A Concept of the Diaconate

Before I even knew there were such things as monastic vocations outside of the Roman Catholic abbeys and orders, I found myself in a period of discernment concerning a diaconal vocation. Upon arriving in my current location in America and the Church, I announced to my pastor and my bishop my history with the diaconate and that discernment. At that time, with relationships being new and being more or less surrounded by strangers, I quickly followed that announcement by saying that I would prefer any discussion of the diaconate be taken off the table until further notice, with the caveat that if anyone needed a deacon, they could come to me for consideration. Just recently that has happened, actually. Further, at a recent diocesan gathering I had the fortune of sitting in on a workshop of the deacons in the diocese. The experience was rather eye opening in that many of the deacons were themselves confused as to the nature of their office. At that same gathering, there was also an announcement that although the diocese has decided on its path concerning female ordination to the priesthood and episcopate, there were still efforts to fully develop the path of the deacon theologically.

In other words, they didn’t really know what a deacon was. I can’t avoid restating the irony here. In the Anglican Church in North America, the denomination has decided that women are not to be bishops. The various jurisdictions are in often bitter dispute about whether women can only be deacons or whether they can be priests. The Diocese of the Rocky Mountains with which I am affiliated has decided that women can only be deacons. Yet when I come asking about being ordained to the permanent diaconate, I am told that the diocese is still trying to figure out what a deacon is. I can see in my mind’s eye the women of half of the jurisdictions of the ACNA and the entirety of the ECUSA saying, “we need to be ordained as priests because at least we know what a priest is.”

This confluence of events has motivated me to want to describe my own take on the diaconate conceptually, for my own edification and those who may engage me in dialog about my own discernment, but also in the hope that perhaps something I write concerning my own views and experiences could possibly be beneficial to others as our ecclesiastical community progresses with its understanding of this office and ordination in general.

So I’ll start with some basic left and right limits concerning my thoughts. At the outset, I will state that my primary data for thinking about the diaconate is limited to the New Testament. I am well aware of the storied history of the office and certainly do not shirk from the post-New Testament developments, but in my view, the New Testament names eight deacons in the sense of the diaconate as an ecclesiastical office. These eight are the seven men of Acts 6:5 and Phoebe of Romans 16:1. That the seven were the prototype for the diaconate is universally accepted in Christianity. Phoebe is a character of much more controversy, and while I will devote attention to her in this essay, at the outset I will merely state that she is in my pool of models to contemplate. Out of these eight individuals, Stephen and Phillip get significant attention in the Book of Acts. Phoebe’s activities are described ever so briefly. The remaining five are just names. The activities of the three first deacons, Paul’s discussion of the qualifications of deacons in the pastoral epistles, and the story of the commissioning of the seven in Acts 6:1-6, are the extent of the New Testament data pool to which we are bound.

Outside of the New Testament, it is important to note the significance of monasticism on the diaconate. Even today, in discussions about the diaconate the New Testament’s consecrated widows and virgins come up. The Roman Catholic Church has lately become particularly interested in the female diaconate, and at least one patriarchate in the Orthodox Church has already revived the female diaconate. However, these deaconesses are not, or likely will not be, analogous to the ancient male diaconate. Pope Francis has described the ancient female deacons as effectively sisters/nuns, relating them all the way back to these early NT communities of widows and virgins. Further, the most famous medieval deacon was in fact St. Francis of Assisi, whose ministry mirrored in many ways the ancient diaconate of the early centuries, and who has inspired many understandings of what a deacon should be as the office has been revived in the 20th century. And finally, given Henry VIII’s abolishment of monasticism in the 16th century, Cranmer and others imported many monastic ideas into the secular church, and some of this sentiment has gone to inform several concepts of the diaconate. In 1995, in fact, the United Methodist Church revived the formal ordained diaconate as a monastic order. So in addition to the New Testament, given that I am a vowed religious, I have always considered the influences of monasticism on the office.

Finally, outside of the New Testament and monastic influences, there are the conceptions of the diaconate that have developed in other Protestant denominations outside of Anglicanism. In my opinion, these influences have had a predominantly negative effect on the office of the Anglican deacon. An explanation of why I think this, however, will be found below in the body of the essay.

