April 29, 2015
by Derrick G. Jeter
Paul made it clear that within the confines of the faith community, women were not permitted "to teach or exercise [spiritual] authority over a man" (1 Timothy 2:12). And because this was a primary responsibility of overseers (3:2, 5), the clear implication is that women are to be excluded from serving in that office. But does this mean women are excluded from all official positions within the church?
First Timothy 3:8–10, 12 refers to the qualifications of male deacons, but verse 11 seems to refer to the qualifications of female deacons. "Women must likewise be dignified." What are we to make of this reference? Scholars are divided on how best to interpret verse 11, offering three alternatives.
First, the verse refers to women in general. This seems unlikely because Paul already made a universal statement about women in the congregation (2:9–15). Sandwiching a general comment in the middle of a specific list regarding deacons seems schizophrenic.
Second, the verse refers to the wives of deacons (or perhaps to all church leaders, including overseers). The Greek noun gyne can be translated "wives" or "women," depending on the context. According to some interpreters, Paul was speaking about the wives of men in church leadership, because they serve alongside their husbands. However, this view has its problems. The possessive pronoun their—as in, "their wives"—appears nowhere in the original language. Paul took care to identify his subjects in other places; it would be out of character, therefore, for him to be ambiguous here. And the phrasing of verse 11 parallels verse 8 almost exactly, especially with the use of the word likewise, indicating that women and deacons are synonymous (and not a reference to deacons' or overseers' wives).
Third, the verse refers to women who serve as deacons—deaconesses. This interpretation makes better sense of the parallels between 1 Timothy 3:8 and 11. This view also makes sense because in the early church deacons didn't exercise spiritual authority over the church; deacons served the congregation. Furthermore, this interpretation better fits the context—that deaconesses, like deacons, must demonstrate godly character. Specifically, deaconesses are to be women of respect, honesty, self-control, and trustworthiness.