29 Sep 2011

Voices on Female Deacons in the Stone-Campbell Movement

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Church History, Exegesis, Hermeneutics, Ministry, Restoration History, Women

Possibly the most surprising discovery for contemporary members of Churches of Christ is that many early “restoration” writers took the work of female deacons nearly for granted. They simply assumed that a restoration church true to the New Testament “pattern” would have deaconesses or a female deacons. What follows is simply an anthology of “voices” from the past on the matter of female deacons.

These voices largely focus on the interpretation of two texts, Romans 16.1-2 and 1 Timothy 3.11. This anthology helps raise some thorny questions: How did the current consensus come about? Is the current consensus biblical or recent tradition? I will provide the name of the writer, the date of the writing and a location so you can read it for yourself should you be so inclined to do so.

Strange Voices … to Our Ears

Alexander Campbell argued that the NT church had an “office” of deaconess. His understanding is reflected in his translation of Romans 16.1 and 1 Timothy 3.11 in the Living Oracles.

I commend to you Phebe, our sister, who is a deaconess of the congregation at Cenchrea, that you receive her in the Lord …” (Rom 16.1, Living Oracles)

The women [not wives! BV] in like manner, must be grave, not slanderers …” (1 Tim 3.11 Living Oracles).

In 1835 Campbell wrote, “From Rom 16:1 as well as from 1 Tm 3:11 it appears that females were constituted deaconesses in the primitive church. Duties to females as well as to males demand this” (“Order”, MH 1835, p. 507). He would write 18 years later, “The primitive church had also deacons. Such was Phoebe, of Cenchrea” (“Church Organization #2” MH 1853, p. 185). Two more morsels from Campbell,

“Amongst the Greeks who paid so much regard to differences of sex, female deacons or deaconesses, were appointed to visit the sisters” (Restoration of the Ancient Order XIX, Christian Baptist, 1826, p. 4)

“I say it [the church] is an organized body. Its organs are pastors or teachers, deacons and deaconesses; and for foreign missions and influence, evangelists or missionaries” (Organization #3, MH 1853, p. 247)

Robert Richardson, a leading scholar of the movement and biographer of Alexander Campbell, wrote in 1836, “Doubtless showers of mercy and the distributors were deacons, while the deaconesses had for her peculiar department the care of the sick and indigent females and those duties which can be better and more appropriately performed by females” (“Order – No.3,” MH [1836], 519).

Walter Scott the great evangelist and inventor of the Five Finger Plan of Salvation wrote in his journal The Evangelist.

“We could name a church in which the sisterhood is in the habit of assembling once a week at the house of the deaconesses to sew and make garments for the poor and needy; but to name the church is wholly unnecessary and it might be improper, as I mention it merely to recommend the charitable custom to the sisters of other churches, that they also may be fruitful in good works and adorn their holy profession by deeds of love and benevolence” (“Letters,” Evangelist [1840], 72).

W. K. Pendleton was AC’s son in law and professor at Bethany College as well as an editor of the Millennial Harbinger. He was very prominent among “us” in his day. In the following quote note his comments on how the “brethren” regard this ministry of female deacons. Here are two enlightening passages.

“In the discharge of this duty [care of the poor], there would be necessarily arise cases in which men could not with propriety act, especially in a country like the East where the social intercourse between the sexes was restricted by so many forms; and therefore, we find that into this order females introduced evidently by apostolic sanction. Paul … speaks of Phoebe as a deaconess of the church in Cenchrea; … and in the Epistle to Timothy 3:11,12, we interpret him as describing their qualifications for office … It is generally regarded, among our brethren, as an essential element in the restoration of the primitive order, to ordain, in every church, both deacons and deaconesses” (“Discipline, No 5,” MH [1848], 292).

“Besides deacons, every church should have deaconesses, whose duty it is to perform such offices as cannot be so well performed by deacons, and especially such to females, as could not with delicacy and propriety be laid upon the deacons” (“Deacons-Should the Church Have Them?” MH [1870], 54).

Robert Milligan was ordained by Thomas Campbell in 1842. He became a professor at Bethany in 1854 and would later become President of Kentucky University. Milligan is remembered for his classic The Scheme of Redemption and his Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. He was renowned as a scholar in his day. His voice on female deacons sounds like this

“The Diaconate of the primitive church was not confined to male members. Deaconesses were also appointed to attend to the wants of the sick and the needy, especially to their own sex … The order was continued, in the Greek church, until the beginning of the thirteenth century, and it is to be regretted that it was ever discontinued in any church. The poor and the needy will always be with us, and will require the attention of both Deacons and Deaconesses just as much did the Churches of Jerusalem, Cenchrea and Ephesus” (Scheme of Redemption, p. 343. The mention of Ephesus indicates Milligan’s understanding of 1 Tim 3.11f)

Tolbert Fanning was founding editor of the Gospel Advocate. His stance against the Missionary Society and the introduction of instrumental music played a key role in shaping attitudes throughout Churches of Christ in the 19th century. This giant of the Stone-Campbell Movement addressed the subject of female deacons several times.

