The PCA and Female Deaconesses (II)
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 and 15-2? 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. 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.
 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.”
Labels: The PCA