonstrate biblically, whether with men or women. [54] Leon McBeth notes that Charles Spurgeon refused any kind of ordination, claiming that “a commission from God outranked any from men.” [55]

On the other hand, Henry Wheeler argues that women deacons were ordained by the early church in the same manner as were men. [56] And the “Apostolic Constitutions,” a document dating from the second to the fourth century, describes in detail such an ordination service for women deacons. [57]

English Baptists have evolved the role of deaconesses into pastoral functions with full ministerial status. And since 1956, Baptists in New Zealand have included theological instruction for women deacons in their theological colleges. [58]

Leon McBeth, one of Baptists’ most noted historians, concludes, “The evidence suggests that in the nineteenth century many Southern Baptists approved deaconesses and regarded the offices as biblical. Moreover, at least some churches acted upon these views and regularly set aside deaconesses as well as deacons. Probably Southern Baptist churches have never been without deaconesses. Though somewhat in decline, the acceptance of deaconesses persisted into the present century. One finds numbers of Southern Baptist churches with deaconesses in the 1920s and 1930s, and of course recently the practice is being revived.” [59] He later refers to a “spectacular upsurge in the number of women deacons among Southern Baptists.” [60]

“Deaconess” and “women deacons”

The preceding discussion could lead us to believe that Baptists have historically affirmed women as deacons in the same way we understand men to fulfill this role. However, such has not always been the case. “Deaconesses” have sometimes served in a subordinate role to “deacons.” Some appointed rather than ordained them (cf. Carroll’s model), and used them primarily to minister to women and children. McBeth finds that “the deaconess, for most of Baptist history, has had different duties and a status distinctly inferior to men deacons.” He cites Howell’s opinion that the office of deaconess is biblical, but “they are optional and are merely appointed rather than ordained.” [61]

But McBeth adds, “Recent developments . . . mark a significant shift in the status of women set apart for the diaconate. For the most part, Baptist churches today are not appointing deaconesses in the subordinate sense of that word, but women deacons who are elected, ordained, and assigned the same duties as men. Women deacons today do whatever deacons do, whether administration, policy recommendations, or serving the Lord’s Supper. They meet with deacons, rather than in separate groups as deaconesses usually do. In short, today’s Southern Baptist woman deacon is a deacon in the fullest sense.” [62]

Baptists today

If women served commonly as deacons in earlier generations of Baptist life, why are they less common today? As Southern Baptists evolved the function of deacons from ministry to management, women were less frequently asked into this role. Other facts include adverse reaction to the suffragette movement; the formation of the WMU, which gave women alternate avenues of service; and the rise of the modern church committee structure, which allowed women to perform the same work they had done as deaconesses. [63] While recent years have seen an upswing in the popularity of ordaining women as deacons, Baptist opinion on the subject is far from uniform.

Leon McBeth described in 1979 a “mushrooming new role for Baptist women, that of church deacon. While exact numbers are not to be had, apparently some hundreds of Southern Baptist churches now ordain women deacons, and the number is growing rapidly. Perhaps the total number of Southern Baptist women deacons runs into the thousands.” [64]

He offered this explanation for the growth of this trend: “Almost without exception, Southern Baptist churches that have ordained women as deacons report that the experience has been beneficial beyond all expectations. One church in North Carolina was reported to have rescinded an earlier vote to ordain women: most churches that ordain women regard the change as an unqualified success. Reports that women make effective deacons and that churches that have them are benefited, not destroyed, may have more to do with growth of the practice than theology.” [65]

He added, “This [movement] probably means some changes in the historic role of Baptist deacons. For most of the twentieth century the deacons have been regarded, and regarded themselves, more or less as the board of managers of a Baptist church. Visitation, enlistment, and ministry to those in need has at times almost been lost from sight. However, there seems to be a move today to recover the ministry of the diaconate. Perhaps the ordination of women as deacons will help recover the caring aspect of their work.” [66]

W. A. Criswell, in The Doctrine of the Church, also believed that “there is clear evidence that the early church recognized an office of deaconess as early as the third century.” Dr. Criswell stated that diakonos is “rarely used as an official title”; the women of 1 Tim. 3:11 may be deaconesses or the wives of deacons, but “certainty about either interpretation is not possible”; and that “the New Testament does not otherwise mention an office of deaconess.”

But he added, “On the positive side, however, there appears to have existed a quasi-official position of service for women in the first-century church. Such a position is suggested openly with regard to widows in 1 Timothy 5:3-6. Because the ministry of the deacons to unmarried women could give rise to difficult situations, it is possible that some godly women were set apart to help in that area. The Scriptures do not reveal how their ministry might have been handled. The records of the early post-apostolic church make plain, however, that the early church recognized such an office. Whether or not a church interprets the Scriptures to allow for deaconesses, the ministry of godly women is essential if the needs of all believers are to be met.” [67]

Personal conclusions

We have surveyed briefly those Scriptural passages which relate most directly to the question of women as deacons and church leaders. I believe the biblical evidence indicates that Phoebe was a deacon of the church at Cenchrea, and that this office was part of Paul’s description of deacons in 1 Timothy 3. Nothing in 1 Timothy 2 or 1 Corinthians 14 prohibits women serving in ministry leadership in the larger Church today; indeed, 1 Corinthians 11:4-10 seems clearly to endorse their role in preaching and praying in public worship. We find evidence in the New Testament era of women serving as apostles, prophets, evangelists, and possibly as pastor/teachers. Deaconesses or women deacons were recognized as a ministry office by the post-apostolic church, and have been affirmed by generations of Baptists as well.