“In the primitive churches there were also deaconesses, as Phoebe-the servant-deaconess in Cenchreae” (“Church Officers, No.3: Deacons,” GA [1859], 83)

“The Sisters, beyond all question, were as legitimately deacons as the brethren. Paul said, “I commend to you Phoebe, our sister, who is a deacon/servant of the church at Cenchrea.’ The Apostle, not only recommended the brethren at Rome to receive her as a deacon of her church as becomes saints, but to “assist her in whatsoever business she had need of them” … The ministering to the Savior by these Galilean women (Mt 27:55) evinced the strongest faith and an earnestness of life seldom witnessed. They were deacons, or ministers, to Jesus Christ in the most expressive way” (“The Church of Christ in History, No. 8,” Religious Historian [December 1873], 357)

Isaac Errett was the inheritor of the mantle of Alexander Campbell and editor of the Christian Standard. In 1873 he had opportunity to address texts in 1 Timothy (5:9ff) in this manner,

“The qualifications evidently point to a ministry involving the exercise of hospitality, the are of the afflicted, the training of children, and the instruction of younger women in the duties of life. Taking this as referring to deaconesses – and this seems to us the most reasonable interpretation – the text throws more light on the duties of their ministry than any other in the New Testament. It does not follow that all deaconesses were necessarily widows but that among the widow supported by the church those possessing qualifications could be profitably employed in this office” (“Deaconesses,” CS [7 June 1873], 188)

Moses Lard needs no introduction to those semi-familiar with our history. Lard is the one Campbell picked to defend the Movement against the attacks of Jeremiah Jeter, became editor of Lard’s Quarterly, Apostolic Times and his learned Commentary on Romans as well as President of the College of the Bible. In his Commentary, published in 1875, he voices the following exegesis.

“Phoebe was a servant of the church in Cenchrea. This much is actually asserted. Was she appointed to the service by the church, or did she assume it of herself? The question is not material. For whether she assumed the service of her own accord or was appointed to it, she performed it with the Apostle’s sanction. This stamps it right … I am therefore of the opinion that Phoebe was a deaconess in the official sense of that word.

What special duties were of this order of women, it would seem not difficult to conjecture. There work consisted in serving the sisterhood … In all churches there would be among the females, the poor, the sick, the untaught, the erring, the unfortunate. These would need attentions which no other persons could so delicately and successfully as the deaconesses … Even in the present day, the deaconess should be re-established. They are often of as much importance to a church as the deacons, if not more.” (Commentary on Romans, p. 451)

B. W. Johnson was a professor and author among latter 19th century Stone-Campbell Movement. He taught at Bethany for some time and later moved to Iowa. He was editor of the influential The Evangelist for 45 years. He authored commentaries on the Gospel of John and the Revelation. However, Johnson is best known for his popular The People’s New Testament with Notes, vol 1 (1889) and vol 2 (1891). His voice on the lovely lady Phoebe carried this tune,

“I commend unto you Phoebe. Evidently the bearer of the letter [i.e Romans], a sister in Christ. In this list of persons greeted, a number are women, and the greetings show how highly Paul esteemed woman’s work in the church. A servant. The word is deacon in the Greek. The world also means “servant” as rendered, but we know that there were deaconesses in the church of the first century, and Paul, in giving her a recommendation, no doubt mentions her office … She hath been a succourer of many. This would result from her office as a deaconess. Among those ministered two was the apostle himself.” (People’s New Testament, Vol 2, p. 71)

J. M. Barnes writing in the Gospel Advocate in 1893 reports the findings of his study of 1 Timothy 3:8ff. Please note his comments about elders and deacons wives. In the 20th century many have suggested that Paul really is giving qualifications for both elders and deacons wives. Not so Barnes and most earlier interpreters.

“Was she not a diakonos different from the rank and file? It is obvious … In this [the Diaconate] there were men and women. Does this surprise you? … If this does not mean the women were among the deacons what is the apostles’ doctrine on the subject? Why does the Holy Spirit give such specific instructions about the wives of deacons and not a word about the wives of elders? Why are the women put in here when wives of deacons are spoken of in the next verse?” (“Deacons,” Gospel Advocate [19 January 1893], 43).

I. B. Grubbs, long time Professor at the College of the Bible, published his Commentary on Romans in 1913 (posthumously). The Commentary was noted for its grasp of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith and not by works. He has this to say on Romans 16.1-2 and Phoebe, “She was a deaconess in the church at Cenchrea. Her work seemed to have been that of ministering to the saints whenever they needed help” (Commentary on Romans, p. 174).

C. R. Nichol needs no introduction. A legendary debater, evangelist, and editor were among his many talents. He was a close associate of Foy Wallace, Jr and R. L. Whiteside (co-authoring Sound Doctrine with RLW). His name is synonymous with conservative, even legalistic, Christianity. Nichol, however, undertook the most extensive investigation of anyone, up to that time, in our brotherhood of women and their roles in the Bible. His study resulted in a remarkable and groundbreaking book for 20th century Churches of Christ published in 1938 entitled God’s Woman. This book reveals Nichol as one who wrestles with the material and willingly embraces positions that are far from the norm by this time in the 20th century. Based upon his own study of God’s word he came to the conclusion that women not only could, but DID, pray in the presence of men, that women served as deacons, and that neither 1 Corinthians 14 or 1 Timothy 2 were “unlimited” proscriptions against women but were in context aimed at unruly wives. This book deserves to be digested.

