The PCA and Female Deaconesses (III)
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. In an editorial note it is mentioned that the Greek diákonos translates the Latin ministra. 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.”
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). 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.” 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). The first clause, Calvin teaches, “designates the deacons who distribute the alms.” 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.” 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.”
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.” 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.” 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.” 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].” Furthermore, Calvin agrees that “the widows who pledged themselves and their services to the church took upon themselves the state of perpetual celibacy.”  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. 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.” 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.”
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.” 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.
 John Calvin, Romans, (John Owen [ed.] & [trans.]), Vol. XIX, (Grand Rapids: Baker, n.d.), p. 542.
 Charlton Lewis & Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary, (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 19752), p. 1146.
 Calvin, Romans, 542.
 Ibid., 543.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol 2, (John McNeill [ed.] & Ford Lewis Battles [trans.]), Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 19674), p. 1061.
 Ibid., 1062.
 Ibid., 1061. Emphasis added.
 Brian Schwertley, A Historical and Biblical Examination of Women Deacons, (Southfield, MI: Reformed Witness, 1998), p. 20.
 Ibid., 21.
 Calvin, Inst., 1272. Emphasis added.
 Ibid., 1273. Emphasis added.
 Schwertley, Women Deacons, 22.
 Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. II, (Geoffrey Bromiley [trans. & ed.]), (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 19714), p. 93.
Labels: The PCA