Friday, July 31, 2009

A Revealing Letter

I am still going through the material that proves the existence of women deacons in the West—so today, I’m back with a letter from Pope Benedict VIII to Benedict, Bishop of Porto. The Pope confirmed a number of privileges and concessions for the Bishop, among them the issue of ordination of women deacons:

“In the same way, we concede and confirm to you and to your successors in perpetuity every episcopal ordination (ordinationem episcopalem), not only of presbyters but also of deacons OR DEACONESSES (diaconissis) or subdeacons.”

Regarding this letter, Madigan and Osiek write:

“IN SPITE OF ALL THE EARLIER EFFORTS OF WESTERN COUNCILS TO ELIMINATE DEACONESSES, it is remarkable to find a pope, early in the ELEVENTH CENTURY not only recognizing the office of deaconess but acknowledging that THE RITE OF INITIATION IS AN ORDINATION” (“Ordained Women in the Early Church,” page 148).

In addition, notice that the “deaconesses” are placed in the same group as “deacons” and “presbyters.” Deaconesses were considered to be part of the ordained leadership of the church.

But the attitude of many evangelical conservatives today has strayed from the attitude of their ancestors. John Hammett, author of “Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology,” lays out both sides of the issue regarding whether or not women should be deacons:

“The Interpreter’s Bible treatment of this verse helpfully summarizes the arguments on both sides. In favor of seeing the verse as referring to deaconesses are the following:
1. It appears in a context dealing specifically with church order.
2. The word ‘hosautos,’ [meaning] ‘in the same way,’ is used in verse 8 to introduce the qualifications for deacons; its usage in verse 11 indicates the introduction of a new category parallel to deacons.
3. The virtues required in verse 11 are similar to those required for deacons, arguing for a similar office.
4. If verse 11 refers to deacons’ wives, why is there no reference to the wives of elders?
5. If the writer meant to refer to wives, he would have added the pronoun ‘their,’ but it is missing.

In support of the view that ‘gynaikas’ refers to the wives of deacons are the following points:
1. If the writer meant deaconess, why use ‘gynaikas’?
2. The list of qualifications is much shorter than that for deacons or elders, too short for a new office.
3. There is an office for women, discussed at length in 1 Timothy 5:9-16.
4. Deacons’ wives fits the flow of thought in verses 8-13 (deacons, their wives, their marital and family life).
5. Deacons’ wives would inevitably be involved in their ministries to some extent and, therefore, needed to be women of character, not prone to gossiping or drunkenness.”
(“Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology,” by John S. Hammett. Grand Rapids, Mi.: Kregel Publications, 2005, pages 199-200.)

After listing the arguments from both sides, Hammett gives his choice:

“Of the two sets of arguments the arguments in favor of deaconess appear to be the weaker…three of the arguments for seeing ‘gynaikas’ as wives (arguments 1,4, and 5) are quite strong and without convincing rebuttal from the opposing side. Therefore, it seems that 1 Timothy 3:11 is not a biblical basis for the office of deacon, but rather, adds another qualification for the office of deacon. To be qualified for the office of deacon, a man MUST HAVE A WIFE OF CHARACTER, who can be trusted to assist her husband in the diaconal ministry” (200).

I could attack all the arguments that Hammett lists for the other side, but I will invest my time in dealing with the three powerful arguments he thinks are the best against the idea of women deacons.
First, there is argument #1: “If the writer meant ‘deaconess,’ why use ‘gynaikas’? The term ‘deaconess’ did not come into existence until, at the earliest, the third century. Paul’s letter was written to Timothy in the first century AD; this means that the word ‘deaconess’ would not have been used here by Paul, since the term itself didn’t become a part of ordinary language until at least TWO-HUNDRED YEARS later.
Secondly, Paul uses the word ‘gynaikas’ to distinguish from the male deacons he has just mentioned in the text. The first deacons of the church were appointed in Acts 6, due to the need for servants to aid the everyday needs of the people (Gentile widows). The apostles said the following:

"It would not be right for us to give up preaching about God to wait on tables. 3 Therefore, brothers, select from among you seven men of good reputation, (C) full of the Spirit (D) and wisdom, whom we can appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the preaching ministry." (Acts 6:2-4, Holman Christian Standard Bible)

The word for “men” here is “andras,” which means that only seven MALES were selected. Paul had to distinguish females (women) from males (men), so the word “women” is used instead of “deaconess.” The fact that Paul mentioned “women” in a section on deacons shows us that Paul was not as against women in church leadership as most conservatives believe.

The next response Hammett valued was that “the deacon’s wife” fits the logic of verses 8-13. However, what is the true context of verses 8-13? Is it family life? Or is a godly family life part of the requirement for those who would serve in the church? The context of 1 Timothy 3 is the church, NOT the home.

Next, notice that the requirements of the “gynaikas” are very similar to that of the male deacon’s.

First, look at verse 8: “Deacons, likewise, should be worthy of respect, not hypocritical…” (1 Tim. 3:8, Holman Christian Standard Bible).