And on that note I will begin. So the diaconate ultimately goes back to the ordination of the seven:

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.

Acts 6:1-6

The most common understanding of this verse is that the apostles sought to distinguish their role as teachers and preachers from that of a lower office that would wait on tables, handling the logistical aspects of ministering in the form of a ministry of helps (delivering bread). So the apostles preached, and the deacons passed out bread. I have a problem with this understanding as based on a cursory reading. Yes, scripture does state that the apostles preached while the deacons were to wait on tables. However, the fundamental lynchpin of Christian community is the Eucharist, containing the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Acts 20:7 links the first day of the week, the breaking of bread, and Paul’s preaching of the word (all day!) together in our model of the earliest Eucharistic services. Now we notice from the story in acts that the problem to be remedied was the distribution to Hellenists. Greek speakers. All seven of the seven first deacons were men of Greek names. Undoubtedly a communication barrier was a component of the Hellenist widows’ neglect. Instead of seeing the deacons’ role in this particular situation as merely addressing a ministry of helps to a particular class on the fringes of the Jerusalem community, I see the deacons’ role in terms of the Eucharist. That in these early Eucharistic services, the deacons were to bring bread and wine to those out on the edges who no one was really sure about, and along with bringing the bread and wine, the deacons also ensured that the apostles’ Aramaic message was also preached to those Greek speakers.

One of my reasons for thinking this is that of our three New Testament deacons, the two whose activities are described are shown to be primarily evangelists. Phillip the deacon is actually described as Philip the evangelist in Acts 21:8. Our story about Phillip involves him teaching the word to the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40. Philip is actually described primarily as a preacher.

Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs that he did.

Acts 8:4-6

Stephen is described as primarily a preacher as well.

And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.

Acts 6:8-10

Note, these are the only two New Testament deacons whose actions are described in detail. They are both evangelists and preachers. So in discussing the role of the seven/deacons in the distribution to the Hellenist widows that occasioned their ordination, is it really reasonable to assume that their role was merely limited to a ministry of helps? Yes, scripture states that the apostles were to preach and the deacons were to wait tables, but the fundamental basis of Christian community, the sacrament of the eucharist, involves an act of preaching within the context of waiting on tables. In my understanding, the apostles wished to concentrate on the preaching the message that God revealed to them, and that the diaconal role of waiting on tables included ensuring that that message got to those who were on the edge of the community who not only may not have received bread, but may not have received the apostles’ message due to differences in culture and language.

Now as a counter to this, it must be noted that the role of preaching is a requirement for the offices of priest and bishop, but not for the deacon. That the seven were charged to wait on tables is commonly combined with this lack of requirement to the understanding that preaching is normally outside of the deacon’s purview. Apparently a deacon who preaches does so simply as a Christian. However, the scriptures do not prevent a deacon from regular preaching. Again, Stephen and Philip are described as committed evangelists gifted to preach the word. Turning from the scriptures to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, we see an effective resolution of the issue of preaching and teaching for a deacon:

“That it may please thee to illuminate all Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, with true knowledge and understanding of thy Word; and that both by their preaching and living they may set it forth and shew it accordingly,” (Excerpt From: James Wood. “The Book of Common Prayer.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/4I2vF.l)

Above we note that both preaching and living are applied to all orders of clergy. However, below we see that the fact that scripture does not explicitly require deacons to preach and teach is handled by specific authorization by the bishop of a preaching and teaching deacon.

“IT appertaineth to the office of a Deacon, in the Church where he shall be appointed to serve, to assist the Priest in Divine Service, and specially when he ministereth the holy Communion, and to help him in the distribution thereof, and to read holy Scriptures and Homilies in the Church; and to instruct the youth in the Catechism; in the absence of the Priest to baptize infants; and to preach, if he be admitted thereto by the Bishop.”[1]

“TAKE thou authority to read the Gospel in the Church of God, and to preach the same, if thou be thereto licensed by the Bishop himself.”[2]

Given this rather clear picture painted by the New Testament that had obviously been considered by the Reformation Church of England to the effect that the liturgy prescribed the method for identifying a preaching deacon, certain modern conceptions of the diaconate as strictly a non-preaching office are quite perplexing. At the recent diocesan gathering I mentioned above, a transitional deacon stated that early in his discernment he considered the vocational diaconate, but upon finding that his gifts and interest were in the area of teaching and preaching, he decided upon the priesthood as the appropriate calling. Apparently no one around this aspirant informed him that for a preacher, both the diaconate and the priesthood are available options.

