In 1 Timothy 3:11, we read, “In the same way, women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.” In context, the word “women” (Gr. gynē) refers either to women deacons or deacons’ wives. Translations are non-committal: the TNIV has “the women,” with a footnote, “Probably women who are deacons, or possibly deacons’ wives.” The NASB likewise has “women,” with a footnote, “either deacons’ wives or deaconesses.”
On the whole, “women deacons” is more likely, for the following reasons:
The absence of qualifications for overseers’ wives: why would Paul give qualifications for deacons’ wives but not for overseers’ wives?
the phrase “in the same way” in 1 Timothy 3:11 most likely indicates a transition from one office to another, as it does in 1 Timothy 3:8 (from elders to deacons);
the parallel sentence structure and similar characteristics in verses 8 and 11 (including the lack of article before “women”) also suggest two distinct but related offices;
the absence of qualifiers such as “their” in the Greek: note that “their” is added, e.g., in the NIV, suggesting that the translators felt this is needed in English.
Note also that Phoebe is most likely identified as a woman deacon of the church at Cenchrea in Romans 16:1 (affirmed by complementarian commentators such as Douglas Moo [NICNT] and Thomas Schreiner [BECNT]). Paul’s mention of women deacons coheres well with his earlier prohibition of women serving in teaching or ruling functions over men (1 Tim. 2:12) and his lack of mention of women elders in 1 Timothy 3:1–7.
Since being a deacon does not involve teaching or ruling, women as well as men are eligible to serve in this capacity. Note that there is no requirement of marital faithfulness in the case of women deacons (cf. 1 Timothy 3:2, 12), presumably because male marital infidelity was common while female infidelity was not, and possibly also because women deacons were not necessarily expected to be married (some may have been widows or single).
Many conservative churches are hesitant to appoint women deacons because deacons often have a governing role. They fear that having women deacons may suggest theological liberalism, since Scripture does not permit women to serve in governing positions (see esp. 1 Tim. 2:12; 5:17). However, the problem here is not women deacons but the unbiblical understanding of the role of deacon.
In fact, this is a great opportunity to show that those who are conservative on the so-called “women’s issue” are not against women in ministry as is sometimes alleged but that they affirm the legitimate ministry of women. Why should male deacons be affirmed, acknowledged, and recognized for their service but not women who render the same kinds of service? Also, by resisting to appoint women deacons, the church deprives itself of valuable ministry.
For a fuller treatment of women deacons, see my commentary on 1–2 Timothy and Titus in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 12 (rev. ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan). See also “Hermeneutical and Exegetical Challenges in Interpreting the Pastoral Epistles,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 7/3 (Fall 2003): 4–17; and “The New Testament Pattern of Church Government,” Midwestern Journal of Theology 4/2 (2006): 43-56.