Hylen, “Women διάκονοι and Gendered Norms of Leadership”

Susan E. Hylen has produced an article on the γυναῖκες of 1 Tim 3:11: “Women διάκονοι and Gendered Norms of Leadership.” Journal of Biblical Literature 138.3 (2019): 687–702. This article follows work done in connection with women, and in connection with the Pastorals, in her monographs A Modest Apostle: Thecla and the History of Women in the Early Church (OUP, 2015) and Women in the New Testament World (OUP, 2019). I offer the following simply as a summary without evaluation, for the benefit of interested readers.

Here is the abstract: “Interpreters generally acknowledge that the syntax of 1 Tim 3:1–13 points to the presence of women διάκονοι. Many of these interpreters, however, are tentative or deny the presence of women διάκονοι because of their assumptions about gendered social norms of the period. I argue that early readers of 1 Timothy would understand the ideals represented in the qualifications for διάκονοι as applying to women as well as to men. I assess social norms and practices of the period, especially in and around Ephesus, including the gendered virtues used to honor high-status women of the time. I conclude that the women introduced in 3:11 would likely have been understood as women holding the same titles as the male διάκονοι, just as women held many of the same civic and religious titles as their male peers.”

I’ll paraphrase and expand on that a bit: Hylen understands the διάκονοι, both male and female, to be community leaders of some sort (and this is not a novel understanding, particularly since John Collins’s Diakonia [1990]). Many scholars are influenced by the syntax and structure of 1 Timothy 3 to understand the “women” of 1 Tim 3:11 to be female διάκονοι equivalent to the male διάκονοι in the preceding verses, not (necessarily) their wives. However, because they read 1 Tim 3 in light of the restrictions of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 (particularly regarding women’s speech), and what they understand to be the restrictive social norms for NT-era women in Ephesus, they then reject the understanding that the “women” could have held leadership roles.

Hylen argues to the contrary that this line of thinking misunderstands the complex nature of the social roles of the time. Women were understood as “inherently inferior to men” (690), yes, but this was not necessarily considered a deal-breaker as regards leadership roles. Hylen adduces evidence that both married and unmarried women independently owned and controlled property, acted as patrons, held religious and civic office, and spoke out when appropriate. Therefore, Hylen argues, the virtues often applied to them should not (always) be read and translated in ways that suggest passivity and subordination, but in ways which reflect this active participation (e.g., σωφροσύνη as “self-control” rather than “modesty”). Hylen argues further that “multiple norms shaped the social world in this period” (697), such that on the one hand “women were expected to be subordinate to men who were their social peers” but were also viewed favorably in some cases when they were involved in public speaking or leadership roles.

Given this background, Hylen does not read the qualifications for the “women” of 1 Tim 3:11 in terms of subordination and passivity, but as connected with leadership roles. In this context, she takes a position on 1 Tim 3:12 which to my knowledge is unique: while arguing that male διάκονοι are addressed in vv. 8-10, and female διάκονοι are addressed in v. 11, she finds that both male and female διάκονοι are addressed in v. 12. To the anticipated objection that the “one-woman man” qualification of v. 12 could hardly apply to women, Hylen argues that “[i]t was common to speak of a mixed-gender group using vocabulary that indicated men alone” (699).

In sum, Hylen does not argue “that men and women were considered equal, for this would certainly have been anachronistic in the Roman period. … Nevertheless, women’s capacities to own property and act as patrons were also enshrined in law and social practice. Women of the period negotiated complex social norms that encouraged both deference and leadership” (702).