Christianity: Doctrine and Ethics

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I am a 1967 graduate of The Citadel (Distinguished Military Student, member of the Economic Honor Society, Dean's List), a 1975 graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M.Div., magna cum laude, member of the Phi Alpha Chi academic honor society); I attended the Free University of Amsterdam and completed my History of Dogma there and then received a full scholarship from the Dutch government to transfer to the sister school in Kampen, Holland. In 1979 I graduated from the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Churches of Holland (Drs. with honors in Ethics). My New Testament minor was completed with Herman Ridderbos. I am also a 2001 Ph.D. graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary (Systematic Theology) in Philly with a dissertation on the "unio mystica" in the theology of Dr. Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). I am a former tank commander, and instructor in the US Army Armor School at Ft. Knox, KY. I have been happily married to my childhood sweetheart and best friend, Sally, for 43 years. We have 6 children, one of whom is with the Lord, and 14 wonderful grandchildren.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Should Christians Be Pro-Gun?

Pro-Life and Pro-Glock?

Rev. Lance Lewis, PCA pastor at Christ Liberation Fellowship in Philadelphia recently (9.15.2008) posted some comments on his blog site in the form of the above formulated question. In this installment, I want to take a few moments to respond to my colleague on the issue of Christians and guns. By way of clarification, I am in favor of the right described in the Second Amendment. I believe it extends to every United States citizen. It seems clear to me and others much more knowledgeable in constitutional law that the Second Amendment, like the others, describes an individual right. The Second Amendment does not require every U.S. citizen to have a gun, although it is important to point out that there was a time when certain states did require it and, in light of the current state of affairs in our country, it might be advisable for the citizens to arm themselves, even though it’s not required.

The language of the Second Amendment clearly states that we have the right to keep and bear arms and that this right shall not be infringed. As I respond to what Rev. Lewis wrote on his blog site, I will, as much as possible, use his own words. That is to say, I will allow him to state his case and then I will respond to what he asserts. There will be points of agreement between Rev. Lewis and me, but there will also be points where we differ and disagree.

His piece begins with a description of a fictitious Star Wars weapon United Federation of Planets Attack Phaser. I’m not certain what that is, but I’m pretty sure that Nancy Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, Bill and Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Ted Kennedy, and Barack Obama would want to put more controls on it. John Edwards probably wishes he had one to fend off the reporters at the bathroom door, especially since Rev. Lewis informs us that the UFPAP is equipped with a Variable Power Setting. Even in the language of Star Wars that sounds like a selector switch that gives the owner full auto capabilities. The worse thing that could happen is for one of these puppies to fall into the hands of decent, law-abiding citizens. Nope. Every UFPAP should be rounded up and given to the Klingons, of Star Trek fame, for safe keeping.

It should be clear by now that I am not a Star Wars fan (I know perhaps what might pass as the bare minimum about Star Wars, except that Darth Vader has asthma), so I will forego further discussion about it. Rev. Lewis seems well pleased with Star Wars, which, of course, is fine. I would just add that the UFPAP with VPS sounds like something I’d like to fire.

What becomes patently clear from Rev. Lewis’s position paper is that he is opposed to owning a gun for self-defense, which is his prerogative—to a certain degree and in a certain sense. There are some biblical qualifiers, however, that we need to take into account. I’m relatively sure that Rev. Lance knows what I’m about to say, but I believe it will be helpful as a review. First, we know from Exodus 22:2 that the Lord was not against self-defense. In fact, the text is clear that if there is an intruder in your home and you kill him, there is no harm; no foul. Self-defense is totally justified.

Second, the Westminster Larger Catechism (Q/A 135) makes it equally clear that one of the duties required of Christians in the sixth commandment is the following: “The duties required in the sixth commandment are, all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others…” (Emphasis added.)

Third, the Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 40, Q/A 105), after giving a spiritual interpretation of the sixth commandment states, “Moreover, I am not to harm or recklessly endanger myself.”

