Romans 16:1 and Women Deacons

It seems to me that Romans 16:1 is one of a very few texts that are key in the issue of women deacons. The discussion over at the Puritan Board has gotten a bit heated. What I wish to do is to prove that the case for women deacons regarding this passage has not been proven. Here is the passage in Greek:

Συνίστημι δὲ ὑμῖν Φοίβην τὴν ἀδελφὴν ἡμῶν, οὖσαν [καὶ] διάκονον τῆς ἐκκλησίας τῆς ἐν Κεγχρεαῖς,

What is important here is the semantic range of διάκονον. The word can mean any of the following: agent, intermediary, courier, assistant, servant. The genitive “of the church” does not limit the meaning of διάκονον, since any of the above meanings (except perhaps “intermediary, which no one argues for anyway in this context) fits quite well into the genitive construction. The context of the previous chapter indicates that “servant” is probably the best translation, since we find  διακονία μου in verse 31, describing Paul’s service. Of course, the gender is feminine in that case. This helps my case enormously, since the word never refers to a diaconal ministry, but simply to “service.” Phoebe is then a servant. Phoebe is further described as a “patron” or “benefactress” in verse 2. The word προστάτις means this, although BDAG makes sure that we do not confuse this word with the Roman patron-client system. Phoebe was probably well off, and able to provide support for the apostles in their missionary journeys. There is nothing in the context that points in the direction of office. Since the semantic domain of the word clearly includes a vast deal more than the office of deacon, the burden of proof is actually on those who would argue such a delimitation of the meaning here. The context clearly points in the direction of servant. For this understanding of the word, see 1 Timothy 4:6 and Philippians 1:1. Therefore, the argument for Phoebe as a deaconess is not only ill-founded, but the understanding of the word as “servant” has strong support in the context.      

26 Comments

  1. APuritanLady said,

    June 16, 2008 at 12:15 pm

    Lane, I asked a question on the chat and then had to immediately attend to something else, thus missing the answer.

    In one of the PCA churches we had attended, there were deaconesses. However, it was explained to me that the role was merely a group of organised women of the church that went to visit the homebound (the elderly, sick, and disabled) and to plan & prepare meals for those that were ill or newly delivered of a babe. The women were not ordained nor are they seeking to be ordained or have any role that would place them over men.

    Given the view of Phoebe and servanthood, shouldn’t the term (deaconess) in these cases be acceptable? It’s not the same as the modern view of a Deacon board.

    Simply trying to understand the situation.

  2. RBerman said,

    June 16, 2008 at 12:20 pm

    The problem is with the English words. “X-ess” means “female of X.” A lioness is a female lion. An actress is a female actor. A waitress is a female waiter. Granting that women can indeed serve the church, and that a committee of women such as you describe would be a good way to organize women to serve the church (like WiC, for instance), it still seems confusing to call those women “deaconesses” in our current cultural climate.

  3. APuritanLady said,

    June 16, 2008 at 1:21 pm

    Was the study committee suggested to study whether the issue was ordination or whether or not to have deaconesses?

  4. schreibs said,

    June 16, 2008 at 1:56 pm

    I wonder if to the Greek speaking Paul and Phoebe the difference between “service” and “diaconal ministry” was very substantial.

    Similarly, if “deacon” (gk) is only used rarely in the NT to point to the office, then it is also quite hard to argue that the NT excludes women from such an office.

    There are some other things that are quite interesting about this chapter: namely, the two female “apostles” Pricilla and Junia. (Whereas the NT is scant in defining the office of deacon, apostleship is defined explicitly–“sent out to preach” (Mark 3:14).

    To Pricilla (v. 3) is attached (συνεργούς), which is used quite often–especially in 1 Cor 3–to refer to itinerant preachers and “apostles.”

    Junia (v. 7), explicitly praised as “outstanding among the apostles” and BDAG mentions the “strong probability” that a woman is mentioned here.

    In any case, Paul’s general tone here in ch. 16 seems to be nothing but nonchalant egalitarianism. I really hope that we in the Reformed tradition are able to get over our presuppositions and get at what God desires for his church.

