The PCA and Female Deaconesses (I)
Christian Education and Publications of the PCA sold a book at the Dallas General Assembly by Brian Schwertley entitled A Historical and Biblical Examination of Women Deacons. This is a timely book for the PCA, since a portion of the assembly was devoted to the subject title of Schwertley’s work. As in all good Presbyterian assemblies, there was a minority and majority report on the matter, the majority report eventually winning the day.
The discussion surrounding the possibility of unordained or ordained male and female deacons in the PCA should be a slam dunk, an open and shut case. But it wasn’t on the floor of GA and still isn’t for some, and precisely therein lies the problem. Why is it that what seems crystal clear to some in the PCA, especially in light of their ordination vows, isn’t crystal clear to others, to all? Every PCA Teaching and Ruling Elder has the same Book of Church Order and the pastors all took oaths that they would uphold the constitution of the PCA. If there are some who have not read the BCO, it would behoove them to do so. PCA Presbyteries do allow for “exceptions” for various theological reasons, but precious few who are advocating “deaconesses” took such exceptions at their ordination. Moreover, if a candidate takes exceptions to the Westminster Standards, then the Presbytery must make a decision regarding whether the exception(s) strikes at the vitals of religion.
At the very least, all this pressing for deaconesses means that these Teaching Elders are in an ethical bind, since they promised to notify their respective Presbyteries of any changes to their views after ordination. If certain PCA pastors have changed their views (allowable) and have not notified their Presbyteries (not allowable), they face a rather serious ethical dilemma; one that they would not allow their congregants to have. If PCA pastors were allowed to transfer from one Presbytery to another or desired ordination in the PCA and it was known that they adhered to deaconesses or unordained male and female deacons, then their respective Presbyteries are in a dilemma as well for violating the clear teaching of the PCA constitution and allowing these men to be ordained.
Why do I say that? In the words of economist, Walter Williams: Let’s look at it. When the PCA describes its officers, according to the Book of Church Order, it does so in the following manner: “The officers of the Church, by whom all its powers are administered, are, according to the Scriptures, teaching and ruling elders and deacons” (BCO 1-4). Yet, some PCA pastors and some seminary professors wanted a commission to study what the BCO is actually teaching. Their question to General Assembly reads this way. “Since the PCA Book of Church Order does not allow women to be ordained as deacons is it appropriate (1) for particular PCA congregations to nominate, elect and commission men and women as deacons, and then (2) not to ordain either these men or women? Does the PCA allow for this practice?”
Why were these questions raised when the BCO stately clearly and emphatically “In accord with Scripture, these office are open to men only” (BCO 7-2. Emphasis added)? BCO 9-3 states the same truth when it says “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” (Emphasis added). Finally, BCO 24-1 unequivocally explains: “Every church shall elect person to the office of ruling elder and deacon…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” (Emphasis added). Why were the questions raised and did they come primarily from disgruntled men and women in the various PCA congregations or did they come from pastors? That is an important distinction to make. If the men and women in the PCA are clamoring for deaconesses, then that is one problem; if the men and women in the PCA are not, in general calling for deaconesses, then the question is: Why are some PCA pastors pushing so hard for deaconesses? Moreover, what are the implications and applications of “commissioning” men and women as deacons? What kind of animal is that? Who thought that up? Such wording very much looks like a sleight of hand or an attempted “end run” around what is so patently clear in the BCO.
Dr. Stephen Woods, a pastor in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, has published a working paper entitled “Should Women Be Ordained As Deacons?” that forms a nice companion volume to Brian Schwertley’s work. In addition to these two works, there is a very informative volume by the Roman Catholic, Aimé Georges Martimort, entitled Deaconesses. Each of these works is valuable separately, but they are especially helpful when taken together. Woods reminds his readers that “The question as to whether or not it is appropriate to ordain women as deacons has been one that has arisen in recent decades in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, and has been discussed in the courts of other Presbyterian denominations as well.”
