Christianity: Doctrine and Ethics

My Photo
Location: United States

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.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The PCA and Female Deaconesses (IX)

Apostolic Teachings

In his article for byFaith magazine (No. 21, August 2008), Dr. Tim Keller makes the following comment: “BCO 9 never refers to the diaconate as exercising ruling authority—indeed it is clear that it always acts under the rule of the session, and cannot act without prior permission of the session or in some cases the whole congregation (9-2). However, in 24-5 the BCO requires that members take a vow of obedience to the deacons. This seems to indicate that BCO conceives ordination as always entailing some kind of ruling authority. That would preclude women. However, I believe—like the RPCNA—that biblically, deacons are appointed to service, not to judicial authority” (4).

Let’s unpack these words because I’m surprised that the byFaith staff allowed them to be printed this way without some significant editing. First, it is not difficult to harmonize BCO 9 and 24. Morton Smith, in his commentary on the BCO, concludes that due to the “serving” nature of his office for the congregation “there is no promise of obedience to the Deacons implied here.”[1] There is a vow from the congregation to honor the office and I believe Dr. Keller is correct that some kind of ruling authority is implied in 24-5. The Deacons are often engaged in financial matters and in helping younger families as well as those in need.

As my wife and I do premarital counseling, we have found that when the evening arrives to deal with time and money management, few have ever considered setting up a budget. In fact, we tend to spend an extra session on finances precisely because so many today in our consumer-oriented society are not willing to rein in or change their spending habits; their finances are in disarray. It would be an interesting survey to discover how many Christians got caught up in the recent sub-prime lending frenzy, which, as any sound economist would tell you, was a disaster waiting to happen. We don’t have to wait any longer do we? The point here is simply this: There can be times when the Deacons will have to place “authoritative” words in their help and aid of those in Christ’s Church.

There might have to be stipulations attached to helping a family in need. What might some of those be? Let me give you some common sense examples. (I know. Common sense left the country in the 1700s, but I’m going to try anyway.) Let’s say a couple is struggling financially and needs some assistance. The Deacons discover that the couple has HD cable TV, takes two newspapers, has huge credit card debt, and spends quite a bit of their grocery money on alcoholic beverage—booze for those less sophisticated. The Deacons might be more than willing to help this couple, but might stipulate that their help might be, in part, contingent on having a Deacon come in and work out a budget with them and for them cancelling their HD cable TV and slashing the spending on the adult beverages. Most of us can recount stories of couples, who are struggling financially, going out and buying a gas-guzzling SUV or a huge pick-up truck. In these cases, the Deacons might very well have to exercise “some kind of authority” in order to get the recipient of the Lord’s money to act more responsibly.

Second, as we have been seeing, in the early Church the Deacons did, in fact, possess “some kind of authority;” sometimes to a greater or lesser degree. I do believe it is correct to assert that “The eldership is the ruling office, whereas the office of deacon is a serving office, and involves no rule.”[2] This is certainly the case in the PCA, and yet the six questions posed to the ordinand, whether Elder or Deacon, are identical.

Third, Dr. Keller affirms that the deacons are appointed to service, not to judicial authority. Who ever said that? Judicial authority for the Deacons? Dr. Keller has leapt from “some kind of authority” to “judicial authority” for no apparent reason. He then adds, “So I would be happy to see the PCA reconfigure its description of the office (of Deacon) to be more in line with that understanding of it” (4). This is his conclusion drawn on the faulty exegesis that Paul was admitting deacons’ wives to diaconal work but not elders’ wives to elders’ work (Ibid.). But Dr. Keller has nowhere made that case convincingly.

He argues, “The biblical evidence is strong that a) women were examined for and appointed to do diaconal work in the local church, and b) that this work with the poor, sick, widows, and orphans was publicly recognized and was held in honor among all” (Ibid.). Whoa! Why didn’t some editor catch all that? I ask: Precisely where is the biblical evidence that women were examined for and appointed to do diaconal work in the local church? Can you think of, say, 2-3 texts where Scripture explicitly says that women were examined for and appointed to diaconal work in the local church? And since Dr. Keller asserts that this biblical evidence is not merely existent, but strong, I’d like to see the top 10 texts that supply us with strong biblical evidence of Dr. Keller’s allegation.

Second, Dr. Keller is clearly confusing 1 Timothy 2:11-12 with 1 Timothy 5:3-16. In fact, his article continually mixes these texts together and acts as if they are one and the same, which they are not.