It would have greatly enhanced Rev. Lewis’s thesis and position if he had made reference to these documents on his blog post. Surely, he had to apprehend that Christians who held a view opposite from his would cite these references. Therefore, he should have explained carefully why he thinks these documents are wrong. He did not and therefore his post suffers enormously.

But this isn’t the only great hole in his post—or holodeck from Star Trek. As we shall see, Rev. Lewis will have a bold type heading suggesting that he is going to deal with a particular issue (i.e., non-lethal personal defense weapons), but where he never mentions that form of personal self-defense at all. On balance, this was an ill-conceived and poorly thought-through and explained post as will become increasingly evident as we proceed. That being said, let’s begin.

The Reality of Non-Lethal Personal Defense Weapons

The third heading in Rev. Lewis’s article deals with non-lethal responses to assailants. For an article that purports to be an aid to us in non-lethal self-defense, it might have been helpful for Rev. Lewis actually to have listed what some of those non-lethal responses are. I mention this simply because this type of writing will increasingly typify and characterize his post. At times, his words are illogical, while at other times they are irrational. In other words, in his paragraph on non-lethal responses one would expect something along the lines of: You can choose pepper spray, a civilian taser, or a duck call. Something. Rev. Lewis doesn’t mention any however, which is a little odd.

Therefore, allow me to pick up the slack and mention some of the most common non-lethal responses. First, there is the civilian taser. These can be purchased for somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,000, depending upon the make and model. A well placed taser shot will knock a person down sending approximately 50,000 volts through his body for about ten seconds. If the person still gets up, you can repeat the procedure simply by pulling the trigger on the taser. The initial shot will not only incapacitate an assailant for about two minutes, providing most people with ample time to flee from the scene, unless you’re Michael Moore, who needs about two days.

In addition to the outlay of cash, a taser requires that you practice using it—preferably on someone you don’t like, such as a neighbor or Elder. You’ll also need to know how to carry the taser so that in the event that you’re accosted, you’ll be proficient in using it both quickly and effectively. This isn’t always the easiest part of being armed with a taser. A drawback of being armed with a taser is that it requires you to be in close proximity to your assailant. In most cases, however, that isn’t much of a problem, since if you’re cornered by someone with a knife or gun, you will be in close proximity. Therefore, you’ll have to be about twenty-one feet or less from your attacker when you fire the taser and—and—you must hit him with it. For those who are new to this, twenty-one feet does not give you much time to react and there is no room for error. If you miss, your assailant is on you and you’re dead meat, or at least in hand to hand combat, where most people do not want to be since they are not skilled in hand to hand.

Second, there is pepper spray. This is a reasonable and at times viable non-lethal response to an assault. Two key matters must be considered however. First, your attacker must be very close (six feet or less) for you to employ pepper spray. It is effective when used properly, however, and should provide you with an opportunity to escape—unless you’re Rosie O’Donnell.[1] Second, the wind can play an enormous role in when, where, and how you use pepper spray. For example, there have been instances when the victim aimed the pepper spray at his assailant only to have the wind blow the spray right back into their own eyes. Clearly, this is an undesirable side effect.

Third, experimentation is being done in excessively bright light that brings on nausea. There is also some ground-breaking work being done in the area of incapacitating noise. As far as I am aware, these are only in the hands of the military at the present due to their experimental nature. Possibly, some law enforcement agencies might have this as well.

Fourth, if you want your assailant to fall down laughing, you might want to try hitting the panic button on your cell phone. This particular procedure is very well documented as a sure means of bidding farewell to this life.

Finally, if you are somewhat proficient in hand to hand grappling (this is not for the faint of heart, most women, and Bill Maher, Chris Rock, or David Letterman), then you might want to attempt the “raw naked choke hold.” When properly applied to an assailant, this choke hold causes unconsciousness in ten seconds. Keeping it on your assailant for twenty seconds or more will cause permanent brain damage (except in the cases of Al Gore and Michael Moore—oh yeah, and in Anne Lamott) or death. So since we’re discussing non-lethal techniques, make certain you keep a close eye on your watch while you apply the hold.

