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TIM KELLER, ISSUE NUMBER 21, AUGUST 2008 Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City has since its inception commissioned (but not ordained) deaconesses working alongside male deacons in diaconal work. Why do we do this? A Personal History In 1982 the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod (RPCES) joined with the PCA. Earlier, the RPCES had defeated a motion to ordain women as deacons. But the 155th Synod reminded churches that, "they are free to elect Spirit-filled women as deaconesses and set them apart by prayer…. We affirm the right of a local church to have separate body of unordained women who may be called deaconesses." The 1982 PCA General Assembly did not consider the actions of the RPCES Synods to be binding on us, but rather “valuable and significant material which will be used in the perfecting of the Church,” and therefore to be granted respect. This is the reason that a number of churches with deaconesses, including Philadelphia’s Tenth Presbyterian Church under Jim Boice, came into the PCA and were accepted by our presbyteries at that time. The understanding in these presbyteries was that, underBook of Church Order (BCO) 9-7, godly women could be appointed to assist the deacons in their work, and this was a valid way for sessions to do so. In addition, many PCA Korean churches, keeping the traditional practices from their home country, have unordained but commissioned women working with the diaconate. In the mid-1980s I often attended Tenth Church. I saw how important strong diaconal work was in urban ministry, and also how crucial women were to an effective diaconate. When we began Redeemer I encouraged our new session to establish a diaconate that included unordained, commissioned deaconesses. Our practice was debated but upheld by our Northeast Presbytery in 1994. It was deemed the right of local sessions to determine how the women mentioned in BCO 9-7 were to be commissioned and identified. Over the years the work of our diaconate has become one of the most crucial aspects of Redeemer’s effectiveness in the city, and without deaconesses that would have never been the case. A Biblical Basis The ultimate reason for any church to have deaconesses should not be practical and historical, however, but biblical. There are several good biblical reasons for having commissioned deaconesses in a congregation. 1. The woman Phoebe is called a diakonon in Romans 16:1. The word diakonoselsewhere in the New Testament can mean deacon (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:8) and also minister (Colossians 1:25;4:7) but it can also be taken in a non-official sense as servant (Mark 10:43). So which meaning fits here? It is interesting that older conservative Bible commentators, such as Charles Hodge and John Calvin, concluded that Phoebe was a deaconess, while more recent conservative commentators, such as Doug Moo and Thomas Schreiner (as well as John Piper), all believe that Phoebe held the office of deacon. Robert Strimple, author of the minority report in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s 1988 “Report on Women in Church Office,” makes a detailed exegetical case for why the weight of evidence indicates Phoebe was an office holder. Here’s just one example. When Paul refers to Phoebe as (literally) “being (ousan-feminine accusative present participle) ... diakonon” he is using a participial phrase that is consistently used to identify a person’s performance of office in the New Testament. Examples of this usage are found in John 11:49 ("Caiaphas, being high priest that year”), Acts 18:12 ("Gallio, being the proconsul of Achaia ... "), and Acts 24:10 (“Felix, being a judge to this nation ... "). The case for reading Phoebe’s description as one of office is a strong one. Indeed, Calvin says that Paul is commending Phoebe “first on account of her office” to aid her as she discharges her ministry in Rome. 2. In the New Testament, women were recognized for their diaconal work. Besides Phoebe, Tabitha is noted for her work with the poor and widows (Acts 9:36-40). It was women who served Jesus’ disciples as they traveled (Luke 8:2-3), literally “deaconing them out of their own means” (see Dorcas, Acts 9:36). Most interesting of all, 1 Timothy 5:3-16 describes an order of widows who were financially supported and who were “devoted to all kinds of good deeds” and dedicated themselves to “helping those in trouble.” Qualifications for membership in the order of widows so approximates an office that Calvin saw a close connection between the work of the diaconate and the 1 Timothy 5 widows. This is why he actually established two ‘“orders” of deacons, one theprocurers, administrative workers who collected and managed funds, and hospitaliers, actual care-givers to the poor and sick. The latter order included women (the first did not). Calvin, then, established an order of commissioned (not ordained) women who did diaconal work. Given the examples of Phoebe, Tabitha, and the order of widows, it is not surprising that the early church developed an order of deaconesses quite early. Pliny the Younger, just a decade after the death of the apostle John (his letter is dated 106 A.D.), attests to the existence of deaconesses in
