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I believe answering the question “What meaningful role can and should women play in congregational life?” is as important a practical and spiritual question we can consider. It’s a question that affects at least half (usually much more) of our congregations. It’s a question that touches directly upon gospel-ordered congregational life. It’s a question that potentially restricts or broadens Christian freedom for women in our churches. It’s a question that either employs or unemploys the gifts the Lord himself sovereignly grants to our sisters.

How we answer the question must be shaped and limited by the word of God. But we approach the word of God with assumptions, presuppositions, biases, historical understandings, and personal filters. None of us come to the word as empty slates; we have “tilts” that may or may not be known to us. That’s why humility, openness, and community become so important in discussions like these. We need others to help us see and learn. The way you all have commented and participated in this discussion has taught me much and modeled the kind of conversations Christian people ought to have about potentially contentious issues. Thank you.

Let’s attempt another answer to the question, “What meaningful roles can and should women play in the local church?” We’ve discussed way women can teach, serve in missions, and pray in public services. Today we turn to an office–the diaconate.

A Personal Note

Since I acknowledge that we come to these issues with historical and personal experiences and assumptions, perhaps I should at least list some of my own. Before my conversion, growing up, we periodically attended a small Baptist church with a senior pastor and deacons. The church’s deacons were all men and their was a kind of “complementarian” spirit in the church. The church held to male leadership but I don’t recall any intentional teaching about it. Women served on a lot of committees (boy, were there a lot of committees!) and there were the “mothers of the church,” a kind of informal office comprised of senior ladies of the church.

My next church experience was very similar. Again, a senior pastor accompanied by a strong group of elders who “ran the church.” This second church was slightly different in this respect. In the first church, “pastor was in charge” and the deacons largely assisted him, though they determined things like salary and housing stipends. In the second church, there was no mistaking the authority of the deacons in the governance of the church. Women were not deacons in this church either, and there were no “mothers of the church.” (Pity, because I missed seeing the older sisters in white :-)).

Then there came a stint with a church plant. My family and I had the privilege of serving with the core group of families who helped launch the church. I had the further privilege of helping to adopt the church’s statement of faith and constitution, which identified two New Testament offices: elders and deacons. The church had a healthy emphasis on a plurality of elders and made important distinctions between the work of elders (prayer, teaching, oversight, etc.) and that of deacons (practical care of the body). Women neither served as elders or deacons in this work.

Afterward, as most of you know, I spent several years as a member and elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church. Like the church plant, CHBC has elders and deacons. The elders lead through prayer, teaching, oversight, etc., while the deacons are assigned to specific areas of ministry (i.e., child care, audio/video, etc.). At CHBC, the eldership is restricted to qualified and gifted men. However, women serve as deacons.

Finally, I have the joy and honor of serving as senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman in the Cayman Islands (yes, y’all can come visit! :-)). Here, too, the congregation is led by a plurality of elders and served by deacons assigned to particular areas of ministry (i.e., finance, school, etc.). And here, women may and have served as deacons.

So, that’s the background I bring to this discussion. The Lord has given me the privilege of being in a range of settings, witnessing a range of approaches on the question of women serving as deacons. All of these churches would in some way define themselves as “complementarian,” yet they had differing views of how sisters could serve.

So, can women be deacons?

The short answer to that, in my opinion, is “yes, women can serve and ought to serve as deacons.” That won’t be controversial for a lot of you. You’re currently involved in churches where this is the practice and understanding of the Scripture. But for some of you, that may be a new idea or it may not be the practice of your church. So, let me offer just a sketch of the biblical support for this position and then offer an important caveat.

A Brief Case for Women Deacons

First Timothy 3:8-13 contain some key instruction on this matter. For me, the issue turns in part on verse 11: “In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything” (NIV). Or as the ESV renders it, “Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.”

Both the NIV and ESV contain marginal notes for the word “wives,” indicating the term may be translated “women.” So, the text could either have in view the wives of deacons (if you accept the supply of “their” in the verse), women deacons, or women who assist deacons but are not themselves deacons. Because “their” is not explicit in the text, and the word “likewise” seems to indicate another category in the list, I lean with many others in understanding this verse to refer to women deacons or at the least women who assist deacons.