Here’s the caveat for all encounters of the close kind: The adrenalin will flow in buckets, which means that your fine motor abilities will go into “shut down” mode. Therefore, prior to an assault you had better give some partially sanctified thought to what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it. And be realistic! This is no time for Polly Anna-esque theories. You could very well end up in close combat to the death, so you need to decide beforehand what your tactics will be. If your United Federation of Planets Attack Phaser with Variable Power Setting hasn’t arrived from eBay, you’re going to need an alternative plan.

Ironically, in the section that ostensibly purports to tell us about non-lethal resistance, Rev. Lewis provides us with no insight or information about how we might defend ourselves in such a fashion. Instead, he states, “…I am convinced by Scripture that all humanity has a duty to protect and preserve life and that those who believe in Jesus Christ should take care to do all within their power to see that no harm comes to anyone.” (Emphasis added.) Let’s reflect upon that statement for a moment. It is clearly biblically true that Christians are to have a high regard for the sanctity of life. After all, Scripture teaches us that man is created in the image of God. As such, even if he doesn’t acknowledge it, he has intrinsic value. Simultaneously, Rev. Lewis’s assertion begs an ethical question: Does Scripture require us to have an absolute regard for life? Please keep in mind that I’m not asking whether the Word of God is absolutely true. It is. I unashamedly confess the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible. This is a question of a different order. I’m asking if the absolutely true scriptures require an absolute regard for human life in any and all circumstances.

Dr. Jochem Douma reminds us that Scripture nowhere demands an absolute respect (eerbied) for life.[2] Rather, Scripture teaches us an absolute regard for the sovereign Lord God Almighty (cf. Deut. 32:39; 1 Sam. 2:6; Eph. 1:20; Col. 1:16; Gen. 1:29; 9:3, 6; Rom. 13:4). He concludes that these verses teach us that the Bible does not teach an absolute regard for life.[3] A couple of simple examples can suffice here. In the case of a loved one, who might be kept alive another few hours or days, the ethical decision can be made to remove unnecessary medications and/or other artificial means of keeping him alive and opt for giving water and nourishment until he passes into the next life. At the same time, if Scripture propounded an absolute value for all of human life, how would the lex talionis (the death penalty) ever be justly or justifiably applied? That is to say, given the numerous cases that required the death penalty in the Old and New Testaments it would be quite difficult to argue for an absolute value for everyone.

While it is true that we are called to live in a peaceable manner in the Kingdom of Christ, we also know the reality of total depravity or radical corruption. Not everyone, therefore, desires to live peaceably with his neighbor. The fact that our prisons are filled to overflowing is a clear manifestation of this truth. Should Christians have a high regard for all life? Yes, they should. Does this mean that we should do everything in our power to see that no harm comes to the life of a convicted murderer? No, we should not. God’s Word tells us that there is to be life for life. There is nothing biblically wrong about retributive justice (cf. Obadiah 15; Jer. 50:29; Hab. 2:8; Ex. 21:24; Gen. 9:6, Rev. 16:6; 18:6-7). One of the recurring themes in the wisdom literature of the book of Proverbs is that the wicked fall into the snares they set for the righteous (cf. Prov. 1:18-19, 31; 10:16; 11:8; 26:27; 28:10; 29:6. Comp. Ps. 35:8; 141:10).

Finally, it would have enhanced Rev. Lewis’s article if he had provided his readers with some scriptures to support his position. Unfortunately, even though we received two paragraphs of Star Wars, we are not the recipients of one shred of biblical text. In our next installment, we’ll listen and respond to Rev. Lewis as he gives us his (non) reasons that contribute to his passionate (his term) anti-gun stance and his question of how long evangelicals can be both pro-life and pro-Glock.

[1] In Ms. O’Donnell’s case, she’d simply have her armed body guard shoot you. You see, Ms. O’Donnell doesn’t want you or me to be armed, but it’s okay for her body guards to be armed to the bicuspids.

[2] Jochem Douma, Rondom de Dood, Vol. 10 in the series Ethische Bezinning, (Kampen: Uitgeverij van den Berg, 1984), p. 23.

[3] Ibid., 24.


