Can Women Be Deacons? (1 Timothy 3)

This article is part of the Tough Passages series.

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8Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain.9They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.10And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless.11Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.12Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well.13For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.
—1 Timothy 3:8–13

Church Offices

From this text and elsewhere, we know that the Bible recognizes two offices within the church: elder and deacon (cf. Phil. 1:1). Having set forth the qualifications for elders, Paul now does the same for deacons. The term translated “deacon” simply means servant. This office, therefore, is named for what it does: serve. The prototypical example of this service is found in Acts 6:1–6, where the apostles’ ministry is hindered because of the need to distribute food to the widows. The widows need to eat. And the apostles need to preach the Word. But the apostles cannot preach if they are spending all of their time providing food service for widows.

The apostles set a precedent showing the church what to do when the ministry of the Word is unduly encumbered by the demands of service. The apostles do not play one obligation against the other; neither the Word nor the widows should be neglected. So the apostles appoint servants (or “deacons,” though they are not referred to by that term in Acts 6), seven men full of the spirit and of wisdom, who serve the widows so that the apostles may devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word. These deacons are servants, men of character, who embody what it means to serve God by serving others.

The apostles recognized a need for servants in Acts 6. Likewise, Paul recognizes that servants will be needed by the church in Ephesus, and he instructs Timothy that the deacons “likewise” hold an office in the church that requires them to have exemplary character. Just as elders have to meet certain requirements of character, so also do deacons. The qualifications are similar to those for elders but not identical. Deacons must be:

ESV Expository Commentary

With contributions from a team of pastors and scholars, this commentary through 9 of Paul’s letters helps students of the Bible to understand how each epistle fits in with the storyline of Scripture and applies today.

(1) “Dignified,” or “worthy of respect/honor, noble, dignified, serious” (BDAG or Bauer, W., F. W. Danker, W. F. Arndt, and F. W. Gingrich. A GreekEnglish Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999., s.v. σεμνός). The deacon must not be the kind of man whom no one takes seriously. He must be someone whose character evokes respect and admiration.

(2) “Not double-tongued.” The deacon must not trade in insincere, two-faced speech. He must be a truth-teller, not a people-pleaser, with his words.

(3) “Not addicted to much wine.” The Greek term rendered “addicted” is translated elsewhere as “devoted” and indicates that the deacon must not be one who occupies himself with much wine (BDAG, s.v. προσέχω). Any man who is a “[hero] at drinking wine” (Isa. 5:22) but a failure at sobriety must not be a deacon (cf. Eph. 5:18).

(4) “Not greedy for dishonest [or “sordid”] gain.” A deacon cannot be someone who loves money. Any person who loves money more than God cannot be a disciple of Jesus, much less a deacon (Matt. 6:24).

Deacons are servants, men of character, who embody what it means to serve God by serving others.

(5) One who “[holds to] the mystery of the faith.” Whereas the elder must be “able to teach,” the deacon does not hold that responsibility. But the deacon must nevertheless “hold [to] the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.” Mystery is a technical term in Paul’s writings that refers to something once hidden but now revealed in the gospel. In short, the mystery of the faith is the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and raised for sinners. To miss that message is to miss everything, and so a deacon has to know and believe that message. And he cannot do so with his fingers crossed. He must hold it “with a clear conscience.”

Deacon’s Wives

Paul calls for deacons to be “tested”—the church must not select someone to be a deacon simply for superficial reasons. On the contrary, his faithfulness must be proved. There must be enough time for potential deacons to have “[proved] themselves blameless,” beyond reproach.

In verse 11, Paul addresses “wives” (lit., “women”; Gk. gynaikas). Why would Paul include a reference to “women” in a passage about deacons? Some believe that Paul is implying that these are not wives but deaconesses. After all, the list of qualifications for these women is very similar to that for deacons and even to that for elders. Why would Paul specify such qualifications if an office for women is not in view? Also, a woman named Phoebe is called a “servant” (using the same word translated here as “deacon”) in Romans 16:1. Is Paul invoking the same office that Phoebe is said to hold in Romans 16:1? This is the argument offered by those who understand “women” to refer to female deacons.

This line of reasoning is not persuasive. The underlying word is the typical Greek term for “woman” or “wife.” The same word is used in the very next verse, where it clearly indicates “wife.” Further, the word “likewise” suggests a group similar to but distinct from the diaconate (just as the word “likewise” in verse 8 suggests that deacons are similar to but distinct from the elders). Since Paul’s instructions before and after verse 11 are focused on deacons, it makes more sense to see verse 11 as somehow related to deacon qualifications as well.

Phoebe’s designation as a diakonos (translated “servant” or “deacon”) is unconvincing evidence of female deacons. Diakonos has semantic range, and not all uses of this term denote an office of the church (e.g., 1 Cor. 3:5; 2 Cor. 6:4). The mere use of the term diakonos in connection with someone from a particular church does not establish that the person in question was a deacon. With respect to Phoebe, I agree with the caution urged in the NET Bible’s notes on Romans 16:1: “Epaphras is associated with the church in Colossians and is called a διάκονος in Col 1:7, but no contemporary translation regards him as a deacon. In 1 Tim 4:6 Paul calls Timothy a διάκονος; Timothy was associated with the church in Ephesus, but he obviously was not a deacon. In addition, the lexical evidence leans away from this view: Within the NT, the διακον- word group rarely functions with a technical nuance. In any case, the evidence is not compelling either way.” At best, Phoebe’s status as a deacon is less than certain and therefore can hardly establish the case for deaconesses in 1 Timothy 3:11. The ESV’s rendering captures the correct sense of the term: “their wives” (i.e., “deacons’ wives”).

Thus Paul is most likely teaching that the behavior of the deacon’s wife must be exemplary (much like submissive children are an evidence of an elder’s management of the home in 3:4). These women, whether or not they hold office, do hold responsibility for serving others. This is why they must bear character qualities fitted for a servant. Paul lists four such qualities:

(1) “Dignified” refers to one who is “worthy of respect/honor, noble, dignified, serious” (BDAG, s.v. σεμνός). This woman must command the respect of those who meet her.

(2) “Not slanderers.” They must not be malicious gossips.

(3) “Sober-minded.” This term was attached to the elders in verse 2. It signifies that such women must not be drunkards but must be clear-minded and must exhibit good judgment.

(4) “Faithful in all things.” Obviously, Paul is not demanding perfection. But such women must be “trustworthy, faithful, dependable” (BDAG, s.v. πιστός, italics original).

Just like the elders, the deacon must be a “husband of one wife”—a one-woman man (cf. comment on 3:2). A deacon must prove his character by being faithful to his wife and, by extension, to the rest of his family. If a man loves his wife and disciplines his children and leads his home, he evidences that he is filled with the Spirit. Here again the home is the proving ground for ministry.

Those who “serve well” are those who serve well in their official capacity as deacons. They have a “good standing” or rank in the church. This standing need not be an official rank but is simply a recognition by the congregation that this man has exhibited exemplary faithfulness. Such exemplary faithfulness leads to increasing influence, which may itself lead to more opportunities for service and leadership. Those who serve well as deacons also obtain for themselves “great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.” The term rendered “confidence” denotes freedom and boldness to speak.1 Like Stephen in his heroic martyrdom (Acts 6:10; 7:1–53), deacons may find that their service affords them opportunities to bear witness. Such faithful service leads to greater standing and confidence to speak about Christ and his gospel, for greater service reflects an increasing “faith” in Christ Jesus.


  1. George W. Knight III, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 174.

This article is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary Ephesians–Philemon (Volume 11).

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