Can Women be Deacons? Was Phoebe a Deacon?

Can Women be Deacons? Was Phoebe a Deacon? LIVE Q&A with Pastor David Guzik, April 19, 2023

Can Women be Deacons? Was Phoebe a Deacon?

From Tina via email:

Hi Pastor Guzik! My name is Tina. I have a question regarding women having positions in the church. I was in a discussion with a woman who thinks it’s fine for women to be pastors and deacons, and any other place of authority over a congregation. I am in disagreement with that because the Bible says so. The person I was in discussion with, brought up Phoebe and how Paul commended her. Some translations say Phoebe was a “servant”, others say “deacon”. Is there a difference between servant and deacon? Is the role of a deacon to be a servant, and is there “authority” in that position? I’ve never seen a female deacon, nor would I assume because there is possibly one example of a female deacon in the early church, wouldn’t necessarily signify that it should be standard practice. But I’m not sure how to justify that Biblically even after reading 1 Timothy 3:8-12 because of Paul commending Phoebe. Thank you for your time, and all you do! I love your Enduring Word app! God bless you, your family, and team!

Is there a difference between servant and deacon?

Yes, there is a difference between a servant and a deacon. It’s the same basic word in the Greek New Testament – diakonos – but in only a few places does it clearly refer to an office (Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:8, 3:12). More than 20 other times it refers to service, but in a general sense. For example, Romans 13:4 says that governing authorities are God’s servants (diakonos) but obviously not in the sense of a church office. So, servant describes a person who serves; deacon describes someone appointed or recognized in some kind of church office, but an office given to service.

Is the role of a deacon to be a servant, and is there “authority” in that position?

There is some authority in the office of a deacon, but not general authority over the church, over the local congregation. That general authority over a church or local congregation is something God appointed for qualified men. Obviously, deacons have to make some decisions on their own (as the servants chosen in Acts 6 would have had to), but in no way was it general authority. In Acts 6, that general authority was with the apostles.

Can Women be Deacons?

In 1 Timothy 3:8-12 Paul gives qualifications for deacons. An example of the work of deacons is found in Acts 6, where they were appointed by the apostles to lead and do important practical work among the believers (the fair distribution of food to needy widows in the church).

In verse 11, Paul wrote this

1 Timothy 3:11

Likewise their wives must be reverent, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things.

Likewise their wives: It is difficult to know if Paul here referred here to female deacons (such as Phoebe, in Romans 16:1), or the wives of male deacons. The original wording will permit either possibility.

  1. If he is speaking mainly of a male deacon’s wife, it is appropriate because a man’s leadership in the home can be evaluated, in part, by his wife’s conduct. Is she reverent, not [one of the] slanderers, temperate, and faithful in all things?

Romans 16:1-2

I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea, that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and assist her in whatever business she has need of you; for indeed she has been a helper of many and of myself also.

  1. [1] I commend to you Phoebe our sister: Paul certainly knew the value of what women could do in serving the church. Apparently Phoebe was on her way to Rome (probably entrusted with this letter) and Paul sent an advance recommendation of this sister in Christ so the Romans would receive and support her during her stay in their city.
  2. [1] I commend to you: Such recommendations were important because there was both great legitimate need for this kind of assistance and there were many deceivers who wanted to take advantage of the generosity of Christians.
  3. [1] Servant is the same word translated deacon in other places. Phoebe seems to be a female deacon in the church, either by formal recognition or through her general service.
  4. [2] She has been a helper of many and of myself also: Paul gives Phoebe one of the best compliments anyone can give. This sort of practical help is essential in doing the business of the gospel.

Philippians 4:2-3 mention Euodia and Syntyche as “fellow workers” with Paul and the church in Philippi, without specifically giving them the title “deacon.”

Reasons Why Someone Might Say Women Aren’t Deacons in the Bible

  1. The claim that 1 Timothy 3:11 is about wives of deacons, not deacons themselves.
  2. The claim that Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2 was a general servant, not in the office of deacon.
  3. The observation that the 7 chosen to serve as deacons (without using the specific term) in Acts 6 were all men – and they were doing ministry for women (needy widows).