the early church. 3. To me, the most compelling biblical case for a recognized body of “deaconing women” is 1 Timothy 3. Paul gives Timothy screening criteria for elder (v.1-7) and deacon (v.8-13) candidates. However, right in the middle of the description of deacons is v.11 that reads, “the gynaikas [wives or women] likewise must be worthy of respect, not speaking evil of others, self-controlled and faithful in all things.” Then, after this statement, Paul goes back to describing deacons. The first question almost all exegetes ask is who—who are these women? Since the word gynaikas can mean either wives or women, that is a natural question. On one side are those who say that, if this word meant deacons’ wives, the possessive pronoun ‘their’ (auton) would have been used, but it wasn’t. On the other side are those who say that Paul could have made it clear these were women deacons by inserting tas diakonous (so it would have read “the women who are deacons”), but he doesn’t. This debate goes back at least to the Greek fathers—a very important point. If the church as a whole has not been able to settle this conclusively, we should exercise tolerance toward those who disagree with our opinion instead of calling our opponents “crypto-chauvinists” or “proto-feminists” as much of the blog chatter does. A more revealing line of thinking starts not with the question “who” but “why”—why are these women being screened for their character? One answer is that these are deacons’ wives, and therefore the deacons are being qualified for their jobs by looking at the character of their wives. But why, then, were they singled out for evaluation and the elders’ wives were not? Surely, if anything, the standards for elders and elders’ wives would be higher! If the purpose of the women’s descriptors was to qualify their husbands, why was there no such list for the elders’ wives? Some have suggested that the elder candidates were better known and did not need such scrutiny, but if that was the case, why was the elders’ list of qualifications longer than the deacons’? By far the most likely conclusion is that the deacons’ wives were being screened with selection criteria because they were going to be appointed to do diaconal work in the congregation alongside their husbands, while the elders’ wives were not sharing in the husbands’ work of discipline and oversight. The key adverb “likewise” (hosautos) further supports this. It precedes the description of elders (v.1,) deacons (v.8,) and women (v.11). This indicates that the evaluation list functioned similarly in each case as a selection criteria for doing work in the congregation. Deaconing Women For me, the penny dropped one day when Dick Gaffin was lecturing in my Doctrine of the Church class at Westminster in the mid80s. He was an author of the 1988 Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s (OPC) Committee on Women in Office. He (and the majority of the Committee) concluded that the “women” of v.11 were deacons’ wives. However, he said, even if they were “wives,” they were clearly being screened and appointed to do diaconal work in the congregation with their husbands. In fact, in the 1988 OPC majority report, the men who denied the office of deacon to women nonetheless made this very strong statement: Having denied the ordained status of the "women" (K.J.V. "wives") of this verse, it is all too easy to say no more. That is a shame, because whether these women were wives of elders or deacons or both, it is clear that Paul had "deaconing women" in view. They were recognized as special assistants to the ordained officers of the church. Phoebe is a classic example. Because of this association their spirituality had to be commensurate with the diaconate which they assisted. Furthermore, there are aspects of diaconal ministry which can only properly be executed by women. These focus on (though they are not limited to) personal, private needs unique to women and needs in the area of hospitality. Modern-day diaconates need to employ the gifts of women and even consider publicly recognizing some as officially associated with the diaconate in unordained status. (Majority report of the Committee on Women in Church Office, submitted to the OPC’s 55th General Assembly.) So here’s the nub of the matter. Whether the word gynaikas is translated “women” or “wives” doesn't matter. Either way, the text is teaching that women can and should do diaconal work alongside the deacons and in a way recognized by the congregation (after all, they are screened and selected). These may have been female individuals selected to do diaconal work with the deacons or wives appointed to do it together with them. But either way they were doing it. They were doing it either as ordained deacons or as assistants and partners, they were still doing it. The biblical evidence is strong that a) women were examined for and appointed to do diaconal work in the local church, and b) that this work with the poor, sick, widows, and orphans was publicly recognized and was held in honor among all. Indeed, even the thinkers and commentators who deny the ordained diaconate to women agree on the need for appointed “deaconing women.” So the practice of commissioning “deaconesses” is one good, biblical, and ancient way to follow this biblical pattern. Is the language of BCO 9-7 sufficient to accommodate what the Bible describes? Does it allow PCA sessions to examine and appoint deaconing women who are recognized and honored for their work? For at least 25 years, many presbyteries and sessions in the PCA have judged that it does.
