Peculiar Terminology of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Bible and the Denial of Women Leaders
By David Tatro
The Jehovah’s Witness Bible, the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, uses terminology that seems odd or strange to the general public. One of these peculiar terms is found at 1 Timothy 3:8, which the NWT renders: “Ministerial servants should likewise be serious, not double-tongued, not giving themselves to a lot of wine.” The Greek word that the NWT translates as “ministerial servants” is diakonoi, which literally means “servants.” Most modern Bible translations use the term deacon as it describes a ministry in the church. The Jehovah’s Witnesses apply the term “ministerial servants” to their secondary church officers. Now don’t get me wrong; the Witnesses can call their clergy any name they want to. But the term “ministerial servants” is redundant. It is almost like saying “serving servants.”
However, when the Greek word diakonoi appears in the singular at Romans 16:1 the NWT renders it “minister.” No doubt that is because at Romans 16:1 the word is used in reference to Phoebe, a woman, and due to the Witness church’s bias against a female clergy the NWT translator couldn’t use the term “ministerial servant” to describe a woman. The New Revised Standard Bible calls Phoebe a “deacon,” and the New Jerusalem Bible uses the term “deaconess” at Romans 16:1.
It is very interesting when one reads 1 Timothy 3:1-13 (Revised English Bible). In these verses St. Paul lists the requisites for bishops and deacons. In verse 11 he says: “Women in this office must likewise be dignified, not scandal mongers, but sober, and trustworthy in every way.” For the benefit of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who are more familiar with their own Bible version, the NWT says, “Women should likewise be serious, not slanderous, moderate in habits, faithful in all things.”
The NWT rendering makes it appear that St. Paul had some difficulty gathering his thoughts and while giving instructions to Timothy about deacons, inserts some counsel for women in general, and then picks up this thought and finishes his comments on deacons.
Regarding 1 Timothy 3:11-12 St. Chrysostom writes:
“Verse 11. ‘Even so must the women be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things.’
“Some have thought that this is said of women generally, but it is not so, for why should he introduce anything about women to interfere with his subject? He is speaking of those who hold the rank of Deaconesses.
“Verse 12. ‘Let the “Deacons be husbands of one wife.’
“This must be understood therefore to relate to Deaconesses. For that order is necessary and useful and honorable in the Church. Observe how he requires the same virtue from the Deacons, as from the Bishops, for though they were not of equal rank, they must equally be blameless; equally pure.” (See The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume 13, page 441.)
In his discussion of 1 Timothy 3:11, David H. Stern writes in the Jewish New Testament Commentary, page 642: “Greek GUNAIKAS can mean either ‘wives’ or ‘women.’ If the former, Sha’ul [Paul] is taking for granted that only men can be shammasim [deacons] and is predicating their service on their wives’ good behavior. But if the meaning is ‘women,’ he is allowing that the office of shammash can be filled by women as well as men. At Romans 16:1 Sha’ul calls Phoebe a shammash; his use of the masculine form of the Greek word, ‘diakonos,’ suggests that he is in fact referring to the office and not just describing her as a worker. Against this idea stands verse 12, which says a shammash must be faithful to his wife but says nothing about her being faithful to her husband. However, this can be explained as brevity of expression, or as a statement of the rule for the more frequent case.”
The term Deaconess as applied to Christian woman, can also be found in non-Christian sources. In a letter to Emperor Trajan written around 112 A. D. Pliny mentions two Christian women that he interrogated and says:
“Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses.” See Pliny Letters 10.96.
Despite the evidence the Jehovah’s Witness Governing Body refuses to allow women to hold positions of leadership in their church. They cite 1 Timothy 2:12 in support of their stand. The NWT renders this verse: “I do not permit a woman to teach, or to exercise authority over a man, but to be in silence.” In this instance the NWT didn’t mistranslate St. Paul’s words. The more ecumenical New Revised Standard Version similarly translates 1 Timothy 2:12: “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.”
Is St. Paul contradicting himself? Not if his words are taken in their historical and cultural context. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 11, page 801 says:
“With these verses the instruction becomes more specific and focuses on the gatherings for worship. The thought is clearly determined by the attitude behind the household codes. In the ancient household the male head of the family, the PATERFAMILIAS, had all authority and power, and this was deemed to be essential for the good order of the household, itself the basic unit of city and state. In consequence, the proper relation of the wife to her husband was one of ‘submission;’ the same key world appears in non-Christian household codes, as well as Christian.
“The possibility of confusion arose because the first churches all met in private homes. Consequently there was uncertainty as to whether the norms of behavior were those of household or of church. Probably in the early days of Christianity there were wives who, in exercise of prophetic or other gifts, had been seen to be teaching or exhorting their husbands. Conceivably, this may have been acceptable in church, but since church was also household, the practice was too easily understood to be subversive of the good order of the household and of the authority of the PATERFAMILIAS. For a church concerned to be seen as supportive of what was good for society, the only solution was to conform church order to that of the well-ordered household and to forbid wives to teach or to have
authority over their husbands.”
St. Paul’s instruction needs to be considered in light of the time and the place. In his instructions to Timothy Paul wasn’t denying women the office of deacon, but in the instance of a house church, so as not to appear subversive, women should learn in silence. In a different setting a deaconess could teach and hold a position of influence in the church. However, the Jehovah’s Witnesses take St. Paul’s instructions out of context in order to justify the denial of leadership positions for women in their religion.
Nevertheless, there is considerable evidence from the Scriptures, from scholars, and from history that women held leadership positions in the ancient church. If a religion is truly Bible based there can be no justification for treating women as second-class Christians. There is nothing to fear but much to gain with women in leadership roles. Christians will be especially blessed and enriched when women are restored to full equality in today’s church.