One of the key passages in the discussion over women deacons is 1 Timothy 3:11. For many people, this clearly shows that women are not to be deacons. The Greek in this sentence is very interesting, and as a result, many translations necessarily interpret it. The question is, do they interpret it correctly?
11 In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything. (NIV)
11 Likewise, their wives must be reverent, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things. (NKJV)
11 In the same way, their wives must be respected and must not speak evil of others. They must exercise self-control and be faithful in everything they do. (NLT)
11 In the same way, women must be respected by others. They must not speak evil of others. They must be self-controlled and trustworthy in everything. (NCV)
Many of these translations include a footnote indicating that the Greek word ”guna” can mean either woman or wife depending on the context. I can’t get the Greek text in here so it is legible, so forgive me. Here are the problems:
- There is no subject for this sentence. It is assumed (as in verse 8).
- There is no verb for this sentence. It, too, is assumed (as in verse 8).
- The word for women/wives is in the accusative, indicating that it is the direct object. It is first in the sentence to put stress, or emphasis, on it. Though “in the same way” something very different is being said than in verse 8. It has to do with women. Deacon/servant in verse 8 is also in the accusative.
- There is no possessive pronoun, which would clearly indicate that it means “wives” rather than “women.” Most translations add this (“their”) to the text.
- The rest of the sentence is largely made up of adjectives modifying women/wives.
So, the sentence reads like this: “In the same way [or likewise] (assumed subject & verb) honorable women/wives, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all (things).”
It is probably best for both verse 8 & 11 to have the verb supplied from verse 2: “It is necessary”, when discussing elders. Therefore: “In the same way, it is necessary (to be) honorable women/wives, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all (things).
So Paul moves either from elders => deacons =>wives => deacons
elders (only males) => deacons => female deacons => male deacons
The first makes sense until Paul returns to deacons. Why? I’ve heard no good argument for his return to deacons after discussing the character qualities of deacons’ (and elders’?) wives. But if Paul addresses deacons generally, and then some specific qualities of women deacons, and then male deacons, it makes more sense.
We take context into consideration. The historical context has men, not women, being able to initiate divorce proceedings. So a male deacon must be a “one woman man” and manage his family well. A female deacon would not be able to control their marital status, nor would she be managing the household, unless there is no husband. Therefore Paul would not have to address those issues regarding women.
The ambiguities of this passage bring us to ask additional questions in seeking to understand if Scripture permits women to be deacons. Some of those would be:
- is Acts 6 descriptive or prescriptive (and why)?
- Was Phoebe (Romans 16) a person who served or did she hold the office of deacon (as conservative an theologian as John Calvin thought she had the office)?
- Do deacons possess authority over others, or are they under the authority of the Session just as a wife is under the authority of her husband as she carries out the family business (see Proverbs 31)?
Not so simple now, is it? In this matter it is imperative for us to talk this through openly and without casting others in a negative light just because they don’t agree with us. There is room for honest disagreement on what this passage means among committed complementarians. We must submit to Scripture- regardless of where our personal preferences lie. So the task before us to seek to understand the Scriptures as best we can using the Grammatical-Historical method of interpretation under the guidance and illumination of the Spirit as we interact as a community of faith. Perhaps then there could be more unity among the confessionally Reformed churches (PCA, ARP, OPC, EPC et. al.) on this issue.