The bottom line is that Dr. Keller and the so-called “Redeemer Model” congregations have built their whole approach to the issue on very shaky grounds. Before we move on, I want to reaffirm my desire for godly women to be used in Christ’s Church wherever Scripture allows it. We are richly blessed by very gifted, highly spiritual, and quite competent women and the Church should be thankful for them and honor them as fellow-heirs of Christ. I want to emphasize that my objection is not in any way against women, but against an unbiblical and unscriptural use of them.

The “Didascalia” of the Apostles (circa 250-300A.D.)

The document known as the Didascalia has only been extant since 1854. It was published from a Syriac text found in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. The original document was reworked with numerous revisions and finally incorporated “into the great compilation known as the Apostolic Constitutions.”[3] There is also a Latin version. What is important for our purposes is that the Didascalia discusses (female) deacons in two places. In chapter 9, that deals with the honor owed to the bishop both the deacon and deaconess are mentioned—separately. “The deacon stand in the place of Christ and you should love him. The deaconess should be honored by you as the Holy Spirit is honored. Priests ought to be considered by you as the apostles would be considered and widows and orphans should be esteemed by you as you would esteem the altar of God.” Who were these deaconesses and what function did they perform in the local congregation?

Chapter 16 gives us some insight into these questions. It is there that the deaconess is described as “a woman for ministry among the women.” In other words, her task was limited specifically to ministering to women only. The rationale for women ministering to women—apart from the scriptural evidence in Titus 2—is outlined in the following manner: “For there are houses where you may not send deacons, on account of the pagans, but to which you may send deaconesses.” Then the Didascalia prescribes women deaconesses to anoint “with the oil of unction” those going down into the water. This was clearly an early practice for baptism for the chapter proceeds, “Where no other woman is present, especially where no deaconess is present, it will then be necessary that the one who is conducting the baptism must anoint the woman being baptized, but they should then be anointed only on their heads. But where another woman is present, especially a deaconess, it is not good for women to be viewed by men.” According to the document, a man should recite the invocation over them in the water, which a deaconess was not permitted to do. There was a clear division of ecclesiastical labor outlined in the Didascalia.

Once the woman is baptized and comes up out of the water, “the deaconess should receive her and instruct and educate her so that the unbreakable seal of baptism will be preserved in holiness and purity.” Spelling out the necessity of the ministry of deaconesses, the Didascalia explains that they are to serve an important function among the pagans by going to their homes for a specific reason. “Deaconesses can go there and visit those who are ill, serve them in whatever their needs might be and bathe those who have begun to recover from their illness.” Is this what Redeemer and the Redeemer knockoffs are telling their “professional” women? I don’t think so.

Near the end of chapter 16 the ecclesiastical division of labor is once again clearly delineated: “The women especially should be diligent in their service to other women and the men, deacons, in their service to other men.” The deaconess’s ministry is solely to women. There was much they were allowed to do with women according to this document, but ministering to men was off limits.

Some historians have wondered if these words concerning deaconesses were part of the original Didascalia. The reason why is that they are only mentioned in the two chapters mentioned whereas the deacons “are frequently and regularly mentioned.”[4] Whatever the case might be, what we have seen from Scripture and Church History thus far does not substantiate Dr. Keller’s case in the least.

[1] Morton Smith, Commentary on the Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America, (Taylors, SC: Southern Presbyterian Press, 20045), p. 253.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Aimé Martimort, Deaconesses, (K.D. Whitehead [trans.]), (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), p. 35.

[4] Martimort, Deaconesses, 40.


Friday, November 14, 2008

The PCA and Female Deaconesses (VIII)

Canons & Teachings

We are questioning the statement by Dr. Tim Keller that deaconesses were already well known and did much good in the early Church. Thus far in our investigation, we have not seen substantive evidence to that affect, even though Dr. Keller asserts it is the case. In the Eastern Church there is indeed evidence of “deaconesses,” but certainly not the kind or type Dr. Keller is thinking of. What do I mean by that? Simply this: the ascendance of “deaconesses” in the Eastern Church was a clearly defined group of widows who were separate from the diaconate. This is not what Dr. Keller and the so-called “Redeemer Model” churches have in mind. So if Dr. Keller and his entourage want to claim that there were “deaconesses” in the early Church, I agree. The next step, however, is to see precisely who they were and how they functioned. That will be the emphasis of this installment.

In order to accomplish our purposes, we will examine three more aspects of church history. First, we’ll take a brief look at the Church Father, Tertullian (Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus [circa 160-circa 220]). Then we’ll briefly discuss what has been handed down to us as “The Apostolic Canons.” In a subsequent issue, we’ll also examine what is taught in a document entitled Didascalia Apostolorum, or The Teaching of the Apostles.


