Just As the church began to grow and change from the band of Apostles and about an hundred followers of Jesus it strained under the sudden addition of three thousand souls on the day of Pentecost. Surely God was teaching them also in that time that he was in charge of the church and he will grow it according to his design. Many of the difficulties which arose early came as a result of that growth.
One of the early ministries of the church arose, as do many, simply from noticing a need. There were in the earliest church several widows. It is important to note that being a widow then was a little different than today. Only the few wealthy were able to store up enough money to live on and women were not known as breadwinners. There was no such thing as public aid either. The broken system of welfare might have been worming it's way around Rome but outside of Rome it wasn't a part of most people's life, certainly not in Jerusalem.
The church saw the need therefore to make sure that the widows within the church were lovingly cared for and they began organizing a distribution of bread to ensure that they had something to eat. However, it wasn't long until the organized giving of bread to the widows in the church began to be divisive because of racial loyalties. Apparently the Jews who were giving bread out were giving more to Jews and less (if any) to Gentiles. People started to complain.
It is recorded for us in Acts 6 that the Apostles gathered together and stated that it really wasn't a good idea for them to abandon the ministry of prayer and teaching in order to wait on tables. They suggested a Spirit Lead solution:
"Choose from among yourselves seven men of good reputation, who are full of the Spirit and are wise, after you choose them we will appoint them to take care of this duty." (Paraphrase)
The word that is translated as "waiting on tables" is the Greek word διακονέω (diakoneo). You can hear in it the word "Deacon" which is often used to describe officers of the church.
In the new testament there is a significant difference however, in the role of the deacon. In the New Testament, the deacons (and deaconesses) have as their predominant task, the service of the church. The first role was to make sure that the necessary and merciful ministry of distributing bread was not warped by sin but instead was orderly and honoring to God. It is and was a sacred task.
As time progressed and the church grew the need arose for each local church to have elders and deacons. The duties of the Elders centered around teaching, directing and protecting the church from error. The duties of the deacons centered around caring for the physical needs of their church family. In this sense the entire church council at Fame serves as a kind of expanded board of deacons, while as pastor I serve as the solitary "elder".
One of the consistent hallmarks of being a disciple of Jesus Christ is caring for one another. In that sense we are all called as servants or deacons. We should keep this in mind again as we return to 1 Timothy 3:8-13 in order to learn the requirements for being a deacon in the church. Please read with me this list of requirements. READ 1 Timothy 3:8-13
Whereas the Overseer is the guardian, director and protector of the church the Deacon is it's servant. The birth of the deaconate as a way to meet physical needs (Acts 6) defines the function of the office as much as anything.
This distinction goes far to explain the different requirements for Overseers and Deacons which I will not enumerate but which are easy to observe in the passage. Those requirements which are not mentioned likely stem from the deacon not being a leader. Those things which are additional are likely added for the way the deacon must perform his task.
Likewise it explains the 11th verse which is variously translated to mean deaconesses or wives of the deacons. Since the understanding of this verse helps with the rest of the passage we'll take verse 11 first.
Women, Wives or Deaconesses?
Almost every translation struggles with this verse – because the wording demands as much interpretation as it does translation.1 The Greek phrase is literally "women likewise dignified". From that rendering we need to determine what the apostle means.
It is entirely possible to take the meaning as "women in general" but that doesn't fit with the flow or the context very cleanly so we can throw that out almost immediately.
The specific word used is γυναῖκας (gunaikas) which can be translated either as women or wives and given the context it would make sense to consider this as the "wives of the deacons"
Many translations seem to prefer this translation, and where the footnotes explain it the most compelling reason is that in verse 12 a deacon must be the husband of one wife which, they claim rules out deaconesses. However, bear in mind that the translation of the phrase is best "one woman kind of man". Hence Paul is not requiring marriage but a character quality in the men. It was probably much less an issue for women in that culture to be other than a one man woman and in fact the final phrase, "faithful in all things" serves as a sort of wrapper around all of the various character requirements.
Some people are bothered by the fact that it's such a short list of requirements given for the deaconess but it seems no small matter to apply the principles across gender lines. Especially as it appears that the requirements listed are specific to those temptations which women may more likely be prone to violating.2
Finally it could mean "The women who serve in this capacity"; in a word: deaconesses.
it seems most probable to take the position as a deaconess. There is enormous disagreement on this issue and I am of the opinion that much of the disagreement stems from 2:12 and a misinformed view of deacons/deaconesses as leaders in the church. When in fact the deacon is not an official with authority but with responsibility to serve. If we maintain the servant concept than the difficulties with leadership disappear.
In the immediate context, God is giving us requirements for deacons. In midstream he launches into requirements for women and then immediately back to male deacons. Moreover there is no mention of wives under the elder qualifications and not to do so when so much is riding upon the Elders would appear to be out of place. If you look back at the eighth verse, the word "Likewise" draws a very specific connection from overseers to deacons as officers in the church; the same thing happens in this verse.
Finally there is good evidence in the rest of the Bible for seeing women as deaconesses. The most notable deaconess in scripture would be Phoebe (Romans 12:1). After that many other women in scripture seem to fit the pattern even if they are not called deaconesses. Continuing in Romans 16 we come across such names as Tryphaena, Tryphosa and Persis (Romans 16:12) Not to mention Priscilla (Romans 16:3) and Dorcas (Acts 9:36-43).
In Church history as well the church was very quick to recognize women as deacons. Almost immediately we see them mentioned. Their duties were to take care of the sick and poor, to minister to martyrs and confessors in prison, to instruct catechumens, to assist at the baptism of women, and to exercise a general supervision over the female church-members.3
Currently in the argument regarding female deacons or not I fall on female deacons if the definition of deacon is appropriately kept. Deacons are not elders. Elders are not deacons. Elders serve the church by guiding and teaching while deacons serve the church by meeting it's physical needs.
One of the greatest requirements which God has placed upon his people is that of service. God looks for people who are devoted not to themselves but to others. Remember Philippians 2:3, "Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves"
In the upper room, Jesus knelt as the lowest of servants and washed the feet of the disciples. He then commanded that we do the same. While not every person is called to be an official "deacon" in the church, we are in fact all called to serve one another.
Gal 5:13 For you were called to freedom… through love serve one another.
1 Pet 4:10 As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.
1I completely acknowledge that translation in general is interpretive. Yet in cases like this where the interpretation changes the meaning so thoroughly care must be made to indicate alternative renderings as clearly as possible.
2In other words women would be more likely to violate other traits not more likely than men to violate those traits.
3Marvin Richardson Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2002), 3:177.