The question of whether women should be deacons in the Christian church has been hotly debated for centuries. While most conservative churches do not ordain women as deacons, there are some that do allow females in the diaconate, although those that I know of personally have a warped church government—the pastor is hired by popular vote (and can be kicked out the same way), and the office of elder is non-existent; thus, the deacons run the church. This is unbiblical on at least two fronts—women should not be in authority over men (1 Tim. 2:12), and deacons are to serve, not rule. So, should a woman be ordained as a deacon, and if so, what does that look like according to the Bible?
Before we answer those questions, we need to look at the role of deacon as God designed it to be—the history of how the office came to be, how deacons are supposed to function in the church, and why the role is necessary. Unfortunately, in far too many churches, this God-given ministry has either been neglected altogether or stripped down to an unrecognizable office devoid of the Holy Spirit. But that’s not how it always was.
Throughout history, God has revealed in the Scriptures His incredible love and mercy to the poor and needy. His Word is filled with admonitions and urgings to remember and help those who cannot help themselves: those who are not only materially poor, but also those who are powerless because of their circumstances or who are afflicted and oppressed—and sometimes all three at once. As we see in the Old Testament, the Lord provided for these people through His law, calling for the Israelites to be different from those around them, a light to the nations (TD, 12). This brought glory to God, showing His generous mercy and love, just as it does so today when we Christians are salt and light to the world around us, loving our neighbors as we are called to do. In fact, we’re told in Acts 2:47 that the first Christians found “favor with all the people”—what seems to be a direct result of that salt and light being poured out by Spirit-led believers.
Most consider the account in Acts 6 of the seven chosen to serve as the first New Testament deacons. The widows of the Greek-speaking Jews were “being neglected in the daily distribution” (v. 1), so the twelve apostles instructed the “full number of disciples” (v. 2) to pick out seven men for this task. The congregation selected those men, and the elders “prayed and laid hands on them” (v. 6). In the same way, many modern congregations select and vet the candidates according to the biblical qualifications in Acts 6 and 1 Timothy 3 (which I’ll get to in a moment), and then present those chosen for the diaconate to the elders, who ordain the deacons into office.
What Is a Deacon Supposed to Do?
But was waiting on tables (Acts 2:2) the only service the newly-ordained deacons were supposed to perform? No. And today, while the duties of a deacon may adjust to our modern way of life, they remain unchanged at the heart, “protecting communal joy so that murmuring should cease” (TD, 48). No church member should be experiencing poverty, want, and oppression through “sickness, mobility issues, loneliness, and feeling inadequate due to unemployment, which can lead to genuine needs and wants that must be dealt with. . . . In the fellowship of the church, believers provide for each other and carry each other’s burdens (Gal. 6:2) so that everyone is able to function according to the responsibilities they have been given without justified murmuring and complaining” (TD, 48–49).
In other words, no believer should be left behind. This covers spiritual needs as well as material needs and was a “means to include those who may have felt marginalized, giving the necessary reassurance that they truly belonged to the community of saints” (TD, 56).
Dear sister, can you not see the heart of the Father in that and rejoice at His loving and tender care? In fact, once deacons were set in place in the first church, it freed the apostles to “devote [themselves] to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 2:4) and Luke tells us that “the word of God continued to increase and the number of disciples multiplied greatly” (v. 7). God blesses a church that follows His biblical design!
Qualifications of Deacons
That brings us to the discussion of the qualifications God gave us for this office of deacons. Acts 6:3 lays out some of the first requirements: “of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom.” These leaders had to have good reputations in the church and outside the church, as well as being individuals of honesty, integrity, and holiness of life—“known as those with a high moral standing” (TD, 63–64). Their lives would be controlled by the Holy Spirit, giving them wisdom, especially in dealing with the sensitive issues of their office, and a visible manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit instead of the works of the flesh (see Gal. 5:16–26).
Paul gave further qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:8–13. Deacons must be dignified, or worthy of respect; not double-tongued (not gossips, slanderers, or liars, able to control their tongues); not addicted to much wine, which would show a lack of self-control; and not greedy for dishonest gain (v. 8). Verse 9 tells us “they must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience”—knowing and living by the gospel, their lives reflecting it, with “no discrepancy between [their] verbal profession of faith and [their] lifestyle” (TD, 66). While deacons do not need to be able to teach, they must be spiritually mature, able to counsel and minister to the needy (TD, 66). “Let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless” (v. 10) is the next charge. Their life and reputation need to be examined (before ordination) and found to be blameless, and they must not be recent converts, but “have a credible track record of blameless Christian living, and no one should be able to bring a justifiable charge against their life and conduct” (TD, 67).
The next qualifications are where things go a little fuzzy, as there is disagreement over the words in Paul’s instruction—is it “wives of deacons” or “women,” meaning women in the office of deacon? The original Greek uses only the word women. But either way, these women “must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things” (v. 11). No gossiping or drunkenness should be present, but rather honesty and integrity should rule their lives. Faithful in all things is equivalent to holding the mystery of the faith as discussed previously.
Many churches disagree over what “husband of one wife” (v. 12) is exactly pointing to—it could be forbidding unmarried men from being deacons, forbidding polygamy or remarriage, or promoting faithfulness in marriage, which seems to be the likeliest interpretation. Deacons must be faithful to their wives (TD, 69), and we should not forget Jesus’s warning that adultery can occur in the heart.
