Women Preachers, Elders, and Deacons?
For hundreds and hundreds of years, only men served the Lord’s church as evangelists, elders, and deacons. Today, more and more churches are appointing women to these public roles, where they teach over women and men. Is this new practice acceptable to God? Has God expressed His will on this matter, or are churches free to use men and women however they see fit? This article addresses several questions that are commonly raised regarding the role of women in church leadership, which are:
- “Can women teach other men, or speak to a general assembly as an evangelist, preacher, or minister?”
- “Can women meet the qualifications for the office of elder or deacon?”
- “What can women to do for the church?”
- “Since men and women have different God-given roles, is either gender inferior or less valuable?”
- Feedback and Comments
The answers provided here are by no means exhaustive. Only the most commonly raised objections are examined here. After reading this article, if an adequate response has not been provided to your concern, please see the closing Feedback and Comments section, where links to related discussions are provided, as well as means to directly contact the author, who would appreciate nothing more than the opportunity to study God’s Word in light of any feedback or concern.
Please open your Bible and read the verses for yourself, as we examine God’s instruction for the role of women in the New Testament church.
Question: “Can women teach other men, or speak to a general assembly as an evangelist, preacher, or minister?”
Regarding women teaching men publicly as evangelists, please note that this is strictly forbidden in Scripture:
“Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.” (I Timothy 2:11-14)
Not only are women not “to teach or to have authority over a man”, but they are to “learn in silence with all submission”. This passage clearly prohibits women teaching mixed-crowds, as would an evangelist, preacher, or teacher over mixed gatherings.
Some may contend that this passage is not applicable today, arguing that Paul was writing to a specific church in a specific culture in a specific time. First, this is an unwarranted assertion that must be justified from the text. Second, please notice that this command was not rooted in the culture of Paul’s time, rather the inspired reason sprang from the order established by two universal facts: the creation and the fall of man (“For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.”). The God-provided roles of men and women are therefore as universal as the descendents of Adam and Eve exist and as far as the consequences of Adam’s and Eve’s sin spread (Genesis 3:16, 20).
Furthermore, Paul gave similar instruction to the Corinthian women to not speak out during the assembly:
Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church. Or did the word of God come originally from you? Or was it you only that it reached? If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord. (I Corinthians 14:34-37)
Again, Paul equates these statements to the “commandments of God”, which all spiritual people are to “acknowledge” (I Corinthians 14:37). They are not Paul’s opinion, judgment, or advice. They are “commandments of God”! How can they be dismissed without questioning Paul’s apostleship, doubting the inerrancy of Scripture, or rebelling against God, since they proceeded by inspiration from Him and are preserved by Him (I Peter 1:23-35)?
Others may insist that Christians should hold to Jesus Christ’s example of love, overlook the apostle Paul’s command, and permit women to preach to their joy and the joy of those who hear them. Although Jesus certainly holds authority over Paul, it was Jesus who commissioned Paul and authorized him as His ambassador:
“So I said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of the things which you have seen and of the things which I will yet reveal to you. (Acts 26:15-16)
Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. (II Corinthians 5:20)
If we reject those whom Jesus sent, are we not rejecting Him and the One Who sent Him?
“He who hears you hears Me, he who rejects you rejects Me, and he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me.” (Luke 10:16)
Although the above was spoken to the 70 sent by Jesus, would it not apply to all that Jesus sent, including His own apostles? In both cases the authority of those sent proceeds from Jesus from the Father, and that is common between the 70 and the apostles, since both groups were chosen, commissioned, and sent by Jesus. To reject these divinely inspired commands from Paul and the other apostles is to reject Jesus and the Father (Ephesians 2:20; 3:3-5)! There is no difference, because Jesus established it that way.
Women Elders or Deacons?
Question: “Can women meet the qualifications for the office of elders or deacons?”
“This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, ... Likewise deacons must be reverent, not double-tongued, .... Likewise their wives must be reverent, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things. Let deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.” (I Timothy 3:1-12, see also Titus 1:5-9)
Please note that a “bishop must be”. These are not “nice to have” virtues, but mandatory qualifications for a “bishop”, also known as an elder, overseer, pastor, and presbyter in the New Testament. One of these essential prerequisites is that an elder must be the husband of one wife. Not only does this rule out adulterers and polygamists from serving as elders, but it also eliminates women! How can a woman be the husband of one wife, since such homosexuality is condemned elsewhere (Romans 1:21-32)?