What About Authority? But is the biblical evidence above enough to make a case for women to be ordained to the diaconate in the PCA? I would say no. I affirm and support the PCA’s belief in male headship in the home and church. I would never want to see our denomination compromise its support of this biblical complementarianism. Along with Ligon Duncan, I have never seen a credible biblical case made for the ordination of women to be elders or pastors. And when I see some of my friends try to make such a biblical case, I find their use of Scripture alarming and disturbing. Nevertheless, a denomination as conservative as the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) has ordained women to the diaconate (though not as elders) since 1888, because it understands the office of deacon to be one of service, not of rule. Our constitution is, I think, ambiguous about this distinction. BCO 9 never refers to the diaconate as exercising ruling authority—indeed it is clear that it always acts under the rule of the session, and cannot act without prior permission of the session or in some cases the whole congregation (9-2). However, in 24-5 the BCO requires that members take a vow of obedience to the deacons. This seems to indicate that BCO conceives ordination as always entailing some kind of ruling authority. That would preclude women. However, I believe—like the RPCNA—that biblically, deacons are appointed to service, not to juridical authority. So I would be happy to see the PCA reconfigure its description of the office to be more in line with that understanding of it. If, as we’ve seen, Paul was admitting deacons’ wives to diaconal work but not elders’ wives to elders’ work, then, in light of 1 Timothy 2:11,12, doesn’t that mean that the apostle saw the office of deacon as a calling to service, not rule? A Final Historical Note I said above that in determining our church practice we should respond to the Bible rather than to our contemporary culture. This is harder than it seems. Many people have said to me over the years they thought that our practice of deaconesses did not flow from our reading of Scripture, but was a capitulation to the egalitarian culture around us. I have tried to show that our reasons are solidly biblical, but I continually try to examine my own heart regarding this. I would only ask our critics to recognize an opposite but equal error. Many opponents of deaconesses today are operating out of a “decline narrative.” They claim that having deaconesses is the first step on the way to liberalism. But Jim Boice and John Piper, the RPCNA and the ARP, B.B. Warfield and John Calvin, believed in deaconing women or deaconesses. Are (or were) all these men or churches on the way to liberalism? I don’t think so. Nevertheless, one person put it to me like this recently: “Sure, the RPCNA has had women deacons for over a century. Sure, a biblical case can be made. But in our cultural climate, allowing deaconesses would be disastrous. It’s a slippery slope.” In other words, the Bible probably allows it, but let’s not do it because of the culture. Isn’t that also responding to the culture rather than to the text? If the PCA is driven either by reaction to or adaptation to the culture, it is being controlled by the culture instead of the Word. Let’s allow presbyteries and sessions to use women in diaconal work with the freedom they have historically had in our communion. I agree completely with Ligon Duncan when he says that the current debate in the PCA is “to determine what its complementarianism is going to look like in the future.” That’s right. His article and mine represent an intramural debate within a strong commitment to biblical complementarianism. While we argue and discuss this let’s keep that in mind. Tim Keller is the senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and the author of The Reason for God.
