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Dear Timothy, 

In our discussion of the offices in the Church of Christ, we must now turn to the office of deacon. 

You reminded me in your last letter of the fact that, among many different denominations, it is becoming customary practice to ordain women in office; and you mentioned specifically the recent decisions of the Christian Reformed Church which granted the right to women to serve in the office of deacon. You asked me if I would make some comments about this in connection with these letters on the offices. 

I do not intend to write concerning the whole question of women-elders and women-ministers; but it would be worth our while to discuss this matter of women-deacons in the light of recent Christian Reformed Synodical decisions. 

One of the texts quoted in support of the contention that women may function in the office of deacon is Romans 16:1, 2: “I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea: That ye receive her in the Lord, as becometh saints, and that ye assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of you: for she hath been a succourer of many, and of myself also.” The reason why this passage is quoted in support of women-deacons is because the word “servant” in the phrase, “a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea” can correctly be translated, “deaconess.” It is the same word, though in the feminine, which in other parts of Scripture is translated, “deacon.” The conclusion is therefore made that Phebe was a deaconess in the church at Cenchrea and that this had the apostle’s sanction. Because the apostle Paul was a means whereby God gave us the Scriptures, his word is to be considered regulative for us also in this respect. 

We ought to look at this whole matter a bit because, although many other texts are quoted and discussed in connection with this controversy, this is in a sense the key passage, for it is the only one where there is any positivestatement which seems to allow for deaconesses.

The Scriptures do not tell us a great deal about Phebe. In fact, all the information we have of her is found in this passage. 

The city of Cenchrea of which she was a resident was located just a little to the south and east of Corinth in the southern part of the Greek peninsula which was known as Achaia. The church in Cenchrea was probably established on Paul’s second missionary journey during the time of his labor in Corinth. Paul often made one city the center of his labors, and the gospel went forth from that center to all the surrounding area. Cf.Acts 19:10.

Phebe may have been a woman of some means who was traveling to Rome on business for he tells the Roman Church to “assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of you.” 

If it is true that Paul’s letter to the Romans was written from Corinth (and this is likely) then it may be that he sent his epistle to the Romans by her hand. That would explain the commendation he gives her in these two vss. of Romans 16. At any rate,’ this has been the traditional opinion of the church; and so we read at the end of the epistle: “Written to the Romans from Corinthus, and sent by Phebe servant of the church at Cenchrea.” 

The Lord had saved her and she occupied an important place in the church at Cenchrea—whatever now that place may have been. 

Paul himself stopped in Cenchrea after he had finished his work in Corinth and prior to going to Jerusalem. There he had shaved his head in fulfillment of a vow he had made to God. 

This is about all that is known of Phebe. 

The question is: Was she a deaconess? 

As far as the word itself is concerned, it is true as some have argued that the word translated “servant” in Romans 16:1 can just as well be translated “deaconess.” We readily grant this. It is striking however, that the translators of the King James Version of the Bible did not do this; and we may well ask: Why? 

Other than in this passage, there are only two places in the whole New Testament Scriptures where this word actually refers to the office of deacon. It might be well to take a look at these passages a moment, for they have some bearing on the matter. The first place is I Timothy 3:8-13 which reads: “Likewise must the deacons be grave, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre; Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless. Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things. Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.” 

The reason why I have quoted this passage is not only that it is one of the two places where the word for “deacon” appears in reference to the office, but also because this passage too has been quoted to prove the existence of deaconesses in the apostolic church. The argument is based on vs. 11. The KJV reads: “Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things.” The word translated, “wives” can also be translated “women”; and the word, “their,” referring to the deacons themselves, is not found in the Greek—which is why it appears in the KJV in italics. There are, therefore, different translations of this. Philips translates this vs.: “Their wives should share their serious outlook”; and contains the same idea as the KJV. The New English Bible does the same: “Their wives, equally, must be women of high principle.” The New International Version does the same. But the Revised Standard Bible does not: “The women likewise must be serious.” 

So there are different translations and interpretations of this passage. Hendrickson says the passages refer to deacons’ helpers. Lenski claims the passage refers to deaconesses. And others insist that the reference is to deacons’ wives. We agree with this latter. Rev. Lubbers writes in the Standard Bearer (Vol. 38, p. 203):

The first interpretation holds that Paul here speaks of the requisites for women to be elected to the office of deaconess. The reasons assigned by these is that the term “likewise” in verse 11, must, just as in verse 8, refer to a transition to a new class of office. . . . 

The second interpretation holds that Paul here speaks of the “wives” of deacons. Attention is called to the fact that Paul does not really begin to speak of a new and different class of officebearers—deaconesses, but that he must refer to the wives of deacons since he inserts this instruction in the midst of his instruction concerning the necessary qualifications of the deacons who will be called to the office. Besides, it is noticed that Paul does not here speak of “deaconesses” but that he simply speaks of “women,” while there are passages where Paul, referring to women set aside to the special ministry in the church, denominates these with the name “deaconess” or “servant.” 

We are of the opinion that the latter interpretation is the correct one.

We might add to the above that the very same word is used in the following verse where emphatically Paul writes: “Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife.” If Paul were, in vs. 11, referring to the special office of deaconess, it would have been very easy for him to use the word for deaconess here and not a word which in the immediately following verse must be translated wife. 

So this passage refers to the qualifications of the office of deacon and clearly teaches that all these qualifications belong to deacons who are men. 

The second passage where the word “deacon” refers to the special office in the church is inPhilippians 1:1: “Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.” 

Here the reference is to the special office of the diaconate because “deacons” are mentioned in one breath with “bishops”—another name for elders which could better be translated, “overseers.” 

These then are the only two places where the word clearly refers to the special office. 

But there are innumerable places where the word cannot possibly refer to the special office of deacon. There are so many that we can scarcely pick between them. But two passages will suffice. In John 20:26 Jesus says: “If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be: if any man serve me, him will my Father honor.” In this passage, the word translated “servant” is the same word which can be translated “deacon.” But it is clear from this passage that it cannot have a reference to the special office of deacon, for Jesus is talking about all His people who serve him. 

In Matthew 23:11 we read: “But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.” Here too the reference obviously cannot be to the special office of deacon even though the word “servant” is the same as that translated deacon in I Timothy 3

What we have proved is that this word, while it can be translated “deacon,” nevertheless need not be. And this is because its general meaning is taken from a verb which means “To minister to the needs of another.” 

Now, having proceeded this far in the argument we shall also have to show that the word as used in Romans 16:1 cannot be correctly translated as “deaconess.” 

This can easily be proved. 

It must be remembered first of all that which I said to you in an earlier article concerning the work of the offices in the church in general. You remember that I stressed the fact that the three offices had this in common that they all brought the Word of God to God’s people. They all do this in keeping with the particular nature of their office, but nevertheless, they are all servants of the Word. They all speak in Christ’s name. They all are ministers of Christ’s Word. They all have no authority outside that authoritative Word. The ministers speak that Word as prophets who bring the Word through the preaching. The elders speak that Word as king and rule by that Word in the congregation. The deacons bring that Word as it speaks of the mercy of Christ to His afflicted people. But they bring the Word. To say anything else is to misunderstand badly the office. This is why also our Form for Ordination defines the duty of the deacons to be to bring to the poor “comforting words from, Scripture.” 

This whole question must be examined a bit more in detail in connection with the subject of deaconesses. But we shall have to wait with this for a future letter. 

Fraternally in Christ, 

H. Hanko