Regarding women serving as deacons, it is true that the phrase “must be” is formatted in italics in most versions. This indicates that the words are not explicitly present in the original, but the translators thought they were implied, and so they supplied the words, “must be”, for readability. In this particular case, the words are necessarily implied, since Paul says “likewise deacons - reverent, ...”. The word “likewise” necessitates that the qualifications for deacons are similar to those for elders, but in what way? The qualifications themselves are different. The works and offices are different. The similarity lies in the necessary demonstration of both sets of qualifications. Just as elders “must be” certain things, deacons “likewise must be” certain things, although those things themselves differ. The translators did well in this case by noting the common necessity for candidates to satisfy their respective qualifications.
Therefore, the argument against women serving as elders also applies for deacons, because Paul says, “Let deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.” This is a mandate. Therefore, how can a woman meet this qualification?
Now, some may argue that verse 11 gives parallel qualifications for female deacons, or “deaconesses”, as they may be called. Let us examine this verse in the full context of the qualifications for deacons:
Likewise deacons must be reverent, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy for money, holding the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience. But let these also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons, being found blameless. Likewise their wives must be reverent, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things. Let deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a good standing and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus. (I Timothy 3:8-13, NKJV)
The seeming potential for this argument arises from the ambiguity of the Greek word for “wives”. In fact, there was no unique word for “wives” in Greek, the language in which the New Testament was originally written. Moreover, the word translated as “wives” in the KJV, NKJV, ESV, and RSV is literally the word for “women”. In Greek, one must look at the context to determine, whether “women generally” or “wives specifically” was the intended meaning.
Examining the context in this particular case, if Paul intended to give parallel qualifications specific for female deacons versus male deacons, why does he not refer to women deacons and then to men deacons, or to women and then to men? Why does he consistently, only refer to women and deacons masculine, if they both are deacons? Nowhere in this passage does Paul refer to deacons feminine. Only deacons masculine and separately women are discussed. He does not treat the subjects as parallel with one set of qualifications specific to women and the other set specific to men. Instead, he gives qualifications to the “deacons”, then “women”, and finally he gives more to the “deacons” again. The lack of parallel treatment in the context indicates that the subjects were not parallel. Instead these are to be understood as requirements for the “women” of deacons, that is their “wives”.
Admittedly, Phoebe is called a “deaconess” in Romans 16:1, as is translated by the NIV, RSV, and NRS; however, this does not necessarily mean she filled a special female office of “deacon”. This becomes clearer when one understands a little about the Greek word for “deacon”, which is “diakonos”. Our word “deacon” is an almost letter-for-letter exchange of their Greek word, a transliteration. Most of the time “diakonos” is translated as “servant” or “minister”. It was a common word that was used to refer to someone who serves or takes care of another. On some occasions, it refers to a special office or position within the church, whose primary purpose is to serve the church in some special way. Only the context reveals which meaning was intended. (For example, notice how elders and deacons are recognized separately from the other saints at the church in Philippi, even though all saints are to be servants, “diakonos”, Philippians 1:1-2.)
Furthermore, we must ask ourselves if the context of the entire Bible supports Phoebe being a female deacon, or a female servant of the church. In other words, in accordance with the remainder of the New Testament, could she have been a special servant serving an office, or was she an ordinary servant as all Christians are to be? This is the only other passage to suggest such a special role. Since it stands alone without backing, and since it could be translated either way, why would one translate it in this special way, unless they had a preconceived notion to do so? In fact, many other translations indeed translate the word here as “servant”, instead of “deaconess” (KJV, NKJV, ASV, NASB, ESV, NET, BBE, CSB). Therefore, not only do women not satisfy the mandatory requirements for the offices of elder and deacon, the possible proof-texts supporting this claim cannot withstand scrutiny.
The Essential Role of Women!
Question: “What can women to do for the church?”
Even though women do not take public leadership roles within the church, this in no way diminishes the service they provide the Lord, neither does it reduce the impact they may have on His people. In fact, both genders are interdependent upon each other:
For man is not from woman, but woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man. ... Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God. (I Corinthians 11:8-12)
Beyond biological interdependency, mothers are generally the ones who spend so much time with young ones, forming their world-view, guiding their personalities, and molding their priorities. When children are hurt, whose name do they cry, seeking help and comfort? Although women may not stand in front of the current generation, publicly calling for reform or leading the way, they do shape the next generation, preparing them to lead and be led in God’s way. For example, Timothy was a well-known evangelist of the first century, chosen and mentored by the apostle Paul. Why did Paul select Timothy to help him in spreading the gospel?