The Case for Our Current Policy on Female Deacons
LIGON DUNCAN, ISSUE NUMBER 21, AUGUST 2008 The PCA is a solidly complementarian denomination. In its history and theology – both public and official – it is unambiguously committed to leadership in the church by godly, qualified male elders, and to the godly spiritual leadership of Christian husbands in the home. In fact, a good case can be made that the PCA is more deliberately complementarian now than it was in 1973. Nevertheless, the role of women in the church is one of the hottest issues in the PCA today. Recently, we have grieved over the defection of a few high-profile PCA ministers and churches to egalitarian settings, heard calls for an expansion of the use of women’s teaching gifts in the church, and heard recommendations for including women as non-voting members on sessions. At our last General Assembly, overtures were debated asking the PCA to study or approve the ordination of women deacons. This suggests that our denomination is struggling to determine what its complementarianism is going to look like in the future and how it is going to be positioned in a dominant egalitarian culture. This larger discussion forms the backdrop of our present debate on the ordination of women to the diaconate. I think we would all be wise to question ourselves as to how that larger debate influences our thinking on this issue. In the end, we will all be best served if our prime desire is simply to follow the clear teaching of Scripture, rather than to respond (whether by reaction or adaptation) to our present cultural context. I believe that the position set forth in our doctrinal standards is the biblical view, that is, the office of the diaconate is for qualified men only. I also believe that our Book of Church Order (BCO) is biblical when it says that “the Session of a church should select and appoint godly men and women [emphasis mine] of the congregation to assist the deacons in caring for the sick, the widows, the orphans, the prisoners, and others who may be in any distress or need.” This is precisely what is in view in 1 Timothy 3 and 5, and precisely what “deaconesses” did in patristic and reformation era churches. They assisted the deacons. They were not ordained female deacons, nor was there a separate ecclesiastical office of deaconess. “Deaconesses” were diaconal assistants. That having been said, I want to say emphatically that the discussion over female deacons is a very different discussion than the debate over the ordination of women to the pastoral office or to eldership. With the vast majority of Christendom, in history and worldwide today, I do not believe that a credible biblical case can be made for the ordination of women to the teaching and ruling office of the church. The kind of exegesis required to sustain such a view so distorts the plain teaching of the Bible as to make it a wax nose capable of any shape. If you can get “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man” (1 Timothy 2:12) to mean “I do permit a woman to teach and exercise authority over a man” then you can get the Bible to say anything. But the discussion of women’s ordination to the diaconate is different, and more difficult. First, there are essentially only two passages on which the whole discussion is based—Romans 16:1-2 and 1 Timothy 3:11 (in conjunction with 1 Timothy 5:9ff). Second, the fact that the diaconate is not a “teaching/ruling” office but a “serving” office offers a clear and obvious rationale for exploring the legitimacy of women holding the office, even in the minds of many complementarians. Third, women have always participated in the diaconal ministry of the church. The New Testament and church history show this (though determining the exact status they held in doing so is not always easy), and this very fact encourages some to explore the potential of recognizing a class or office of female deacons. For these reasons it is important that we take up this discussion with an understanding of the legitimacy and challenges of the question, and with full respect for our fellow churchmen who hold to views differing from our own. I, for one, have the highest regard for my PCA colleagues who want to see our polity amended on this point. I think of men like Tim Keller, Phil Ryken, Jim Hurley, Ralph Davis, and others like them who believe, on scriptural grounds, that women ought to be ordained or appointed to the office of deacon, or to be ordained or appointed as deaconesses. These men are towering giants of theology and ministry, as well as dear friends and heroes to me. I care about what they think. I have not a shadow of a doubt about the purity of their motivations on this question. I take joy in their ministries and sit at their feet to learn from them with gladness in my heart. I rejoice that we are part of the same branch of the Lord’s church, because of who they are (by God’s grace) and what they do, and I want to be at least a small part of the reason that they rejoice in being in this communion too. But I also think that our denominational standards are clear and correct on this issue, and that the biblical evidence for the ordination of women as deacons is slender and weak, at best. Further, there are better-attested ways of encouraging our women in the diaconal ministry of the church than creating a class of female deacons (and there are already helpful suggestions toward that better way in our standards). I’ll state this case briefly. What Do our Standards Say about Women and the Diaconate? The PCA was established in the context of a theological downgrade in the old Southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS). In particular, a
