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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 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.”



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am guessing that Keller and others who commission unordained deaconesses would respond as follows:

1) Where does the BCO explictly forbid it? We do not hold to a "regulative principle" reading of the BCO.

2) Where does the BCO permit the commissioning of SS teachers and others? Should these practices be stopped or at least clarified?

3) If Paul's letter to the Romans was the minutes of a Session meeting, would his statement about Phoebe be permissible in the PCA?

I am glad to see it acknowledged that the deaconess issue is not necessarily a complementarian vs. egalitarian issue, especially as Keller posits it. Ligon's counterpoint article makes it sound as though all who believe in deaconess are egalitarians.

6:56 AM  
Blogger Rattlesnake6 said...

Since Tim has the deaconesses serve with the deacons, he violates what the BCO states about ordaining deacons. This whole discussion is as much about ordaining deacons as it is commissioning deaconesses. There are a number of things no explicitly forbidden in the BCO that we don't do. There is no prohibition to me keeping single malt scotch behind my books. Fortunately, no one has found it yet.

Ad 2: It doesn't. My argument is, however, that simply praying for SS teachers and short-term missionaries is quite different from what a few PCA churches understand by "commissioning."

Ad 3: A hypothetical questions deserves a hypothetical answer. If the word was taken to mean "deaconess" in the way that a few PCA churches understand it, then, no it would not be. In subsequent articles I will argue that what came to be known as deaconesses in church history was related to 1 Tim. 5:9-11 and not 1 Tim. 3. Stay tuned.

Finally, I have never met an egalitarian in Holland, Canada, or the U.S. who was not in favor of women anything and everything. It is instructive that two (no, three) Redeemer model churches have left the PCA. Apparently, they can't balance it like Tim is doing currently. Lig's article makes some excellent points and it would be safe to say that almost all who believe in deaconesses are egalitarians, just like almost all who call themselves Christians believe that "abortus provocatus" is okay vote Democrat.

11:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am confused or perhaps misunderstanding the use of certain terms. You say in your post, "Tim’s article was well written and I was pleased to hear that he is still a complementarian when it comes to male leadership." Yet, you say in the comment, "almost all who believe in deaconesses are egalitarians."

Is Keller egalitarian? Moreover, what about McArthur, Ryken, and others who also affirm the role of non-ordained deaconesses, yet describe themselves as complementarian. Are they egalitarians?

Please understand, I am not trying to trap you as much as I am trying to understand you. Many thanks for taking time to respond.

12:57 PM  
Blogger Rattlesnake6 said...

I'll attempt to clarify. Two different things: Tim says he's a complementarian and I believe him (one thing). I also know egalitarians and they are almost to a man/woman in favor of women doing everything from deacon to pastor.

"Is Keller egalitarian?" He says that he is a complementarian. I believe him.

"Moreover, what about McArthur, Ryken, and others who also affirm the role of non-ordained deaconesses, yet describe themselves as complementarian. Are they egalitarians?"

MacArthur isn't PCA, so in the present context I'm not dealing with him--or Piper and Schreiner. I have read Ryken's papers and just think he's wrong. In any case, he is out of step with the PCA BCO and needs to get in line.

6:35 PM  
Blogger Randy said...

You are no longer in the army; fellow Christ followers can't be demanded to follow your commands.

It's interesting to watch you attack your own when they don't fall 'in line' with your perspective.

10:49 PM  
Blogger Rattlesnake6 said...

I have no idea what in the world you're talking about. Oh, btw, thanks for the reminder that I'm no longer in the Army. Whew! What a relief! I can sleep in until 6 in the morning.

11:14 PM  
Blogger West Coast PCA said...


You mentioned here (and on last week's post) that "we do not hold to a 'regulative principle' reading of the BCO." You've absolutely hit the nail on the head.


Do you think there is a link between the John Frame theology of worship (which is not the regulative principle) and taking BCO 7-2 and 9-3 as a mere suggestion?

It seems to me that there is nothing ambiguous about what the BCO says. So to allow men and women to function interchangeably on the deaconate (or even worse, to violate BCO 7-2 by replacing the deaconate with "mercy ministry teams" or an unordained deaconate) seems to be thumbing the nose at the BCO and violating ordination vows. And what they're thumbing their nose at is not merely a procedural issue of the BCO, but a theological issue.

I'm curious to know why some elders knowingly and willingly violate the BCO on this manner? What’s the motivation? If it’s a matter of effectively engaging the “cultured despisers” in our “missional context” then I just don’t buy that as being legitimate. If all of Scripture is good, and if Scripture prohibits the ordination of women to the deaconate, then the “engaging the missional context” position is biblically unfaithful.

But if someone concludes that the Bible does call for the ordination of women to the deaconate, or that there is only one office (elder) in the church, then why not be a real Presbyterian and seek to change the constitution, leave the denomination, or submit to the PCA on this non-essential issue?

Why do many elders refuse to do this?

What do you think Presbyteries should do when elders fail to adopt one of those three options?

In my view, the deaconess issue is less about whether or not one is a confessional complementarian, yet a functional egalitarian (although that may be part of the equation), than whether or not an elder will take his ordination vows seriously.

Thank you for allowing me to think out loud.

10:10 AM  
Blogger Solameanie said...


Thorazine, my boy. Thorazine.

2:29 PM  
Blogger Randy said...

My point is that you can't demand people to 'get in line.'

Even Jesus says, "Follow me." He doesn't demand that we follow.