Why I Think Women Could be Deacons

Biblically speaking, the role of deacons in the church didn’t include any kind of teaching authority and was practical in its orientation. It didn’t mean that it was not valued or not spiritual – the requirements for deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8-12 show it was an office that required spiritual maturity and character. But it wasn’t an office of authority or fundamental leadership. Deacons had some authority, but not general authority in the church.

In some churches today, the role of deacon describes those who lead the church – they are the board, the committee, the group that has the most leadership authority and influence. I don’t think that matches the Biblical description, but it is what it is.

It is interesting that if 1 Timothy 3:11 applies only to the wives of deacons, that there is no mention of the character qualifications for the wives of elders – which was clearly an office or role with more authority in the New Testament church.

It’s also interesting that if 1 Timothy 3:11 applies to women deacons, then it is striking that God gave no similar instruction for women elders.

One last point: It’s easy to get hung up on titles in the church. There’s nothing wrong (of course) with a church recognizing pastors, elders, or deacons. But – to take the case of deacons – if someone’s attitude was, “I’m not going to serve God’s people until they give me the title or office of deacon,” then something is clearly wrong. The important thing is doing the work God gives us to do, doing it as it would please Him, and not being so hung up on titles or offices. They have their place, but can be over-emphasized, and that’s true among both men and women.

I have heard it said that Junia (Romans 16:7) was an apostle. Is this true?

It’s possible that Paul referred to Junia as an apostle in a broad sense. Please remember that the term apostle is used in a couple different senses in the New Testament. It’s used in the sense of an authoritative messenger who is deliberately sent. It’s possible that Junia and her husband (who is also mentioned) were special ambassadors of God’s work in some way. An apostle is an ambassador. So, that’s a possibility.

But I think that it’s more likely that when Romans 16:7 says she is of note among the apostles, it’s not that she is among the apostles, but that the apostles noted her good and diligent service. People who favor women pastors and the ordination of women, making no difference between the role of women and qualified men in leading the church, are very quick to assume a couple things. They assume that Junia was a woman. There is some controversy about that. Evidence is probably more on the side that she’s a woman instead of a man. But apparently, that was a name which could be applied either way. It’s more likely that she was a woman, but we can’t automatically assume she was. It’s also automatically assumed that when it says that she was of note among the apostles, that meant she was among the apostles. I think it’s more likely that the apostles collectively recognized her as a remarkable servant of the Lord.

Sometimes I get frustrated with the discussion about complementarianism and egalitarianism. It basically revolves around what has God decreed in His Word, and what God has commanded in His Word about the role of women in the church. One of the things that oftentimes frustrates me about that discussion is this. Those who argue from an egalitarian perspective – the perspective that says there is no restriction that women can be pastors, bishops, elders, apostles – like to argue against complementarianism saying, “Well, if you don’t agree that women should be in leadership over a congregation in general, then you don’t think women can serve God at all. You don’t think that there’s any place for them to use their gifts.” To me, such an argument seems to be in bad faith.

Obviously, God uses women in remarkable ways. Obviously, God has gifted and ordained women and men together as partners in building the Kingdom. But I would say that it’s just as obvious in the Scriptures that God has ordained the leadership of husbands in the home, and God has ordained the leadership of qualified and called men in the church. It’s really that simple. But it’s not to say that God doesn’t use or can’t use women, of course not.

Junia was obviously a woman used by God. I think it’s much more likely that she was of note among the apostles and noted her faithful service. But even if she was an apostle, she’s an apostle in a general sense of being a special ambassador of God’s work, and not being an authoritative apostle over churches or congregations or anything like that. That’s how I would approach it.

How would you respond to a Judaist who says that Isaiah 9:6, Isaiah 7:14 and Micah 5:2 were completely fulfilled by Hezekiah, Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, and David respectively?

Isaiah 9:6 – For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Isaiah 7:14 – Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.

Micah 5:2 – But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
Though you are little among the thousands of Judah,
Yet out of you shall come forth to Me
The One to be Ruler in Israel,
Whose goings forth are from of old,
From everlasting.