low view of the doctrine of Scripture pervaded the seminaries and denominational leadership of the PCUS. This low view of Scripture had a number of obvious manifestations, one of which was the promotion of egalitarianism in church office. So, when our founding fathers were putting together ourBook of Church Order, and writing or editing its sections on church office, they were not unaware of the historic and contemporary discussions on the admission of women to church office. Nor were they misogynists and reactionaries. There is every evidence that they had a high and respectful view of women, and indeed some of them would have been comfortable with women serving in roles and capacities that would make many of us today distinctly uncomfortable! So, what they stated in the BCO regarding the Bible’s teaching on church office and women’s roles reflected a serious, nonreactionary wrestling with the teaching of Scripture and the testimony of church history and historic Reformed and presbyterian polity. It is significant, then, that BCO 7-2 says: “The ordinary and perpetual classes of office in the Church are elders and deacons. ... The elders jointly have the government and spiritual oversight of the Church, including teaching. ... The office of deacon is not one of rule, but rather of service both to the physical and spiritual needs of the people. In accord with Scripture, these offices are open to men only.” Our standards thus specifically assert, as a matter of principle, that in submission to Scripture, elders and deacons in the PCA are to be qualified men. BCO 9-3 goes on to say, “To the office of deacon, which is spiritual in nature, shall be chosen men of spiritual character, honest repute, exemplary lives, brotherly spirit, warm sympathies, and sound judgment.” And BCO 24-1 adds, “Every church shall elect persons to the offices of ruling elder and deacon in the following manner: At such times as determined by the Session, communicant members of the congregation may submit names to the Session, keeping in mind that each prospective officer should be an active male member who meets the qualifications set forth in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.” So, whatever the practices of some of our churches (and I freely admit that there is some historical diversity here), the BCO itself is utterly unambiguous on the question of the nature, composition, and qualifications of the diaconate. This is one reason why many in our denomination have been frustrated by what they see as a disregard or contradiction of our polity when, in order to have nonordained women deacons of the same status and class as their male counterparts, congregations have refused to elect and ordain male deacons according to the rules of the BCO and have instead chosen to have no ordained deacons (male or female) at all, and instead to “commission” male and female deacons. These kinds of moves are, in my judgment, disruptive of the unity of the church and fail the test of submission to the brethren. While I am fully sympathetic to the assignment of some degree of latitude and flexibility in the implementation of our polity in local situations, we must all take care that we do not create alternative structures that end up displacing the form of government that we have solemnly affirmed to be “in conformity with the general principles of Biblical polity” in our ordination vows (BCO 21-5 and 24-5, vow 3). What Does the Bible Say? But the real question here is: What do the Scriptures say? What is the Lord’s command for His church? Our polity is subordinate to Scripture and correctable by it. But in this case, our standards clearly accord with Scripture. Let’s consider three important passages. Acts 6:1-6 records the ordination of “the seven” to diaconal service. While it does not use the technical term and noun “deacon” for their status or work, it surely provides the background to and informs the content of the New Testament office of deacon. (The verbal form diakonein, to serve, is used in 6:2.) This passage indicates that all the persons appointed to the task of ministering, especially to widows, were by apostolic directive to be men only: “pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.” “The twelve” here require that the persons who are to lead in the diaconal care of needy women in the congregation are to be