A minority of versions, including the old NIV, translate verse 11, “In the same way their wives are to be.…” The NIV 2011, however, translates it, “In the same way the women are to be….” The translation “their wives” is doubtful for eight reasons:
1. To make that idea clear Paul would have to add “of deacons,” “their,” or some other expression indicating their wives such as “having wives” (cf. “having children” in 3:4).
2. “Women similarly” in verse 11 exactly parallels “Deacons similarly” in verse 8, and so, as in the former case, is most naturally read, “Similarly the qualifications for women deacons are ….” The parallel structure and the word “similarly” implies something parallel to “Deacons similarly.” Both instances of “similarly” join parallel sets of qualifications: for overseers, deacons, and women deacons. Each case identifies a church office followed by qualifications that apply directly to its office holders. If, however, “women” is translated “their wives,” the verse would not be similar either in identifying a church office or in listing qualifications for those office holders themselves (women deacons). Everything else in 3:1-13 addresses church officials’ qualifications; nothing else is about their wives.
3. Reinforcing this parallel structure, both sentences, “Deacons, similarly” (vv. 8-–9) and “Women, similarly” (v. 11), have no verb, but rather presuppose the reapplication of “it is necessary for … to be” from verse 2. All these parallels would be broken if “women” did not identify a group whose qualifications for office follow.
4. If γυναῖκας in 3:11 refers to wives, it is hard to explain why there is no similar qualification for the wives of overseers since their position was more influential and had stricter requirements. It would be more important for church reputation for the overseers’ wives to be worthy of respect. Its position in the middle of qualifications for deacons does not permit it to refer to overseers’ wives as well as deacons’ wives.
5. In order to avoid reason 2 above, those who argue that verse 11 refers to the wives of deacons typically describe these wives going along with their husbands to perform deacon functions for other women. If, however, these wives join their husbands in diaconal ministry, then they should be recognized as deacons, not just deacons’ wives. Furthermore, if the only women who can serve are deacons’ wives, this requirement would disqualify all single women, all women whose husbands are not deacons, and all otherwise qualified men whose wives do not qualify. Most of the gifted women willing to do these tasks were not married to deacons. Consequently, restricting “women” to “their wives” severely limits the pool of women and men eligible for this service. Such a reading is particularly awkward if the author is Paul since he makes it clear both in practice and in principle (e.g., Gal 3:28; 1 Cor 11:11) that in Christ women have equal rights and privileges with men.
6. It would be strange for non-office holders to be required to meet practically identical qualifications, listed in the same order, as the qualifications for deacons listed in 3:8. Both must be “worthy of respect,” “not double tongued/not slanderous,” “not addicted to much wine/sober,” “not fond of dishonest gain/trustworthy in every respect.” Being sober is also the third overseer qualification, and, if anything, is more restrictive than the parallel in verse 8, so is more appropriate for a woman deacon than a deacon’s wife. Similarly “trustworthy in every respect” is more demanding than “not fond of dishonest gain” and so, too, is more appropriate as a qualification for a woman deacon.
7. The first requirement for overseers, deacons, and women (deacons) is that they hold public respect. “Worthy of respect” in both verses 8 and 11 is a requirement that is much more appropriate for people who act on behalf of the church than for their wives.
8. The statement about women in verse 11 is surrounded by other qualifications for deacons. If this is a reference to the wives of deacons, it is out of place at this point and should more logically have followed all the qualifications of the deacons themselves.
The reason some people have chosen the translation “their wives” is that they have felt uncomfortable with women being church leaders of any sort, including deacons. The following eight observations answer the key objections to understanding 3:ll as referring to woman deacons.
1. Paul must have condoned women deacons, since he refers to Phoebe as “deacon of the church in Cenchrea” in Romans 16:1.
2. The position of verse 11 in the middle of qualifications for deacons makes the repetition of “deacon” unnecessary.
3. Since “deacon” applied to both men and women at that time, there was no need to repeat “deacon” in regard to women in the paragraph about that office.
4. In Greek, the expression “woman deacons” would be clumsy.
5. The absence of the later term “deaconess” points to the primitiveness of this letter and argues for the less technical translation, “women deacons.” Furthermore, since there is no evidence the church office term “deaconess” existed at that time, interpreting 1 Tim 3:11 as identifying qualifications for deaconesses is anachronistic.
6. Some argue against women deacons because they think women should not be church leaders. However, in addition to the many official-sounding titles Paul attributes to his female colleagues in ministry, 1 Tim 5:3-11 lists qualifications for officially recognized “widows” under church support. Since verse 9 states that widows are “enrolled” into this position, it is clear that it is a recognized church position. A qualified widow “continues night and day to pray” (v. 5) and is known for “showing hospitality to strangers, washing the feet of the saints, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds” (v. 10). Reference to “the saints” implies that their ministries were not limited to other women and makes it clear that Paul did intend at least these unmarried women to work for the church.
7. If women are excluded from the office of deacon, they are deprived both of the blessing given to deacons (“those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus,” 3:13) and of the opportunities the office affords to bless others. Such deprivation is not consistent with Paul’s treatment of and statements about women elsewhere.
8. Most patristic and modern commentators writing on this verse say it advocates female deacons. Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek, eds., Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2005), 23ff, cite sixty-one inscriptions and forty literary references to female deacons through the sixth century AD in the East, where the church in Ephesus was located.
All this evidence shows that according to 1 Tim 3:11 women are eligible to be deacons, with the same title (deacon, not deaconess) and same requirements as men. The case is so strong that even leading complementarians like Köstenberger, Schreiner, Hurley, Clark, and Grudem (April 13, 2005 at Wheaton College) say 1 Tim 3:11 refers to women deacons. For documentation of the statements in this post, see Man and Woman, One in Christ, pages 454-459.