  5. greenbaggins said,

    June 16, 2008 at 2:39 pm

    To Schreibs, welcome to my blog. I do not allow anonymous commenters, so if you would please tell us who you are, we would appreciate it. I approve your first comment in a good faith move. Now, in answer to your position, I would argue that you are committing the fallacy of illegitimate totality transfer. Just because a word has a meaning in one place does not mean that it has the same meaning elsewhere. That is certainly true of the word “apostle,” and it is true of diakonos. You need to answer the contextual reasons I gave as to why the term in Romans 16:1 refers not to an office but to service.

  6. RBerman said,

    June 16, 2008 at 3:21 pm

    Andronicus and Junias are “outstanding among the apostles” (Rom 16:7), which might mean that they are apostles who are more impressive than other apostles, or might mean that they are not apostles, but the apostles consider them outstanding among the people of the church.

    Priscilla is not called an “apostle” (ἀπόστολος ) but a “fellow worker” (συνεργός ) in Romans 16:3.

  7. HaigLaw said,

    June 16, 2008 at 6:16 pm

    Let me start with Lane’s statement: “This helps my case enormously, since the word never refers to a diaconal ministry, but simply to ‘service.’ ”

    Does this presuppose that 1 Tim. 3:8-12 is all about the office of deacon?

  8. schreibs said,

    June 16, 2008 at 9:04 pm

    Hey there!

    I understand about the anonymity. My name is Ryan and I just graduated from Calvin Theological Seminary with an MDiv. I’m looking to be a minister in the Christian Reformed Church. I’m glad to find a solid Reformed blog here and looking forward to future discussions. The Peter Enns stuff is particularly interesting. I’d be very glad to be allowed to stick around.

    Holy smokes, I just checked the “about” and had no idea this blog belonged to someone serving a CRC church! I’m also married to a Sarah.

    In any case, I understand too about this totality fallacy. Unfortunately, hermeneutics done on these issues may be an exercise in weighing propositions. Some give certain passages weight, and some others–as HaigLaw points out above. (Not that I’m inclined to undermine perspicuity.)

    @ RBerman – BDAG disagrees with you and renders it “among the apostles.” Although you could translate “outstanding” as “notorious” instead if that makes v. 7 easier to read.

    Also, wherever Paul uses συνεργός in reference to someone the NT knows something about, it seems to be exclusively referring to preachers/teachers, with the exception of church patrons like Philemon. It seems that Priscilla and Aquila fit into both categories (1 Cor 18:26).

  9. schreibs said,

    June 16, 2008 at 9:09 pm

    And in Phil 1:1, why isn’t it possible that Paul considered himself a deacon? I am not understanding the difference between deacon and servant.

  10. June 17, 2008 at 7:26 am

    […] Phoebe as a model for having female deacons. He deals with the Romans 16:1 passage very well. Click here to see Lane’s […]

  11. E.C. Hock said,

    June 17, 2008 at 6:28 pm

    If it has not be stated yet, it might be helpful also to read two notables in the Reformed NT scholarship world on Romans 16:1-2, one specifically esteemed for his careful, critical exegesis. (1) Edmund P. Clowney’s book, The Church (IVP), has succinct reasons for tilting toward the probability of Paul speaking of Phoebe as more than a servant in the general sense, since the weight of the charge given to her speaks more then just to a friend or general servant of the church. (2) C. E. B. Cranfield adds his reputation behind the same conclusion of Phoebe as he explores the usage of these terms, for instance, the usage of the verb “to be” here as consistently, thus more likely, applied to an office. There are good arguments on each side. Yet, how dogmatic can one be where legitimate differences in interpretation reign? Dogmatic enough to say, “This is who we are, do not mess with the set tradition?” Christian scholars give us serious and sound considerations to the details and context of the texts without giving us a sense of an imposed agenda. We may champion a viewpoint, but what degree of certitude we can give to it such that we can declare a more modified view out of bounds? This kind of tension will keep asserting itself into the debate as the debate takes on new dimensions, with a new generation asking questions, and a detante form of peace becomes the greater goal in the church as other pressing matters bear down.

