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What should be the role of women in church? (Part 1)

“A deacon must be the husband of but one wife.”

The second New Testament passage which appears to relate directly to the question of women as leaders is found within Paul’s instructions to Timothy:

“Deacons, likewise, are to be men worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons. In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything. A deacon must be the husband of but one wife and must manage his children and his household well. Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 3:8-13, NIV).

Two questions within this text pertain specifically to our discussion. First, if “deacons” were to be “the husband of but one wife,” how can women be “deacons”? Does this injunction not limit the office of deacon to men?

How can a woman be the “husband of one wife”?

At the heart of the issue is the phrase, “the husband of but one wife.” When Park Cities discussed whether or not to ordain divorced men as deacons, you considered this phrase in depth. As you may recall, the Greek is best translated literally, “a one-wife-at-a-time man,” speaking to the issue of polygamy rather than divorce.

Paul was concerned here about the public witness of deacons. In his day, divorce was tragically common and not typically seen as damaging to one’s witness. But polygamy, while also common, was very destructive to Christian witness and example. And so Paul condemned polygamy for deacons, not divorce.

Given that this phrase refers to polygamy, it is clear that Paul would need to apply it only to male deacons. Women were not permitted to marry more than one husband. Thus, there would be no reason for the apostle to forbid women deacons from polygamy. And so he addressed only male deacons in this regard.

Were these “wives” or women deacons?

A second question within this passage concerns the “wives” of deacons (v. 11). The Greek word is gunaikas, translated “women” or “wives.” Some believe that the women in question were in fact “deaconesses” (the NIV provides this alternate translation in its footnote on the verse). [15]

Several assertions support this interpretation:

  • “In the same way” may link “women” to “deacons” (v. 10), so that Paul is referencing women deacons or deaconesses. A large percentage of scholars would seem to favor this interpretative conclusion. [16]
  • “Their” is missing in the Greek, lessening the possibility that the women in question are “their wives” or even “wives.” Likewise, Paul could have added diakonon to specify that they were “deacon wives,” but did not.
  • No special qualifications are listed for the wives of overseers (vs. 1-7), making it unlikely that Paul provided a special list of attributes for the wives of deacons but not overseers/elders/pastors.
  • No special list of qualifications is provided for these women. If they were deaconesses, we might assume that the previous characteristics (vs. 8-10) apply to them also. If they were not, it is hard to know why their character requirements are not described in more detail.
  • Paul did not use “female deacons” (diakonissa) because the word had not yet been invented, and was thus forced to use gunaikas to designate women.[17]

On the other hand, some interpreters believe that the women in question are in fact the “wives” of the deacons. They point out that deacons are described in vs. 8-10 and 12-13, making this insertion regarding their wives appropriate to the discussion. [18]

Still others suggest that these women constitute a third class of leaders — neither deacons nor their wives. [19] But it is hard to understand why Paul would insert this one verse introducing a new category of service in the midst of a discussion of deacons.

My position: Paul’s instructions in this text prohibit men or women from serving as deacons if their marital lives are damaging to their witness. In the immediate context his injunction relates specifically to polygamy. By application, his principle relates to any lifestyle patterns which damage our ministry leadership. Even if verse 11 is understood to relate to “wives” rather than female deacons, nothing in this passage prohibits women from serving in this office. And the text seems in fact to refer to (and implicitly endorse) this practice.

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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