I can only attribute this situation to the prevalence of Presbyterian and Baptist conceptions of the diaconate within Anglicanism. These denominations do in fact exclude the diaconate from preaching, contrary to the witness of the scriptures and not considering Anglican tradition. Given that this aspirant was Anglican, I must say I find it a bit disturbing that he was not informed by his mentors about the propriety of preaching for a deacon, given that Anglican priests are supposed to have been deacons for a year before ordination as priests.

So if preaching and teaching does not necessarily discriminate between when one should become a priest or a deacon, what does? Well, to answer this question, I would like to give a bit of my take on the nature of the formation of the threefold system of orders. Now I am not out to end the age old debate on the nature of orders, whether there are two or three, etc. At this point only a revelation from heaven will be able to do so. Also, I realize that my understanding is a systematization of that which is not truly known, and was likely not systematized by the time the New Testament was written. My goal in doing this is just to inform the reader of my personal observations so that the points I will make below may be sourced from my own thinking.

I will start by saying that I do not believe that the office of elder and overseer were simply synonyms in the New Testament, but two offices that grew together and informed each other as two different concepts of church organization came into contact: the system of Paul and the system of the Jerusalem apostles.


Overseer / Bishop


Baptized Christian

Jerusalem Apostles

Elder Christian

Mature Christian

Baptized Christian

In my experience in studying Jewish Studies, I came to the understanding that Jewish leadership was based more on a perception of status, rather than official appointing to job positions. One merely hung around with rabbis and obeyed them and studied with them until one reached a certain age, and at some point the rabbis would start calling the person an elder, and the community began to acknowledge them as an elder. While this is a gross oversimplification, it can be said that Jewish community leadership was something of an old boy club. Paul, however, developed a system based on Roman secular bureaucracy, with job appointment as its form. As the two modes of church formation mingled, there arose a situation where many churches consisted of overseers who had been specifically approved of by apostles via an early form of apostolic succession, but around these overseers were groups of elders who gained their positions through less recognized means. People seemed wise, talked a good game, and were over time looked at and addressed as elders. It wasn’t until one of his last epistles that Paul directs that elders be appointed via the same method as overseers using his office of overseer as a pattern.

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain,

Titus 1:5-7

Concerning deacons, we see that the office is unique to Paul’s system. The Jerusalem apostles did not create a separate office, but just picked seven men to ordain as their servant leaders, and Paul seems to have standardized this appointment of leader-servants into a separate office of the deacon.

Now in the preceding section I contrasted Paul with my understanding of “the Jerusalem Apostles,” though the group of Jerusalem Apostles was a small and unique one around which we must all offer considerable conjecture. So after having posited the above, let’s take a look at the ecclesiastical systems of some better known groups of relevant portions of the ancient world.

To state the system of the Jews in Christian ecclesiastical terms, there were three “orders of clergy” so to speak: רבי (rabbi), זקן (zaken), חזן (chazan). The chazan is what modern Jews call the cantor. This office originated from the individual who was trained to properly recite the sung Torah portions and supervise others to do the same. Over the centuries the office has expanded beyond singing the Torah to accommodate many functions equivalent to the deacons to Christianity.

The zaken was the elder. This is the office mentioned above when referring to the “elder Christian” of the Jerusalem community. It didn’t have a lot of specific requirements and was an office of respect and age. It was also consular, and a council of elders performed many of the functions of vestries and church councils that are held by laypersons in Anglicanism.

Then finally, we have the rabbi. This was a full-on teacher and leader who obtained his title after reaching a certain age and often a decade or more of study under an established rabbi, often a rabbi who lead an academy of students. Paul was a rabbi of the Academy of Gamaliel, for example.

