What are deaconesses? If legitimate, what is their role? Should Regular Baptist churches have them?
First, the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches has no “official position” on this matter. Quite often people will contact us about the GARBC’s “official position” on certain doctrines when the Association has none; matters not specifically addressed in the GARBC’s Articles of Faith are left to the autonomy of the local church and to each local body’s sacred privilege and responsibility of concluding what the Scriptures teach or do not teach. But your question is legitimate. Bible scholars and others in church leadership have wrestled with it down through time.
Just what is a deaconess? In the last century and before, churches had become quite “office conscious.” Therefore, we today tend to translate responsibilities that people in the early New Testament church had as elected, or formal, offices. However, this mentality was not common back in apostolic times, especially in the earliest years. People ministered gladly in whatever way(s) they were needed, without thought to possessing a formal position. Exercising spiritual gifts rather than being an officeholder seemed to be the issue.
So we have two basic views concerning the function of “deaconess”: (1) that it is to be an office, like pastor and deacon, and (2) that it is not an actual office but rather a broad designation for “servant,” for that is what the word “deaconess” means. In the latter view any godly woman who serves in a local church qualifies as having the designation of deaconess.
A major Scripture passage that becomes a focal point on the subject is Romans 16:1 and 2, where Paul said to the Roman believers,
I commend to you Phoebe our sister; who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea, that you may receive her in the Lord.
(Phoebe was the bearer of Paul’s letter to the Bomans, and a very capable individual who apparently did a great deal of traveling. Letters of commendation were popular in those times; traveling was easier if one could produce such a letter to a potential host.)
Those who behave in a specific office of deaconess point to the phase “of the church” in verse 1 to attempt to prove their case, while those holding to the second view do not see the phrase as having this emphasis. It is interesting that no record of the election of specific women to an office exists, unlike the appointment of deacons (see Acts 6).
Also, we find instructions concerning the requirements of pastors and deacons in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, but we find no similar instructions for women who would hold a similar office. However, it is also interesting that the word for “deacons” (see Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8, 10, and 12) and the word “servant” describing Phoebe in Romans 16:1 are the same (diakonos). That comparison should show us the important ministry women play in a local church. When we compare Scripture with Scripture, we, of course, know that women are not to be in leadership over males (1 Timothy 2:11, 12). Thus women could not function Scripturally in positions such as deacons or pastors, though theft many “servant” roles are well known and appreciated.
I should point out, too, that although the word for “servant” used of Phoebe is also the word used of the office of deacon, this use does not necessarily mean that Phoebe held a “deaconess” office, since the word is used of others who obviously were not deaconesses. The word form is found in a number of Scripture passages. Here are just a few—“ministering” is the English word we see in these particular references: Jesus (see Romans 15:8, KJV; He certainly wasn’t a deaconess); to the many women witnessing Jesus’ death (see Matthew 27:55; this scene comes before Pentecost and the birth of the New Testament church; hence ft has no relation to the issue of deaconesses); and angels (see Mark 1:13; angels are obviously not deaconesses).
Should we have deaconesses? The Scriptures do not command this office for a local church, but neither does the Bible forbid it. But a couple of principles must apply.
First, if a church has the office of deaconess, then the spiritual/moral qualifications for those holding the office of deacon must apply. In the case of the rule “the husband of one wife,” the regulation to those who are married would be “the wife of one husband.” Again, as we’ve noted, women are not to lead males, and that is why many churches do not have deaconesses, and those that do limit their work to other women.
Second, the various duties of a deaconess would pattern those of a deacon: visiting the ill, helping the poor, and serving in other ways, basically on behalf of women in need. It is important to stay within bounds.
Many churches regard deaconesses as the wives of the pastors and deacons. This is a conviction worthy of study in itself.
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