males, by using the word andras—the plural masculine for adult males (not the generic plural of anthropos—which can be used for men and women). Surely, if ever there were an occasion that called for women to serve as deacons (in order to minister to needy women), it was this. But the express command here is for males to lead in this diaconal service. Romans 16:1 is the only candidate for locus classicus on female deacons, and even B.B. Warfield (who favored deaconesses) admits “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. iii. 11, ... [we find] indication of the existence of women-deacons in the New Testament only in Romans xvi. 1 ....” In this oft-studied passage, Paul says, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae.” Phoebe may well be the carrier of the letter of Paul to the Romans, and is probably a Gentile Christian (this we surmise from her pagan Roman name, an unlikely one for a Jewess), possibly a freedwoman. She is apparently a wealthy businesswoman – perhaps on
a business trip to Rome, with her own retinue. And she is a patroness of the Corinthian/Cenchrean church, as Paul calls her “helper” of the Church, indicating she had means at her disposal and used them for the well-being of the church. Phoebe is also called a “servant” here, not a deaconess (there’s a word for that and it’s not used here, or anywhere else in the New Testament). That is, she is identified as a particularly valuable and outstanding servant of the Corinthian/Cenchrean church. Servant is the standard term and role for every Christian and every ministry/office in the church. It is not insignificant that the ESV, NIV, and NASB all render diakonon here “servant,” not “deacon.” Since many New Testament scholars are inclined to believe in a rather late development of the formal diaconate, diakonon in this context is not usually viewed as a technical or official term (Warfield and Cranfield’s opinions notwithstanding). Indeed, this word is more often applied to ministers in the New Testament than to deacons. And more than either of those specialized uses, it is correctly translated as “servant”—as in this passage—29 times in 27 verses in the New Testament. John Murray eloquently concludes, “Phoebe is one of the women memorialized in the New Testament by their devoted service to the gospel whose honor is not to be tarnished by elevation to positions and functions inconsistent with the station they occupy in the economy of human relationships.” Though 1 Timothy 3:11 is sometimes appealed to as evidence for ordained female deacons, Warfield himself admits that that interpretation “would require us to assume in that passage a double sudden transition from one subject to another, of the harshest and most incredible kind.” This is why Daniel B. Wallace, an outstanding contemporary evangelical New Testament scholar says, “If women deacons are in view in v. 11, it seems rather strange that they should be discussed right in the middle of the qualifications for male deacons, rather than by themselves; ... Paul indeed seems to go out of his way to indicate that women are not deacons in the very next verse.” Because the passage comes in the midst of a section dealing with deacons’ qualifications, and uses neither the term for “deaconess” nor the female form of “servant,” but rather gunaikas (which could mean “women” or “wives”), you end up with either the ESV rendering: “Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.” Or the NASB rendering: “Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things.” Either way, the meaning is clear. The verse refers either to the wives of deacons or to the women who assist the deacons or both. Interestingly, this is precisely how Calvin viewed deaconesses. Not as ordained female deacons, but as women who assist the deacons, and our Book of Church Order already makes allowance for such. Once again though (as with the apostles in Acts 6:3), this passage provides Paul with the perfect opportunity—if he wants to establish warrant for women holding the office of deacon—to employ a technical term for “female deacon” or “deaconess,” and he doesn’t do it. Instead he uses the generic “women” or “wives” even though the context is loaded with technical terms for elders, deacons, and widows. So What? There is no directive for the ordination of women to the diaconate in the New Testament, and no unambiguous witness to or example of women holding the office of deacon. That women assisted the deacons in their ministry is uncontested and incontestable, and is corroborated by patristic and reformation era testimony. So the real question we ought to be asking is not “Should we have ordained female deacons, or deaconesses?” but rather “What kind of deaconess, or female diaconal assistant, does the New Testament authorize and the best testimony of church history and historic Reformed polity confirm?” Ligon Duncan is the senior minister of First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Miss.
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