Then he came to Derbe and Lystra. And behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a certain Jewish woman who believed, but his father was Greek. He was well spoken of by the brethren who were at Lystra and Iconium. (Acts 16:1-2)
Even before Paul found Timothy, he had already developed a reputation as a fine, young, Christian man among the churches of his area. How did Timothy grow into such a young man? How did Paul remember Timothy?
... when I call to remembrance the genuine faith that is in you, which dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am persuaded is in you also. (II Timothy 1:5)
Every sermon that Timothy preached, every life he touched, every soul he saved, his mother and grandmother played some part in equipping him — influencing him — to be such an influential servant for the Lord! And, so it is for every mother, who raises godly children and teaches them to sincerely seek the Lord.
But, it is not just their own children that women may influence. Please notice the instructions given to older women and the qualifications that Paul gives for widows, who are to be taken into the permanent care of the church:
... the older women likewise, that they be reverent in behavior, not slanderers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things — that they admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed. (Titus 2:3-5)
“Do not let a widow under sixty years old be taken into the number, and not unless she has been the wife of one man, well reported for good works: if she has brought up children, if she has lodged strangers, if she has washed the saints’ feet, if she has relieved the afflicted, if she has diligently followed every good work. But refuse the younger widows; ... Therefore I desire that the younger widows marry, bear children, manage the house, give no opportunity to the adversary to speak reproachfully.” (I Timothy 5:9-14)
Raising children and running a house is an essential critical work, which produces the next generation of faithful saints, who will go forward and influence people we may never know or meet. This profound work requires skill and virtue, which is to be passed down from one generation to the next — not just mother to daughter, but “older women ... to ... young women”. Many women may not have enjoyed the blessing of a godly home. Others may have started building a new family miles away from their first family. Regardless of the occasion, whenever older women have an opportunity to “admonish the young women”, they are blessed and honored to pass the torch!
Christians have a spiritual enemy, who is constantly seeking opportunity to devour them (I Peter 5:8). Women’s work is so critical, whether in their home or in service to another, this enemy is known to use any failings there to blaspheme our God and His people, casting dim light on those who have come out of darkness. Let us not think so lightly of the woman’s role in God’s plan that we provide “opportunity to the adversary to speak reproachfully”, avoiding “that the word of God may not be blasphemed”. There are those always watching us. If we turn away from the pattern of God’s will, because it does not suit us or make sense to us, how can we expect others watching to do what we are unwilling to do — walk by faith?
Furthermore, Christian women can accomplish great things in service toward others! Look at the tremendous impact that just one woman had on the early church:
At Joppa there was a certain disciple named Tabitha, which is translated Dorcas. This woman was full of good works and charitable deeds which she did. But it happened in those days that she became sick and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in an upper room. ... Then Peter arose and went with them. When he had come, they brought him to the upper room. And all the widows stood by him weeping, showing the tunics and garments which Dorcas had made while she was with them. But Peter put them all out, and knelt down and prayed. And turning to the body he said, “Tabitha, arise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up. Then he gave her his hand and lifted her up; and when he had called the saints and widows, he presented her alive. (Acts 9:36-41)
Not only were all the widows in this one church devastated by the passing of this one woman, some if not the entire church had come to mourn her passing at her home!
Time would fail me to remind of Ruth, Rahab, Deborah, Sarah, the mother of Jesus, Mary, Martha, the Shunammite woman, and so many other women, who influenced history and nations. Please do not despise the great gift and honor God has bestowed upon women, jealously eye what was tasked to men, and forsake one’s rightful place to seize the place of another. (Remember the example of the angels, who “left their place”, Jude 1:6-7.) Consider all of the people dependent upon the following virtuous woman, whose lives were touched, uplifted, and enhanced by her:
Who can find a virtuous wife? For her worth is far above rubies.
The heart of her husband safely trusts her; So he will have no lack of gain.
She does him good and not evil All the days of her life.
She seeks wool and flax, And willingly works with her hands.
She is like the merchant ships, She brings her food from afar.
She also rises while it is yet night, And provides food for her household, And a portion for her maidservants.
She considers a field and buys it; From her profits she plants a vineyard.
She girds herself with strength, And strengthens her arms.
She perceives that her merchandise is good, And her lamp does not go out by night.
She stretches out her hands to the distaff, And her hand holds the spindle.
She extends her hand to the poor, Yes, she reaches out her hands to the needy.
She is not afraid of snow for her household, For all her household is clothed with scarlet.