I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day.

Acts 22:3

Finally, outside of the three positions found in the synagogal, local system, you had the כהן (cohen), which was a priest who offered sacrifices at the temple in Jerusalem. This position is important because it connects to another system of the ancient world with which Paul and the apostles were familiar: the Egyptian sacrifice cult. This system had a ἱερεύς (heirus), a priest who offered the sacrifice, and the διάκονος (diakonos) who assisted the priest via bringing him various utensils for the sacrifice and handling and distributing the remains of the animal.

Now Paul absolutey did not see a role for the offerer of sacrifice in the Christian church, so instead of importing the heirus/priest from the Egyptian system, he coined the term “overseer,” or bishop, in the Greek ἐπίσκοπος (episcopos) as a position that corresponded to the rabbi. Christianity had no rabbinic academies to train leaders, so leaders were appointed by laying on of hands.

Originally then, Paul created a system of bishops as equivalents to rabbis who were the authoritative heads and teachers of the Christians who were assisted by deacons who were the equivalents of the deacons of the Eygptian religion who handled the pots and pans and passed out the meat. Along with this, though, Christianity was filled with those elders who were just men who had gotten older and earned reputations for wisdom, the elders (the zaken). Later in his ministry he told Titus to make sure these guys got official appointment by laying on of hands just like the bishops and deacons. Thus the three orders of bishop (rabbi), presbyter (elder/zaken), and deacon were born.

What we can glean from this is that the office of priest ultimately hearkens back to a status as community head, where the deacon is an appointed officer within the community. Now there are two factors that have occurred to me as contributing to confusion about the role of the deacon, both having to do with an obscuration of the priest’s role as community head. The first is, of course, the general death of the deacon in the West in general. From this, any sort of clerical position in the church came to be filled by the priest. Further, however, was the development of monastic vocations that came to be filled by priests. This factor was most prevalent in the New World, which was overwhelmingly evangelized by Jesuits in the Catholic tradition. If one were to go to a hospital chaplain and look for the Catholic chaplain and ask where his community was, he would say that he was not a head of any community, but was rather sent out by a community to minister to the sick at the hospital. If one would then object that a priest was to be the head of the community, this chaplain might say that he was not working at the hospital as a priest, but as a Jesuit. For a religious, ordination is subsumed into the monastic charism. The archbishop of the northern hemisphere, if consecrated as a lowly Franciscan friar, would simply be a lowly Franciscan friar who happened to be able to ordain priests and perform confirmations. Over time, the majority of religious orders came to consist of priests, though they would function according to their charism, and so just about every form of Christian service could be identified with the priesthood.

In my personal opinion, stressing the priest as a community head deserves more attention that it is currently getting, and that those whose Christian service requires specific identification of leadership and place in the community without specifically labelling them as community heads should look more toward the diaconate. Deacons under normal circumstances should be those with personal or collaborative ministries that are benefitted by their obtaining an identifiable mark of leadership.

Of particular note concerning the nature of the diaconate is the considerable effect of St. Francis of Assisi as the Church’s most famous deacon not mentioned in the New Testament. Now Francis did not begin his call to Christian service with ordination, and in fact Francis was forced to accept ordination as a deacon. Further, Francis’ ordination was not really related to any historical conceptual basis for the diaconate, but rather Francis was regularly called to preach sermons wherever he went, and the ecclesiastical authorities wanted him to preach as one authorized to read the Gospel in a church service. Because of this, Francis ended up becoming perhaps the most famous vocational deacon in history at a time where the vocational diaconate had actually been dead in the West for centuries. Quite the irony, really.

As mentioned above when speaking of Jesuits, the charism of a consecrated religious subsumes the nature of ordination for a monk or a friar. Francis was not made into a deacon because he was acting like a deacon, but merely because the church clerics wanted him to participate in the liturgy. However, as fate would have it, Francis’ charism was not terribly unlike that of Stephen and Philip of the New Testament diaconate. The primary characteristic of the Franciscan charism is the renunciation of material things and the world, and of poverty, in both a material sense of not owning property, but also of an emptying of self in a surrender to humility and service to the other. Francis and his followers really did embody the ideal of humble service that is part and parcel to many descriptions of the diaconate today. Further, Francis was about spreading the Gospel by both word and deed not merely from within the parish building’s walls, but on the streets, in the forest, and anywhere anyone was willing to receive the Gospel. And finally, Franciscans understood that ministering the Gospel could well involve preaching the word, or providing helps, or both. Franciscans are all ministers of the Gospel, but they are not all preachers.

