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A Woman Who Serves

In the debate over women in ministry, it’s time to turn away from the prohibitive passages that dominate our discussions and turn our attention to passages that support the existence of women serving in the church from the beginning. While the flashier verses from the end of 1 Timothy 2 are much debated, 1 Timothy 3:8-13 is often overlooked. When we look closely at verse eleven, with its requirements for women serving in the church, we find it supports the existence of women serving as deacons. The verse’s position in its greater context, along with the fact that the qualifications mirror those of deacons in general, shows the two offices are identical. Understanding Greek grammar helps reveal possible gender exclusive language in verse two as idiomatic speech that applies to all. The passage ends in 3:13 with a blessing for those who serve well as deacons in the church. Women gifted for service should not be barred from receiving this blessing alongside their male counterparts.

Biased translations often hide the importance of 1 Timothy 3:11 in supporting the existence of women serving in the early church by translating “women” as “wives.” "Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things" (New American Standard Bible, 1 Tim. 3.11). Found in a list of qualifications for church leaders, 3:11 sits right between the requirement that deacons be beyond reproach and just before the stipulation that they be "husband of one wife." Like other passages that suggest women were among those serving as leaders in the first century church, this one has conflicting translations in various versions of the Bible. King James Version (KJV), English Standard Version (ESV), and even the modern New English Translation (NET) translate the word "women" as "their (deacon's) wives."

Translation of the Greek word γυναῖκας can be complex since it can refer either to women or to wives. The grammatical distinction is made based on information within the word itself. When referring to wives, the word is typically in the genitive case, indicating possession. At other times the word is translated as wives due to context, such as a passage covering marriage. In this passage the word is not in the genitive case, nor is there sufficient context to argue for translating γυναῖκας as “wives.” This translation is made deliberately, based on a theological perspective that women cannot serve in these roles, rather than based on context or grammar.

On the other side from forbidding women serving in the church (and hiding their requirements for service), there are interpretations that go all the way to creating a whole new category for women serving: deaconesses. This has been done in the name of recognizing that women could serve in the church, but also to separate them as a distinct class or order. Some traditions recognize that women served, but would not elevate them to full participation in leadership, so they create a different category of limited service. While many women are mentioned and identified as deacons in the New Testament, there seems to be no biblical evidence for women serving in ways that differ from the men also called deacons. The very position of their requirements for service within the general requirements of deacons indicates that women were not a distinct class, but were being specifically mentioned with the intention of inclusion. Translations such as the Common English Bible present the verse this way, "In the same way, women who are servants in the church should be dignified and not gossip. They should be sober and faithful in everything they do" (1 Tim. 3:11). The translation adds English words for clarification, but opens the door for women to serve, not within their own distinct category but broadly and alongside their male counterparts.

As we examine the general requirements for deacons in 3:8-10 as well as the specific requirements for women in 3:11, it is plain that the two lists are equivalent. While the listed requirements for women who serve is shorter, the terms are more comprehensive and include the general requirements in their scope. Here are the lists side by side of general and specific qualifications:

General requirements for deacons (vv. 8-10) Requirements for women (v. 11)
Dignified Dignified
Not double-tongued (two-faced) Not gossips
Not heavy drinkers Temperate (sober / clear-minded)
Not greedy for money Faithful in all things
Holding to the faith  
Tested and approved  

Both sets name dignity as important. The general list forbids being double-tongued, the woman-specific list forbids gossip. Both call for sobriety or temperance. While the general list specifies not seeking dishonest gain, it could hardly be argued that faithfulness in all things does not include this prohibition as well.

Gender exclusive language in English translations is often cited as a basis for female exclusion. Without an understanding of the grammatical structure of the Greek language, it is often assumed that gendered language in the English reflects gendered language in the original. This applies to the use of man, he, and his when the Greek uses non-gender specific language as well as the phrase in verse two "husband of one wife." Recent scholarship notes that this phrase is not gender exclusive, rather a character quality of fidelity in marriage (Payne). The idiom “husband of one wife” is best translated “monogamous.” It is not meant to call only men to faithfulness in marriage, but both men and women who are serving in the church. The rest of the requirements of deacons apply to both men and women who are serving in this role after fidelity in marriage, managing households and children well.

The author of 1 Timothy offers the promise of a blessing that those who do well in this capacity will gain good standing and boldness in their faith. With a deeper look at this passage it becomes clear that the author was addressing both men and women serving as deacons in the early church. Women referred to in this passage were not the wives of deacons, nor a separate class of servant. The requirements listed reflect the same intention of being those who are concerned with the welfare of others, are able to exercise self-control, and are faithful to the gospel. Examined in its entirety, with an understanding of the grammar, and a side by side comparison of requirements given for deacons in general and women serving in this position specifically, there remains no reason to bar women from serving and receiving this same promised blessing with the men serving alongside them.

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