Thursday, September 11, 2008

The PCA and Female Deaconesses (III)

A Biblical Basis
Dr. Keller rightly observes that “The ultimate reason for any church to have deaconesses should not be practical and historical…but biblical.” He adds, “There are several good biblical reasons for having commissioned deaconesses in a congregation” (p. 2). We will take a good long look at these biblical reasons in due course, but we’ll begin with an obvious one and it is the first that Tim cites. Before we take a look at this text though, I simply want to point out that the following translations of the Bible translate the word diakonos in Romans 16:1 with “servant” and not “deaconess”: the ESV, NASB, NIV, the Genevan Bible, the NKJV, the Luther Bibel, and the Dutch Staaten Vertaling.
Not surprisingly, he begins with the example of Phoebe in Romans 16:1. He writes, “The word diakonos elsewhere 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)” (Ibid.). I would add that the term is also ascribed to Christ in Romans 15:8. In other words, diakonos can have a variety of technical and non-technical meanings depending on the context. But it is precisely here that we encounter one of the most glaring disappointments in the article. Dr. Keller promised biblical reasons for his position and one would expect for him to have provided the reader with some substantive material in this portion of his article. Sadly, that is not the case. It isn’t because Dr. Keller isn’t capable of providing the requisite data. He is a very intelligent man and a good scholar, but his reasoning is weak and incomplete. Allow me to explain.
He asks, “So which meaning fits here?” (Ibid.) That is a good question indeed. The answer is weak: “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” (Ibid.). What I want to focus on here is the statement that Dr. Keller makes that Calvin believed that Phoebe was a deaconess. Is that a true comment? In the standard commentary series edited by Henry Beveridge, Calvin calls Phoebe an “assistant” of the Cenchrean Church.[1] In an editorial note it is mentioned that the Greek diákonos translates the Latin ministra.[2] The possible translations offered are “minister,” “servant,” “one who ministers,” or “deaconess.” Lewis and Short suggest “a female attendant,” “maid-servant,” “a female assistant or minister.”[3]
Dr. Keller correctly cites that Calvin comments, “He first commends to them Phœbe, to whom he gave this Epistle to be brought to them; and, in the first place, he commends her on account of her office, for she performed a most honorable and a most holy function in the Church; and then he adduces another reason why they ought to receive her and to show her every kindness, for she had always been a helper of the godly” (Emphasis added).[4] She sounds like the kind of godly woman any congregation would be pleased and honored to have. In addition, Calvin goes on to speak of Phoebe as having a “public office.”[5] This begs the question: what does Calvin mean when he describes Phoebe as having a (public) office? It is instructive to note Calvin distinguishes two kinds of deacons: he who gives and he that shows mercy (cf. Rom. 12:8).[6] The first clause, Calvin teaches, “designates the deacons who distribute the alms.”[7] In other words, these would be the deacons described in Acts 6:1-6. But in that text, Calvin refers only to men who were “ordained” by the apostles laying their hands on them. Referring to the Acts 6 text, Calvin writes in the Institutes that when the apostles were unable to fulfill both functions (preaching the Word and serving at table), they asked the multitude to choose seven upright men to whom they might entrust this task. He continues, “Here, then is the kind of deacons the apostolic church had, and which we, after their example, should have.”[8] There is no mention in the Acts 6 text of women. The second distinct grade that Calvin mentions in the Institutes refers “to those who had devoted themselves to the care of the poor and sick. Of this sort were the widows whom Paul mentions to Timothy [1 Tim. 5:9-10]. Women could fill no other public office than to devote themselves to the care of the poor.”[9]
