Women Likewise: A Closer Look at 1 Timothy 3:11

Women* likewise must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things.
*Or their wives, or Women deacons.

By Joe E. Lunceford
Religion Department
Georgetown College
March 2011

This passage presents some knotty problems of translation. A survey of the various English versions is all that is needed in order to see this. I found eight versions (NASB, NRSV, NAB, Rheims, Amplified, RSV, ASV, Barclay) that rendered γυναῖκας in this verse as “women.” Nine others (KJV, NIV, Beck, Phillips, NEB, TNT, Taylor, TEV, LNT) rendered it as “wives.” One (Williams) rendered it as “deaconesses.” One (REB) rendered it as “women in this office.” How does one account for these variations?

The major issue here is that no specific word for wife (or husband) is to be found in the Koine, the Greek in which all books of our New Testament were written. The only unequivocal way to designate a wife was to speak of the woman of a certain person. Where that designation is lacking, as in the current passage, it becomes a judgment call as to whether wife is meant, or simply a woman.

In order to properly set this in context, we need to begin with the opening verses of Chapter Three. From 3:2 to 3:8, the qualifications for an overseer (“bishop”) are set forth. In 3:8 the phrase “deacons ὡσαύτως” (“likewise”) would appear to indicate that the qualifications for bishop would also apply to deacons. Then some further qualifications for being a deacon are contained here. With v. 11 the phrase γυναῖκας ὡσαύτως (“women likewise”) appears. Now, if the proper translation is “wives,” whose wives are they? By this point in the text both bishops and deacons have been mentioned and their qualifications spelled out. Are only the wives of deacons or bishops significant enough to be called upon to have these specific qualifications? This would make no sense, it seems to me. For one thing, the author could have made things crystal clear by adding διάκονῶν (“of deacons”) or ἐπίσκοπῶν (“of bishops”)—or both, after the word “women,” had he intended to refer to wives of either or both groups. Since he did not do so, I take it that this is not what he meant. I believe he was thinking about women in the same or similar positions as the bishops and deacons. The parallel way in which he introduces deacons and women would seem to support this conclusion. Furthermore, if wives of deacons were intended, why would he list part of the qualifications for deacons, then qualifications for their wives, then finalize his list of qualifications for deacons? If the women in similar positions were to be held to the same high standards as the male deacons, then this makes perfect sense.

At least one other matter needs to come into the discussion. There was no feminine word for “deacon” in use when the New Testament books were being written. The feminine form διάκονiσσα (“deaconess”) does not show up for another two or three centuries. Even after it did show up, it was frequently used in parallel with διάκονον. The point is that the author of 1 Timothy did not have at his disposal a word specifically denoting a female deacon. Of course, had it been otherwise, we have no way of knowing how it would have affected this passage. I would speculate, however, that if such a word had been available, it would have appeared in this passage.

Regardless of specific terminology, scholars of both liberal and conservative stripe have agreed that a female diaconate developed rather early in Christian history. The earliest reference thereto is found in Romans 16:1 where Phoebe is commended by Paul as διάκονον of the church at Cenchrae. For centuries διάκονον was given the innocuous translation “servant.” It was not until the recent publication of the NRSV that Phoebe was referred to as a deacon. The next verse shows that she was no ordinary servant, however. Paul refers to her in Romans 16:2 as “προστάτις of many, and of me as well.” This word is used nowhere else in the New Testament. But its most basic meaning is “one who stands before,” i.e., as a leader. In secular usage, it was used of kings, military commanders, governors, and all sorts of leaders.

Although the translators of the REB of 1 Timothy 3:11 stand almost alone in the translation “women in this office,” and Williams, in similar fashion, with his translation “deaconesses,” they may in fact be on the right track. I hope this brief discussion will at least prompt some to consider this sort of a possibility.

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