The biblical position on church officers (2)
Last week, we began answering the question “why do we not have female church officers at First Presbyterian Church?” So far, we've said the following: the simple answer is “because that is what the Bible teaches.” The New Testament consistently teaches that the ministry of the word and rule in the church is to be exercised only by qualified male leadership (see, for example, 1 Timothy 2:8-15, 3:1-2, 12; 1 Corinthians 14:34-35; Acts 6:3). In 1 Timothy 2:11-14, Paul teaches that (1) Women are to receive instruction in a submissive manner in the public assembly. In other words, the headship of men, and the authority of the elders is never to be tested or challenged by Christian women in the public assembly, instead they are to receive teaching willingly, rather than give it. (2) Women are not to teach or exercise authority over men in the public assembly. Paul explicitly restricts the teaching and ruling ministry of the church to qualified and called men. (3) Paul says that he is not the primary author or inventor of this view or rule. In 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, he says that this is an Old Testament, that is, biblical principle (“just as the Law says”) and it is binding on the churches. In sum, Paul teaches that the Bible teaches that there are to be role distinctions between the sexes in the ministry activity of the Christian church.
Now some folks agree with what I've just said with regard to the office of elder, but believe that the office of deacon is open to women, (1) since it is not a ruling office but a serving office, and (2) since they can make a case for women deacons from Scripture (whereas there is no good case for women ministers/elders that can be made from Scripture). So, what do we say about this? What about the diaconate and what about the women mentioned in 1 Timothy 3:11? What about Phoebe?
Well, let's look at 1 Timothy 3:11, where Paul says (in the context of talking about elders and deacons): “Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things.” What does verse 11 mean? To whom does it refer? Let me respond plainly and straightforwardly and then explain my rationale: it refers to “the women who assist the deacons.”
The context of this passage (see especially 1 Timothy 5) strongly suggests that this verse means that the women who assist the deacons in diaconal ministry must also possess godly character. It shows the involvement and qualifications of women in diaconal care in the local church. Interpreters have suggested five possible translations of the word “women” in verse 11 — (1) women deacons; (2) deaconesses, distinct but comparable with deacons; (3) female assistants to the deacons; (4) wives of deacons; or (5) wives of elders and deacons. In light of 1 Timothy 5, the third is the most likely rendering (though 4 and 5 remain possibilities too).
Those who argue for women deacons or deaconesses suggest that (1) deacon is a servant position therefore no authority is exercised and thus it is open to women without violation of 1 Timothy 2:11-14; (2) the passage above speaks of a separate class of women officers; (3) that Romans 16:1-2 provides an example of a female deacon/deaconess. In response to these three arguments, I would simply note that (1) those in charge of a ministry, including deacons, invariably rule in some manner; (2) the fact that Paul simply calls these female Christians “women” and does not title them (though he has already titled both elders and deacons is a strong argument that he is not speaking of a distinct office of deaconess); (3) Paul's word for Phoebe in Romans 16:1, servant, diakanos, most frequently designates the standard role and character of a Christian in the New Testament, rather than an official title. No conclusive contextual argument supports its understanding as a title in Romans 16:1. John Murray says: “Phoebe is one of the women memorialized in the New Testament by their devoted service to the gospel whose honor is not to be tarnished by elevation to positions and functions inconsistent with the station they occupy in the economy of human relationships.” Furthermore, there are a number of compelling arguments against women serving as deacons that can be drawn from the New Testament. (1) In Acts 6, where deacons are first appointed, the Apostles explicitly say “select from among you seven men” — andros is used here specifically (meaning men) not the generic anthropos (meaning persons). Furthermore, Acts 6 specifically calls for men to minister to women — if ever there were a situation that called for women deacons it was here, and yet men are appointed. (2) Consider the evidence from 1 Tim. 3:11, if Paul wanted to institute women deacons, this verse was the perfect opportunity to use the term, but he doesn't! (3) The general Pauline doctrine of male headship suggests that it is the qualified men of the congregation who are to lead both the shepherding and mercy ministry of the church.
All of this shows that our position on church officers is rooted in Scripture rather than dictated by unbiblical tradition or cultural patterns.