Did women in the early church serve as deacons? If so, most Baptists would agree, they should be allowed to do so today.

The Southern Baptist Convention’s upcoming January Bible Study says no, at least in its interpretation that First Timothy 3:11 refers to deacons’ wives, the inference being that the deacons themselves were males.

“Wives, too, must be worthy of respect, not slanderers, self-controlled, faithful in everything,” LifeWay Christian Resources’ new Holman Christian Standard Bible translates the verse, which falls in a chapter discussing qualities of deacons.

Other modern Bible translations, however, render the Greek noun which is the verse’s subject as the more generic “women,” implying that the Apostle Paul is referring either to women in general or specifically to women deacons.

The context of First Timothy 3:11 “almost certainly means Paul was talking about the wives of deacons here, and not women in general,” write authors Jimmy Draper and Gene Mims in The Church: Anticipating the Kingdom’s Appearing, a series of studies from First and Second Timothy now being promoted in SBC churches.

“First and Second Timothy contain all the issues churches face today: polity, leadership, doctrine, women’s issues, qualification for pastors and deacons, and many others,” Mims said in a quote on LifeWay’s Web site.

“People who study this, I think, with our help, will be able to pop those issues up, chase them with their church and find biblical answers,” he said in a video interview also on the Web site.

But a pastor writing in 1990 who went on to become an SBC seminary president proposed a different answer.

“While we must avoid dogmatism at this point, I feel the evidence seems to favor the interpretation that Paul was turning his attention to the women who were also deacons,” Ken Hemphill wrote in a book published by LifeWay’s Broadman Press division.

Hemphill took early retirement this spring following nine years as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary to assume a newly created position of national strategist for Empowering Kingdom Growth, a joint venture of the SBC Executive Committee and LifeWay Christian Resources.

Before leading the seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, while a pastor in Virginia, Hemphill wrote the book titled The New Official Rule Book for the Church Game.

In a chapter on church leadership, Hemphill said the King James Version’s translation of First Timothy 3:11 as “Even so must their wives be grave,” led many to assume the reference applied to the wives of deacons. But the Greek word being translated can also mean “women,” he added, and the Greek manuscripts don’t include a word for the pronoun “their.”

“If we take ‘women’ as a reference to the wives of deacons, we must ask why Paul gave no qualifications or instructions for the wives of overseers?” Hemphill wrote. He also said the Bible gives no evidence of a separate order of deaconesses apart from the office of deacon.

Hemphill supported that interpretation with a reference to Phoebe as a deacon in Romans 16:1, and to a commentary from a church leader in the fourth century that the Timothy verse refers to women who hold the office of deacon.

The current January Bible Study links the discussion of deacon qualities to earlier verses in First Timothy about the office of pastor, which the authors believe is limited to non-divorced men.

“Reading through these verses, you’ll see the men described are much like the elders Paul described in the previous verses,” observes the student book. “Many characteristics are identical: worthy of respect, not a drunkard, not greedy, the husband of one wife and in control of their children and household.”

A disclaimer in the book cites the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message as LifeWay’s doctrinal guideline, but the study goes further than the statement itself.

The 2000 Baptist Faith & Message article on the church describes the two offices established in the Bible as pastors and deacons. “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture,” the statement says. It does not address qualifications for deacons.

Members of a study committee that proposed revisions to the 1963 Baptist Faith & Message said at the time that they intended the prohibition on female ministers to apply only to senior pastors and it did not necessarily ban women from ordination, mission work or various congregational ministries.

Draper and Mims contend that Paul’s declaration in First Timothy 2:12 that women may not teach or exercise authority over a man doesn’t mean that women can’t instruct other women, children or, in some cases, men, but “they are not to have authority over men nor teach them as one having authority.”

They say Paul’s citing of the example of Adam and Eve explains the principle. Adam was created before Eve, so that the “order of creation established the order of the relationship between man and woman.” Adam was not deceived, but sinned willingly, while the woman was deceived and transgressed. “Paul seems to have been saying that Eve as a woman was gullible outside the protection of her husband, thus women should not exercise authority over a man,” the study concludes.

“The SBC leadership has become the religious version of the ‘He-man Woman Haters’ Club,'” said Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

“First, fundamentalist leaders instruct Baptist women that they are ill-equipped to be pastors and should stay at home,” Parham said. “Now, Draper and Mims tell women they are unqualified to serve as deacons and are ‘gullible outside the protection’ of their husbands.’ What’s the next insult for thinking married women, professional women, single women and divorced women?”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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