I would just say that you’d have to bend those passages considerably in order to arrive at that conclusion. Hezekiah was in many ways a great king, but I don’t know of anybody calling him Mighty God or Everlasting Father. The same applies to the sign of Immanuel, God-With-Us, and so on. To understand these passages in this way is to restrict and cut down their meaning as low as possible, in an attempt to deny their obvious fulfillment in Jesus Christ. That is obvious in each one of those contexts, each having to do with Hezekiah, Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, and David.

On an interesting note, consider the ruler described in Micah 5:2. The Book of Micah was obviously written long after the time of David. Yet it says that there will come a ruler from David. God made specific promises to David that the Messiah would come from his lineage. With that in mind, applying the fulfillment of Micah 5:2 to David seems very wrongheaded. It goes against the chronology. It also goes against the specific promises that God made to David.

Might a liberal reader of the Bible use examples such as female pastors or slavery to argue that the church has evolved and should allow the LGBTQ community into leadership?

Well, yes. They use arguments like this: “The church was wrong about slavery, so therefore the church is wrong about the more traditional understanding of the role of women in the church.” “The church is wrong about homosexuality and trans identities being sinful and out of God’s will. Therefore, just as the church changed its position on slavery, so the church must also change their position on these things.”

I would disagree with that in every aspect. Look, there were many who got slavery wrong in the church, but certainly not everyone. But just because the church or someone in the church got something wrong in past generations, it doesn’t mean that the cause of the day in today’s culture is automatically biblically justified. Good heavens, what have we come to? Have we come to the place where we look to the world and say, “Hey, the world says the most important thing is that the culture be homosexual applauding, so the church’s job is to follow along with whatever the world is doing.” It isn’t just tolerance today either; it has to be applauding, cheering on a pro-homosexuality movement within the broader culture. The same thing is happening with the whole trans identity issue.

Friends, this is extremely concerning within the church. I boil it down in simple ways. The Bible says very plainly that it’s an abomination for a man to lie with another man as he would lie with a woman. The Bible says it’s an abomination. The culture around us wants us to say it’s awesome. You have two choices: is it an abomination, or is it awesome?

You could go into the thousand caveats that you’re supposed to bring up at a time like this. And I’m not interested in those thousand caveats, because of course you’re supposed to love people. Of course, you’re supposed to walk alongside them. Of course, God’s love is extended to the sinner, and on and on. But forget about all that just for a moment and ask yourself, is the practice of homosexuality is an abomination or is it awesome? The Bible says very clearly in Leviticus 18:22 that for a man to lie with another man as he would lie with a woman is an abomination. The culture wants us to applaud it and say it’s awesome.

This is something that Christians must be clear on because it’s simply biblical truth. I could go more into slavery question, but that continuum is exactly what drives many people to progressive Christianity, and there is there are no brakes on that. They suppose that whatever the culture applauds, the church is commanded to applaud it as well. Thanks for this very perceptive question.

Should Christians warn others about false prophets? If so, how?

How should a Christian go about warning others of blatantly false prophets who are simultaneously bringing in false doctrine? Should we address their specific unbiblical claims? Should we ignore them? If so, what does that process of addressing it look like biblically?

It’s a difficult question to answer, but not difficult in principle. In principle, Christians should stand for the truth. In principle, Christians should stay very close to their Bible, stand on biblical truth, teach the truth, and expose the unfruitful works of darkness and the lies. That’s the principle. But it gets complicated considering in what arena or on which platform to do so.

I’ll give you an example. I am no longer a pastor over a congregation, although I served as a pastor for decades. When I was a pastor, people would want me to speak out loudly and extensively on issues that might be out there somewhere in the Christian world. To my perception, which I think was accurate, those particular issues had no impact on our church community at all. It was a non-issue. But they wanted me to make it an issue for our congregation, and I would just disagree. I’d say, “Listen, I think you’re right. But this particular teaching isn’t really an issue among our congregation.”

A good pastor has his finger on the pulse of the congregation. Based on his interaction with the people in the church, he knows what they’re going through, and what things are coming at them. But just because something is out there doesn’t mean that it’s relevant to a particular congregation. I think some trust needs to be given to the pastors and elders of a congregation to figure that out. Just because something is false doesn’t mean that addressing it is relevant to a particular group of people or particular congregation. Now, if that is an issue among a congregation, then pastors, elders, and leaders do have the responsibility to speak out, to respond, to instruct, to guide, or to help the congregation concerning those things.