Historically, then, Calvin’s view of deaconesses is clearly akin to that held in the early church. “Like the early church, Calvin taught that deaconesses were founded not upon Acts 6:1-6 but on 1 Timothy 5:9-10.”[10] In light of what Calvin taught generally it is correct to conclude that “Women could fill no other public office than to devote themselves to the care of the poor.”[11] On balance this summarizes Calvin’s position: “Once again it is necessary to point out that those who are arguing for women deacons at the present time are arguing for something completely different in character and function than was permitted in the early church and by John Calvin. The early church and Calvin had an order or office of widows who happened to be called deaconesses. They were not the same as deacons, as modern advocates of deaconesses assert.”[12] Schwertley is correct as we shall see when we look at some of the historical documents that Dr. Keller cites as ostensibly favoring his position.
Before I close off this installment, I do want to mention a couple of key points taken from Calvin’s discussion of the widows in 1 Timothy 5 and his view of nuns. The reason for doing this is that it provides us with a broader context of Calvin’s thoughts on this matter. Calvin is convinced that the widows in 1 Timothy 5:9-15 “who married after having been once received into public ministry violated their first pledge [1 Tim. 5:11-12].”[13] Furthermore, Calvin agrees that “the widows who pledged themselves and their services to the church took upon themselves the state of perpetual celibacy.” [14] The seriousness of the matter of widows making such a pledge and then changing their minds and pondering remarriage was tantamount to casting off God’s call.[15] Stronger yet: “Afterward, by way of amplification, he adds that in so far as they do not fulfill what they promised the church, they also violate and nullify that first pledge given in baptism [1 Tim. 5:12], which includes the provision that every person should fulfill his calling.”[16] In this sense, then, “For Calvin, widows and deaconesses are one and the same. Did Calvin believe in an order or possibly an office of deaconess in the church? Yes, absolutely. Were they considered by Calvin to be in the same office with the same function as the male deacons? No, not at all.”[17]
Before we move on to other texts, it is important to note that we are dealing with a tenuous translation in Romans 16:1 at best. This is also true of the 1 Timothy 3:11 text, which we shall also examine. Regarding Phoebe, the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament states that it’s “an open question whether he (Paul) is referring to a fixed office or simply her (Phoebe’s) office on behalf of the community. Similarly, there is no agreement whether 1 Tm. 3:11 refers to the wives of deacons or deaconesses. It is indisputable, however, that an order of deaconesses did quickly arise in the Church. A particular part was played here by widows who, on the strength of their chaste conduct on the one side and their loving service on the other, already received official recognition in 1 Tm. 5:3ff.”[18] Apart from the question that the PCA’s BCO has already clearly spoken on the matter of deaconesses, why would you want to build your entire case on texts where there is so much disagreement? Moreover, if deaconesses are so terribly important, why is the New Testament so silent about them?
What precipitated the rise of deaconesses that the TDNT describes? There are a number of good reasons and Dr. Keller mentions some of the extra-biblical historical sources. In due time, we will take a look at each one of these sources. We shall also discuss the clear differences in theology that arose between the Western and Eastern churches, because that is essential to note in this discussion.

