The PCA and Female Deaconesses (IV)
Dr. Tim Keller wrote an article in the Fall 2008 issue of byFaith magazine entitled “The Case for Commissioning (Not Ordaining) Deaconesses.” After giving the reader some personal history, Dr. Keller embarks on a very brief description of the woman Phoebe mentioned in Romans 16:1. He pointed out that the word diakonos, which appears in Romans 16:1 can be translated as deacon (cf. Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8). This is true, of course, but Dr. Keller doesn’t tell the reader that in the case of Philippians 1:1 the word translated deacons (diakónois) is a noun, dative, masculine plural and in 1 Timothy 3:8 (Diakónous) is a noun, accusative, masculine plural. In addition, Dr. Keller cites scholars Thomas Schreiner, John Piper, and Robert Strimple as proponents of the view that Phoebe was a deaconess. That’s nice, but both Schreiner and Piper, whom I admire, are Baptists and Bob Strimple is in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Moreover, there are others in the OPC who do not adhere to Strimple’s findings. It’s a moot point, ultimately, because Dr. Keller is P.C.A. None of the other aforementioned brothers has the same standards as are required of pastors in the P.C.A.
In an attempt to bolster his case, Dr. Keller also cites Tabitha (Dorcas) in Acts 9:36-40 and the women who served Jesus’ disciples as they traveled (Luke 8:2-3). The Acts text makes no mention of Tabitha being a deaconess. It simply states that she was full of good works and acts of charity. Simon Kistemaker, for example, in his commentary on the book of Acts doesn’t even hint that Tabitha might have been a deaconess, simply because the text gives no impetus in that direction. I. Howard Marshall states, regarding Tabitha’s attributes of good works and charitable actions, that they “were highly esteemed Jewish virtues which continued to be practised by Christians.” John Calvin mentions only that Tabitha “was Christ’s disciple, and that she approved her faith with good works.” The same holds true for F.W. Grosheide’s De Handelingen der Apostelen.
In his second main point, as I mentioned, Dr. Keller also cites Luke 8:2-3. He wants to translate verse 3 literally as the women were “deaconing them out of their own means.” (p. 19.) In a very broad sense, this is somewhat legitimate since there is a word from which we get our word deacon (diēkónoun). In reality, Dr. Keller’s translation clouds the issue rather than clarifies it. The word is taken from the Greek verb diakonéō, which also means “to wait on someone at table” (cf. Luke 12:37; John 12:2), “to serve (generally)” (Matt. 4:11, Mark 10:45; Acts 19:22; 2 Tim. 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:12), “to wait on” (Matt. 27:55), “to take care of” (Acts. 6:2; 2 Cor. 3:3), “to help or support” (Matt. 25:44; Luke 8:3; Heb. 6:10), or “to serve as a deacon” (1 Tim. 3:10, 13). In the last two verses, the words apply to the biblical qualifications of male deacons. In Dr. Leon Morris’s commentary on Luke, he makes no mention of the women “deaconing” Jesus and his disciples. He simply translates that these women “provided” for them. He further adds that the women “responded in love and gratitude for what Jesus had done for them. Dr. Keller gives the impression with his translation that the women who provided for Jesus out of their means were, in some sense, commissioned deaconesses, which is highly misleading.
He then goes on to say, “Given the examples of Phoebe, Tabitha, and the order of widows, it is not surprising that the early church developed an order of deaconesses quite early. Pliny the Younger, just a decade after the death of the apostle John (his letter is dated 106 A.D.), attests to the existence of deaconesses in the early church.” (Keller, 19.) To what is Dr. Keller referring here? The case that he has built thus far has been, at very best, shaky, depending on a tweak here and making Romans 16:1 say something that most of the reliable translations don’t agree that it says.