So yes, in principle we should stand for the truth. But how we practically deal with such things comes down to individuals and what they’re going through in this season. If a person I know and love is getting caught up in the “health and wealth” prosperity gospel, then I want to lovingly speak to them and correct them about it. I’ll instruct them from the Scriptures. But I don’t necessarily have to talk about something if it’s not an issue with them. That’s the perspective I would take. When you do have the chance to warn, do it fairly, do it lovingly, and do it from the Scriptures.

Would you consider writing commentaries on the Apocrypha? Also, do you have a favorite book in the Apocrypha?

Most people think of the Apocrypha as being comprised of books like 1 Esdras, 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, annotations or additions to the book of Esther, Wisdom of Solomon, Baruch, and 1-2 Maccabees. These are sometimes called the intertestamental books. These books are included in Catholic Bibles and a few Protestant Bibles but are never quoted by Jesus or the New Testament. I think we need to do a historical study. They deservedly do not belong in the collection of the Old Testament.

Other people think of the Apocrypha and associate something like the Book of Enoch. It is an apocryphal book, but it’s not included in the normal collection of the Apocrypha. There is also something called the Apocryphal New Testament, which includes the Epistle of Barnabas, the Smyrneans, the Visions of so and so, and on and on. So, when you talk about Apocrypha, most people mean the first collection I mentioned, but sometimes people mention other collections as well.

To answer your specific question, I don’t think I would consider doing commentaries on the Apocrypha. Why not? Because there is enough in just the canonical books of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures to keep me busy. Currently, there are some books of the Bible in my commentary that I really need to go through again. I think I could improve my content, and I think I’m basically going to be doing that until the day I die.

Finally, do I have a favorite book in the Apocrypha? Well, if I did, it would probably be 1-2 Maccabees. They are historical books and pretty reliable historically. I think they have value historically, even though I would not consider them to be on par with sacred Scripture.

Were Jews less likely to receive the gospel because they knew the Tanakh so well?

How would you respond to a Judaist who says that Paul succeeded with proselytizing Gentiles more than Matthew did with Jews because the Jews knew Tanakh well enough to know that Christianity was false? Or says that Israelites are less likely to be deceived by Christianity when they grow up learning Hebrew and Judaism with no dependence on translations of Hebrew?

I would disagree on a couple grounds. It is true that there are special obstacles to Jewish people coming to faith. First of all, it seems very clear to us now, but before the New Testament came, it was not entirely clear in the Old Testament that the Messiah would be God.

Secondly, for many Jewish people, that’s a big stumbling point. Many Jewish people do not perceive the dual roles of the Messiah, as both the suffering servant and the triumphant ruler. Some Jewish people would argue, “I’ll tell you why Jesus wasn’t the Messiah. It’s because He didn’t institute a kingdom that has no end and make everything awesome after that.”

We would disagree with that statement, because He came the first time to suffer and to offer sacrifice, and then to make a foothold of the kingdom, eventually to fulfill it. But there are some Jews who just don’t see it that way.

Another huge obstacle to Jewish people in seeing the truth of the gospel is they perceive that trusting in Jesus as the Messiah, to become a Christian, means to forsake their Judaism. Listen, the Jewish people rightly have a concern about forsaking Judaism, because of their history, because of the many attempts to wipe out the Jewish people. Now, we as Christians would say, “Oh no, you’re not forsaking your Judaism; you’re fulfilling it.” And I understand how that makes sense from our perspective. But for many Jewish perspectives, that doesn’t make sense at all.

Another huge stumbling block for Jewish people is the history of Christian persecution against the Jews. Friends, we can’t sugarcoat this. For many centuries, the worst enemies the Jewish people had were Christians, especially the medieval church, which persecuted Jewish people mercilessly. Many Christians aren’t aware of that today, but there are very few Jews who are unaware of it. Furthermore, many Christians are unaware of the past persecution and animosity that Christians had towards Jews. But many present-day Jewish people are blind or unaware of the incredible goodwill and love that Christians have towards the Jewish people today.

