If there is one scripture most overlooked in the debate on women serving in the church it is this one: “Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things” (1 Timothy 3:11, NASB). It is found in a list of qualifications for church leaders in 1 Timothy 3. Verse eleven, right between the requirement that deacons be beyond reproach and just before the stipulation that they be “husband of one wife.”
Like other passages that suggest women were among those serving as leaders in the first century church, this one has conflicting translations in various versions of the Bible. King James Version (KJV), English Standard Version (ESV), and even the modern New English Translation (NET) translate the word “women” as “their (deacon’s) wives.” Translation of the Greek word γυναῖκας can be complex since it can refer either to women or to wives. The grammatical distinction is made based on information within the word itself. When referring to wives, the word is typically in the genitive case, indicating possession. At other times the word is translated as wives due to context, such as a passage covering marriage. This translation is made deliberately, based on a theological perspective that women cannot serve in these roles, rather than based on context or grammar.
On the other side from forbidding women serving in the church (and hiding their requirements for service) there are interpretations that go all the way to creating a whole new category for women serving: Deaconesses. This has been done in the name of recognizing that women could serve in the church, but also to separate them as a distinct class or order. Some traditions recognize that women served, but would not elevate them to full participation in leadership, so they create a different category of limited service. While many women are mentioned and identified as deacons in the New Testament, there seems to be no biblical evidence for women serving in ways that differ from the men also called deacons.
The very position of their requirements for service within the general requirements of deacons indicates that women were not a distinct class, but were being specifically mentioned with the intention of inclusion. Translations such as the Common English Bible present the verse this way, “In the same way, women who are servants in the church should be dignified and not gossip. They should be sober and faithful in everything they do.” The translation adds English words for clarification, but opens the door for women to serve, not within their own distinct category but broadly and alongside their male counterparts.
When examined closely, it appears that women serving do not have different requirements from men also serving. Here are the lists side by side:
While the listed requirements for women who serve is shorter, the terms are more comprehensive and include the general requirements in their scope. Both sets name dignity as important. The general list forbids being double-tongued, the woman-specific list forbids gossip. Both call for sobriety or temperance. While the general list specifies not seeking dishonest gain, it could hardly be argued that faithfulness in all things does not include this prohibition as well.
Much has been made of the phrase in verse twelve “husband of one wife” but recent scholarship notes that this phrase is not gender exclusive, rather a character quality of fidelity in marriage. The same phrase is used in 1 Timothy 5:9 to refer to widows who never remarried. It is clear that this idiom is not meant to call only men to faithfulness in marriage, but both men and women who are serving in the church.
The rest of the requirements of deacons apply to both men and women who are serving in this role and cover fidelity in marriage, managing households and children well. The passage is capped off with a blessing that those who do well in this capacity will gain good standing and boldness in their faith. A promise for both men and women who serve.
Taking another look at women who serve,