The Biblical Definition of a Deaconess

Last night, someone posted a message on a Christian Facebook group asking a question about something she was being taught in a Bible class. She was being taught that deaconesses in a church are Biblical. She was questioning the teacher on this topic, to which he explained that Phebe was indeed a deaconess.

Here in a moment I’m going to show you exactly what the Bible does have to say about the qualification and roles of a deaconess in the church. Let’s work our way up to that, okay?

We should probably start at the first place where the Bible talks about deacons.

“And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.” – Acts 6:1-3

From this passage, we understand the reason deacons became necessary. The church was growing in leaps and bounds. Those leading the church were realizing they didn’t have enough time to take care of the widows in the church. It takes a lot of time to study, teach, and preach the gospel. People were being added to the church daily and the more people that they had to attend to, the more time would need to be devoted to widows.

We also see that a deacon would be serving others. That doesn’t mean that every servant is a deacon. That is obvious. The Bible speaks of quite a few servants, who were never called deacons:

  • Canaan (Genesis 9:25)
  • Abraham (Genesis 18:3)
  • Lot (Genesis 19:2)
  • Isaac (Genesis 24:14)
  • Jacob (Genesis 32:20)
  • Joseph (Genesis 39:17)
  • Moses (Numbers 11:11)
  • Joshua (Numbers 11:28)
  • Caleb (Numbers 14:24)
  • Phurah (Judges 7:11)
  • Samuel (I Samuel 3:9)
  • David (I Samuel 17:32)
  • Abigail (I Samuel 25:41)
  • Ziba (II Samuel 2:9)
  • Joab (II Samuel 14:22)
  • Ahimaaz (II Samuel 18:29)
  • Solomon (I Kings 1:26)
  • Elijah (I Kings 18:36)
  • Gehazi (II Kings 4:25)
  • Naaman (II Kings 5:6)
  • Asaiah (II Chronicles 34:20)
  • Sanballat (Nehemiah 6:5)
  • Jacob (Isaiah 44:1)
  • Paul (Romans 1:1)
  • Phebe (Romans 16:1)
  • Epaphras (Colossians 4:12)
  • Onesimus (Philemon 1:25)
  • James (James 1:1)
  • Simon Peter (II Peter 2:1)
  • Jude (Jude 1:1)
  • John (Revelation 1:1)
  • And many, many others!

The disciples were told to select seven MEN of honest report, who were full of the Holy Ghost, and wisdom. Qualifications were given there. Not just anyone could be a deacon. Deacons had to be males, they had to be spiritually minded, and they had to be wise.

Someone might argue here and perhaps a deacon could be a female. There are places in the Bible where the word men is used to denote mankind in general – not just males. Well, let’s look at that for just a second. Who were chosen as deacons?

“And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch:” – Acts 6:5

How about that? The disciples were told to select seven men and every person they selected were males. Coincidence? I think not.

Let’s look at one more passage about the qualifications of deacons and then we will move on to deaconesses.

“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, nor slanderers, sober, faithful in all things. Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.” – I Timothy 3:10-12

Not only were deacons to be males, but they were to blameless, to be married to only one wife (not one wife at a time, but one wife), and they had to be able to keep their children and their household in order.

What does the Bible say about deaconesses?

I did a search in my Bible this morning and I could not find one single verse where the term “deaconess” was used.

The teacher in the Bible class was instructing those in his class that Phebe was a deaconess and that is why churches can have deaconesses today. So, since the Bible never mentions the word, let’s see what the Bible has to say about Phebe.

“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.” – Romans 16:1-2

The Apostle Paul wrote a letter to the church. They didn’t have mailmen back then, no fax machines, no emails. Phebe was instructed to deliver the letter, as a servant of the church at Cenchrea. How do I get that out of those verses? I don’t. There is one other verse where Phebe is mentioned in the scriptures. It’s at the close of Paul’s letter.

“To God only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ for ever. Amen. Written to the Romans from Corinthus, and sent by Phebe servant of the church at Cenchrea.” – Romans 16:27

Was Phebe a deaconess?

Again, there is no such term or title recorded anywhere in the Bible. A deacon’s role was to serve the widows in the church. Here, we find Phebe delivering the mail. I’m not saying delivering the mail wasn’t important. It was an important task – just as cleaning a church, answering the phones, changing the lightbulbs, printing bulletins, greeting folks at the door, etc are all important duties. People need to volunteer to take on those roles. When we get saved, each and every one of us become servants of God. That doesn’t make us deacons or deaconesses. A deacon was to take care of the widows. Nowhere in this passage is it implied that Phebe’s role was to take care of the widows or to take on any type of deaconly duties.

In the first two verses I quoted, Paul asked the church to assist Phebe in whatever businesses she needed of them. That did not apply authority on her part. He said she had been a succourer of many. In other words, she had helped many people. She had been the right kind of a Christian – always looking to be a blessing to others.

In my opinion, Paul was saying this, “Phebe has gone out of her way to deliver an important message to you. She has traveled a long way. By the time she gets there, she is going to be exhausted. She is going to need to rest a while. If she needs a place to stay, please put her up somewhere. If she needs some food for her or her animals, please share. She is not a bum. She is not a beggar. She is a servant of our church. She is a sister in Christ. Please treat her the way she has treated others.”

So why, then, do so many churches today have deaconesses? My guess is because they read commentaries instead of the Bible. That is dangerous ground, folks! Commentaries are not the inspired, preserved Word of God. They are simply a man’s opinion of what the Bible says.

I found one commentary, which I am not even going to name, which claims the portion of verse 1 that says “servant” means “deaconess” if you refer back to the Greek. The Greek word “servant” was translated from was “diakonos,” which scholars believe was a derivative of another Greek word “diako” which is no longer being used – that word means “to run on errands.”

Just so you will know, I did not look up the Greek word until the very end of writing this blog. I was able to figure out that she was a errand-runner simply be reading what the Bible had to say she did.

So what is the Biblical definition of a deaconess? It doesn’t exist! There is no such Biblically-based title.

Assigning women to the roles of deaconesses is the equivalent of assigning them to roles of Pastoresses or Priestesses or Bishophesses. It’s a made-up term, completely unsupported by the Bible.

Isn’t it interesting that the Bible lists qualifications for Bishops and for Deacons, but not for Deaconesses? Do you think there’s a reason for that? Absolutely! The next time somebody tells you deaconesses are Biblical, ask them to show you the qualifications for a deaconess in the scriptures. Share their responses below. I would love to hear them!

 

 

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6 Comments

  1. Aah! This is definitely thought provoking. To push our thoughts further, who is a servant in the Bible? Didn’t Paul call himself a servant of God? Wasn’t Paul called a servant? Didn’t Christ encourage his disciplines to be servants, serving one another?
    Is servanthood in the case of Phebe only limited to her role as a letter carrier?
    Your thoughts on all these are encouraged.

    Like

    1. Good comment. My thoughts – Paul did indeed call himself a servant, but God called him an apostle. Christ did encourage his disciples to be servants, but He also called them disciples. In the case of Phebe, God’s word calls her a servant, not a disciple, not an apostle, and not a deaconess. I think we can only call her what God called her and not give her a title the Bible doesn’t give her.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree we can only call her what the word of the Lord says!
        Maybe I missed it but I still feel like you didnt answer my query of who a servant is!
        In the Kingdom of God, who is a servant?
        What does servitude entail?

        Like

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