8 What Saith The Scripture?
"Understandest what thou readest?" (Acts: 30)
James W. Adams
What about Deaconesses?
On page nine of the May 20, 1971 issue of Truth Magazine you stated in your answer to a query concerning women treasurers of church funds, "The deacons were all men." While this statement is true, you completely failed to acknowledge the fact that deaconesses were women. Would it not be a reasonable assumption that a deaconess would occupy the same position and fulfill the same responsibilities as would a deacon? E. B., Mich.
For the sake of brevity and by reason of the fact that I find no completely satisfactory evidence in the New Testament that a group of women were selected from among and appointed by a New Testament church to serve permanently in the church in the same capacity as deacons, I did not discuss the question of deaconesses in my former article. I had the feeling that some reader would raise this point thus providing me with the opportunity of discussing this' matter in a separate article. I do not believe as our querist suggests that "it is a reasonable assumption that deaconesses would occupy the same position and fulfill the same responsibilities as deacons."
In the first place, such a position would ignore the quite obvious distinction made in the New Testament between the work of men in the church and the work of women. In Acts 6, though the work involved ministration (Gk. diakonia, from the same root word from which we have deacon and deaconess) to women, the Hellenistic widows, it is noteworthy that men, not women, were selected by the church and appointed by the apostles "over this business (KJV) or office" (Nestle-Marshall Greek Text and Literal English Translation). Can we safely ignore the fact that no women were included in this number? Too, this is in harmony with Paul's later admonition, "I suffer not a woman to teach or to usurp authority over the man . . ." (I Tim. 2:12). Therefore, we may not assume that deaconesses (whatever they were) "occupied the same position and fulfilled the same responsibilities as would deacons."
The case for the concept that, in the New Testament churches, there was a body of women in each church selected and appointed by the church on a permanent basis to serve in the same capacity as deacons has for its starting point a statement made by Paul in the Roman letter: "I commend unto you Phoebe, our sister, which is a servant (Gk., diakonon - deaconess, servant, minister) of the church which is at Cenchrea" (Rom. 16: 1). It is assumed from Paul's reference to Phoebe as a servant (the feminine form of the word from which deacon is derived) of the church that this is evidence of the existence of such bodies of women in New Testament churches as we have described above. This is an unwarranted assumption. The text in question says nothing of the kind of service performed by Phoebe nor does it remotely hint that she was a member of a permanent body of women, church servants.
Another passage generally cited in support of the theory concerning, a permanent body of deaconesses in each local church who fulfill the same responsibilities as deacons is I Tim 5:3-16. It is assumed that the widows here mentioned as "widows indeed" and as "charges" of the church were such, not simply for the purpose of benevolence, but a permanent body of women, church servants occupying an official or semi-official position. While we may not completely understand why certain qualifications were demanded of these widows who were wholly unrelated to physical need, we do not believe this passage of scripture furnishes enough evidence on which to base a certain conclusion relative to the existence of such an official body of women, church servants in apostolic churches known as "deaconesses."
Another passage of scripture commonly employed to sustain the contention that there were such bodies of women, church servants is I Tim. 3: 11. In connection with the qualifications of deacons, it is stated, "Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things." The American Standard Version and the Revised Standard Version translate the Greek word, gunaikas - wives, in this passage, women. Yet, the American Standard Version, in the very next verse translates the same word, wife. The lexicons show that the word gune, from which gunaikas is derived may mean either wife or woman. The context determines which word should be used to translate it. It is argued that, since nothing is said of the qualifications of an elder's wife, it is unlikely that special qualifications would be given for a deacon's wife, hence that the term should be translated women and not wives. From this inference, another inference is drawn; namely, that the women here mentioned are, therefore, the body of deaconesses to which reference has been made. I do not believe this reasoning to be conclusive. While I may not understand why the wives of the deacons were mentioned and not the wives of the elders (the writer could have intended for these qualifications to apply to both elders' and deacons' wives), I do not believe the inferences mentioned above are necessary inferences. They are no more than improvable assumptions.
I do not deny that women may serve as servants of a church in many capacities and in many situations. Women "labored with Paid in the gospel (i.e., the teaching of thee gospel)" (Phil. 4: 3). "Philip, the evangelist . . . had four daughters, virgins, which did prophesy" (Acts 21:8,9). I do deny that there is sufficient evidence in the New Testament to warrant the assumption that there existed in the apostolic churches bodies of women, church servants who served on a permanent basis as did the elders and deacons of the congregations. I do also deny that, even if such bodies existed, they served in the same position and fulfilled the same responsibilities as deacons.
TRUTH MAGAZINE, XV: 39, pp. 5-6