“Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well.” (ESV – Read the chapter)
This is one of those verses that seems in most English translations to limit the role that women can play in the body of Christ. I don’t think it actually does that and here’s why.
For starters, we know that there was at least one woman serving as a deacon in the early church. This was Phoebe in the church in Rome. To take up the argument that no women served as deacons, then, doesn’t seem to hold.
Second, in the Greek here, the word translated “wives” is the same word that can also be translated more broadly as “women.” Whether you choose “wives” or “women” here depends in large part on your view of the role women played in the early church which is itself shaped by a wider collection of passages than just this one. In light of the first point, and in light of cultural studies beyond the first thirty years or so of church history showing that women held a variety of leadership positions in the earliest church including ones with duties we typically think of as belonging to deacons, I suggest that “women” is the better translation here.
In other words, rather than calling the wives of deacons to meet this high standard that essentially creates a ministry position in the church “the wife of a deacon” for which we see no evidence of its existence anywhere else in the Scriptures, Paul is affirming that women who serve in the role of deacon are expected to live up to the same standards of behavior and faithfulness that the men are. As a bit of further evidence here, consider this: There is no such language directed at the wives of overseers which is odd considering it would have been an even more significant position in the church leadership and thus one for which you would think a similar word to their wives like this would have been even more important if that is in fact what Paul was doing here.
Third, the same grammatical considerations come into play in v. 12 such that rather than specifically describing deacons as the husbands of one wife, Paul was making the more general observation that deacons needed to remain faithful to their spouses. Culturally, though, the construction “the wife of one husband” would have been very odd. So too would have been something other than simply the phrasing as it exists. Still, in light of these other considerations and the broader picture of women and the position of deacon, it is safe, fair, and even right to understand Paul here as making the more general observation.
Let me close these reflections with a more general observation on translating the New Testament and the theology that comes from it. When you are translating something from one language to another, there are times when there is not a single word in the target language that accurately and precisely captures the meaning of the original word or phrase. In these cases, you have to rely on the broader context and may have to translate paraphrastically rather than literally. This is doubly true with an ancient language that isn’t spoken anymore and in which there are words and phrases that, because of cultural assumptions, can be fairly translated by two different words which convey two distinct ideas in the modern target language.
While this often isn’t the case and the Greek-to-English translation is clear, there are times when it is. In these few instances, the exact wording of the translation is going to reflect a choice on the part of the translator. He or she will choose from a range of possible words. This choice will reflect a careful study of the context of the passage being translated, the usage of the Greek word outside the Bible, its use in other places in the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments, its usage later on in history, and also the particular theological presuppositions of the translator.
Taken all together, this means that while the vast majority of the New Testament in English can be absolutely trusted as precisely and accurately rendering the ancient Greek from which we can confidently construct doctrine, a small percentage of cases invite us to approach the theology we form from them with more of a spirit of humility in our rendering. This doesn’t mean that these places are untrustworthy in their translation or that they are unhelpful in terms of constructing theology at all. Rather, it simply means that people who are both committed to the inerrancy of the text can come to different theological or ecclesiological conclusions about them, both of which (or all of which) have fair textual arguments in their favor. Choosing between or among these options will depend on more than this one passage.
In these cases, Christians do well to approach each other with a spirit of graciousness and charity. We ought to recognize that our brother or sister is in fact committed to the same high view of the text we hold (if the other person is not similarly committed to the inerrancy of the text, then there will necessarily be a much more significant point of departure to the extent that being in community together will be rendered difficult because of the sheer weight of differing theological conclusions the two of you will make and use to guide your lives), and we need not let this difference of interpretation divide us and weaken the kingdom because of it.
Too often we let differences of opinions over non-essential points of doctrine leave us hopelessly divided. This is a sin of which we must repent and then recommit ourselves to the fellowship and community that makes us stronger, advances the kingdom, and glorifies the Lord. Let us remember that we are brothers and sisters of the same Lord. Sometimes families come to different conclusions about a variety of matters that don’t affect the overall family. That doesn’t make them not family. It makes them richer and fuller and more able to love well those who are not like them in more significant ways. This makes them stronger. It does the church too.