(1 Tim. 3:11) Are these instructions for “female deacons” or “the wives of deacons?”

CLAIM: Paul refers to “women” (gunē) in the context of referring to deacons. This term can be rendered as “women” or “wives.” Therefore, Paul can either be referring to “female deacons” or the “wives of deacons.” Which is it?

RESPONSE: At this period in history, the feminine form of deacon (diakonissa) didn’t exist yet.[1] So, Paul couldn’t have used that term. That being said, a number of observations can be made in support of the claim that Paul is thinking of “female deacons” or “deaconesses.”

First, grammatically, this is referring to female deacons—not the wives of deacons. If Paul was referring to “the wives of deacons,” we would expect him to call them “their wives.” That is, we would expect Paul to include the word “their” (auton) before the word “women.” The ESV and NIV include this in their translation, but it doesn’t exist in the original Greek.[2]

Second, contextually, this is referring to female deacons—not the wives of deacons. Ask yourself: Why would Paul give character requirements for the wives of deacons but not the wives of elders? If Paul gave character requirements for deacons’ wives, wouldn’t he give even higher requirements for elders’ wives? However, he doesn’t even mention the wives of elders—let alone character qualifications for them.[3]

Moreover, the use of the word “likewise” (hōsautōs) looks back to the office of deacons (v.11), just as Paul used the same word (hōsautōs) when he transitioned from elders to deacons (v.8). Both uses of this word refer to leadership roles—not being married to a leader.

Third, lexically, there is no term for “deaconess.” The only Greek word for “deacon” (diakonos) is a masculine word.[4] And yet, Phoebe (a girl!) is referred to as a diakonos (Rom. 16:1). Therefore, if one wonders why Paul didn’t mention “deaconesses” in the church, this was because there was no word in use.

Fourth, historically, female deacons existed in the early church. For instance, Phoebe is a “deaconess” (Rom. 16:1). In the original Greek, diakonos is used for Phoebe, as well as for “deacons” here in this passage (1 Tim. 3:8, 12). It would be inconsistent to claim that Phoebe was not a deacon when it uses the exact same word here in 1 Timothy 3. Moreover, Pliny refers to “two female slaves, who were styled deaconesses” in the early second century church (Pliny the Younger Letters 10:96).

[1] Mounce states that the word doesn’t appear until the Council of Nicea in the 4th century AD (canon 19). William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, vol. 46, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2000), 202.

[2] Ralph Earle, “1 Timothy,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 11 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 368.

[3] Mounce argues that deacons’ wives would be more involved with the practical ministry, such as home visitations. So, deacons’ wives would be more known to the congregation, and this is why Paul brings up their character qualifications. By contrast, Mounce argues, elders’ wives wouldn’t be teaching or leading, so they wouldn’t need to be mentioned. However, this assumes that deacons do nothing more than home visitations and practical ministry. This view needs to be proven—not merely assumed. (And an appeal to Acts 6 will not bear the weight of this assumption.) Moreover, even if this was the case, one would need to defend the fact that the deacons’ wives were doing all of this sort of ministry. How could we know that only the deacons’ wives visited home—not elders’ wives? Wouldn’t elders’ wives be known widely among the congregation? Again, this needs to be proven—not merely assumed. William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, vol. 46, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2000), 204.

[4] Thomas D. Lea and Hayne P. Griffin, 1, 2 Timothy, Titus, vol. 34, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 120.