  12. HaigLaw said,

    June 17, 2008 at 7:25 pm

    It seems to me that being confessional subscriptionists and yet recognizing Scripture as our only primary authority places us in a constant dynamic tension to be always asking whether our secondary standards are true to Scripture.

  13. greenbaggins said,

    June 18, 2008 at 10:44 am

    HaigLaw, sorry I haven’t answered your questions yet. Lots of posts recently to follow! My view of Romans 16:1 does not presuppose any view of 1 Timothy 3 of which I am aware. Did you have some place where you were going with that?

    Ryan, as long as you are courteous, you can stick around to your heart’s content. I only require courtesy and relevance (the latter defined by sticking to the original post’s content).

  14. Mike said,

    June 18, 2008 at 5:37 pm

    Seems like as has been pointed out by some that Phoebe while obviously a servant…and we are all called to be servants no matter what other role we may serve…the word here could mean “emissary”. Where does that take this discussion?

  15. David Gray said,

    June 18, 2008 at 7:36 pm

    >It seems to me that being confessional subscriptionists and yet recognizing Scripture as our only primary authority places us in a constant dynamic tension to be always asking whether our secondary standards are true to Scripture.

    If we come up with our autonomous interpretation that is at odds with 2000 years of Christian understanding then we may bear in mind that Reformed Christians have Scripture as their primary authority but have other authorities which inform their understanding and interpretation of Scripture.

  16. rjs1 said,

    June 19, 2008 at 9:26 am

    What has always struck me is the difficulty in determining biblically what a deacon actually is and what their role is to be.

  17. Mike said,

    June 19, 2008 at 2:19 pm

    I have always found this to be an interesting topic as well there rjs1. The Bibles picture of a deacon is a bit different than the one we see today. There are the mercy ministry characteristics of Acts 6 to be sure but then we see them literally popping in and out of the scene as with the Ethiopian and then explaining Scripture…would we call that exhortation or preaching? Then there are the sacrifices and the miracles associated with the office bearer or was that with the person? Where did the taking care of the church property come into play?

  18. rjs1 said,

    June 20, 2008 at 11:24 am

    Mike, one difficulty is that Phillip is an Evangelist hence his ‘preaching’ (is explaining the Scripture 1-2-1 preaching?) is more likely to be related to that not Acts 6.

    Another difficulty is, how do we know that Acts 6 is a special office as per 1 Tim 3?

    Another difficulty is, can we be completely sure that 1 Tim 3 is describing two offices? If so when do the descriptions change? That is, in the KJV it seems that deacons are described from v. 8 however in the Bishop’s Bible deacons are not mentioned until v. 12 with v. 8 refering to the overseers on v. 1.

    In all these issues there is a great number of inferences drawn that I really do question.

  19. Mike said,

    June 20, 2008 at 3:23 pm

    I try to stay with the original when I discuss matters such as these..so I really don’t use English texts much at all. I tend to use the Greek and Hebrew almost exclusively when studing a text and then I go to the English text to see how they use and misuse the original… trying…I think…to be relevant and true to the original meaning but both the KJV and NIV (not familiar with the Bishop’s Bible) are no more that dynamic equivalents and phrase by phrase type transliterations…so when I use English I stay with ESV, of late, or NASB. These seem to be closer to the original since they are word for word equivalent. English is limited at best when it comes to making an arguement from Scripture.

    As far as the Evangelist status..that is true but he was chosen originally as a deacon in Acts 6…so does the NT see evangelist status as part of the office?

    And I do believe that I Tim.3 is talking about 2 offices. When it speaks of women/wives I come from an old school interpretation that says these are qualifications for the wives of the officers. It could loosely be refering to the “office” of widow that Titus 2 speaks of and church history seems to speak of but I think it is qualifications for officers wives hence when I do officers training I also bring in the wives so they will understand what is being expected of the husbands and what the Bible expects of them.