Tertullian is important for a number of reasons, not least of which is that he was the first major theologian to write in Latin. He was a Carthaginian (that’s Africa, and yes, Sarah Palin does know where Africa is), who was, for a time, a Montanist. Apart from the fact that Tertullian wrote so extensively in the fields of apologetics, polemics, and was a kind of pioneer in much early theological formulation, he gives us an accurate account of what was transpiring in church polity as well as the office-bearers of his time.

The advantage of reading Tertullian is that he provides us with a rather precise picture of the theological landscape. As Martimort puts it, “His works permit us to observe in a very precise way the organization of the churches of his time in the face of the disorders of various splinter sects.”[1] Regarding the discussion at hand, it is noteworthy that “Nowhere in any of his works do we encounter the words diacona, ministra or their equivalents; nor does he make the slightest allusion to either Phoebe or 1 Timothy 3:11.”[2] (Just as a note: the “a” endings on the Latin words make them feminine.) There are some historians who believe that when Tertullian “spoke about widows he was really speaking about deaconesses.”[3]

To Tertullian’s mind, then, this “order” of widows was a group of women “who had specially consecrated themselves, who lived at the expense of the Church, and who had been married no more than once.”[4] Clearly, this is a far, far cry from what Dr. Keller and the Redeemer model churches envision. If this were held out to those females who want to have an important function in today’s Church, NOW would be on somebody’s doorstep as would the ACLU.

Martimort summarizes Tertullian’s theology quite aptly when he writes, “Thus the idea of a female diaconate under any form was an idea totally alien to Tertullian.”[5]

The Apostolic Canons

This document was a collection of early “canon-law” writings dating from about 300-350A.D. Some believe that the writings were of earlier vintage than the year 300A.D. In the Eastern Church, the Canons were generally considered to be authentic writings of the original twelve apostles. This is a total of eighty-five “canons” that were ruled “authentic and authoritative at the Synod of Trullo (A.D. 692).”[6]

What makes the examination of the Canons so pertinent for our current investigation is the fact that they establish that the women deacons in the early Eastern Church “were considered to be of a completely separate and inferior office to the male diaconate.”[7] This is easy enough for anyone with a computer to find out for him- or herself. All you need to do is to Google “The Apostolic Canons” and presto, there they are. Without wading through all eight-five of these canon-law prescriptions, it will behoove us to take notice of a select few that deal with the office of deacon. What is remarkable is that the female diaconate took wings in the Eastern Church after the 4th century, but that it was a very separate entity. Dr. Keller would have us believe that what occurred back then is virtually identical with what he and his devotees are doing by opting for deaconesses. Nothing could be farther from the truth. But let’s take a look at some of the Canons.

Canon II states, “Let a presbyter, deacon, and the rest of the clergy, be ordained by one bishop.”[8] That seems simple and straightforward enough, but we need to pause and reflect upon the offices being discussed here. These are all offices open only to men. There is a kind of cadre of clerical offices that includes presbyters, deacons, and others. These offices are only open to men. How do we know that?

In Canon XV, we read the following: “If any presbyter, or deacon, or any other of the list of the clergy, shall leave his own parish, and go into another, and having entirely forsaken his own, shall make his abode in the other parish without the permission of his own bishop, we ordain that he shall no longer perform divine service; more especially if his own bishop having exhorted him to return he has refused to do so, and persists in his disorderly conduct. But let him communicate there as a layman.”[9]

The clerical offices had very particular requirements as Canon XVII explains. “He who has been twice married after baptism, or who has had a concubine, cannot become a bishop, presbyter, or deacon, or any other of the sacerdotal list.”[10] In the following Canon the restrictions are more constrictive. “He who married a widow, or a divorced woman, or a harlot, or a servant-maid, or an actress, cannot be a bishop, presbytery, or deacon, or any other of the sacerdotal list.”

Clearly, the Canons had a low view of Hollywood. How ever did they engage culture with such a narrow view of marrying actresses? Instructive, apart from the slur on Pammy Anderson, is the reference to the restrictions placed on the males, who are the only candidates for the sacerdotal office. We close this installment with a pertinent summary by Brian Schwertley: “The deacons described in the Apostolical Canons are men. They are part of the clergy, part of the sacerdotal class, perform divine service, and are permitted to marry. On the other hand, deaconesses were not part of the clergy. They were never part of the sacerdotal class. They never took part in the divine service or sacerdotal ritual. And they were never permitted to marry.”[11]

As we conclude this installment, I want to point out that Dr. Keller has made no case either exegetically or historically for deaconesses. Yet he and those like him continue to foist the notion upon the PCA that this is a “kosher” thing they are doing. Of course, it can be argued that one Presbytery has allowed or even approved of what Dr. Keller’s doing and the PCA in general has turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to it.