Some in the PCA would simply state that they are not in favor of ordaining females as deacons, but merely desire to commission them. In truth, of those desiring more active participation of women in the congregation and with the deacons, the house is divided. Some merely want to commission them (not allowed in the PCA), while others find nothing wrong with ordaining them (also not allowed in the PCA). It should also be noted that even though we “knee jerk” when folks mention the “domino theory,” there are clearly delineated patterns among other denominations regarding women deacons. For example, there is the demise of the Gereformeerde Kerken in Holland, which, geographically, is quite close to the Netherlands. In the 1970s, a near identical movement was afoot in the GK, which now allows female pastors, ruling elders, and deacons as well as male and female homosexuals in those offices.
The Christian Reformed Church followed closely on the heels of its sister church, the GK and during the 1980s went through very similar turmoil that resulted in females in most, it not all, of the ordained offices. The question is this: Did this change occur because of new exegetical findings in Scripture or was it rather spawned by conformity to the culture and the abdication of their God-ordained duties by the men? To help you decide, there were no new exegetical findings. In fact, as the studies of Schwertley and Martimort clearly reveal, even history gives us no grounds for such conclusions.
Schwertley proceeds in his article and says, “The modern debate regarding the ordination of women to the diaconate began in the 1880s, about twenty years after the rise of what has been called ‘Christian feminism.’ During the late 1880s a move to ordain women to the diaconate failed in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) but passed in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA). The debate over women deacons re-emerged in the 1980s, about twenty years after the rise of secular and pagan feminism.”
I would add to Schwertley’s comments that the 1880s formed part of the ripple effect of the so-called Second Great Awakening. Under the leadership of the full-orbed Pelagian, Charles Finney, the SGA set out to renew “society as well as individuals.” Nancy Pearcey, in her book, Total Truth, devotes a chapter to how women started the culture war. In 1838, Sarah Grimké wrote an article encouraging laypeople to “think for themselves in matters of religion.” Under Finney’s flawed leadership, “The revivalists…permitted women to pray and speak publicly, and even to become ‘exhorters’ (teaching assistants)…. They began to speak of women as being more naturally religious than men, and urged wives to be the means of converting their more worldly husbands.” This phenomenon has roiled under the surface or has come bubbling to the top to the extent that since the time of the SGA it is not incorrect to speak of the “feminization of the church.” Fortunately, books like Ann Douglas’ The Feminization of American Culture, Wayne Grudem’s Evangelical Feminism, Rebecca Jones’ Does Christianity Squash Women, and Mary Kassian’s The Feminist Mistake have attempted to bring a correcting influence to bear on local congregations and denominations. Kassian’s sub-title, “The Radical Impact of Feminism on Church and Culture” is quite to the point. We must never underestimate the profundity of that impact.
The late Dr. Gordon Clark wrote the following: “The Protestant Reformation, for all its opposition to Romanism, never questioned the practice of ordaining men only. Now, if this practice has continued from the time of Abraham down to 1960 or thereabouts, those who are innovators surely must bear the burden of proof. The Westminster Confession indeed says, ‘All Synods…may err, and many have erred.’ Therefore it is theoretically possible that the Reformed Presbyterian Church is in error. But when the agreement is worldwide over 4,000 years, it is, I repeat, extremely improbable. Therefore a mountainous burden of proof rests on those who advocate the ordination of women.”
What, according to Woods, precipitated the movement in the A.R.P.? He writes, “There was, of course, a time when such a practice would never have been entertained for a moment in the A.R.P. Church, which has always professed to maintain the infallibility, and the final authority of Holy Scripture. However, some have more recently voiced a desire that the A.R.P. church needs to get more in step with the world, and with sundry denominations which seem to revere the Holy Writ even less.” (p. 5.) Woods goes on to inquire, “Does the ordination of women to the diaconate represent a vestige of liberalism within the ranks of the A.R.P. and other Presbyterian and Reformed denominations which profess to hold to Biblical inerrancy? This question must be answered.” (p. 6.) Indeed, it must be.
