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

CLAIM: The Greek word is gune (pronounced goo-NAY). In context, it can either be translated as “female deacons” or the “wives of deacons.” Which is it?

RESPONSE: While the interpretation of this passage isn’t certain, a number of observations can be made in support of the “female deacon” or “deaconess” interpretation.

First, grammatically, this is referring to female deacons. If Paul was referring to “the wives of deacons,” he would have included the word “their” before the word women. The ESV and NIV include this in their translation, but it doesn’t exist in the original Greek.[1]

Second, contextually, this is referring to female 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 mention any requirements for elders’ wives. Moreover, the use of the word “likewise” modifies both deacons (v.8) and female deacons (v.11). Paul seems to be lumping these two groups together.

Third, 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] Earle writes, “The main argument against this is that the word for “their” is missing in the Greek.” Earle, R. 1 Timothy. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 11: Ephesians through Philemon (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.) Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1981. 368.