Now, look at the requirements for women:

“Women, too, must be WORTHY OF RESPECT, NOT SLANDERERS…” (1 Tim. 3:11, HCSB).

In the same way the man is to be “worthy of respect,” so is the female deacon.
Next, the male deacon is not to be “hypocritical, not drinking a lot of wine, not greedy for money.” Notice how Paul sums up the character of the woman—“self-controlled” (1 Tim. 3:11). Paul’s mentioning of “self-control” reminds us of Paul’s words regarding the women at the church at Ephesus in 1 Timothy 2:15. The word there in the Greek is “sophrosune, which means “self-control.” The problem at the church among the women is that they don’t know how to control themselves. But the godly woman who serves in the church in 1 Timothy 3 is to demonstrate self-control, not slanderize someone’s name; she should not be a gossiper.

Finally, there are other things to consider regarding the women mentioned here. Why would Paul list characteristics for women IF they were not to serve in the church, but only to be good “aids” for their husbands? Everytime Paul mentions a list in the New Testament, the list was to serve as requirements for a church position. So, if Paul is listing the requirements of women to match the requirements of men, then this must mean that Paul considered women to have a place in church leadership.
Contra Hammett, I am in agreement with those from the Interpreter’s Bible who argue that the word “their” is not used—as an indication of women (generic), not “wives.” The word “gynaikas” in the New Testament has a dual meaning: it can mean either “women” or “wives.” The problem is, in other contexts, we have an indication that Paul is referring to “wives” (usually is marriage). In this case, although home life is discussed, it is discussed for the sole reason that the home life would serve as an indicator of church life. This, then, wouldn’t disqualify the woman—for she worked in the home as well. Surely then, she would qualify for work in the church!

Look at 1 Timothy 3:11. There is a word in the Greek, “hosautos,” which means “Likewise.” The women, like WHO? Who are the women of 1 Tim. 3:11 to be like? I’m glad you asked: they are to be like the men mentioned in 1 Tim. 3:8-10. And what are the requirements for the men mentioned in those three verses? They are to demonstrate a certain character; and then, they are to be examined, tested, APPROVED to walk in the church as deacons. Once approved, they are then to serve. So, if the women are to be LIKE the men (in the same manner), then, the women are to also demonstrate a certain character, and are also TO BE TESTED, EXAMINED, APPROVED as women of character; then, they too, like the men, are to serve as women deacons.
But there is also one more thing that Hammett and most conservatives miss when they study 1 Timothy 3: that is, verse 12:

“Deacons must be husbands of one wife, managing their children and their own households competently.”

Notice that this verse, verse 12, comes AFTER the discussion of women, not BEFORE! If Paul really wanted to make his point about women not being deacons, Paul would’ve wrapped up his discussion of deacons before the women (for, according to the skeptics, women would not have been deacons). But for Paul to write these words AFTER verse 11 shows us that women, like men, were considered to be potential servants of the church.

To make the point I’ve been making regarding 1 Timothy 3, go to 1 Timothy 5:

“Therefore, I want younger women to marry, have children, MANAGE THEIR HOUSEHOLDS, and give the adversary no opportunity to accuse us” (1 Tim. 5:14, HCSB).

Wait! Look at the words in capital letters. But, according to conservatives, only MEN manage their households. Surely, women can’t manage their households, can they?
According to Paul, they can; and they should. This is acceptable in the sight of God. So when Paul states that the deacons should be “managing their children and their own households competently” (1 Tim. 3:12), he is making the point that both male AND FEMALE deacons should manage their homes well. Paul isn’t excluding the female gender from leadership in the church.

Most conservatives, when telling women what they should do in church, go to 1 Tim. 2:11-15, or Titus 2:3-5. However, they fail to go to 1 Tim. 5 where women are to “manage their households.” I think the fact that the church doesn’t mention this passage is because we’re afraid to think of it. We’re afraid to imagine that Paul very well may have opened the door for women, and we shudder to think that we’ve been wrong all this time.

We see that Paul calls Phoebe from the church at Cenchrea a “diakonos" (Rom. 16:1), which is the term used in 1 Tim. 3 in the plural for “deacon” (diakonoi). Paul certainly didn’t have a problem using the term “diakonos” for a woman; and neither should we.


  1. Nice job~you appear at the top of the google search on John Hammett & Deacons. I appreciate your thoughts. Your aggressiveness on the issue though might show that you've overlooked a few points. Would you care to balance yourself by also arguing the opposite view? I find that I do much better at not "swinging the pendulum" the opposite direction when I try to work out both sides.

    Thanks again for your post!

  2. Dear Anonymous,

    I apologize for getting back to you so late. Just received your response here at the site.

    In any case, I am at loss as to what you mean by "arguing the opposite view." What I gave you above is what Hammett has to say about the view of women. I provided the argument above and then I refute it to show that it is grossly incorrect.

    I wanna recommend Dr. Hammett's book, "Biblical Foundations," to you and say that you need to buy it and read his argument. I've never taken Dr. Hammett's classes, but I have great respect for him as a man of God...and I certainly got to experience his instruction as I read through his book.

    If there are any more questions, feel free to contact me here. Thanks for reading.


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