[1] John Calvin, Romans, (John Owen [ed.] & [trans.]), Vol. XIX, (Grand Rapids: Baker, n.d.), p. 542.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Charlton Lewis & Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary, (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 19752), p. 1146.
[4] Calvin, Romans, 542.
[5] Ibid., 543.
[6] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol 2, (John McNeill [ed.] & Ford Lewis Battles [trans.]), Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 19674), p. 1061.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid., 1062.
[9] Ibid., 1061. Emphasis added.
[10] Brian Schwertley, A Historical and Biblical Examination of Women Deacons, (Southfield, MI: Reformed Witness, 1998), p. 20.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid., 21.
[13] Calvin, Inst., 1272. Emphasis added.
[14] Ibid., 1273. Emphasis added.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Schwertley, Women Deacons, 22.
[18] Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. II, (Geoffrey Bromiley [trans. & ed.]), (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 19714), p. 93.


Thursday, September 04, 2008

The PCA and Female Deaconesses (II)

A Plea in ”byFaith” Online Magazine for Commissioning (Not Ordaining) Deaconesses in the PCA by Dr. Tim Keller
My friend, colleague, and seminary classmate, Tim Keller, wrote a brief article recently entitled “The Case for Commissioning (Not Ordaining) Deaconesses” in byFaithonline.[1] He raised a number of very interesting points that I would like to pursue and, in some instances, add some correction and clarification. The five page article contains five “headings”: A Personal History; a Biblical Basis; Deaconing Women; What about Authority?; and A Final Historical Note. I want to cover these sections because Tim has been “commissioning, but not ordaining” deaconesses since the inception of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City.[2]
Tim’s article was well written and I was pleased to hear that he is still a complementarian when it comes to male leadership. He, like many of us, is looking for ways to make good biblical use of the many gifted and talented godly women that the Lord has graced us with in the PCA. And believe me, the PCA has a wealth of very gifted women! We have more than a lion’s share of highly competent women in our midst. Truly, it would be a shame to allow their many and manifold gifts go unused. The proviso however is that these gifts and talents must be used in a thoroughly biblical fashion for the glory of our Lord and for the edification of the members of our respective local congregations. There is so much that needs to be done in each congregation and we must be wise in finding the right person for the right situation. In light of this truth, I believe it is safe to say that every PCA congregation is searching for proper ways to make use of the biblical wisdom, gifts, and talents of the wonderful godly women God has given us in the PCA. The nagging question therefore is: what is the proper manner to use their gifts?
Dr. Keller’s situation and mine are a little different. He is in the midst of a large city and I live in image conscious Southern California. Other colleagues of ours serve in rural areas, large cities, East Coast, Left Coast, “fly-over” areas, and everything in between. We all read the same Bible, have signed on the proverbial dotted line when it comes to the Westminster Standards, and that we also uphold the Book of Church Order. So we are discussing how all of these apply in our respective lives and congregations. We shall also be reaffirming what it means to make a vow at our ordination as well as whether any pastor or congregation is exempt from such a vow. All of this will be with a view to holding all members of Christ’s Church in high esteem as brothers and sisters in the faith. It is with this background that I enter into an examination of Dr. Keller’s article.
A Personal History from Dr. Keller
To that point, I have searched the PCA’s Book of Church Order in vain, but have not read anything about “commissioning” deacons, female or otherwise, although there is a great deal of information about what constitutes a bona fide commission in the PCA. I have it on good authority (I’ve been in the PCA less than fifteen years) that it was not uncommon in the former United Presbyterian and Reformed Church of America to have commissioning services. Even though I was a member of the United Presbyterian Church prior to and including my seminary days, I must admit that I do not recall such a commissioning service, but that is not to say that they did not exist. Of course, the real point here is that neither of these denominations are PCA. What, then, is the practice in the PCA regarding commissioning? That is what we need to ascertain. I must admit that I’ve never heard of it or seen it practiced in the PCA, but that by no means rules such services out. I’m out on the Left Coast, which is still a “fledgling” movement in the PCA. Moreover, I was in Holland from 1975-1984 and missed a great deal of the early development. The information that I received on the notion of PCA “commissionings” was that the PCA has commissioned Sunday School teachers, short-term mission teams, and Women in the Church officers in the past. Okay. But am I to understand that their “commissioning” somehow qualified them to act as a commission in the sense of BCO 15-1[3] and 15-2?[4] No, this is not the case.
Typically, we might speak some pertinent and germane words regarding our Sunday School teachers, short-term missionaries, and Women in the Church officers as well as say how thankful to the Lord we are that we are blessed to have them ministering in such a way/capacity. Attendant prayer would be more than called for in such a setting. In the case of our Women in the Church, while we state that we are truly blessed by such godly women, we also announce that what we are doing is in no wise a kind of ordination service. We explain why this is the case. So what exactly does the kind of “commissioning” entail that Dr. Keller is talking about, because one certainly gets the impression it is something more substantial than teaching Sunday School.