Saying 'get in line' doesn't play in the real world. It works in the army and may work if you want to run your church that way, but the biblical text doesn't work this way nor do most people who follow Jesus.

West Coast PCA - To believe that elders are not following their vows if they don't follow the church order --- perhaps they've come to a place where they don't believe their voices can even be heard at a national convention.

You must admit that opposing voices are not too welcomed within the denomination. To think that Karl Barth was less than a competent reformed theologian defines the limits of your theological boundaries.

9:38 AM  
Blogger Solameanie said...

Um, Randy. "Every knee will bow, and every tongue confess" is just about as absolute as you can get. Also, I think there is a Scripture that says this:

Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent (Acts 17:30).

Add to that a plethora of Scriptures using the word "command" and "commandment," -- even in the New Testament -- and I find it amazing that you could try to make the case that Jesus doesn't demand that we follow.

Also, I beg to differ with you on your apparent devil-may-care approach to credentialing standards. Pastors who sign on the dotted line to receive credentials are morally and ethically required to adhere to the standards of the fellowship. If they go off the reservation, they are violating their word, and the covenant to which they agreed. Basic honesty would demand that, if they no longer can agree with the doctrinal position of their fellowship, they need to resign and quit taking a paycheck.

Your ethics are seriously challenged if you can't see that.

9:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My concern is that if you are going to criticize churches that commission (not ordain) deaconesses, then you need to be critical of those who commission Sunday School teachers, mission workers, etc. in order to be consistent. None of these commissionings are authorized by the BCO. Don't get me wrong, their tasks are commanded by the BCO but not their commissionings. In that same way, the task of women doing diaconal work is included in the BCO but not their commissioning.

Someone will no doubt make the point that what is meant by "commissioning" deaconesses is entirely different than "commissioning" SS teachers or mission workers. That just seems to be very subjective and leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

10:25 AM  
Blogger Rattlesnake6 said...

"Saying 'get in line' doesn't play in the real world." This is, to use a biblical word, just "stupid." I cannot discern whether you are naive or just thick as a brick.
Remember: we're talking about a man who has given his word; his vow. This man is a leader of God's people and is saying "follow me."

What is the nonsense about the real world? We all live in the real world. Do you mean that we should allow secular culture dictate whether or not we keep our word? If you want to talk "real world," I'll be more than glad to give you some real world experiences! What bunk! Randy lives in the real world where keeping your word is irrelevant, but the rest of us--you know, conservatives biblically and politically--live on Polly Anna's fluff farm. How arrogant!

"West Coast PCA - To believe that elders are not following their vows if they don't follow the church order --- perhaps they've come to a place where they don't believe their voices can even be heard at a national convention." Totally untrue! I haven't seen you at many of our GAs, but everyone gets a voice within the allotted time. The Moderator alternates between pro and con speakers at the microphone. Nice try, though. Emergents are constantly searching for the unfair conservative. Why? Because it's the way emergents act. That's why old Bri refuses to answer questions. But then again, he's so much smarter, compassionate, and concerned than the rest of us.
The problem remains that if you dislike the BCO then follow the church orderly way of changing it. It that doesn't work, you have a decision to make, don't you? You either stay and comply or you find another church that will allow you to ply your trade. It's really that simple.

How do you know what kinds of opposing voices are allowed or disallowed? There have been and still are opposing voices. That really isn't the problem. The real problem is men who don't keep their word. That is a far cry to a mere dissenting voice. You really are un-nuanced aren't you?

Karl Barth has entered the discussion as a "Fremdkoerper," although many emergents are enamored of him. I've read the entire "Kirchliche Dogmatik," so if you want to discuss Barth at some point we can. For the present, I want to remind you that the topic of the blog is deaconesses in the PCA. I fail to see the connection, but that's par for the course for you.

10:35 AM  
Blogger Kyle said...


Even Jesus says, "Follow Me." He doesn't demand that we follow.

Last I checked, "Follow Me" is, in fact, a demand. Jesus didn't say, "Please follow Me if you like." He said, "Follow Me," no exceptions granted.

10:57 AM  
Blogger Matt J. said...

Kyle said:

Even Jesus says, "Follow Me." He doesn't demand that we follow.

Last I checked, "Follow Me" is, in fact, a demand. Jesus didn't say, "Please follow Me if you like." He said, "Follow Me," no exceptions granted.

Yeah Randy and the Bible goes so far as to declare in Matthew 25:31-46 that Christ himself will judge those to hell who didn't follow him. But go ahead and exegete that passage and give us a very detailed reason (from the text) for why Jesus isn't saying, in effect, to "fall in line".

1:52 PM  
Blogger Randy said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:14 PM  
Blogger Matt J. said...

Randy said:
Comment deleted
This post has been removed by the author.

Yeah, I would have removed it too. It said something about how you would rather go to hell than follow a Jesus that made you arrogant and a jerk to anyone who believes different from you. Sounds like that's not only what you think of all of us but where you think we belong.

You also accused Ron (again) of following the BCO more than he does the scriptures which just shows how little reading and reflection you've done on this board. Your accusation has been answered time and again but you ignore that to focus on the more divisive rhetoric you want to make (as usual).

What do you call someone who asserts their opinion over and over again despite having their objections answered directly and specifically? Is that arrogant? Is that being a bit of a "jerk" to those that disagree with you? Why do you come and post here Randy? You don't listen and respond maturely to anything anyone says. You grandstand and throw out disconnected and mean-spirited rhetoric. Are you just here to be divisive? Is that what you're all about?

9:57 AM  

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