These conclusions certainly provide support for the decision to ordain women as leaders and deacons in a Baptist church. However, they do not mandate such a decision. While no biblical text prohibits women from serving as leaders and deacons, note that no biblical text requires a church to ordain women to this role. Even Romans 16:1-2, the clearest evidence in Scripture of women as deacons, does not prescribe this practice for other churches. And Paul’s instructions to Timothy do not prescribe that deacons (male or female) be ordained in other churches. We simply find little discussion of “deacons” in the Bible, and no command or prescription that men or women be ordained to this role in any church.

One of the cherished principles of Baptist heritage is that each church is independent. No church’s practice or prescription carries authority with any other congregation. Since the Bible neither requires nor prohibits women serving as deacons in the Church, we are left to make our own decision as a local congregation.

I believe that women should be ordained as leaders and deacons for the following strategic and practical reasons. First, ordination to the ministry or diaconate is the most significant way most churches recognize congregational leaders. While we know that other roles are vitally important (i.e, Sunday school teachers and officers, worship leaders, trustees, committee chairs and members), no other roles carry congregational endorsement and recognition equal to that of minister or deacon. To deny godly women such affirmation seems wrong to me, especially given the strong evidence for this affirmation in the Bible, and in Christian and Baptist history. The signal we send is that our churches do not value the servant leadership of women as fully as it affirms men.

Second, when ministers and deacons serve in public roles (as in helping administer the Lord’s Supper and leading in congregational business), many see the absence of women as indication that the church devalues their place in ministry. Since there is no biblical or historical reason to deny women this ministry function, we convey the clear impression to others that women are less valuable to the church and her public ministries. And as Baptist churches grow increasingly diverse, welcoming membership from a variety of denominations which recognize women as ministers and deacons, it becomes more and more difficult to explain to these members why we do not affirm women in this role in our churches.

Third, I believe women serving as ministers and deacons will help churches fulfill our Great Commission purpose more obediently. Their insights and experiences will help them formulate the most effective strategies for congregational and community ministry. They will help their church relate more effectively to women, mothers, and families. In these crucial days, churches need the spiritual engagement of the entire congregation as they assault the gates of hell together (Matthew 16:18). Ordaining women as ministers and deacons will help them serve their church and their Commission more effectively.

May the Spirit guide you to know and to obey your Father’s will in this matter, as you seek to glorify his Son and to extend his Kingdom around the world.

To read part 1 click here.

Originally posted at Denison Forum.


[36] William Barclay, The Letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, The Daily Study Bible Series, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975) 86.

[37] White 115.

[38] Robertson 4:425.

[39] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1910 [repr. 1991] 1:500-1.

[40] Quoted in Mounce 210.

[41] Quoted in M. G. Bianco, “Deaconess,” Encyclopedia of the Early Church, trans. Adrian Walford (New York: Oxford Univesity Press, 1992) 1:221.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Mounce 211.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Robinson, Ministry of Deaconesses 85, quoted in Mounce 212.

[46] Martimort 246-7.

[47] Ibid 250, emphasis his.

[48] The following survey is informed by Leon McBeth, Women in Baptist Life (Nashville: Convention Press, 1979) and Brad Creed, “Church Leaders,” in Has Our Theology Changed? Southern Baptist Thought Since 1845, ed. Paul A. Basden (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman, 1994) 198-201.

[49] Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1987) 690. The Broadmead Church in Bristol, England listed in 1679 several duties of women deacons: to visit the sick, both men and women; to meet their needs; and to “speake a word to their soules, as occasion requires” (Leon McBeth, A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage [Nashville: Broadman Press, 1990] 55).

[50] McBeth, Baptist Heritage 691, 197.

[51] Howell wrote a paper in 1846 which cited Romans 16:1-2 among other texts in support of his position. He concluded, “When we look around us we see, indeed, in effect, deaconesses in nearly all our well-regulated churches” (McBeth, Sourcebook 335).

[52] Quoted in McBeth, Women 140.

[53] Quoted in McBeth, Women 142.

[54] For a full discussion of ordination in biblical and historical perspective, arguing against the ordination of persons to specific ministry offices, see Marjorie Warkentin, Ordination: A Biblical-Historical View (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1982).

[55] McBeth, Baptist Heritage 516.

[56] Wheeler 61.

[57] Quoted in Wheeler 82-4.

[58] Ibid., 516, 550.

[59] McBeth, Women 143.

[60] Ibid., 147.

[61] Ibid., 145-6.

[62] Ibid., 146; emphasis his.

[63] Wheeler 691.

[64] McBeth, Women 139.

[65] Ibid., 149.

[66] Ibid., 151.

[67] W. A. Criswell, The Doctrine of the Church (Nashville: Convention Press, 1980) 78-9.

Adapted from Dr. Jim Denison’s daily cultural commentary at Jim Denison, Ph.D., is a cultural apologist, building a bridge between faith and culture by engaging contemporary issues with biblical truth. He founded the Denison Forum on Truth and Culture in February 2009 and is the author of seven books, including “Radical Islam: What You Need to Know.” For more information on the Denison Forum, visit To connect with Dr. Denison in social media, visit or Original source:

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