In the requirements for those who would serve on the diaconate, Paul in today’s passage comments on the deacons’ “wives,” as the English Standard Version translates the Greek word gynaikas in 1 Timothy 3:11. But this word can also be rendered as “women,” which would make this passage have a significantly different meaning. If the passage is to be read as talking about the wives of male deacons, then the office of deacon, like the office of elder, is limited to men alone. Yet if gynaikas means “women,” then Paul is talking about female servants or deaconesses, opening up the diaconate to women as well as men.
Unfortunately, it is hard to determine the apostle’s meaning because the contextual details provide little help in choosing the most appropriate translation. Those who believe Paul allows for women deacons note that he gives no qualifications for elders’ wives and therefore no parallel to the deacons’ wives, suggesting the office of deaconess is in view. Another argument for deaconesses is that the requirements of verse 11 are the same as those mandated of male deacons (see vv. 8–9). Not to be overlooked, proponents of deaconesses note, is that Romans 16:1 calls Phoebe a diakonon, a version of the Greek word often translated as “deacon” (diakonos). Finally, one commentator points out, there is nothing like Paul’s specific command that women may not be given authority as church elders (1 Tim. 2:12–15) in 1 Timothy 3:8–13 to bar women from the diaconate.
Opponents of deaconesses explain that there are many reasons why Paul would give qualifications for deacons’ wives and not those of elders. Deacons, who deal in ministries of mercy, can have close contact with people on occasions when a woman’s assistance might be needed. It would be scandalous for male deacons to aid sick women in many instances, but their wives can help bathe, dress, or care for women in need. Those who disagree that Paul allows for female deacons do not put much stock in the fact that Phoebe is referred to as a diakonon, for the term can simply mean “servant,” not an ordained office. They also say that it is odd Paul does not include a section on deaconnesses if, in fact, he wants to establish the office for women.
Reformed Christians who affirm Scripture’s final authority continue to differ over whether women may be ordained as deacons. What is not up for debate is that the traits Paul lists in 1 Timothy 3:11 should be true of all Christian women, regardless of one’s position on deaconesses. If you are a woman, are you making a concerted effort to avoid slander and to be faithful? If you are a man, are you encouraging the women in your life in these things?