Historically, the PCA has answered it unequivocally on more than one occasion, but some within the PCA seem to want it answered again. Unfortunately for the minority report, their request for a study committee failed. The 36th General Assembly went farther and approved the following with regard to women serving as deacons and on diaconates:
BCO 9 is clear that only ordained and elected men can be members of a “diaconate.” The appeal to BCO 9-7 is flawed because 9-7 addresses people appointed by the Session, not members of a diaconate (Board of Deacons, 9-4). According to BCO 9-3 and 9-4, a diaconate may only include men that are elected, ordained and installed…. In addition, this practice, coupled with the minister’s expressed view that he intends not to ordain deacons “until the BCO is amended,” denies qualified men their constitutional and biblical right to be considered for this office.
In light of this decision, these points seem clear: First, men only are to be elected by a congregation to the office of deacon. Second, women cannot be elected by a congregation to the office of deacon. Third, women cannot be commissioned (whatever that means) or ordained as deacons. Finally, women cannot serve on diaconates.
Moreover, it is unconstitutional to elect women to office in the PCA and it is equally unconstitutional to elect men to office in the PCA and not induct them to the office by ordination. All of this is quite straightforward. Dominic Aquila puts the matter into exceptionally clear language: “What this provision asserts is that words have meaning and specific definitions. There are expressed provisions without the PCA constitution that direct the definition, use and meaning of titles, phrases, processes, and doctrines. The PCA has chosen to express within its polity certain words and concepts which define and distinguish the nature of the office gifts and those who are qualified to serve in these regular and perpetual offices.”
Are PCA Women Unhappy or Being Spiritually Abused by PCA Men?
As I listen to the stories via the Internet I keep hearing something very, very different not only with a view to my home congregation in Southern California, but in my entire pastoral experience in Holland, Canada, and my native United States. Have there been insensitive men in those congregations? Yes, but I’ve also met my share of insensitive women as well. Have there been men who were linguine-spined? Yes, but there were a few pushy women as well, who acted like they had a chip on their shoulders all the time; in fact, they did.
I must admit that there has been a recurring complaint that I have heard from women in those congregations. It is not that their husband is a tyrant and uses them as a doormat and it is not that they desire to be an office bearer in the church. The number one complaint, far and away, is that their husbands do not lead them spiritually. This is a matter that deserves our full attention, because the husbands of these wives are being derelict in their duties. The remedy, however, is not to attempt to make women feel important or accepted, especially when this involves stepping outside of what Scripture teaches, but rather it is to admonish, encourage, and aid the men in becoming spiritual leaders in their homes. To my way of thinking, this is the task that confronts the PCA today and that needs to be taken seriously. There is a two-pronged negative attack on the PCA: First, there are pastors who are pushing to have women be commissioned as deacons. These pastors are violating their word if they have changed their views and their Presbyteries are violating the PCA BCO if they are allowing/tolerating such an unconstitutional practice. There are church orderly ways to accomplish changes in the BCO. Let the pastors follow those procedures. If they fail to achieve what they desire in terms of changes, then their choices are to stay in the PCA and conform to what they promised or to leave. It really is that simple.
Second, rather than spending time apologizing for what Scripture says, it will behoove PCA pastors to apply themselves to teaching their men to be biblical leaders in their homes and showing the women from Scripture what God requires of them. Who is the Lord that we should worship him? Looking to Scripture to be informed about the nature and character of God will do more to put things in perspective for both men and women than trying to get women to be allowed to do something the God of Scripture does not permit. We’ll continue to look at this, Lord willing, next time.
 Book of Church Order, 21-5.2: “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of FaithCatechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures; and do you further promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, you will, on your own initiative, make known to your Presbytery the change which has taken place in your views since the assumption of this ordination vow? (Emphasis added.) and the
 Dominic Aquila, “Women and the Office of Deacon in the PCA,” p. 1.
 Aimé Georges Martimort, Deaconesses. An Historical Study, (K.D. Whitehead [trans.]), (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986).
 Brian Schwertely, A Historical and Biblical Examination of Women Deacons, (Southfield, MI: Reformed Witness, 1998), p. iii.
 Mark Noll, A History of Christianity in the
 Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2004), p. 326.
 Aquila is referring to BCO 29-1: The Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly, together with the formularies of government, discipline, and worship are accepted by the Presbyterian Church in America as standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture in relation to both faith and practice.
 Aquila, Deaconesses, 4.
Labels: The PCA