She makes tapestry for herself; Her clothing is fine linen and purple.
Her husband is known in the gates, When he sits among the elders of the land.
She makes linen garments and sells them, And supplies sashes for the merchants.
Strength and honor are her clothing; She shall rejoice in time to come.
She opens her mouth with wisdom, And on her tongue is the law of kindness.
She watches over the ways of her household, And does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children rise up and call her blessed; Her husband also, and he praises her:
“Many daughters have done well, But you excel them all.”
Charm is deceitful and beauty is passing, But a woman who fears the LORD, she shall be praised.
The work of women is essential, valuable, and beautiful. The warmth, kindness, hospitality, generosity, and tenderness of a home often proceeds from the woman. Loving, happy homes generally consist of humble, content, and meek women, who understand their place in God’s great scheme and maximize it. Likewise, if you find a church filled with friendly, inviting, gracious, sacrificial, humble Christians, you will generally find a congregation influenced strongly by knowledgeable, godly women. Furthermore, please consider: Why else would deacons’ wives have qualifications too? Why else must elders and deacons even have wives? Wives provide something special to these men — their wives make them whole and complete in some way (Genesis 2:18, 21-24), such that the men are unfit to serve otherwise. Even my own wife and mother have each provided me untold wisdom, perspective, and counsel through the years, which has sustained our families in times of difficulty and question. I dare not imagine our families without them.
Are Women Inferior?
Question: “Since men and women have different God-given roles, is either gender inferior or less valuable?” “Does this make them inferior in any way?”
Absolutely not! No religion has done more for women of the world than Christianity, but that’s no reason. ... Unless you consider Jesus inferior to the Father, there is no inferiority in the role of women compared to that of men:
“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.” (Philippians 2:5-7)
Jesus was in the same form as the Father, and Jesus being equal to the Father was not something to be taken - He already had it! Instead, He submitted Himself to the Father and became as a man in form and submission. Was He inferior to God? Paul says not, even though Jesus was and remains in submission to God (I Corinthians 11:3).
Moreover, Jesus submitted Himself to His apostles, when He picked up a towel and washed their feet at the last supper (John 13:1-17). By doing so, He left us a clear example of true greatness. Greatness is not found in human recognition of carnal superiority or extent of rule. True greatness is a spiritual quality, exhibited by humility, love, mercy, and willingness to serve others in need. Christ left the most profound example of true greatness, when He gave His life for us on the cross.
If we see men as being superior to women, just because men are given the responsibility of public leadership, then we are still thinking as carnal, immature, pagan Gentiles:
“Now there was also a dispute among them, as to which of them should be considered the greatest. And He said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called 'benefactors.' But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves. For who is greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves? Is it not he who sits at the table? Yet I am among you as the One who serves.’” (Luke 22:24-27)
“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’” (Matthew 18:1-4)
As long as we strive for greatness in the eyes of men, we will fail to grasp the true nature of Christ’s kingdom, and we will by no means find entrance.
Lastly, please recall that these roles are temporary:
“For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:26-28)
There is no prejudice according to race, gender, or class in Jesus. All are one in Jesus. Moreover, we know that men and women lose their gender identity in the resurrection. As strange as it sounds, Jesus said we will be like angels, neither male (“marry”) nor female (“given in marriage”, Matthew 22:23-33), because of our new incorruptible, spiritual bodies (I Corinthians 15:35-58)! How can there be any real inferiority when there is no essential, transcendent difference?
Feedback and Comments
This article has generated several comments and questions over the years. The following posts in our forums capture some of the more common questions, feelings, and arguments:
- http://forums.insearchoftruth.org/isot239.html — What about the prophetesses, Deborah, Anna, and Huldah? Where is the equality, if different?
- http://forums.insearchoftruth.org/isot93.html — As a a woman pastor, my men are NOT wimps, I know who I am, and our church is growing!
- http://forums.insearchoftruth.org/isot347.html — But, the Bible is full of women who influenced men!? Plus, men are failing us, and using women pastors just plain works!
- http://forums.insearchoftruth.org/isot185.html — Is it biblical for a woman to be a preacher?
- http://forums.insearchoftruth.org/isot198.html — Woman teaching high school age boys?
- http://forums.insearchoftruth.org/isot3842.html — Can women speak in Bible study or the assembly?
- http://forums.insearchoftruth.org/isot3745.html — HOW TO BE A GOOD EVANGELIST AS A WOMAN?
- http://forums.insearchoftruth.org/isot76.html — Can women serve the church in “deacon” teams?
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