Moreover, there are instances elsewhere in the New Testament that seem to indicate the apostolic church had women deacons. I think of Romans 16:1 where Phoebe is described as a “deacon.” True, the word “deacon” has a range of meanings wider than the office itself. Paul could refer to his own ministry as an apostle using the word “deacon” (1 Tim. 1:12). Most of the prohibitions have to do with the qualifications for male deacons–“husband of but one wife.” But if the assumptions I make in the previous paragraph are correct, then it would seem the Bible does not forbid women from playing this role.

An Important Caveat

As I recounted earlier, I’ve been a member at churches that do not have elders but are governed by a group of deacons. If the church does not have elders and deacons perform the teaching and oversight responsibilities biblically belonging to elders, then women should not serve as deacons. I’m a complementarian, so I believe the basic pattern of qualified male leadership in the church should be maintained in joyful obedience to the Lord.

But having said that, the more important “fix” to such a situation is not to restrict women from serving in what may be a permissible area of service in the church, but to conform the church itself to the New Testament pattern of governance. We shouldn’t restrict women in an effort to maintain irregular governance; we should conform our governance of the church to the word of God and deploy women to serve wherever and whenever appropriate.

A Plea

To my brothers serving in churches without elders and with ruling deacons, for the blessing of a well-ordered congregation, for the liberty of our sisters, and for the flowering of gospel ministry, re-examine why you currently neglect so clear a New Testament office as elders, which was established in all the apostolic churches (1 Tim. 3; Titus 1). And test yourselves to see if the failure to obey the Lord’s word on elders gives opportunity for denying our sisters an opportunity to serve their Lord and their churches as deacons. Structures do matter. Sometimes the wrong structures prevent spiritual growth, service, and gospel advancement.

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18 thoughts on “I’m a Complementarian, But… Women Can Be Deacons”

  1. Robert says:


    I just wanted to thank you for your work on this series. My wife and I are benefitting a great deal from your work on this. I hope to hear you again at T4G, but I am hopeful that this time your name will carry a different meaning…although your sermon was well worth being up bright and early and attentive in the middle of everything.

    Grace and peace,

  2. Jon Clayton says:

    I think that it is entirely correct and Biblical that women serve as deaconesses. Good stuff!

  3. Andy Chance says:

    I’ve been really helped and challenged by this series of articles. And I’m sensitive to your argument for women deacons; I want to accept it.

    But the evidence that you cite does seem to be a bit ambiguous.

    And one portion of Scripture that it would be helpful for you to address on women deacons is Acts 6:1-7. Most take this passage to be paradigmatic for deacon ministry. Yet even though the ministry being undertaken is primarily to women, the people who are selected to lead the ministry are all men.

    So, I think the other texts are ambiguous (as evidenced by the translations). And Acts 6:1-7 sets a precedent for male leadership in the office of deacon, one which appears consistent with the pattern of the rest of Scripture. So, why not conclude that deacons should be men? At the very least, doesn’t it at least establish that it is permissible to have all-male deacons?

    Couldn’t there be a model of deacon ministry that has an all-male deacon council administrating the temporal needs of the congregation, but in which women participate under their leadership?

    I really love 9Marks ministries, with which you are closely associated. Not long ago, Dr. Dever preached on the sufficiency of Scripture for organizing church life, a sermon that I greatly benefited from. In it, he urged his church to maintain a single assembly based on the pattern of the New Testament church.

    By comparison, what reason is there not to follow the pattern of the church in Acts 6:1-7 and maintain an all-male diaconate?

    If you have an opportunity to respond, I would really appreciate it. And I only want to affirm how much I’ve appreciated these posts and your public ministry in general.

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      Brother Andy,

      Thanks for stopping by with such an excellent comment, questions, and spirit!

      One of the things I’m loving about these discussions is the sincere attempt by everyone to “wrestle with the text” and ultimately to be “penned down” by the text! That’s a blessing in and of itself.

      As for Acts 6, while many take it to be paradigmatic, not just for deacons but also for elders (the apostles being the paradigm), most wouldn’t want to take the historical narrative and push it too far. For example, should a local church of thousands only have seven deacons? And should they only attend to the needs of widows?

      So one is faced with the very good question of even if it’s history that teaches something paradigmatic, how far do the details of that history shape the paradigm? The better interpretive approach would be to interpret the historical sections of Acts and the gospels in light of the didactic sections of the epistles. The epistles answer and teach more directly on the question than do the history, though the history is obviously important and helpful. So, the controlling passages on a question like this would be the epistles.

