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Larry Perkins Ph.D.

A Brief Note on Gunaikes in 1 Timothy 3:11 – Deacons or Wives?

In response to one of my blogs someone asked how we are to understand the role of the women mentioned in 1 Timothy 3:11. Are they to be included among the diakonoi, i.e. deacons, or were they the wives of male diakonoi. In other words, did women serve in an official capacity as diakonoi (deacons) in the early church?

Responding to such a question requires more space than a blog provides. However, the query directly asked whether Charles Ryrie’s statement that Paul could have used “diakonos with the feminine article or diakonissa would probably have come to his mind” (Charles Ryrie, The Role of Women in the Church (Chicago: Moody Press, 1958), 91), if he had intended to state that women were serving as diakonoi, was supported by the evidence.
Howard Marshall in The Pastoral Epistles (London: T. & T. Clark, 1999), 493 notes that “no feminine form of diakonos existed to serve as a technical designation.” William Mounce, Pastoral Epistles (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000), 202 says that “the feminine form of the word diakonos (diakonissa) had not yet been created.”So diakonissa was not a option for Paul at this time. By far the majority of uses documented come much later than the New Testament period. The major Classical Greek Lexicon compiled by Liddell and Scott list one example found in an inscription, but it offers no proposed dating for this inscription. So I think that Marshall and Mounce are right in saying that a feminine form diakonissa did not exist when Paul was writing 1Timothy and so Ryrie is wrong in this part of his argument.
Paul could have written hai diakonoi, using the feminine form of the Greek article to signal that he was referring to female deacons. Herbert Smyth, Greek Grammar (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956), 46) states that “many nouns denoting persons are either masculine or feminine.” He cites the noun pais as an example. With the masculine article it means ‘boy’, but with the feminine article it means ‘girl’. Diakonos has the same characteristic.
If Paul is referring to female deacons, he seems to have chosen a different strategy. In this section where he is discussing the general character of diakonoi, he includes a section that refers to the general character of female deacons, but refers to them simply as gunaikes. He then completes his discussion by mentioning some specific behaviour that should characterize male deacons. We might question why Paul does not discuss all aspects of male deacons first and then talk about “the women” deacons, but Paul is the writer. We can only speculate why he chose to write it in this order.
As Ryrie points out, Phoebe, in Romans 16:1 is described as diakonon t?s ekkl?sias, i.e. deacon/servant of the church which is in Cenchrea. In this context Paul is quite comfortable using the noun diakonos to describe her. 
Certainly the term diakonos can be applied to a woman (e.g. Phoebe), but whether in such a case it has a technical or general sense remains debated. That Paul connects Phoebe in this role with a specific church might argue for more of a technical, official sense. How such officials functioned in the early church and whether male and female diakonoi exercised the same roles is unclear. We have to work very hard lest we read back our 21st century assumptions as to what women can and cannot do in the church, into the first century emerging Christian house churches as described in the New Testament.

 

 

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