Finally, verse 12 goes on to say that deacons must manage “their children and their own households well.” Because a household included servants, property, business interests, and the like, this mandate goes beyond how a husband manages his children and wife. How well they manage all aspects of their financial affairs indicates if they can be entrusted with the care of the needy (TD, 70).
Great. So Are Women Deacons Allowed or Not?
So, now that we’ve covered the history, role, and qualifications of deacons, we turn to the question of whether God allows women to be ordained for the ministry of the diaconate. First, we’ve already seen how 1 Timothy 3:11 could be referring to wives of deacons or to women deacons, and what their qualifications were. It’s true that women are sometimes better able to serve other women in the case of sensitive issues, and wives of deacons should be encouraged to minister alongside their husbands. We also know that women are not allowed to have authority over men, but the role of a deacon is not one of rule, but of service.
Next, Phoebe was commended by Paul as being “a servant of the church at Cenchreae” (Rom. 16:1–2), but while there is a consensus among conservative churches that this refers to a recognized position of service in the church, there is disagreement that this was an ordained position.
And finally, there are the widows in 1 Timothy 5:9–10, who were to be “enrolled” if they had a reputation for good works. Enrolled in what? A “special and dedicated service of love from which there was to be no distraction,” an “unordained diaconal widow group in the church,” which even John Calvin tried to reinstate during the Reformation (TD, 86, 103).
What’s the conclusion? Here is where I’m excited to bring you a surprise ending: Christian sisters, it doesn’t really matter! If your church allows women to be deacons in the biblical way God intended, and if you feel you have been given any of the spiritual gifts of serving, encouraging, mercy, and helps, and are qualified according to Acts 6 and 1 Timothy 3, then go for it. You desire a good thing. I also encourage you to pick up a copy of the book cited throughout this article, The Deacon, and get your highlighter ready. Find the joy in serving Christ through serving others and be obedient to His commands. This goes for wives of deacons as well—you have a God-given opportunity to serve a wide variety of needs within and outside the church, so honor Him by not wasting it. And, remember, you can do nothing in your own power. The Holy Spirit is the One who does the work through you, and God gets any and all credit.
Title Not Necessary
Now, if your church does not allow women to be deacons, then what? Remember that you do not need to hold the title of deacon to do the work of a deacon. The word for deacon is diakonos, which means servant. So be one. While we should all strive to emulate the spiritual qualifications of deacons (and elders), we don’t have to be ordained to serve others. Be hospitable, inviting people into your home for meals. Fellowship with others, and you will get to know them and their needs. The “poor and needy” are all around us. Watch for opportunities to help others—financially, spiritually, and practically:
- Are there elderly people you know who need help with shopping, meals, or housecleaning? Do it yourself or with your family, or if it’s not already being done in your church, see if you can organize a team to help senior saints regularly.
- Does anyone need help moving? Many hands make light work.
- Most immigrants are hard-working but poor and would welcome a special service done in love. You can make a meal for them on occasion or offer a working couple free childcare when necessary.
- Can you spare some time in your day to visit a resident of a nearby nursing home? Many elderly people are lonely and would enjoy someone to talk, read, play a game, or just watch TV with them. They also love the company of children! Our family organizes a quarterly talent show where local kids come and perform before a very forgiving audience—great for beginners and those with stage fright.
- Homeschool moms, is there a single parent who desires for her child to be homeschooled but can’t afford to stay home? Check your state laws to see if you can instruct someone else’s child as well as your own.
- Meals for the sick, new mothers, or those out of work are always great ways to show you care.
These are just a few ideas. There are countless ways we can love and serve Christ by loving and serving others. We can be a light to the nations and bring joy into the lives of others just by simply getting involved. It doesn’t have to be only for those in the church either. And, getting your children involved as you serve others teaches them invaluable lessons as you live out your faith.
Now some of these tasks should fall into the official ministry of the diaconate, but as I mentioned above, not all churches function like they should. There are too many churches who have neglected the poor, and God is not happy—He punished, through exile, the Israelites for that very thing. But for those churches that are ministering to the downtrodden, the sick, the impoverished, the despondent, the lonely, the physically- or mentally-challenged, the grieving and sorrowful, in the God-ordained way, we, as part of the congregation, should be coming alongside the deacons. Not all needs should be taken to them immediately if other help is available (TD, 172). As Christians, we need to share one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2), and meet the needs of those in God’s family, as well as our neighbors (and even our enemies), in any way we can.
Have the Mind of Christ
Whether or not we are able to serve in the official capacity of a deacon, we ought not to be consumed with this world, with money, or with anything that gets in the way of our seeking God’s kingdom and laboring for the Lord. Christ calls us to be like Him. Our attitude should be the same as His (Phil 2:5). There are great blessings for those who not only hear His word but do it (James 1:22), and only grief and eternal punishment for those who disobey His teachings. Be one of those to whom Jesus said:
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. . . . Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me. (Matt. 25:35–36, 40)
 Cornelis Van Dam, The Deacon: Biblical Foundations for Today’s Ministry of Mercy (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2016), 4 (hereafter cited in text as TD).
 All Scripture references are ESV.