  20. HaigLaw said,

    June 21, 2008 at 8:32 am

    Re: #13: “HaigLaw, sorry I haven’t answered your questions yet. Lots of posts recently to follow! My view of Romans 16:1 does not presuppose any view of 1 Timothy 3 of which I am aware. Did you have some place where you were going with that?”

    I didn’t have a clear view of where I might be going with it, Lane. I just developed some unease listening to debates and informal discussions of these issues at GA last week that perhaps a lot is being read into passages we base ordination on. That is, saying that passage A clearly relates to the office, while passage B clearly speaks of serving. I don’t see that clarity. I wondered where they got all that clarity. I thought subscriptionism meant we always subject our traditions to Scripture. That we are always willing to rethink things in light of greater understanding of Scripture.

    I wrote a hundred or perhaps more posts on PB giving a play by play of what was happening at GA, and then felt there was developing some harshness and name calling over people like me saying — wait a minute, how can we say Scripture prohibits women deacons?

    I made this argument in the Overtures committee and got no response: compare the arguments against women deacons to Paul’s prohibitions on women speaking in church. Those are generally regarded as disciplinary excesses and not a strict prohibition. But if we use the grammatical-historical hermeneutic to call those discipinary excesses, it seems to me that this same hermeneutic would lead us to similar conclusions on women deacons. I.e., the prohibition on a woman (wife-gune) teaching or exercising authority over a man (or husband) could be treated as a disciplinary excess to be punished ad hoc, rather than mandating a structure in which no woman could ever commit that excess.

    Put another way, to say we cannot have woman officer deacons because that might lead to a woman being chairman of the board of deacons containing men and women and thus violate the “exercising authority” prohibition, is the very same hermeneutical proposition as saying we should not allow women to speak at all in church.

    And I think we have to regard both passages as prohibitions on disciplinary excesses, because I think Scripture clearly records that women held offices in the N.T. church which entailed spiritual authority over everyone in their churches, including men.

    Another reason I think we’re talking about disciplinary excesses is seen in the nature of the very authority we wield as officers — ministerial and declarative, not the sword. I.e., not lording it over those allocated to our charge. Just as a husband is to love his wife and not lord it over her.

    These are concerns I have been sharing with my session. They will now have to decide whether these strike at the vitals of religion or not.

    Thanks for your consideration.

  21. greenbaggins said,

    June 21, 2008 at 9:01 am

    Then you might be interested in my forthcoming article on 1 Timothy 2 coming in the 2008 Confessional Presbyterian Journal, an article in which I defend the traditional, complementarian position. I could not disagree more with your position, in all honesty, and that is not an attack on you. I do not believe it is confessional at all. I believe it strikes not only at the male headship model in the New Testament, but also at the Christ/church relationship, since Ephesians 5 has made the analogy Scriptural. In other words, by your argument there is no reason why the church should not exercise authority over Christ in some way.

  22. Elder Hoss said,

    June 21, 2008 at 9:06 am

    Amen, Lane.

  23. HaigLaw said,

    June 21, 2008 at 1:18 pm

    Yes, I would be interested in your forthcoming article.

    When is it coming forth? Thanks.

  24. greenbaggins said,

    June 21, 2008 at 3:02 pm

    HaigLaw, it will be in the 2008 Confessional Presbyterian Journal. I will be sure to advertise for it as soon as that issue is available. The website for the journal is here:

    http://www.cpjournal.com/

    By the way, all three issues (2005, 2006, 2007) are pure gold.

  25. May 21, 2009 at 2:02 pm

    […] she hath been a succourer of many, and of myself also. Link to commentary on the direct greek: Romans 16:1 and Women Deacons Green Baggins And now, a discussion between carpenters: carpenter A: So, because of the weight of the table […]

  26. February 25, 2012 at 12:30 pm

    […] women deacons has to start here. I have interacted with Lee Irons on this passage in the past (see here, here, and here). I have done further research on this passage, and the conclusion I came to […]


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