The issue of whether a woman can serve as a deacon in a local church has been one of great debate. The key verse concerning this issue is 1 Timothy 3:11 that refers to "women" or "wives" in the context of the qualifications of male deacons. The ESV translates, "Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things."
The debate is whether these "women" refer to the wives of the deacons discussed in verses 8-10 and 12-13, as the ESV seems to imply, or whether this Greek term refers to "women" meaning female deacons. Technically, either translation could fit, leaving some ambiguity regarding the originally intended meaning.
Those who believe this passage refers to the wives of deacons note that the verse falls within verses on both sides that discuss qualifications of male deacons. Further, verse 12 refers to deacons as the husband of one woman, limiting deacons to men (according to this view). The one other passage possibly referring to a female deacon, Phoebe in Romans 16:1, is most likely a general reference to a "servant" rather than an official role as deacon. Finally, the earliest churches do not reveal evidence of female deacons during the first century of the church.
Those who believe this passage refers to female deacons note that there is a clear difference in 1 Timothy 3:11 from the qualifications for elders listed in verses 1-7, which do not place requirements on the wives of elders. Elder is a more prominent position than is deacon so it seems strange to place requirements on a deacon's wife but not on an elder's. Further, Romans 16:1 is used to note evidence of a female deacon (though this may refer to Phoebe as a "servant" rather than a deacon).
While a biblical case can be made for either view, the more likely scenario is that Paul had deacons' wives in mind in 1 Timothy 3:11. This would indicate deacons were intended as male servant leaders in the church. However, because it may be possible that the passage refers to female deacons, there will be Bible-believing Christians, churches, and other organizations that hold to this view.
Regardless, the Bible speaks elsewhere regarding the important role of male leadership in the church (1 Timothy 2:12; 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9), highlighting the necessity of strong male leaders. At the same time, Scripture affirms the equality of women from creation through today, presenting women as equally important and gifted for service to Christ and His church.
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