So these examples, of Stephen and Philip of the New Testament, but also of Francis from tradition, paint a picture of the deacon as an officer of the church who does not share in the designation of being a head of the Christian community, authorized to be a leader in order to express the servitude that leadership should derive from, who function within the parish as assistants to the community heads, but whose callings should primarily be centered around personal ministries that extend beyond church communities to those outside of it. Deacons are evangelists first, whether that evangelism involves preaching the word or expressing it through ministries of helps. A deacon who is merely a lower-ranked cleric who assists the elder or elders in the parish is really only expressing half of the diaconal role, and one might say the least important half at that, as parishes are normally equipped with assistant priests, servers and readers, and lay leaders to provide these functions.

[3] The Peshitta here has ܢܶܫ̈ܶܐ, a definite state noun which contains no possessive suffix, seemingly unthinkable for rendering anything other than “the women.” I have to admit that my Syriac isn’t that great, though.

I would say that other than my understanding that preaching is a very natural and integral part of the diaconate for those who have such gifts, my understanding of the diaconate is fairly normative within Anglicanism. There are two functions of the diaconate that have stood out in contemporary Christian thinking, and both of these stem from analyses of the word διάκονος as used in the ancient Greek language and, possibly, from reflections on Franciscanism as applied to deacons. Deacons actually show up in a number of contexts in the ancient Greek literature, from nurses, to butlers, to ambassadors, to administrators, to assistants to priests in the ancient Egyptian sacrificial cults. Most of these ideals, and all of those that have found their way into Christian thinking concerning church offices, have to do with the deacon as an emissary and the deacon as a servant. Therefore, in anglicanism as I understand it, deacons tend to focus on ministry outside of the parish setting, and tend to view their ministries as acts of service to the church and the world.

Because of this understanding, I would say that instead of distinguishing priests and deacons by the act of preaching, the distinction should be centered around the concept of priests as heads of the church communities, and deacons as ministers of the church to the world. Whether their ministries are ministries of helps or of the word, deacons are ministers of the Gospel, and those discerning the call to the diaconate should have a calling and desire to be ministers, and should have an understanding of their gifts and their calling to ministry. Deacons should not simply be chosen because a parish needs leaders. Priests as heads of the community can be leaders of all sorts, and parishes have robust capabilities for leadership positions via vestries, councils, and pastoral staffs. The distinguishing characteristic of the deacon is as a minister of the Gospel, particularly that sort of ministry that increases the church’s visibility in the world through officially designated officers of the church performing ministries of helps, peacemaking, evangelism, and teaching as they are called and gifted.


The preceding pages conclude my understanding of the diaconate with the major points of the diaconate that I would like to highlight: that deacons can preach, and the fundamental distinction between a deacon and a priest is not so much a matter of specific function as it is of the general concept of priests as heads of Christian communities and deacons as church officers sent out for specific evangelistic ministries. I did allude to my current diocese’s concern with the issue of female ordination, and would like to include my thoughts about the female diaconate in this essay. Although the issue is in many ways distinct from that of the diaconate in general, my thoughts about the female diaconate rely heavily on this community head/church officer distinction, and so I am writing about the issue in the same essay, but with a distinct heading in its own section.

Of particular note, my observations about the female diaconate involve a number of specific observations that have been made by egalitarians, but because of the community head/church officer distinction, ultimately arrive at a complementarian position to the effect that women should not be ordained as priests, but should be ordained as deacons. However, my thinking has lead me to a concept of a female diaconate that is not significantly distinguished from the male diaconate, to include the function of preaching, which I have strongly touted as being proper to the deacon above. Therefore, my observations do potentially lead to problems, foreseen and unforeseen, regarding the presence of female clergy in conservative, Reformed, complementarian church culture. I thus end this opening paragraph with the statement that this section may contain more food for thought than specific suggestions concerning a way forward regarding the female diaconate and female clergy in general.

