It is written:
“Likewise, their wives must be reverent, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things.” (1 Timothy 3:11)
In our previous study of Phoebe, we noticed that the Apostle Paul referred to her as a “servant” of the church (the word “servant” sometimes carrying with it the idea of a “deacon” in the church, and hence the idea of “deaconess”).
In Paul’s First Letter to Timothy, he makes a possible reference to the qualifications of a “deaconess” (3:11). Notice how this verse is translated in different translations:
1 Timothy 3:11 (ERV)-In the same way, the women must have the respect of others. They must not be women who speak evil about other people. They must have self-control and be women who can be trusted in everything.
1 Timothy 3:11 (TLV)-Women likewise must be dignified, not backbiting; clear-minded, trustworthy in every respect.
The versions here reflect two different translations of this passage. Either Paul is referring to the wives of elders and deacons, or he is talking about the qualifications of deaconesses in the church.
Why the differences in translation?
“First Timothy 3: 11 is translated as either “wives” or “women.” You’re probably wondering why those Greeks couldn’t use appropriate words so that we could get what they meant. The term from which these words are translated is gunaĩkas or gunē. Our English word “gynecology” comes from this root. This term can be translated as either “wife” or “woman.” The term is translated as “wife” when it’s in direct relation to a man and usually connected by a possessive pronoun such as “your” or “their.” Since no possessive pronoun appears, the New American Standard translators have accurately translated it as “women.” However, the others translate it as “wives” because the verse is tucked within the description of the deacon. Paul began this description in 1 Timothy 3: 8 and concluded in v. 13. Since v. 11 is tucked within the context of the deacon, the translators believe it to refer to the deacons’ and overseers’ wives. Now do you see how tough a job it is to translate?” (Steven C. Hunter, Being Phoebe: How Women Served In Early Christianity, 669-676 (Kindle Edition); Dallas, TX; Start2Finish Books)
It seems clear from studying the writings of the church fathers that some of the earliest Christians understood 1 Timothy 3:11 to be a reference to the deaconess. For example:
“Some have thought that this is said of women generally, but it is not so, for why should he introduce anything about women to interfere with his subject? He is speaking of those who hold the rank of deaconesses.” (Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Timothy 11)
However, there were some who also said the exact opposite:
“Paul does not refer here to women deacons, since these are not allowed in the church. It is heretics who have such persons. The reference here is to women in general.” (Ambrosiaster, Commentary on the First Letter to Timothy. [CSEL 81 3:268.]”.
What shall we conclude from these facts?
First, the writing of Paul in this passage MAY be referring to deaconesses in the early church. If so, he points out that they must be of Christ-like character, having had such proven through time and experience. They must not be slanderers (speaking evil of others), and they need to be trustworthy.
Second, if this passage is not talking about deaconesses, the qualifications mentioned here apply to the wives of elders and deacons.
Third, if this passage is talking about the wives of elders and deacons, it would be the only passage in the New Testament Scriptures to directly address such a matter.
Fourth, whether or not the passage is talking about deaconesses, Romans 16:1-2 affirms the existence of such; and the writings of the early church directly mention such. For example:
“. . . also your readers, your signers, your porters, your deaconesses, your widows, your virgins, and your orphans.” (Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c. 390, E), 7.410)
“Let not any woman address herself to the deacon or bishop without the deaconess.” (Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c. 390, E), 7.410.)
“Ordain also a deaconess who is faithful and holy for the ministrations towards women. For sometimes the bishop cannot send a deacon (who is a man) to the women, on account of unbelievers. You should therefore send a woman, a deaconess, on account of the imaginations of the bad. For we stand in need of a woman, a deaconess, for many necessities. For example, in the baptism of women, the deacon will anoint only their forehead with the holy oil. And after him, the deaconess will anoint them. For there is no necessity that the women should be seen by the men.” (Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c. 390, E), 7.431.)
The “office” of deaconess was very important in the early church. It’s importance, however, was not in women who sought authority in the church; but in their willingness to serve others in a Christ-like spirit.