First Timothy 3 provides undisputed evidence that the office of bishop (elder) and deacon existed in the first-century Christian church. But what about deaconesses? Some believe that verse 11 supports their existence. Nancy Vyhmeister is a proponent of this view. The text states, “Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things” (1 Tim 3:11, KJV). Vyhmeister states, “The Greek word, which can be translated ‘women’ or ‘wives,’ has been variously translated as ‘women,’ ‘women deacons,’ or ‘their [deacon’s] wives.’ . . . The suggestion that the term refers to wives of deacons presents difficulties, for in the Greek [manuscript] there is no possessive. Whose wives were they? On the other hand, if one takes the context seriously, these women serve the church as do their male counterparts. Quite probably, these women were female deacons, as was Phoebe.”1
Shirley A. Groh also believes that these women were deaconesses. She writes, “In I Timothy 3:8 ff. Paul speaks of the duties of a deacon. Then in v. 11 he says, ‘The women likewise must be serious, no slanderer, but temperate, faithful in all things.’ R.S.V. Many believe this refers especially to Deaconesses. They were to be cultured and devoted women.”2
Other Scriptures indicate that female deacons or deaconesses existed in the first-century Christian church. In Romans 16:1–2, the apostle Paul writes, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cenchreae, that you may receive her in the Lord as befits the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a helper of many and of myself as well” (RSV).
The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary states that “the use of this term [deaconess] suggests that the office of ‘deaconess’ may already have been established in the early Christian church. At least Phoebe was in some sense a servant or minister in the congregation at Cenchreae.”3 Harold Nichols concurs with the idea that deaconesses were present in the first-century Christian church. He says,
In the New Testament church, when seven individuals were chosen to minister to widows and serve tables, all of them were men (cf. Acts 6:1–6). Nevertheless, the New Testament does record the presence of women workers in the churches. Paul wrote to the church at Philippi: “Help these women, for they have labored side by side with me in the gospel. . .” (Phil. 4:3). In the letter to the Romans Paul wrote: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cenchreae . . .” (Rom. 16:1–2). These references imply that many, if not all, early churches had in them women who served and were called deaconesses.4
Philip Schaff states that “Paul mentions Phoebe as a deaconess of the church of Cenchreae, the port of Corinth, and it is more than probable that Prisca (Priscilla), Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis, whom he commends for their labor in the Lord, served in the same capacity at Rome.”5 Schaff also indicates that deaconesses had charge of the poor and sick in the female portion of the church, due to the rigid separation of the sexes in that day. Groh gives this vivid picture of the deaconesses caring for the sick:
When we stop to remember that there were no hospitals, we can begin to imagine what a big job is implied even in the words saying that the deaconess “administered to the poor and sick.” No provisions were made for the sick except by this one woman worker. Imagine even a small out-break of flu with only deaconesses to administer help and probably care for sick mothers’ families yet, too. This is a full time job. People’s physical surroundings had to be set in order that Christ might better work in their hearts. In addition to this social work and nursing, the deaconess had the more strictly religious duties of teaching, doorkeeping, and assisting at baptisms. Here was no small task, and it required, as one author said, “A gifted individual with personal endowments of a religious kind” plus much courage to perform all these tasks.6
Therefore, Maurice Riley is correct by likening deaconesses to “Angels of Mercy.” She refers to Phoebe and Dorcas as biblical examples of such.7 Luke gives us the account of Dorcas in Acts 9:36–43. The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary states, “By some, Dorcas is regarded as a deaconess in the church at Joppa. . . . [She] may have had special care of the widows of the church.”8
Like Phoebe, Dorcas was a succourer—a helper, a protector, one who shields from suffering, and goes out to the aid of those in distress. She showed compassion for the underprivileged of Joppa, and made coats and garments to protect them from the weather. What an example for today’s deaconesses.
1 Nancy Vyhmeister, “The Ministry of the Deaconess through History,” Ministry, July 2008, 18.
2 Shirley A. Groh, “The Role of Deaconess through the Ages,” December 1955, http://www.wlsessays.net/GrohRole.pdf (accessed October 13, 2008).
3 “Servant,” in Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, ed. Francis D. Nichol, vol. 6, Acts to Ephesians (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1980), 649.
4 Harold Nichols, The Work of the Deacon and Deaconess (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1964), 86–87.
5 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 1, Apostolic Christianity (A.D. 1–100) (1910; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 500–501.
6 Groh, “Role of Deaconess.”
7 Maurice Riley, The Deaconess: Walking in the Newness of Life, 2nd ed. (Newark, NJ: Christian Associates Publications, 1993), 33.
8 “Full of Good Works,” in Nichol, Seventhday Adventist Bible Commentary, 6:242.
Vincent E. White Sr., DMin, is a retired pastor and author of The Twenty-First Century Deacon and Deaconess: Reflecting the Biblical Model, The Twenty-First Century Deacon and Deaconess: Reflecting the Biblical Model Workbook, and Problem Solvers and Soul Winners: A Handbook for Deacons and Deaconesses.