To start with, then, we must observe that females can be deacons.

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well.

Romans 16:1-2

The word “servant” in the above verse is actually διάκονος in the Greek. Phoebe is identified with another church (Cenchrae), indicating that she has been charged by that church with certain tasks that she should be authorized to complete. With verse two, Paul seems to be upholding her authority, establishing her as someone who should be treated as an officer in a culture that might not be familiar with the idea of a female officer. Given that Paul seems to be the originator of the title of deacon for church officers, and frankly, given my own level of comfort with the Greek language, there is little doubt in my mind that the best translation of διάκονος in this verse would actually be “deaconess.” This translation is common in several modern bible versions, and though these versions are often tendentiously egalitarian, I do think that this is a minority instance where those translations are correct. I am not denigrating reliability of the ESV here, where it has chosen a conservative reading used by the KJV and other ancient witnesses to scripture, but would like to point out that the diaconate has not had a strong presence in Western Christianity until the 20th century revival of the office, and these older translations viewed the office considerably differently than we do today, and actually differently than I hold they were held during the days of the New Testament as well. Concerning my views on bible translations and revisions in modern times, I generally hold the perception that we take one step forward and one (or maybe even two) steps backward with our scholarly efforts, but concerning the diaconate, given the sorry state of the office throughout the history of the Western Church, I am inclined to believe that certain of our efforts are in fact on the right track. I would have preferred that the ESV rendered “deacon” here.

Again concerning translation, I would like to point out an issue that is much less clear, but bears consideration.

Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.

1 Timothy 3:11

This verse from the qualifications of the deacon in 1 Timothy 3:8-13 is again rendered by the ESV in the traditional manner in accordance with the Reformation bibles. However, it must be pointed out that “their wives likewise” is a rendering of Γυναῖκας ὡσαύτως, an accusative plural. There is no possessive pronoun or any genitive element opening this clause at all. This distinguishes the clause from 1 Timothy 3:4, where the bishop’s house is mentioned (τοῦ ἰδίου οἴκου) in the genitive. On account of this, many translations (again, usually the bad ones, but nonetheless…) render the opening of the clause “Women likewise” in 1 Timothy 3:11. Unlike my convictions concerning Romans 16:1, I do acknowledge the ambiguity of the Greek here. To make matters worse, recourse to the Latin does not help at all (“mulieres similiter”), containing exactly the same ambiguity as the Greek. Again, though, given the state of the clergy and diaconate for so many centuries, this is an area where we cannot exactly be sure if the traditional translations faithfully preserve every nuance of Paul’s intent. It is reasonable to conclude that Paul may well be qualifying female deacons here.[3]

Objections to this understanding of 1 Timothy 3:11 are normally imported from various other concepts from the New Testament: deacons have some measure of authority, and women should not have authority. Deacons can have a connection to the preaching and teaching function, and women should not have a connection to that function. These issues are hotly debated in the Christian community far beyond the confines of Reformation Anglicanism. Roman Catholics and Orthodox are deeply involved with the issue of the female diaconate, and they are discussing, not only whether such an office should exist, but if it does, should it resemble the male diaconate or not.

As I have advocated for the propriety of public preaching for the office of deacon, I will observe its propriety to the female deacon as well.

And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Luke 2:36-38

On the next day we departed and came to Caesarea, and we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. He had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied.

Acts 21:8-9

Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven.

1 Corinthians 11:4-5

These verses do not name female deacons, but they do speak of women prophesying. Apparently women can have the gift of prophesy, and they can utter prophecy. Now many would like to limit prophecy to a certain class of miracle worker that exists only in unusual situations with supernatural abilities. 1 Corinthians 11:4-5 seems to indicate, however, that prophecy, while preserved for us in scripture through the written words of God’s greatest and most miraculous prophets, also includes a regular exposition of the wisdom of God by men and women in the communities of the church from New Testament times until today. Prophecy is very well defined and demonstrated to be available to Christians generally in 1 Corinthians 14:

Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.

