The official leaders of churches in the New Testament were “Elders.” These were exclusively men and they were known by several titles. They are called “overseers” in 1 Timothy 3:1,2. They are called “elders” in Titus 1:5,6. Their task is to “shepherd.” All three of these terms are used of the same individuals in Acts 20. Paul sent for the “elders” of the church in Ephesus. He told them that the Holy Spirit had appointed them to be “overseers” and they were to “shepherd” the church of God.
The Ephesian church was going through a period of difficulty and most of that difficulty centered on a struggle for power. Since the offices of Elder and Deacon were the main offices in a local church, a struggle for power would involve competition for those offices. When Paul writes in chapter three that a man who “desires” to be an overseer desires a noble task, he is not giving a qualification for the office. He is admitting what is going on: lots of people desire that office.
The office could only be held by men who met specific qualifications, which Paul lists. One of the controversies about these qualifications has to do with the phrase “husband of but one wife” (verses 2 and 12). The phrase had nothing to do with “how many” wives the elder or deacon had, for polygamy was not practiced in Greek and Roman societies and not often in Jewish society. The phrase means “faithful to his wife.”
Another controversy has to do with the “wives” of verse eleven. The Greek word translated “wives” also means “women.” Context determines meaning and in this case, context helps very little. Those who see it as “women” (and therefore authorizing women deacons) are usually inconsistent, for they would translate the word as “wives” in 2:9ff. It seems to me, in absence of contextual restraint, the word ought to be translated “women.” That might lead us to the conclusion that female deacons were a part of the New Testament church. It’s worth noticing that Phoebe (a woman) is called a deacon in Romans 16:1. A conclusive case for female deacons cannot be made, nor can it be ruled out.