A Response to TE Sam Wheatley

TE Sam Wheatley has argued that women should be ordained deacons in the church. He advances exegetical and historical arguments in favor of his position. I would like to interact with these arguments in some detail.

Romans 16:1-2 Any discussion of 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 startles me. The ultimate question here, of course, is the meaning of the term “diakonon” in verse 1. Is Phoebe being called a “servant,” “deacon,” or “courier?” The word can mean any of the three possibilities. What is startling is that almost no one has acknowledged “courier” as a possible translation of “diakonon.” However, this is how BDAG construes the passage (see page 230). The linguistic evidence for this possibility is certainly strong. I looked up the passages in Josephus noted by BDAG, and it is incontestable that “courier” is a possible rendering of the word (see especially Ant. 7.200-201). But is it used that way in the New Testament? I would argue that BDAG’s references on the passage are quite plausible for demonstrating that Paul used the term in this way on occasion (Col 1:7 has clear contextual pointers in this direction, as does 1 Thess. 3:2). A courier can most certainly be an official position. Some couriers have more authority than others have. Timothy obviously has quite a bit more authority than just bearing a letter, as the Thessalonians passage shows. However, the exact nature of what Phoebe did is unknown beyond bearing the letter and supporting people with her financial backing. This possible translation, incidentally, would therefore negate Wheatley’s argument concerning the feminine participle modifying “sister.” Even if his argument about the participle were correct, it would not prove that Phoebe was a deacon, since a courier could also be an official position (the term “deaconess” was not in use until later). The examples that Wheatley adduces are not to the point, since the “officialness” is more than communicated by the title itself in the case of Caiaphas (how much more official does one need to be than “high priest?” The other cases adduced are similar).

The evidence in the context that Phoebe was a courier is as follows: As most commentators note, Phoebe was probably the bearer of the letter to the Romans. So she probably was the courier, anyway (commentators infer this from the commendation, and also from the fact that she is mentioned first among the greetings. One can infer from this that she would need the most immediate attention). Secondly, Paul “commends” her to the Roman church. The commendation was necessary because Phoebe would need hospitality while in Rome, the hospitality that couriers would need. Thirdly, Phoebe was a rich woman. Only a rich woman could be a “patroness” (prostatis). This means that she would have the means to travel. So, she was a courier (we would call her a secretary today!) and a patroness. She supported the ministry with her ample means, and engaged in the distribution of the gospel by bearing news and letters from one church to another. This was a special kind of service (“servant” is another possible rendering of the term), but does not prove that she was a deacon.

Miscellaneous Passages: Tabitha, Mary, Lydia (this is an especially silly example, since the passage in question refers to her conversion and to her immediately subsequent desire to help the apostles: not a word about an official deacon position! In fact, it is an excellent counter-example), the daughters of Phillip, Euodia and Syntyche, Priscilla, Nympha, and Chloe are not examples of deacons. They are wonderful examples of women who love to serve the church. They are hardly proof that women exercised the office of deacon. I wonder why he even brought them up, unless he is assuming that if a church doesn’t allow women to be deacons, then they must be preventing them from any and all ministry in the church (I don’t know if that is what he intends, since he does not make it clear why or how these passages help his case). As a point of personal privilege, I would like to point out a counter-example: I would put the WIC in my church up against any church of any denomination for the amount of work and service they contribute to the church, and not a single woman is a deacon. They work in hospitality, nursery, education, evangelism, and missions. They serve on all the committees of the church, and they keep PLENTY busy, I can assure you, yet they are not officers in the church.

Wheatley says, “Some may say these marks of Christian devotion are to be commended, but they in and of themselves do not merit titling the women who perform them either in the first century or today as deacons. That argument might hold water if Phoebe were not pointedly called a deacon of the church of a specific place, Cenchreae, with a specific task of bearing Paul’s letter to the congregation in Rome and continuing her ministry among that congregation.” It should be obvious by now that Paul does not “pointedly” call her a deacon of a specific church. This is highly in question. There are two other possibilities, and Wheatley has certainly not ruled out either one (“servant” or “courier”).