1 Corinthias 14:1-3

We are to seek the gift of prophecy. It is not a gift only dispensed to miracle workers in past ages. It involves speaking to people for their upbuilding and encouragement. Apparently, Anna and Philip’s daughters had this gift and exercised it in the days of the New Testament before and after Pentecost. Paul, when talking about the customs of his day, recommended females prophecy with their heads covered. Finally, it seems impossible that this gift be exercised as it was shown to be in the New Testament without engaging in what we think of as public preaching.

In conclusion, then, while preaching should not be the primary distinction between deacon and priest, it seems that through prophecy, women in the New Testament were not excluded from public preaching. And if women were not excluded from preaching/prophesying, is it reasonable to conclude that a female deacon would be so? Well, a number of objections to a female diaconate, and females preaching, are rooted in certain understandings of scripture as well.

likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.

1 Timothy 2:9-12

The last sentence of this verse is quite often interpreted absolutely and without reference to context or Greek idiom. Obviously here, Paul is describing an ideal of behavior for women to conform to an ideal of humility, modesty, and obedience. However, should we understand that any woman with braided hair is in violation of biblical commandment? Should we label any woman with any item of gold on her person as disobedient to scripture? Should we understand the last sentence to mean that if a man does not understand how to work a coffee machine, no woman dare offer an explanation? Obviously the first portion of this text should be understood as a general description of ideal feminine appearance and conduct via certain examples (gold and braids) as indicators of those who violate that ideal. Now when it comes to the final sentence, the Greek offers much clarity. “Teach or to exercise authority” is a rendering of διδάσκειν and αὐθεντεῖν, both present infinitives in this case. I remind the reader that the present tense in Greek conveys a durative aktionsart that, particularly in the case of nominal parts of speech such as infinitives, indicates attitude and disposition rather than specific instances of of activity. Of further note is the verb αὐθεντέω, which always includes the concept of removing the freedom of the one dominated. Public preaching, if not attached to the concept of community headship and its related concepts of authority, does not remove the freedom of the audience. They can come or go, agree or disagree. Translating these words idiomatically and in context with the ideal conveyed by example of the previous sentence, one could say that Paul does not “permit a woman to lord it over a man or presume to teach him a lesson” (or “…force him to accept her as his source of wisdom” or something like that). The Greek contains overwhelming reference to a domineering nature in conflict with the ideal of modesty and humility introduced previously. To ignore these subtleties results in logical absurdities such as women being forbidden to teach men how to microwave a chicken pot pie or some such thing.

Along with this verse, we have overzealous understandings of a verse intended to define orderly worship.

Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

1 Corinthians 14:29-35

This text concerns orderly worship, and indicates that when the preacher (prophet) is speaking, the audience should remain quiet and weigh in after the speaking is complete. Interestingly here, γυνή is often translated as “woman” as the ESV does, even though ἀνήρ is translated as husband. The context obviously indicates that while a preacher is preaching, women/wives in the audience should not stir up debate during the service by asking their husbands questions during the service causing disorder, but they should rather ask their husbands at home. Female audience members piping up in the middle of sermons or asking their husbands questions during the middle of service obviously do not support the feminine ideal of meekness, modesty, graciousness, and humility (which is a pretty good male ideal as well!). To interpret this text to mean that women cannot publicly proclaim the wisdom that God has given them places it in direct contradiction to the females prophesying in 1 Corinthians 11:4-5 mentioned just a few chapters earlier by the same apostle and ignores the overall context of exemplifying an orderly worship service.

So in my discussion of situations, contexts, and proof texts thus far in this section, every reference seems to take an egalitarian stance. Women can be deacons. Women can preach. Why then, should not women be priests and bishops? Well, in order to avoid lengthening this essay unnecessarily, I’ll just let it stand here that in scripture there is no mention of a woman priest or bishop, nor is there anyone fulfilling such roles in the scripture. While there is an extensive tradition of the female diaconate outside of the New Testament, there is no such tradition of female elders in any community outside of the Montanists,[4] who I am not comfortable to enlist as examples. Finally, though, I will introduce a proof text that is normally reserved to tertiary influence in these debates typically, and which links the first part of this essay to the second.