Pliny’s Letter to Trajan
So now we’re outside of Scripture and examining Pliny’s Letter to Trajan (circa 113 A.D.) It contains an early possible reference to a woman deacon. The letter is not from Christian literature, but from a secular source. Moreover, during the time of the letter of Pliny the Younger to Trajan persecution of the Christian Church by the Roman government “was chronic and persistent.” According to the Romans, Christian churches were not legally authorized, “and the Roman authorities, always suspicious of organizations which might prove seditious, regarded them with jaundiced eye. Christians were haled [sic] before the courts as transgressors of laws against treason, sacrilege, membership in a foreign cult, and the practice of magic.”
Already, it appears that whatever explanations of the Christian faith are going to come out of this correspondence are going to be distorted. Latourette adds, “Correspondence which has survived between the Emperor Trajan (reigned A.D. 98-117) and Pliny the Younger, who was serving as imperial legate in Bithynia, in the later Asia Minor, appears to indicate that Christianity was officially proscribed, that if Christians recanted they were to be spared, but that if they persisted in their faith they were to be executed.”
I have given this background precisely because Dr. Keller claims that the early church had a rather developed office of deaconess based on a letter between Pliny and Trajan. One can only wonder why Dr. Keller chose this example. Let me explain what I mean. There is a Latin text that is at the center of this controversy. One translation of Pliny’s supposed meaning goes like this: “I believed it all the more necessary to worm the truth out of two servants (ancillis) who were called deaconesses (quae ministrae dicebantur).” Here’s the kicker: Bithynia was a Greek-speaking region. Justin Martyr had written something somewhat similar in 150 A.D., but his writing only referred to male deacons. The Roman Catholic scholar, Aimé Martimort comments, “The similarity here is striking, but it refers only to the words themselves. Justin expressly attributes to deacons a liturgical role in the distribution of the Eucharist, but we know absolutely nothing, from Pliny or any other witnesses, about what the role of function might have been of these ministrae in the community of Bithynia.”
Martimort gives us this important consideration: “Thus, to translate this word simply as ‘deaconess’ is certainly to force the sense of the text unduly and to get caught in a plain anachronism.” As far as the entire weight of this particular letter is concerned, A. Kalsbach (Altkirchliche Einrichtung) states, “The remark [of Pliny] is just as insufficient and indeterminant as is Rom 16:1-2.” (p. 16. Emphasis added.) In a similar vein, R. Gryson (Ministère des femmes) issues this worthwhile warning: “We are permitted on the basis of the title given to these ministrae to associate them with ‘the women’ who are themselves associated with deacons in 1 Timothy 3:11, but in so doing we must not lose sight of the fact that this association remains a very fragile and contingent one.” (p. 39.)
All of this begs the question: why does Dr. Keller make the statement that Pliny’s letter attests to the existence of deaconesses in the early church, when he knows everything I’ve just written? Perhaps he did it out of time and space constraints, but it was merely another flimsy straw in an already precarious building. Rather than using this example, it would have been better, I think, for Dr. Keller to have gone directly to 1 Timothy 3, which according to him is “the most compelling biblical case for a recognized body of ‘deaconing women.’” (p. 19.)Lord willing, we’ll take a look at that next time.
 Simon Kistemaker, Acts, in the series New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), pp. 360-365.
 I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles, in the series The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, (R.V.G. Tasker [ed.]), (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 19922), p. 179.
 John Calvin, The Acts of the Apostles, Vol. 18, (Henry Beveridge [ed.]), p. 397.
 Leon Morris, Luke, in the series Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 19942), p. 165.
 Brian Schwertley, A Historical and Biblical Examination of Women Deacons, (Southfield, MI: Reformed Witness, 1998), p. 3.
 Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, (NY: Harper & Row, 1953), p. 84.
 In the letter, Pliny the Younger pointed out that in order to obtain exact information on what he regarded as the sect of Christians, “quo magis necessarium credidi ex duabus ancillis, quae ministrae dicebantur, quid esset veri everything per tormenta quaerere.”
 Aimé Georges Martimort, Deaconesses, An Historical Study, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), p. 26.
 Ibid. Emphasis added.
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