I think that these are much more accurate and realistic obstacles. I don’t think the gospel is rejected by Jews merely from a sober examination of the Scriptures. It likely stems much more from these cultural and sociological issues over the centuries.

Will God throw anyone who wants to go to heaven into hell?

It depends on what you mean by wants. We’re talking about God’s heaven, not the heaven of some people’s imagination, not that heaven of clouds and people with wings and harps, but the real heaven where God dwells. Jesus said, “The one who seeks will find.” If a person really wants God’s heaven, and not just the heaven of imagination, then God will lead them there.

However, there are a lot of people who either don’t want God’s heaven or they don’t want to heaven at all. They want to remove themselves from God. They don’t want to draw near to God; they want to keep as much distance as possible. Remember the first thing Adam and Eve did in the garden after the fall? They hid from God. Hiding from God is very significant. It’s indicative of the fallen human nature that those who are in hell are there because they don’t want God’s heaven. But I believe that if someone truly does God’s heaven, God will find a way for them to get there.

Do you have any thoughts on the Methodist disaffiliations, about how their clergy are performing and blessing gay marriages? Is society making true Bible teaching “hate speech”?

I think it’s really sad and tragic. Several denominations, including some Methodists, are proving themselves to be quite unfaithful to biblical teaching, in many aspects. Part of that has to do with sexuality. It’s tragic. I think it’s really good for faithful Methodist pastors and congregations to disassociate themselves from denominations that are going apostate.

Friends, the Church of England is of tremendous concern. Recently at a synod, the Church of England gave full on approval for their priests to bless same-sex marriages. They didn’t command that it be done, but they gave full permission. They approved of it. I think that faithful believers have to strongly consider disassociating with the Church of England. The only reason I might say otherwise is if they have a realistic ability to change the culture within the Church of England. There is definitely a point where withdrawing from such denominations is completely merited.

1 Corinthians 6, Galatians 5, Ephesians 5 speak of sins and not entering the kingdom. Does this mean Christians living in these sins/lifestyles are going to hell?  Or is it about rewards in heaven?

I think those passages speak about not going to heaven. It’s really about the biblical idea that a saved soul is going to reflect a changed life. To put it in the negative, Charles Spurgeon once said, “The grace that does not change my life will not save my soul.” I would agree with that.

Now of course, the changes are not all immediate. When people genuinely repent and believe and commit themselves being disciples of Jesus Christ, nobody has their life instantly changed in every aspect. The changes are not all at once, and the changes are not complete until our resurrection. That’s when our salvation is completed and fulfilled. Until then, there’s a daily growth in grace.

So, let’s deal with sexual immorality. Is it possible for a genuine believer to commit an act of sexual immorality? Yes, it’s possible. And they should feel convicted, they should repent, they should confess it, and they should move on with their Christian life. But it is also possible for a life to be so dominated by sin, that it is evidence that they don’t believe at all. I would say this is especially true when a person has surrendered to a sin and no longer battles against it.

The professions of faith which most concern me are professions of faith that openly accommodate sin. Their attitude says, “I claim to be a believer, but I openly and happily practice this thing that the Bible called sexual immorality. But it’s okay because God says it’s okay for me”. I worry about that person’s soul. We can’t read hearts. We don’t know exactly where that transition is from darkness to light. But we do know these general principles.

​I’ve been a Christian for over 40 years. I often feel like I’m not hearing from God or being led by Him. Is this normal? Are we just supposed to read Bible, pray, and go about everyday life?

This is an excellent question. Is this normal? Yes. God has created us with all different kinds of personalities. All different kinds of personalities. Some people are more sensitive to spiritual things just by their nature or their personality. I have a big place in my heart for people who aren’t very “spiritual,” so to speak, yet they love Jesus and do their best to follow Him and be His disciples. They don’t ride from one spiritual high to another. They’re not like, “Oh, the Lord spoke to me today in the most wonderful way. It was just so beautiful.” No. All they do is exactly what you spoke about here. They read their Bible, they pray, and they go about everyday life. I say that is admirable before the Lord. And to be honest, that’s how most of us live our Christian lives. We just put one foot in front of the other, and we go on in our daily walk with the Lord.