Therefore, at the outset of Dr. Keller’s article it is quite proper to question the entire undertaking of commissioning as the PCA BCO describes it. Moreover, simply by mentioning that Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City has commissioned (but not ordained) deaconesses begs the question: What kind of authority—if any—is involved in this commissioning of deaconesses? Is there a place where the uninitiated can go to find how this clandestine ceremony began? Is there a secret handshake? Is there a list of what groups or people can be commissioned and which ones cannot be? This would be very helpful. If there is such a list, how much weight and authority does it carry? Is undefined commissioning up to each Session? Each congregation? Are there any limits and what and who cannot be “commissioned?”
Dr. Keller breaks down an open door with his reference to BCO 9-7 that I mentioned in the previous installment.[5] If the women appointed by Redeemer or any other congregation for that matter are caring for the sick, the widows, the orphans, the prisoners, and others who may be in any distress or need, then there is no problem, with the proviso that these people are not considered to be “officers of the congregation.” Dr. Keller does not specify what the deaconesses actually do or how they are perceived by the congregation.
In 1973 and again in 1982 the PCA rejected the decision of the RPCES’s wording of “We affirm the right of a local church to have a separate body of unordained women who may be called deaconesses.” Dr. Keller admits that “The 1982 PCA General Assembly did not consider the actions of the RPCES Synods to be binding on us,” but insists that their decision be “granted respect.” I’m not certain what kind of respect Dr. Keller is thinking of, but if respect means “non-applicable to the PCA situation,” then I respect the RPCES’s decision even though I disagree with it.
In terms of Dr. Keller’s personal history he writes, “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 session 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” (pp. 1-2).
What is clear is that apparently from the outset Dr. Keller has maintained a diaconate that involved unordained, commissioned deaconesses. That is the declaration. What Dr. Keller does not explain is his rationale for taking this tack. Conceivably, Dr. Keller believed that this was the right thing to do. He had to know, however, that this was not the correct way to go according to the BCO. Moreover, even though it is fully agreed that BCO 9-7 grants a Session the prerogative for such a measure, Dr. Keller does not provide us with the full text. Here is how it reads: “It is often expedient that the Session of a church should select and appoint godly men and women 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” (Emphasis added).
In other words, 9-7 speaks of selecting and appointing, but there is no mention of commissioning these men and women and while the list of assistance is not meant to be exhaustive, it does point us in a clear direction regarding the labors of these men and women. Finally, even though it is supposed that these men and women are not ordained, 9-7 does not seem to speak the language that has become prevalent in the PCA regarding commissioning, being unordained, and being a woman who can do anything an unordained man can do. Northeast Presbytery might want to revisit its decision, but that would be a moot point to the extent that as I understand it, Redeemer is no longer in that Presbytery.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Dr. Keller is incorrect about the existence of unordained, commissioned deaconesses in the New Testament. What impact would that have on his statement that Redeemer would have been more ineffective without deaconesses? That would surely beg the question of how the New Testament Church got along without them, if it is not certain that they existed in the New Testament. The second section of Dr. Keller’s article investigates the biblical evidence for deaconesses, so we are interested in how he will build his biblical case and which texts he will use. That is where we shall begin with the next installment. We shall begin with the (in)famous text in Romans 16:1. This text has raised questions over the years as to whether Phoebe is merely a “servant” of the church in Cenchrea or whether she is a deaconess (diákonos). Just as an introduction to our next issue, I want to point out that the following translations of the Bible translate the word diakonos in Romans 16:1 with “servant” and not “deaconess”: the ESV, NASB, NIV, the Genevan Bible, the NKJV, the Luther Bibel, and the Dutch Staaten Vertaling.

[1], Issue 21, (August 2008).

Ibid., 1.

Chapter 15, (Ecclesiastical Commissions), 15-1 reads in part: “A commission differs from an ordinary committee in that while a committee is appointed to examine, consider and report, a commission is authorized to deliberate upon and conclude the business referred to it, except in the case of judicial commissions of a Presbytery appointed under BCO 15-3. A commission shall keep a full record of its proceedings, which shall be submitted to the court appointing it. Upon such submission this record shall be entered on the minutes of the court appointing, except in the case of a Presbytery commission serving as a Session or a judicial commission as set forth in BCO 15-3.”

15-2: “Among the matters that may be properly executed by commissions are the taking of the testimony in judicial cases, the ordination of ministers, the installation of ministers, the visitation of portions of the church affected with disorder, and the organization of new churches.”

“It is often expedient that the Session of a church should select and appoint godly men and women 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.”