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Women, Wives, or Deaconesses? (1 Tim 3:11)

One of the most basic rules in hermeneutics is context. As a friend of mine says, “Context is King.” But how much context? Does the issue of context extend beyond a single verse? Perhaps to the paragraph or even the paragraph before? This is the question you have to ask in translating 1 Timothy 3:11.

Someone wrote me the other day and asked why γυναῖκας is accusative, why do some translations add “the” or “their” (wives),” and why there is no verb in the sentence. If you look at the different translations, especially all the footnotes, when you see this much variety you can be assured that the Greek is not clear.

  • “Women must likewise be dignified” (NASB, see also the NRSV).
  • “Their wives likewise must be dignified” (ESV, see also the NET).
  • “Wives, likewise, should be worthy of respect” (CSB).
  • “In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect” (NIV).

Perhaps the most significant issue is whether γυναῖκας refers to the wives of the deacons (vv 1–10), to deaconesses, or women in general. I cover this question in my commentary in some detail. I decided on “wives.”

Related is the inclusion of the words “their” or “the” before “wives.” If you don't modify the word “women” with one of these words, then the verse sticks out very strangely as being an admonition to women in general, but the entire chapter is specific that Paul is talking about people in leadership. Again, I deal with this in detail in my commentary.

But the Greek issue that I want to cover today is why γυναῖκας is in the accusative and what happened to the verb in v 11. There is nothing in the immediate context to help answer this question, and so we have to go all the way back to verse 2.

Because the desire to be a leader is a noble task (v 1), Paul concludes (οὖν) that it is necessary (δεῖ) for the overseer (ἐπίσκοπον, accusative) to be (εἶναι) above approach (δεῖ οὖν τὸν ἐπίσκοπον ἀνεπίλημπτον εἶναι).

When we get to v 11, both δεῖ and εἶναι have to be assumed. “Likewise (just like the deacons) it is necessary (δεῖ) that their wives (γυναῖκας) be (εἶναι) dignified.” So γυναῖκας is accusative because it is the direct object of the implied δεῖ, just like “overseer” (ἐπίσκοπον) in v 2 is accusative because it is the direct object of the expressed δεῖ. Note that εἶναι must also be supplied in v 7; Paul is abbreviating his speech.

Also, Paul’s use of “likewise” (ὡσαύτως) in v 11 is a clue that we should assume the “it is necessary to be” from v 2 and v 7.

In passages such as this, we also see that Paul expects us to read his writing in larger chunks. When we start looking at just one verse at a time, out of context, misunderstanding can often follow. This is why I think getting emailed a single verse of the day is fundamentally flawed in terms of how we study the Bible.

Having said all this, I suspect the more significant word in v 2 and v 7 is δεῖ, implied again in v 11. In my experience, much of the church is led by unqualified leaders, and in appointing unqualified leaders the church is ignoring the divine imperative, “it is necessary.” In two chapters, Paul is going to tell Timothy, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure” (Tim. 5:22). In other words, if someone appoints unqualified elders, that person shares some of the responsibility of that leader’s future sins. If a church congregation appoints unqualified leaders, then the church as a whole also shares in the blame of their future sins or incompetence.

This is why it is crucial that churches develop a leadership culture, and that it takes seriously the need to raise up qualified people to be leaders in the church. And part of that future leader’s qualification has to do with his wife (v 11) and his children (v 12).


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