These are brief: one tidbit each from the Hebrew Bible, the writings of the New Testament, and from the history of Churches of Christ.

Hebrew Bible

When Nehemiah finished building the wall, he appointed gatekeepers to watch over the entrances to the city and Levitical singers to serve in the temple (Nehemiah 7:1). Most of these singers were descendants of Asaph, who was one of the leading musicians and a prophet from the time of David (1 Chronicles 16:7; 2 Chronicles 29:30) as well as the author of several Psalms (50 and 73, for example). The Levitical singers, including Asaph’s descendants, led the worship of Israel (2 Chronicles 5:12; 35:15).

Nehemiah’s singers numbered two hundred and forty-five, and they included “both male and female” (Nehemiah 7:67). Women were part of the Levitical choir that led the worship of Israel at the temple. In other words, women were on the praise team!

New Testament

Why did God incarnate as a male? That is a good question.

Perhaps we don’t really know. Nevertheless, given that God decided to become human, God must become a particular human. That is, God must dwell in the flesh in a particular geographical location, as a particular ethnicity, and as a particular sex. But the point is not that God in the flesh represents only male Jews who live in Palestine but that God in the flesh represents all humans. The incarnate Christ is the image of God, and we are all being conformed to the image of Christ whether male or female, whether Jew or Gentile, whether slave or free. The particularity of the incarnation, necessary for authentic existence as a human being, does not limit its meaning for all human beings.

Nevertheless, whatever reasons we might assign to God’s incarnation as a male, they do not imply that only males are gifted for leadership any more than God’s incarnation as a Jew implies that only Jews are gifted for leadership. Jesus, as human, represents all human beings.

History

In 1848, John R. Howard published what became a popular and influential sermon entitled “The Church of Christ Identified.” He listed the “original marks” of the true church, including such things as Christ as founder, no creed but the Bible, terms of admission (faith, repentance, confession, baptism), and weekly Lord’s supper. Interestingly, one of the marks “of the true church of Christ” was that it would be organized  with “certain officers,” including “1. Bishops, or elders; 2. Deacons and deaconesses, 3. Evangelists.”

Howard was not alone but stating a common orthopraxy among congregations in the early Restoration Movement (or, Stone-Campbell Movement). Other advocates for deaconesses included Alexander Campbell, Walter Scott, Tolbert Fanning, Robert Richardson, Robert Milligan, Moses Lard, J. M. Barnes, E. G. Sewell, C. R. Nichol, G. C. Brewer, J. Ridley Stroop, and J. D. Thomas. This was a strong tradition within the Restoration Movement in the nineteenth century, but it died out in the early 20th century even though some prominent ministers thought it was an approved office in the church.

Why did it die out? The influence of David Lipscomb and J. W. McGarvey weighed heavily as they understood only men could serve as such. The rise of women’s suffrage and the emergence of the “New Woman” movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries probably shaped the response of churches who were threatened by those movements. They circled the wagons and excluded women from the diaconate. Yet, the church has always been filled with women deaconesses even if they were not permitted to wear the name. Churches may not have honored the office, but God still gave the gift.

5 Responses

  1. Not sure if deaconesses could be referred to as “a gift from God” in the same way as “He has given some to be…” since deacon(esses) are not in Ephesians 4.
    But yes, there is definitely a good argument for deaconesses. However, that still does not equate other responsibilities, such as elders, preachers etc.

    1. All service is rooted in giftedness, and all gifts come from God. I made no claim about equivalency (“in the same way”) except that God still gives gifts, including the gift of deaconing as male or female. There are many gifts that are not listed in Ephesians 4, and we see some of them in Romans 12:7 (“if serving, then service”) alongside of prophecy, teaching, and governance among others.

      1. I question if the “offices” mentioned in Ephesians 4:11 are gifts. Gifted individuals filled those offices (maybe) but they could have been gifted with one of the many gifts mentioned in scripture and filled the office. In 1 Timothy 5:17 there are three ministry areas mentioned, Elder, Teacher and Preacher. When Paul discusses “gifts of the Spirit” in 1 Corinthians 14 he says we are a “single” member in the body – just one member/gift per individual. When Peter discusses this he says, “Each of you should use whatever gift (singular) you have received to serve others (1Peter 4:10). He then divides the “gifts” up into two broad categories – speaking and serving. So, you want gifted people serving in whatever area – whether deacon, elder, preacher, song leader, etc, but those are not gifts (in my opinion!).

        1. Perhaps so. I am uncertain there is a huge distinction. In any event, When Jesus ascended, he “gave gifts to anthropois” (humanity) in Ephesians 4:8, and then in verse 11, it seems to me, some of these gifts are enumerated: Jesus “gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip….” Gave is the same word, and the parallel between “gave gifts” and “gave apostles…” seems strong to me such that Paul is not making a distinction between gifting and apostleship (prophets, etc.). Women were certainly given the role of prophet (or the gift of prophecy)–not sure there is a strong distinction there. Peace.

  2. On a sidenote about women deacons:

    1 Timothy 3:12 says that deacons “be the husband of [only] one wife”. Some say that since a woman can’t be the husband of one wife, she can’t be a deacon. The same argument is put forth in the requirement of being an “elder”.

    The Apostle Paul about seven times in his letters describes himself as a “deacon”, yet he implies that he was not married (1 Cor. 7:8). Phoebe is also described as a deacon for the church at Cenchreae (Rom. 16:1). Campbell’s “Living Oracles” translates it as “deaconness”. Yet Phoebe cannot be the husband of a wife. Since the natural reading of 1 Tim. 3:11 is that women can be deacons, Paul must not have intended the immediately following clause, “Deacons shall be the husband of one wife” (3:12), to exclude women.

    I suggest that we re-examine the traditional meaning of “husband of one wife” as a requirement for elders and deacons. The text is literally “one-woman-man” and the phrase emphasizes extraodinary faithfulness to one’s spouse.(see entry eis, p. 292 in BDAG. Does “one woman man” mean to be sexually faithful and not promiscuous, a phrase that references women as well as men? Is the emphasis on faithfulness the major point and not necessarily the gender? Does the phrase forbid polygamy or adulterous persons?

    An additional question to consider is the nature of language that may appear sex-specific, but is in reality gender neutral in a generic sense. If 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6 are sex-specific, how, then, would we interpret Malachi 2:15, “let none be faithless to the wife of his youth” (RSV)? Does that mean that Malachi allows wives to be faithless to their husbands? Of course not. And when Jesus says that “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matth. 5:27-28). Doesn’t this also apply to a women lusting in her heart? Does the principle of monogamy conveyed by “one-woman-man” applies equally to men and women just as “you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” (Exod 20:17) applies equally to a husband or wife coveting a neighbor’s spouse. The masculine “he” in a command may appear to be sex-specific, but that may not be true. It’s a phenomenon natural in many languages.

    Another possiblitity is that when the phrase “one-woman-man” is referencing elders and deacons, Paul is addressing male elders and deacons, who are more likely to be womanizers and polygamists in a patriarchical culture than females would be. But that doesn’t necessarily exclude females or widows as deacons and presbyters which are addressed elsewhere in Paul’s letters.

    These are questions I’d like to see discussed. Perhaps not here in this thread, but in another format where this can have more space.

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