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.


  1. February 25, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    […] can read TE Keister’s response to 1 Tim. 3 and 5 as well as Romans 16 here. Share […]

  2. Steve Drake said,

    February 25, 2012 at 2:24 pm


    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.

    Quite different, indeed!

  3. rfwhite said,

    February 25, 2012 at 4:00 pm

    Green Baggins: is it your understanding that, by seeking an answer to the question he poses at the start of his paper, TE Wheatley was attempting to comply with BoCO 21-5.2. (namely, on his own initiative, to make known to his Presbytery a change which has taken place in his views since the assumption of the ordination vow)?

  4. Steve Drake said,

    February 25, 2012 at 6:27 pm

    rfwhite @ 3,
    Does it matter? If his views have changed since ordination, or he is seeking to make known to his presbytery his change of views, isn’t the net result the same? He is arguing that women should be ‘ordained’ deacons in the church.

  5. rfwhite said,

    February 25, 2012 at 7:00 pm

    Steve: What I had in mind was that it would not matter as far as his conclusions; It would matter as far as his integrity in keeping his vow to disclose the change on his own initiative.

  6. Steve Drake said,

    February 25, 2012 at 7:03 pm

    rfwhite@ 5,
    His integrity is not in question here. It is his change in view that is the topic on the table.

  7. rfwhite said,

    February 25, 2012 at 7:24 pm

    I take it you have an answer to the queston I posed to Lane. Ok.

  8. Stephen Welch said,

    February 25, 2012 at 8:12 pm

    Lane, I read Sam’s exegesis and did not find it compelling. Most of the references, particularly from Acts, did not indicate in any sense that these women were deacons. He is really making a stretch. I wonder if you looked at his historical arguments in the second part of his letter. It seems to me there was a diaconal role for women in Calvin’s day and certainly the issue has been raised in the history of Presbyterianism in the U.S, but I don’t believe they held an office as an ordained equal with men. Wheatley makes a brief mention of TE Brian Swartley’s book on Deaconesses, but Swartley does not regard it as an ordained office. He believes that women in the early church served women as is outlined in I Timothy 5.

  9. Joel Linton said,

    February 25, 2012 at 8:54 pm

    It was good to hear about the courier semantic option.
    For 1 Timothy 3:11, I settled on the most likely reading being wives of both Deacons and Elders. Even though John Calvin allowed for a second level (service-only, no authority) class that includes deaconesses, he did not interpret 1 Tim. 3:11 in that way.

    An excerpt:
    “So this reading would be that Paul lists the qualifications for overseers, then for deacons, then upon moving on to the qualifications for a deacon’s family, he lists the qualifications for wives of both officers in verse 11, and then finishes the list for deacons in verse 12 and 13. John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion interprets verse 11 as referring to the wives of both overseers and deacons (Institutes, Bk. IV, Ch. 12, Sec. 24, p. 1250). His reading might come as a surprise to those who have heard that Calvin held to the office of deaconess, but he does not derive that office from the text of 1 Timothy 3:11.

    Apparently, Calvin interprets 1 Timothy 5:9 χηρα καταλεγεσθω followed by the list of service works in 5:10 to be where the office of deaconess is described (Institutes, Bk. IV, Ch. 13, Sec. 19). He additionally cites Romans 12:8 in establishing two grades of deacons, those “serve the church in administering the affairs of the poor,” and those who serve the church in “caring for the poor themselves” (Institutes, Bk. IV, Ch. 3, Sec. 9). Calvin understands this second grade of deacon to be the role of deaconesses, one filled by the widows of 1 Timothy 5:9-10 (ibid.).

    However, in contrast to Calvin’s view, the phrase ταις οντως χηραις επαρκεσηι, “the church may relieve the real widows,” in 1 Timothy 5:16 seems to indicate that the purpose of the qualification list given there is not for office-holders but rather for those who could be designated to receive the service of the deacons. Accordingly, the acts of service listed in 1 Timothy 5:10 describe activities of non-officeholders. The passage supports the principle of that exercise of spiritual gifts in a church does not require or imply holding an office in the church. “

  10. David Gilleran said,

    February 25, 2012 at 9:06 pm

    Therefore, our congregation will continue to nominate, train, elect and install men and women as deacons of the church as we have practiced for the past several years. We will overture presbytery in February to approve an amendment to the Book of Church Order to strike any reference to gender in BCO chapter 9 on The Deacon. If the presbytery fails to approve this overture, the session of New Song Presbyterian will then petition the 2012 General Assembly directly.

    I do not think this means he just changed his position if the word continue means anything.

  11. rfwhite said,

    February 26, 2012 at 12:43 pm

    10 David Gilleran: thanks for highlighting those comments. I think you’ve made a fair observation.

  12. rfwhite said,

    February 27, 2012 at 4:21 pm

    GB: I’m interested in your opening statement re: Rom 16.1-2. You say, Any discussion of women deacons has to start here. I’m interested in learning why you say the discussion “has to start here.” What compels us to start here and not elsewhere? Though I agree with your general position on this topic, I’m not completely sure what you mean to say in this assertion.

  13. greenbaggins said,

    February 29, 2012 at 6:58 am

    Dr. White, I mean that this is the main text in discussion, because it calls Phoebe a “diakonon.” As such, it is the main text that advocates of women deacons point to when they make their case, and they spend the most time on it. Yes, they go to 1 Timothy 3 as well, but Romans 16 is the key text, since 1 Timothy is much more ambiguous as to whether it refers to “women” or “wives.”

  14. rfwhite said,

    February 29, 2012 at 9:24 am

    GB: thinking with you about this, I see better what you are driving at. It seems that Rom 16.1-2 brings together in one place a number of exegetical-theological questions that are otherwise distributed in several places. I’m thinking, for example, that Paul introduces a person who is τὴν ἀδελφὴν ἡμῶν,
    who is διάκονον τῆς ἐκκλησίας τῆς ἐν Κεγχρεαῖς,
    who is introduced ἵνα αὐτὴν προσδέξησθε ἐν κυρίῳ ἀξίως τῶν ἁγίων, καὶ παραστῆτε αὐτῇ ἐν ᾧ ἂν ὑμῶν χρῄζῃ πράγματι,
    who is καὶ … αὐτὴ προστάτις πολλῶν ἐγενήθη καὶ ἐμοῦ αὐτοῦ.
    All these phrases are subject to non-technical or technical interpretation, depending on the context we think is at work.

    Question: if the name of the person whom Paul was introducing here was Epaphras or Tychicus instead of Phoebe, how would it change the discussion in your opinion?

  15. Richard said,

    February 29, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    May I draw attention to A Case For Permanent Female Deacons by Rev’d Mike Smith.

  16. Andrew Barnes said,

    March 7, 2012 at 9:29 pm

    I found this blog by the Bayly Brothers to be interesting.

    They attempt to show that Sam Wheatley misquotes and misleads his readers in his pro-deaconess paper:


  17. David Cassidy said,

    March 8, 2012 at 9:27 pm

    Lane, any thoughts on the ‘courier’ being the person who would also read the letter to the assembly? That would certainly put Phoebe in an interesting situation.

  18. December 31, 2017 at 9:23 am

    […] From an exegetical treatment about women elders: […]

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