Warfield and Feminism


Warfield, in his attempts to maintain orthodoxy, made compromises in many areas. As long as he could still maintain a semblance of the Biblical doctrine he seemed content to let the apostates have the rest. This was particularly evident in his defense of Biblical inerrancy and inspiration, his views with respect to creation and evolution, and as we shall see below, his reaction to the strident feminism of his day. The following review of his views with respect to women in ecclesiastical office is taken from Brian Schwertley’s book, A Historical and Biblical Examination of Women Deacons   

“Among American Presbyterians in the nineteenth century B. B. Warfield was one of the strongest advocates of placing women in the ordained diaconate. The fact that Warfield was an excellent scholar and theologian and orthodox in his view of inspiration (sic) should focus our attention on his arguments. If there was an orthodox Presbyterian scholar who could make a well-reasoned case for placing women in the diaconate, it would be the distinguished professor from Princeton.

“In a lengthy article written for the Presbyterian Review (1890) Dr. Warfield sets forth his case for women deacons. The article was important to Warfield because he was on “the Special Committee on Deaconesses” which recommended “the revival of deaconesses” to the General Assembly in 1889. Warfield, unlike other advocates of women deacons, admits up front that the scriptural evidence for women deacons is very small.

For it need not be denied that the office of deaconess is a Scriptural office, although it must be confessed that the Biblical warrant for it is of the slenderest. We cannot bring ourselves to believe that the Apostle means to speak of deaconesses, in the midst of the requisites for the deacon, in 1 Tim. 3:11, since this would require us to assume in that passage a double sudden transition from one subject to another, of the harshest and most incredible kind. [69]

“Dr. Warfield rejects the pro-deaconess interpretation of 1 Timothy 3:11 and in the same article rejects the servant-widow interpretation of 1 Timothy 5:9. [70] For Dr. Warfield the whole argument must be based on Romans 16:1. Dr. Warfield says: “When we seek Biblical warrant, we have only the isolated phrase, ‘Phebe the deaconess.’” [71]

“After asserting that the whole case for women deacons rests upon the phrase “Phebe the deaconess” Warfield admits that there is no way to know from Scripture whether or not Paul meant diakonos in the general sense of servant or in the technical sense of a church officer (i.e., an ordained deacon).

This [Rom. 16:1] is no doubt a narrow, not to say a precarious foundation on which to build much of an ecclesiastical structure. The term here employed (diakonoV) is of very broad connotation; and Phebe might conceivably have been only an humble “servant” of the Cenchrean church, or indeed, for all that the term itself declares, only a Christian belonging to that church (cf. John xii. 26). Nor is there any compelling reason apparent in the context, shutting us up to the technical sense of “deaconess.” [72]

“Since Dr. Warfield admits that no one can determine from the context exactly what Paul had in mind, he does what most women-deacon advocates do: he looks to the history of the early church. “Nevertheless this [the technical designation] seems the more likely meaning of the phrase; and this interpretation receives confirmation from a clear indication, coming to us from the earliest post-apostolic times, that ‘deaconesses’ were then already an established order in the church.” [73]

“Dr. Warfield does not give one scriptural reason why he prefers the technical designation. Given his knowledge of Latin, his choice of Pliny’s letter to Trajan (A.D. 112) as proof is truly puzzling. He argues: “…it is clear that ministrae (doubtless, as Dr. Lightfoot points out, Pliny’s own translation of diakonoi) was already a terminus technicus, designating a well known office. But this is pretty nearly the only very early reference we have to that office.” [74] Warfield rests his whole case on one word (ministrae) taken from an extra-scriptural account. Yet the Latin word ministra (plural: minsitrae) has virtually the identical range of meaning in Latin as does diakonos in Greek. [75] In other words, Pliny’s letter to Trajan is just as ambiguous as Romans 16:1. As will be noted in the section dealing with Romans 16:1, the Latin ministra has such a broad range of meaning that Jerome invented a Latin word (diakonus) to avoid the confusion in his translation of the Greek into the Latin Vulgate. Jerome deliberately left Romans 16:1 ambiguous by translating diakonon as ministra.

“Dr. Warfield (like the modern women-deacon advocates) is locked into the view that the reference to a female servant in Romans 16:1 and to female servants in Pliny’s letter must refer to a female diaconate identical to the male diaconate. In a stunning admission that his case was based only upon the slenderest of scriptural evidence he wrote:

When we seek Biblical warrant, we have only the isolated phrase, “Phebe, the deaconess”; when we ask after the testimony of the first age of the church, we have only Pliny’s witness that the church in Bithynia had ancillae which they called ministrae; after that all is darkness until the deaconess emerge into light again as part of the already considerably corrupted ecclesiastical system of the third century. We have no Biblical account of the qualifications for the office or its duties, and no very early account of the functions it actually exercised. We are left only to the meagre inferences that as Phebe was “a deaconess of the church that is at Cenchreae,” the office was a local one and inhered in the individual congregation; that as Pliny tortured two ancillae, there may have been a plurality of deaconesses in each congregation; and that as the name was primitively the same and the functions exercised by them from the third century were parallel, they constituted a female diaconate similar to and of like standing with the board of deacons, which in the New Testament, we find in every church. Theories aside this is all we know of primitive deaconesses. [76]

“If Dr. Warfield and the authors of the OPC Minority Report had a proper understanding of 1 Timothy 5:9ff. then perhaps they would not attempt to force Romans 16:1 (and 1 Tim. 3:11, for the authors of the OPC Minority Report) into an interpretation which contradicts Acts 6:3, 1 Timothy 3:12 and the testimony of church history. If 1 Timothy 5:9ff. refers to an ecclesiastical order, then the whole argument given by Dr. Warfield and others concerning Romans 16:1 and the women of Pliny’s letter falls to the ground. Why? Because Paul sets forth a female order with very specific qualifications that both explains Romans 16:1 and the testimony of church history. And because the servant widows that Paul describes were not ordained and only ministered to women, it fully harmonizes with both Acts 6:3, 1 Timothy 3:12 and church history. Our goal when interpreting Scripture should be to avoid contradictions; interpretations that harmonize should be preferred.”


69. B. B. Warfield, “Presbyterian Deaconesses” (Presbyterian Review, 1890), p. 283, emphasis added.

70. Ibid., pp. 283-284, 286-287.

71. Ibid., p. 286.

72. Ibid., p. 283-284.

73. Ibid., p. 284, emphasis added.

74. Ibid., p. 284.

75. Ministra (fem.), a female attendant, maid-servant, assistant, servant, handmaid, accessory, etc.

76. Warfield, op. cit., p. 286, emphasis added.