Did the apostles establish the office of Deaconess?
A theologian returns, cautiously, to a contentious area of Bible history
Michael Svigel for the Christian Post International
April 15, 2013
A man once asked a famous nineteenth century preacher to weigh in on a controversial doctrinal issue that has divided Christians for centuries: “What do you hold concerning water baptism?”
The preacher responded evasively: “My mouth.”
Another issue today evokes the same urge to keep our traps shut: the ordination of women to pastoral ministry. For some denominations this matter was settled generations ago either for or against. For others the issue flares up periodically, unable to be finally resolved. Frankly, in some circles it’s simply not prudent or polite to even discuss this topic, because whatever one might hold concerning the ordination of women will inevitably cross somebody’s strongly-held beliefs. This has led many to simply hold their mouths whenever the question comes up.
Too often, an honest, fair, and civil discussion becomes difficult. Misogynists (men who hate women) will universally seek to limit the role of women in ministry, but limiting the role of women isn’t necessarily misogyny. Similarly, feminists will universally seek to expand the role of women in church ministry, but expanding the role of women is not itself feminism. (“All A = B” does not imply “All B = A”) Yet all too frequently those engaged in the debate over the biblical, theological, and historical understanding of the roles of men and women in ministry can’t separate facts from emotions or analysis from implications.
The following essay doesn’t presume to settle the question of women in ministry, and we can’t promise not to stir up strongly held emotions from either side of the debate. However, we do seek to contribute modestly to the discussion by asking the question, “Did the apostles establish the office of deaconess?” We seek to answer this through both biblical and historical lines of argument, seeking to read the Scriptures in a way that’s faithful to the text but also consistent with the historical-theological context. That is, what do we know about the actual practices of the early churches established by the apostles, and how does this picture affect the historical context in which we should read the apostles’ writings? [For a more comprehensive application of this historical-theological approach to New Testament interpretation regarding important issues related to the church, see Michael J. Svigel, RetroChristianity: Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith (Crossway, 2012).]
The Language of “Deacons”
In order to address the question of the potential presence and particular role of deaconesses in the apostolic era (the time period of the apostles and theirdisciples), a couple of things need to be understood about the nature of a “deacon.” The Greek word itself, diakonos,has a fairly broad range of meaning, such as “a generic servant,” “a waiter of food,” “an agent with a special mission,” or “an official minister in a church.” In the New Testament diakonos can mean a servant with a certain mission or task (Rom. 15:8; 1 Cor. 3:5; Eph. 3:7); an assistant of a particular person (Matt. 22:13; 2 Cor. 6:4; Col. 1:7); or an official appointment, office, or position as a “minister” in a local church (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8–12).
Though all people were called to be diakonoi (servants), when Paul couples this title with the words for “elders” (presbyteroi) and “overseers” (episkopoi), he appears to use diakonos as an official title—a title that soon took on the sense of a distinct rank in church order (the diaconate) and still remains with us today in most ecclesiastical traditions as “deacons.” In fact, the present distinction between the general calling of all believers to serve and the specific “office” within church governance is so clear that the former are simply called “servers,” “helpers,” or “volunteers,” while the latter are called “deacons” or “ministers.” In Paul’s day the vocabulary itself was the same for both the general and the official: diakonos.
What does this technical discussion of the word “deacon” have to do with the issue of women holding ordained ministerial offices in the church? Well, in two New Testament passages it appears that the term diakonos in the official sense applies to women. In 1 Timothy 3:11 the context may include both men and women “deacons,” while Romans 16:1 refers to a specific woman, Phoebe, as a diakonos. Though these passages have been interpreted in different ways, we contend that when read in light of the early church’s actual practice of appointing deaconesses, the evidence for understanding these passages as referring to official “deaconesses” tips the balance away from alternative interpretations.
Phoebe—Servant, Assistant, or Minister (Romans 16:1)?
A greatly contested passage regarding the presence of official deaconesses in the apostolic age is Paul’s commendation of Phoebe (a woman) as a diakonos: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant (diakonos) of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well” (Rom. 16:1–2, ESV). On this occasion, Phoebe had been appointed to a specific task—that of bearing the letter to Rome on Paul’s behalf. But does her designation as diakonos go beyond her task as Paul’s agent and messenger?
Interpreters who understand the term diakonos to mean a general “servant” from Cencreae rather than an official “deaconess” often argue that the term was ascribed to other individuals who were not regarded as filling the office of “deacon” in their churches, such as Paul (Eph. 3:7), Epaphras (Col. 1:7), Tychicus (Eph. 6:21), Apollos (1 Cor. 3:5–6), and even Timothy (1 Tim. 4:6). True, Paul could merely be placing Phoebe into the same general category of “helpful servant” as these other men, but this overlooks the two following important facts.
First, Paul describes Phoebe as a “diakonos of the church at Cenchreae,” specifying her function as diakonos to that specific church. This may seem insignificant until we realize that whenever the Greek phrase “________ of the church” is used in the New Testament and the earliest Christian literature (where “________” is a personal designation or title), the personal designation refers to an office, not just a generic function (Acts 20:17; Eph. 5:23; Jas. 5:14; Rev. 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14; Ignatius, Trallians 2.3; Philadelphians 5.1; Polycarp 1.1; Shepherd of Hermas, Vision 2.2.6; 2.4.3; 3.9.7; Martyrdom of Polycarp 16.2; 19.2). Therefore, if Phoebe is merely a “helpful assistant” of the church at Cenchreae in Romans 16:1, this is the only time the construction is used this way in the earliest Christian literature.
Second, in Romans 16:2 Paul describes Phoebe as “a patron (prostatis) of many and of myself as well.” The word prostatis means “helper,” or “benefactor.” In this way Paul describes Phoebe’s general function as an assistant with a “servant’s heart.” If he generalizes her service to “many” in verse 2, it seems more likely that her particular function as “diakonos of the church” in verse 1 had a more specific and official sense. Verse 1 identifies Phoebe and her official office in her home church (a deaconess), while verse 2 describes her character as a general servant beyond her local church.
Of course, when we call Phoebe a “deaconess” we must recognize that the actual responsibilities and authority associated with titles like elder, pastor, teacher, and deaconin the early church were still in the formative stages. New Testament scholar Douglas Moo writes, “It is very likely that regular offices in local Christian churches were still in the process of being established, as people who regularly ministered in a certain way were gradually recognized officially by the congregation and given a regular title” (Moo, Epistle to the Romans, 914).
Even if Phoebe is called a diakonos in a quasi-official sense, the actual meaning of the term could still be floating somewhere between “servant-hearted helper” and “official church minister.” However, it may also be that the official recognition and designation of the office of “deaconess” began to develop early in the apostolic period. After all, the church had already been established for about twenty-five years, and several titled offices had been well-known in the churches from the beginning (Acts 1:20; 11:30; 14:23; Phil. 1:2).
Source: Christian Post
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