But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.

1 Corinthians 11:3

This verse, connected intimately with the following text about women preaching and head coverings mentioned above, states a clear hierarchy between men and women. The characterization is essential and universal. It lays the foundation for the entire following scripture contextualized for female preaching and the custom of head covering. It also links complementarian ideas from other scriptures of Pauline thought.

For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

1 Timothy 2:13-15

With this scripture, Paul uses typology to indicate that the creation story and lives of Adam and Eve illustrate a universal principle of this hierarchy. If women can be deacons, and women can be preachers, nevertheless they should do so with an element of subordination. And if men are to be the heads of families, God’s most fundamental social structure, should not men be the heads of the Christian ekklesia? On this point I recall for the reader my earlier point that the fundamental distinction between priest and deacon is not a specific function, but the distinction that deacons are church officers, while priests are community heads. Therefore, I hold that in addition to the abject lack of female priests in scripture and tradition (outside of montanists), the position of community head, and therefore of elder, is intended for males.

Ultimately what seems to be presented here, then, is a position that women can be deacons, and that the breadth of their functioning as deacons can indeed be rather broad, even including the function of public preaching. However, while some communities seem to be concerned that opening the door to a female diaconate also opens the door to a female priesthood, I am not at all convinced that this is the case. Even Roman Catholic circles acknowledge via their notion of priests and bishops as sacerdotal, a label not applied to deacons, that there is a fundamental distinction between priest and deacon loosely analogous to the community head/church officer distinction presented in the opening section of this essay.

I’ll add some notes of concern, however. In my experience, intellectually honest, and therefore spiritually truthful, approaches to problems in human and church society are often so nuanced as to be easily exploited by those not interested in hosting the Holy Spirit within themselves. It is a fact that the diaconate is newly revived in almost all segments of Christendom, and many of these revivals do not seem to do justice to biblical or traditional conceptions. Given this state of confusion, a diaconate open to females, particularly one encompassing a broad range of functions to include preaching, can very easily fall into a state of ordaining women as deacons to function as mini-priests. So if a position such as this is adopted, that women can be deacons, even preaching ones (as my impression seems to support), then it is all the more important that the nature of the diaconate is understood fully and communicated clearly within a community, and that those who seek to become deacons, whether men or women, are truly called to that office and do not merely wind up there due to some ambiguity or misunderstanding.

As a counter to this, though, after leaving the scriptural analysis and just talking about what might work, it does seem tragic that if indeed God has called women to service as officers, even giving some of them gifts of prophecy and preaching, to drive these women into the arms of theological liberalism as they strive to discern their vocations of Christian service. There are indeed so few women in ordained Christian service, and particularly those of faithful, orthodox, Gospel perspectives. Most certainly a number of women teaching and preaching in the cesspool of feminist theology and theological liberal communities are indeed there because they were not welcomed in evangelical communities, and without support from their biblically faithful communities, they fell prey to the wiles of heresy. A verse comes to mind.

So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

Acts 8:30-31

[1]James Wood. “The Book of Common Prayer.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/4I2vF.l

[2] ibid.

[4] Madigan, Kevin; Osiek, Carolyn (2011-01-04). Ordained Women in the Early Church (p. 163). Johns Hopkins University Press. Kindle Edition.


  1. Perhaps, like Evangelists holding tent meetings in far-flung areas, or even missionaries, the deacons preached, administered the Eucharist bread and wine, and saw that the charity of the church was extended as well, meeting the needs of people either at a distance from a formal church, or at a distance due to language differences in the areas served by the church. So the Priests maintain the church where there is a building and established community, and deacons may help in an assisting role with the Priests, or go out and preach and have church in more remote areas where there is no church, assuring that the whole of the community have access to the Word of God and experience God’s love through his servants.

    Very thoughtful and thought provoking discussion.

  2. PS
    I like the idea that only men are priests because the example set for men as leading the church and head of the family is important. Modern society is now saying men as head of the family are unnecessary, and that is wrong. Men need to head the church and the family. Women need to assist and be protected.

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