NOTE: The content below expresses the views of the individual named as the author and does not necessarily reflect the position of the WRF as a whole.
WRF Member and Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies Asks, "What Does the Bible Teach About Deacons and Women in Ministry?"

WRF Member and Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies Asks, "What Does the Bible Teach About Deacons and Women in Ministry?"

As a member of the World Reformed Fellowship, I represent the Anglican branch of the reformation tradition. Our differences with Presbyterians are slight, with regard to doctrine, but are perhaps most sharply defined with respect to polity. This has usually centred upon the nature of eldership: presbyteral eldership versus an episcopal eldership (accepting as I do that presbyteros and episcopos are used interchangeably in the New Testament).

[I should add for the sake of completeness that I am also aware of the intra-presbyterian discussions concerning two office/two and a half office/ three office views, depending upon one’s exegesis of 1 Timothy 5:17, but I consider these to be of a different order to the debate with Anglicans concerning the addition of a bishop within the order of presbyters or priests.]

Yet little attention has been given to any differences between our traditions with respect to the diaconate. It is therefore a welcome addition to this lacuna that we have the recent report of the Presbyterian Church of America on an examination of the diaconate, especially with respect to the possibility of including women in this office. This report therefore provides an opportunity to reflect upon this particular aspect of polity as it affects our two Reformation traditions.

In the Anglican tradition, the diaconate is 'an inferior office', to quote Thomas Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer. As such, it reflects the relationship of ‘assistance’ that the deacon provides for the presbyter, especially in divine service. In other words, a deacon always serves the needs of the presbyter and always acts on his behalf in a delegated capacity. Thus in the Anglican ordination service, the deacon assists the presbyter in the distribution of the elements in holy communion, baptises infants only in the absence of the presbyter,  and is only allowed to preach if so licensed by the bishop. The presbyter, on the other hand, has full authority, by virtue of his ordination, to administer  both word and sacrament within the congregation, in accordance with the conditions of his licence.

However, it is worth noting that the duties of a deacon, while spelled out in both Presbyterian and Anglican ordination services, are scarcely defined, let alone fully described, in the New Testament. While the occurrence of the office and the qualifications for a deacon are found in the Pastoral Epistles, the office was clearly recognised in the early apostolic missionary endeavours, as evidenced by Paul's reference to deacons in Philippians 1:1. The evidence of Acts 6 is more problematic, due to the absence of the noun diakonos, although the verbal form diakoneō is used. However, despite the long tradition of seeing these first seven men as deacons (or prototypes thereof), even if the particular exigency which caused their creation was a temporary crisis, which did not appear to be replicated in churches planted outside Jerusalem, the diaconate does appear quite early.

I have vivid memories of a presbytery meeting I attended in Atlanta in the 1970s, where consideration was being given as to whether deacons could baptise. The general tenor of the discussion was in the negative. Though a young seminarian at the time (but with Anglican pluck), I asked the question as to why Scripture appeared to affirm the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch by Philp, a recognised deacon. The reply from the chairman was emphatic: ‘Philip is not a member of this presbytery!’

However, in the Anglican tradition, deacons can baptise in the absence of the presbyter, though in more recent times many Anglican Churches have allowed for the deacon to assist the presbyter by baptising in his presence or absence, where such activity would be ‘assisting’ the presbyter. Some have even argued that deacons could administer the Lord’s Supper in the same ‘assisting’ capacity (though this is not generally accepted beyond Sydney). Although it is true that in the 16th century the role of the deacon was somewhat temporary, in essence a stepping stone to the order of priest/presbyter, with deacons usually remaining as such for little more than a year, in modern times, the concept of  a permanent diaconate has been revisited. In those parts of the Communion maintaining a reformed position (as in the Diocese of Sydney) we continue to restrict the order of presbyter and bishop to gifted males only, but we see no difficulty in the ordination of female deacons.

The usual support for this is twofold: the presence of Phoebe, the diakonos in Romans 16:1, and the reference to female deacons in 1 Timothy 3: 11. In my opinion, the PCA Report did not give sufficient attention to the masculine form of diakonos, when describing Phoebe, which surely suggests an office (even though, not ‘male only’). No convincing argument was given for not identifying Phoebe as a ‘deacon’, as opposed to merely a  ‘servant’, notwithstanding the linguistic overlap. With respect to the qualifications of deacons in Pauls’ letter to Timothy, again , not sufficient weight was given to the fact that Paul requires similar diaconal qualifications for the ‘women’ in the section devoted to deacons, but no mention of qualifications for the ‘women’ in the section devoted to overseers. It is very difficult to argue, and I believe the Report is deficient in this respect, that the apostle considered it important for the ‘wives’ of deacons to be similarly temperate and trustworthy, but not important for the ‘wives’ of overseers to be temperate and trustworthy! A more natural reading of the text is to translate the Greek word in its context, as a reference to ‘women’, namely female deacons.

As Anglicans in the Diocese of Sydney, we highly value the ministry of women, but we recognise the Scriptural restrictions in the household of God, where the pastor, like the father of a family, is the head. In the congregation of God’s people, it is not appropriate for women to exercise such authority. The prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:12 needs to be taken seriously. For this reason, in our Diocese, although female deacons are licensed to preach the word of God, on their letters of ordination such authority is qualified by the words: ‘subject to the principles of church order contained in Holy Scriptures, including the apostolic prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:12.’ This preserves the balance of Scripture and the opportunities for ministry of which female deacons can avail themselves.

The regulative principle is often a marker of our differences in worship and church order. However, in my humble opinion, it is not that Scripture is silent on the issue of female deacons; on the contrary, it speaks and endorses the public ministry of women in the church, as supported by references to their engaging in prayer (suitably attired) and their involvement in delivering prophecy in the Corinthian congregation, and also in the ministry of women as deacons.


Grace and peace




The Most Rev Dr Glenn N Davies Archbishop of Sydney (Anglican Diocese of Sydney St Andrew's House, Sydney Square PO Box Q190  QVB Post Office NSW 1230  Office: +61 2 9265 1521) is a member of the WRF

{Special Note: Archbishop Davies received his M.Div., his Th.M., and a D.D. from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, which is an organizational member of the World Reformed Fellowship}

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