TGOC Bible Class Curricula – The Church of Christ (1st Quarter) - Lesson 7

Are Deaconesses Included?

In recent years there has been a renewed interest in the revival of “deaconesses” in the denominational groups. This renewed interest has not, however, been limited to the denominational groups, but is being seen in some groups who still call themselves a “church of Christ.” Every year, more and more “churches of Christ” (at least they still go by that name) are appointing women of their number to the office of “deacon”. This is such a rapidly growing trend that it deserves our attention.


I. Deaconesses in History:

Throughout church history, one can see the practice of appointing women to the office of deacon. It was a very common practice beginning about the fourth century, but started declining when some who had already divided from the Lord’s church dispensed with the practice of immersion, opting for sprinkling for baptism instead (which, no doubt, is scripturally impossible because “baptism” means “immersion” or “burial,” Romans 6:3-4; Colossians 2:11-12).

We cannot go to the scriptures for examples of deaconesses in the church because there aren’t any. We must turn to the historical writers of the times and piece together their comments to get a picture of this practice.

The earliest mention of a departure in the church concerning the use of women deacons (deaconesses) was made by, Pliny, the Roman Governor of Bithynia, in a letter to Emperor Trajan about A.D. 112. He was trying to get information on the activities of Christians, and he wrote: “I judged it so much the more necessary to extract the real truth, with the assistance of torture, from two female slaves, who were styled deaconesses; but I could discover nothing more than depraved and excessive superstition.”(A.D. 112, Letters, Book 10: 96: 8, addressed to Emperor Trajan)

In A.D. 180-200, Clement of Alexandria wrote about the existence of four offices in the church: “presbyters, bishops, deacons, and widows.” (Instructor, 3:12:97) (Personal comment: Some writers interpret widows to be the office of deaconess.)

In his comments on the apostolic origin of female deacons he wrote, “The women whom…the apostles…took around with them were not wives but, as befitted the apostle’s dedication to an undistracted preaching ministry, sisters, fellow ministers to the women who kept house. So the Lord’s teaching made its way into the women’s quarters too, and in a manner above reproach; for we know what the honorable Paul in one of his letters to Timothy prescribed regarding female deacons. (Stromata, 3:6:53)

From the “Apostolic Constitutions”, the adaptation of the “Didascalia”, and writers such as Martimort and John Crysostom, we learn that the duties of deaconesses were limited to service to the women and children of the church. She assisted the priest in the baptism of women. (There is some indication that women were baptized in the nude) and in any other function that required women to remove their clothes. She could teach other women and children but never a man. She visited the sick, ministered to their needs, and in some instances, could administer communion to women and children. Her ministry was not equal to that of the male deacons in the church. She was never allowed to perform any of the duties that had been set aside for the presbytery or the priests. She was always considered to be lower and less important than them. It appears from these writings, and others, that the deaconess ministered only to the needs of the women of the church.

These historical accounts indicate that women did, in fact, occupy a position as a deaconess in some early (4th century) churches. Our concern in this lesson is to determine if God authorized women to assume the office of a deaconess as part of the divine organization of Jesus’ church. 

II. What is God’s pattern for His church?

The word “deacon” (as we have already seen) is a word taken from the Greek word DIAKONOS [Probably form DIAKO(obsolete, to run on errands); an attendant, that is, (generally) a waiter (at table or in other menial duties):—deacon, minister, servant]. (Strong)

Most of the time the word DIAKONOS does not refer to a select group of Christians who are appointed to a special work of the church. In fact, only twice does it refer to the office of a deacon. It is used once in Philippians chapter 1, verse 1. “1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons.” Then again 1 Timothy 3:8-13,“8 Deacons, likewise, are to be men worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. 9 They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons. 11 In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything. 12 A deacon must be the husband of but one wife and must manage his children and his household well. 13 Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus.” 

If it were the case that every time the word DIAKONOS appeared in the Scriptures it either referred to the office of deacon or to a person selected for the office, then the following would have occupied the office of deacon (-ness):

1. Jesus (because on two occasions the word DIAKONOS was used in reference to Him: Romans 15:7-8; Galatians 2:17)

2. Paul (because five times he either called himself DIAKONOS or was called that by someone else: 2 Corinthians 3:4-6; 6:3-6; 11:22-23; Ephesians 3:7-9; Colossians 1:23-25)

3. Phoebe (However, the word used DIAKONOS is a masculine word used only for men. There was no word in the original text for “deaconess”. This word was not coined until the 4th century. Think about it! If there was no word for it when Paul wrote to the Romans, could it have been because there was no need for it? If the church was selecting women to be deacons, surely Paul would have used the proper word to identify Phoebe as a deaconess in the church. See Romans 16:1)

4. Apollo (1Corinthians 3:5)

5. Tychicus (Ephesians 6:21; Colossians 4:7-8)

6. Epaphras (Colossians 1:6-8)

7. Timothy (1 Thessalonians 3:1-3; 1 Timothy 4:6)

8. All Christians (Matthew 20:25-28; 23:10-11; Mark 9:35; 10:42-45; John 12:23)

9. All those in service to the king (Matthew 20:12-13)

10. All those in service to the master of the house at the wedding in Cana of Galilee (John 2:5-9)

From this, we learn that just because the word DIAKONOS is used to describe a person, this does not automatically mean that such a person occupies the office of a deacon. Context must determine how this word is being used.

III. The qualifications for deacons do not support the selection of a woman:

We also saw, in the previous chapter, not just any person was selected to this office. Those selected had to meet very strict qualifications. Some of the qualifications are listed below:

1. They must be men. This is the very first statement out of the mouth of the apostle Paul to Timothy in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. “8Deacons, likewise, are to be men worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain.

In Acts 6:2-6 Paul told the brethren to choose seven men of good report. Here a different word is used but is still translated man. [ANER: A primary word (compare G444); a man (properly as an individual male):—fellow, husband, man, sir.] It is very clear in these two verses that the writer is telling us that men (not women) were selected for the office of deacon in the church.

2. They must manage their house and children well. Ephesians 5:22-23 indicates the manager or overseer of the house is the man, by God’s choosing. “22 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” This requirement also can only be filled by a man.

3. They must be the husband of one wife. Even by today’s standards, where it is not unheard of for a woman to have a wife, could a woman meet this requirement. She may have one wife, but she could never be a husband.

Some incorrectly claim that 1 Timothy 3:11 lists qualifications for a deaconess. In 1 Timothy 2:11-14 Paul states that God made man to be head over the woman; and she was to be submissive to him (v. 11). He further states that a woman is not permitted to teach a man or have any authority over him (v. 12).

This was not a custom of the time. In 1 Corinthians 14:33-38 Paul says that a woman must keep silent in the worship assembly and to be submissive to the man. Then he says, “…as the law says.” He further writes, “37 If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command then he assured them that the words he wrote were not his words (not custom) but the law and the Lord’s command. If we choose to ignore God’s commands God will ignore us!

There are many wonderful works for a woman to do in the church. But, to seek and/or accept any position in the church where she has authority over a man or is not in submission to the man is a violation of the commands of God, and is sinful.

IV. God’s Place for Women in the Church.

The creation principle of “the law” is that God made the woman subject to the man (Genesis 1-2; 1 Timothy 2:11,12; 1 Corinthians 14:34,35), and He gave the man the rule over her (1 Corinthians 11:3). Woman’s subjective role has never been an issue of custom, but of design. It is a God-given role that must be assumed by godly women through all ages.


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