      That would be my take. And by the way, I wouldn’t have difficulty with women assisting male deacons. Some denominations have taken that view. However, I think that view should answer to your questions as well: Why do that without strong precedent when there is at least “ambiguity” on the issue? Why side with restriction in ambiguity rather than with freedom?

      As for Mark and Capitol Hill, clearly Mark holds to the sufficiency of Scripture and yet the church has women deacons. I don’t think Mark or the other elders would see a contradiction in that. We all hold the Scripture to be sufficient and authoritative.

      Hope that helps a bit. Grateful for your interaction.

  4. Andy Chance says:

    Thanks for the quick response; it was helpful.

    And, lest anyone misunderstand, I wasn’t questioning anyone’s commitment to the sufficiency of Scripture, let alone Dr. Dever’s or the elders of CHBC. I was just thinking of the issues as somewhat analagous.

    I thank God for you, and may God bless all your efforts, and I hope we’ll be able to visit FBC Grand Cayman one day.

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      Hey brother,
      Let me say, too, that I wasn’t trying to suggest you were implying anyone denied the sufficiency of Scripture. I thought your comments were very gracious. I don’t want to confuse anyone either.

  5. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    This is not that easy or straightforward of an issue, believe it or not, for complementarians or biblical patriarchalists. Some patriarchalists allow for women deacons, some do not. Furthermore, some draw a distinction between women deacons and deaconnesses.

    I know the Presbyterian Church of America is examining this issue, and specifically they’re examining it at Tim Keller’s church in NY. And it’s generated a fair amount of discussion and debate within the denomination.

    Thank you Pastor Thabiti for your post.

  6. Wayne Wilson says:

    Just a few thoughts about how we have worked through this.

    I think the case for deaconesses from 1 Tim 3 is quite strong, especially in the light of the other texts. As a practical matter, and taking the “likewise” of 1 Tim 3 at face value, we have both a Deacon Board and a Deaconess board (as well as an elder board, or course), and it works quite well. More things seem to get done more efficiently, and the ladies are not neglected.

    The Deaconesses are not the same as the church Mothers (what we call Women Mentoring Women — mature godly women, appointed by the elders, who teach and counsel the younger ones). The deaconesses serve in numerous practical areas, as the deacons do in their respective spheres. The deaconesses are not under the deacons, but have their own areas of ministry. All are under the elder’s authority. It is a system that has served us well, and the deaconesses are a great blessing to the church. In fact, I’m not sure how we’d get along without them!

  7. jeff says:

    excellent article and perspective. If I ever make it the Cayman Isles, I would love to visit your church!

  8. Blaine says:

    I heard Tim Keller and Ligon Duncan respectfully debate this issue at the PCA’s general assembly (very refreshing!). Keller echoed what you say about the Acts passage and added that the text is “descriptive” rather than “proscriptive”. But doesn’t that beg the question as to why the church was described that way? If the apostles’ consistent teaching is that women can and should be deacons, are you not forced to say that there was not a single competent woman in that entire church that could serve in that capacity? So much so that ANY 7 men (of good repute and full of the Spirit in wisdom) would be preferable to the women in that congregation?

    1. Andy Chance says:

      This is the point that I was trying to make earlier. Can that which is descriptive not also be instructive?

  9. Andrew Strachan says:

    Thanks for your blog. it’s great to see someone who speaks the truth and is not bound by an attitude that excludes women altogether from church leadership. Personally I believe that eldership and pastorates should not be held by women but they can be a deacon. I feel it is one step too far when Churches disallow women to assume the role of Deacons. thank you for your sound biblical reasoning which has truly blessed me!

  10. Phyllis ZAgano says:

    See newly translated work by member of the International Theological Commission Cipriano Vagaggini on women ordained as deacons in the Eastern Churches:

  11. Amelia says:

    Pastor Thabiti,

    Thank you. As complementarians and members of a complementarian church, my husband and I have discussed this topic very much. I just want you to know that, as a woman, I feel very valued and honored by the way you speak of these issues. I have wanted to write a similar article, and have hesitated because I wondered if it would only do more harm than good (coming from a woman). But my heart is full of gratitude to God for putting this topic on your heart! As a man, you have advocated for sisters in the church in a way that women can’t. So thank you!!

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Thabiti Anyabwile

Thabiti Anyabwile is a pastor for Anacostia River Church in southeast Washington, DC and a council member of The Gospel Coalition.

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