1 Timothy 3:8-13 speaks of the qualifications of the deacons of the church. Wheatley offers the following arguments in favor of verse 11 referring to “deaconesses:” 1. the “likewise” at the beginning of the verse sounds like verse 8, which also introduces a new office; 2. the absence of a definite article or possessive pronoun makes it less likely that the deacons’ wives are meant; 3. there are no separate qualifications for the wives of elders in 3:1-7 (why would deacons’ wives be singled out?). It is fascinating to me that Phil Ryken’s commentary on this passage argues for the translation “wives” and not deacons. The reason that is fascinating is that Ryken has shown at least some signs of sympathy for the position of having deaconesses! Tenth Presbyterian Church commissions deaconesses (the difference between “commissioning” and “ordaining” is not clear to me). Ryken was certainly in favor of this practice. Ryken’s answer would be along the following lines: the term “woman” not only does not seem “sufficient to designate an office in the church,” but also the term appears in the very next verse, where is most certainly means “wife” (p. 131). The instructions are also quite brief. One would expect a longer treatment of the qualifications for deaconesses.

I would add the following arguments: 1. the possessive pronoun or definite article is not always needed to indicate possessiveness. Paul could simply be saying “the wives of deacons” without necessarily saying “their wives.” But it comes to the same thing. 2. The term “likewise” does not have to have the semantic import that Wheatley gives it. The emphasis could simply be that there are requirements “likewise” for the family members of deacons. 3. The wives of elders are explicitly mentioned in verse 2, and certainly hinted at in verse 4. Why a specific commandment about dignity, lack of slander, sober-mindedness, and faithfulness should be predicated of the wives of deacons and not of elders is not known for sure. However, the following points could be suggestive: 1. Paul would surely not be implying that the wives of elders should lack the things that deacons’ wives should have. In other words, we could easily infer that Paul means for these qualities mentioned in verse 11 to be true of elders’ wives as well. 2. Another possible explanation is provided by Ryken as “the privacy of diaconal work.” Diaconal work often involves the private economical status of many people in the congregation and community. This is not something to blab about. Of course, discretion is necessary among elders’ wives as well. However, there is a difference, possibly, in that elders’ shepherding matters are not as uniformly to be kept quiet as diaconal matters are.

1 Timothy 5:9-16 does not lay out qualifications for an office. The issue here is which widows will be enrolled, or “cared for,” as verse 16 makes perfectly plain. So, his conclusion that “1 Timothy 5:9 regards a group of women set apart for service in the church for the purpose of leading in service and ministry to younger women” is not accurate. Certainly, the older women are to help the younger women. That much is evident from the passage. But “set apart for service in the church,” implying an office, goes well beyond the text. The passage in Titus 2 does not add any evidence for official offices, either.

In the third section, Wheatley argues that certain passages portray women as equal and vital partners in the Christian mission (p. 7). However, this equivocates on the phrase “equal and vital partners.” Equal in what way? Equal in the sense that they have the same standing before God as co-heirs of the kingdom of God? I would certainly grant that. Equal in the sense of working just as hard, side by side? I would certainly grant that. Equal in the sense of sharing the same office with the apostle? I would certainly NOT grant that! By this argument, women should be elders and ministers. So, Wheatley does not avoid the slippery slope argument quite as well as he thinks he does! His argument here would prove too much, by his own statements, since he is not arguing for women elders or ministers. His point concerning women being the first witnesses to the resurrection (p. 9) is not to the point, either. Christianity certainly improves women’s standing among men as co-heirs of the kingdom of God. This is quite different from the question of office.

I will deal with the historical arguments adduced on pp. 10-13 in a separate post. For now, it should be clear that there is no biblical basis for proving that the New Testament approves of women deacons. I might add that there are strong negative considerations that must come into play here as well: the office of deacon is one of authority. Otherwise, why would they need to be men (!) of the Holy Spirit, as Acts 6 specifically spells out? There is no treatment of Acts 6 in the whole of Wheatley’s paper, and it is not difficult to find out the reasons why. Firstly, the first deacons were all men. Secondly, they had to be men of authority, because they had to be men full of the Holy Spirit. If there is authority wielded by deacons, then the strictures of 1 Timothy 2:9-13 come into play. The office of deacon is one of authority, and such authority cannot be wielded by women over men in the church. Incidentally, Acts 6 also puts the axe to the argument that women were needed, in the early church, to serve the diaconal needs of other women. Here in Acts 6, it is quite plain that men were seeing to the food needs of women.