My denomination, among a number of conservative churches, is considering the role of women in the church from a new perspective. After years of debate around what women can’t do in the church, particularly around the role of pastor/elder/overseer, congregations are considering what women CAN do in the church. This is good, right, and long overdue.
Women can do all kinds of things in the Church, and God has gifted various women in various ways. But I want to focus in this post on just the serving office of deacon in the New Testament church and the need for women in it.
Growing up in the South, I attended various churches with various governing structures. Most of those structures indicated that the churches I attended didn’t feel particularly constrained by the specific way the New Testament talked of elders/overseers and deacons/servants as the offices for church governance and care. I sat under a Board of Stewards. I sat under deacons who actually ruled as elders. I sat under a preacher who ruled as an elder and gave no work to deacons at all. However, even though those churches had a loose view of the titles and instructions the New Testament gives for church governance and the qualifications for the men who held those offices, the conservative churches I attended still would not let women occupy any of those offices.
Over the last few decades, there has been a resurgence of churches conforming their church governing structures to the New Testament model, installing a plurality of governing elders and a group of serving deacons for the care of the church. This model fits my convictions of church governance, and it is in this particular model that I am burdened to see women robustly used as deacons, particularly in conservative cultures where I see them least used now.
I spent the last 13 years in churches with this type of church governance that also promoted women in the role of deacons. But I also lived in the Pacific Northwest and attended new church plants working to be relevant in their culture. In egalitarian Seattle, it was easy to embrace women as deacons when the culture pressured you to have women as elders as well. But the fact that leaders in Seattle were pressured to install women as elders against their convictions caused many to CAREFULLY examine Scripture. It caused elders to carefully examine Scripture to make sure they were being faithful to it. And it caused women to carefully examine Scripture to see if the Bible really did limit us that way, because not too many women I knew would be willing to sit under such limits unless it was clearly God Himself that was imposing the limits. I think that too is good and right.
In Seattle, my elders were willing to limit the roles of women based on Scripture, but they were not willing to limit it based on anything else. The pressure of our culture was a good thing, because in this case it pressed us against the truth of Scripture. Our choices were to conform to Scripture on women in the church or give up on Scriptural convictions altogether. The pressure of the culture benefited me and the churches I attended.
After spending over a decade standing against heavy cultural pressure to allow women as elders, I am now in a culture in the south with strong social pressure in conservative congregations against women as deacons. Often, even women do not want women as deacons in churches in conservative cultures. I have often heard that because deacons have been confused for elders in many baptist churches in the South, that women deacons are associated with a liberal church. Conservative churches in that culture don’t want to be viewed as liberal, so they then refuse to promote women in the role of deacon.
Despite the clear difference in these two pressures from two very different cultures, one toward having women elders and one away from having women deacons, I note similarities in their reasoning. One presses us up against Scripture in an effort to press us beyond it, and if not for the Scriptural limitations, churches would conform. The other line of reasoning presses us away from Scripture. Instead of pushing us to do as much as Scripture allows, it sets up road blocks between us and the Scriptural standard. It sees Scripture only as a final limit, not the actual press to which we should be conformed. In the conservative mindset, it is ok to do less than what Scripture allows, as long as we don’t do more.
Both of these mindsets end up with us not conformed to the standard of Scripture. If we go past Scripture from a liberal end or refuse to move up to it from the conservative end, we have capitulated to culture either way. Particularly troubling in the conservative response is that we have denied women the use of their gifts in the Church as God allows.
Capitulation to culture shouldn’t be allowed from either end of the cultural spectrum. Some liberals deny the place for distinctions in roles between men and women in church leadership, but some conservatives deny the place for overlapping roles in church leadership and service that the Bible demonstrates. In liberal cultures, the orthodox church needs to teach a biblical view of elders and deacons and why the role of elder is limited to qualified men. In conservative cultures, the orthodox church needs to teach a biblical view of elders and deacons and why the role of deacon is open to qualified women.
In case you are unfamiliar with the Scriptural case for women deacons, here’s a brief overview. The argument for female deacons is fairly straightforward from Scripture and closely fits the argument for male only eldership. Conservatives generally argue against female eldership in Scripture because the qualifications of elders are always talked about in male only terms, and there is no example of a female elder in the church (Junia was possibly an apostle, but that office is distinctly different than the role of elder in the local church). Using the same reasoning for limiting the office of elder, we see that the office of deacon is open to women since Phoebe is mentioned by Paul in Romans 16 as a deacon, and women are mentioned in the qualifications of deacons in I Timothy 3. Conservatives undermine the Biblical premise for the office of elder being male only when they don’t also embrace the role of Deaconess in Scripture.
Note also that women served in the role of Deaconess historically in the Church. It is well documented that women served as deacons for the first 1000 years of the church. Though the practice waned around the time of the Great Schism between East and West, John Calvin reinstituted the office of Deaconess as part of his reforms of medieval church polity. Informed by the example of the Early Church and by Scripture, Calvin was a proponent of the office of Deaconess throughout his life. He saw the office of Deaconess as a public office of the church and had an order of Deaconesses in Geneva primarily composed of older widows.
I am hopeful that having female deacons will become the norm among conservative evangelical churches once again. We need to cultivate the spiritual gifts of women and then use those gifts in the ways that God intends. We need to value the particular aspects of HELP (in the strongest sense of the word ezer) that God created women to bring to the table in His image. If we deny women the office of Deaconess when God hasn’t, we can push women toward accepting either feminism or chauvinism. We haven’t given them a Biblical norm.
There are two great dangers in Biblical interpretation. The first danger is to say “Yes” where God has said “No.” This danger is real, and we should be diligent to guard against it. The other great danger, however, is to say “No” where God has said “Yes”. Both dangers result in a church that is not conformed to Scripture. If God has said “Yes” to women deacons, then so should we. This doesn’t mean that every church has to have women deacons – maybe there aren’t any women who are qualified or who are gifted for that type of ministry in a particular congregation. But if our churches do have such women, it is a disservice to deny them an office that Scripture provides. It’s a disservice to the church she would serve as much as the woman so gifted. It’s a disservice as well for church leaders to turn a blind eye toward the need to disciple women toward this end.
Just as Christian leaders should not capitulate to a culture that wants to go past what Scripture allows, it should not capitulate to a culture that wants to do less. If our congregations don’t see the purpose and value of the role of Deaconess from Scripture, they need to be discipled in it.
By Wendy Alsup