Concluding Thoughts

This brief survey of voices shows that those very names that are so often referred to as “faithful and representative men” not only believed in female deacons but actively called for their restoration. This survey, by its very nature, is by no means exhaustive but it raises a number of questions. And it should generate questions, numerous questions, hard questions … both about the restoration fathers and about ourselves.

Perhaps the first item we learn from this exercise is that the current “traditional” position is a relatively new comer on the block, and it is a current tradition! Perhaps the next, and most difficult, question has do with the culture issue that is so often thrown around. Why is it that these men, with no pressure from the ERA or the Women’s Liberation Movement or Feminism or .. read these texts as they did? The opposite question also comes to mind, why have we so often arrived at a diametrically opposed reading of these texts … and then we say only those who wish to sell out to culture come do a different conclusion than the now traditional interpretation. However, nearly the entire 19th century restoration tradition at least places a question mark by the now commonly assumed understanding. Perhaps we need to ask the question, “How has our own understanding of these texts been a reaction against certain emphases around us and not from exegesis itself?? Perhaps our “church culture” shifted under the wider world culture … these questions are fair and worth reflecting upon. It is further worth reflecting upon this strange, and ironic, truth: the only deacon in the entire Bible that we know by name is a woman name Phoebe!

12 Responses to “Voices on Female Deacons in the Stone-Campbell Movement”

  1. Adam Gonnerman Says:

    I have no quarrel with having deaconesses serving the church. Didn’t even have a problem with it back in my more rigid, fundamentalist years.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic.

  2. Anonymous Says:


    How about any quotes from writers in the same period who argued against it?

    When did these arguments start, who argued against it, and what were their reasons?

    Thanks for the light.

  3. ccotten Says:

    Anonymous has a good point. Was there an argument about this in the 19th century? Are Campbell, Scott, Lard, and Milligan simply stating a position that most everyone agreed with? And how much of an outlier was C.R. Nichol by the 1930s on this?

    John T. Lewis wrote a review of *God’s Woman* in pamphlet form (1942). He takes Nichol (and R.L. Whiteside) to task on the head covering, but does not mention Nichol’s position on deaconesses. Perhaps it wasn’t a problem for him?

    Thanks for this post, Bobby. This kind of information is badly needed.


  4. JD Says:

    I smile at your moniker “Stoned Campbell Disciple” but the Stoned should not make an appearance in the title of this post!

    Beyond that, loved what you shared with us. Thank you!

  5. Anonymous Says:

    Stephen Sandifer’s book *Deacons: Male and Female* published about 15 years ago has a lot of this material. If it’s still available I recommend it highly. Sandifer tracks female deacons through the early, post-apostolic church through the Stone-Campbell Movement.


    Lee Freeman

  6. Wade Tannehill Says:

    Excellent post! Now I have two more books on my want list. Milligan’s “Scheme of Redemption” and Nichol’s “God’s Woman.”

  7. preacherman Says:

    Great post! Looking forward to “Voices on Female Elders in the Stone Campbell Movement”

  8. Terry Rush Says:

    Seems rather simple, huh?

    I have such a challenge to sort through much of the baggage I understood was Truth…yet wasn’t.

    Not to sigh. This will be our call forevermore.

    Good job, Bobby.

  9. Steve Says:

    Well, we need female elders as well. I don’t care if the old guys of the nineteenth century would approve or not. It is clear that Paul was accomodating to his culture as his list of qualifications for elders is similar to qualifications for a Roman general. That was good then and what is good for us now is different.

  10. Scott Says:

    I think that our “official” congregational system is the problem and causes the role of deaconesses to be viewed improperly. We are served meals by loving Christian women six days a week, but on Sunday, a small piece of bread and sip of juice becomes a “leadership” role? Please. (I borrowed this from a friend, Travis Russell, and thought it made total sense).

    I think that when we view elders and deacons as “city-wide” (Titus 1:5; Acts 14:23) servants among multiple house churches (Acts 6:1ff; cf. Rom. 16:5, 10-12, 16, etc.) eating the Lord’s Supper daily in the banquet setting (Acts 2:42ff; cf. 1 Cor. 11:17-34), then the “official” nature of servant-hood goes out the window where it belongs. Great article, Bobby V, especially the last paragraph.

  11. Randall Says:

    Great post Bobby. I do find it interesting that a number of those quoted seem to limit the role of deaconesses to traditional female roles in their society. Today, it seems that there is quite a bit of blurring as to what is a female versus male role.

  12. Frank Bellizzi Says:

    Anonymous #1. Yes, there was disagreement on this question in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I believe that some of the most influential writing came from J. W. McGarvey who published a couple of articles in the Christian Standard (as I recall) in the early 1900s.

    I agree with the conclusions voiced in Bobby’s post. I also agree with the comments to the effect that officialism is a big part of the problem when it comes to leadership questions within the a cappella Churches of Christ.

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