Many, after our recent election and the clear claims that Mr. Obama wants to “spread the wealth around” have wondered out loud if his presidency might mean the end of the United States as we know it. Only time will tell. With the necessary changes being made, it is legitimate to ask whether the PCA will remain the same if Dr. Keller’s views move forward unchecked, especially in light of the fact that the last General Assembly made a clear decision.

[1] Aimé Martimort, Deaconesses, (K.D. Whitehead [trans.]), (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), p. 28.

[2] Ibid. Citing G. Claesson, Index Tertullianeus, 3 Vols., (Paris: Etudes Augustiniennes, 1974-1975).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 28-29.

[5] Ibid., 29. Emphases added.

[6] Brian Schwertley, A Historical and Biblical Examination of Women Deacons, (Southfield, MI: Reformed Witness, 1998), p. 7.

[7] Ibid., 8.

[9] Ibid., 2. Emphases added.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Schwertley, HBEWD, 8.


Friday, November 07, 2008

The PCA and Female Deaconesses (VII)

Polycarp and Others

We are taking a quick excursion into church history precisely because Dr. Tim Keller has remained unchallenged by any PCA church historians on the truth claim that the office of deaconess was widespread, well-known, and accepted in the early Church. We’re simply asking the question: Is that true? It seems to me that others would have asked this question, but there is a rather deafening silence. One can only wonder why.

When we examined what Ignatius (circa 115A.D.) wrote, we learned a number of important things. First, Ignatius’ letters, in general, bear witness of a well-organized and well established local church hierarchy composed of bishops, presbyters, and deacons during the era in which he wrote.[1] To this, the Roman Catholic Aimé Martimort adds, “At the same time, these epistles do not contain even the faintest trace of the existence of any feminine ministry.”[2] Brian Schwertley reinforces this notion when he says of Ignatius, “His description of the diaconate is inconsistent with the idea of deaconesses who function in the same office as male deacons.”[3]

In this issue, we’re going to investigate a contemporary of Ignatius, Polycarp. Afterwards, we’ll take a look at some other pertinent material. To this point, however, Dr. Keller has not closed the deal on his assertion. In fact, the evidence of history seems to point in the exact opposite direction.

Polycarp of Smyrna (circa 69-155A.D.)

According to Irenaeus, Polycarp was a disciple of John, the disciple of Jesus. Polycarp was also a close friend of Ignatius. Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians (Chapter 5—The Duties of Deacons, Youths, and Virgins) reminds his readers of the authority that the deacons possessed in the early Church when he says, “Wherefore, it is needful to abstain from all these things, being subject to the presbyters and deacons, as unto God and Christ.”[4]

In other words, for Polycarp it was a settled notion that church members were subject to presbyters and deacons. It is also instructive that in this letter from Polycarp there is neither the slightest hint of deaconesses nor any indication of females serving on the diaconate. What we do find, however, are references to both virgins and widows, who are called to blamelessness, with purity of conscience, and also highly spiritually-minded women.[5] What is essential for our purposes here is that these widows correspond to 1 Timothy 5 rather than the women spoken of in 1 Timothy 3. This, too, militates against Dr. Keller’s assertion. In fact, it is quite remarkable that he pays no attention to what Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 5 as an option for his views on deaconesses. Martimort asserts that it is not “possible to assimilate the qualities that St. Polycarp wants to see embodied in widows to ‘the women’ of 1 Timothy 3:11.”[6]

We conclude that in accordance with Ignatius, Polycarp does not mention deaconesses, but does address widows. When we arrive at the fourth and fifth centuries it seems quite apparent that what came to be called deaconesses evolved from the order of widows and not from “the women” in 1 Timothy 3. What we do note in the course of history is that later the qualifications of deaconesses are almost identical to what Paul describes in 1 Timothy 5:9-12, with the notable exceptions that over time the age limit was dropped from 60 to 50 and then eventually to 40. What does this mean practically? In terms of history, those who became somehow involved in the “diaconate” were “restricted to godly widows who made a vow of perpetual chastity for the sake of church service.”[7] The vow of chastity was attached to the office and remarriage could result in excommunication. Schwertley adds, “To argue that these deaconesses belonged to the same office as male deacons makes no sense whatsoever…”[8] Martimort argues that there were no deaconesses in the Latin Church during the first five centuries.[9] We shall take our time and move in that direction, but the Roman Catholic historian Martimort argues that “The situation was absolutely clear so far as Rome was concerned: there was no possible role for deaconesses.”[10]

Short Notes

As I close this segment, I want to bring two other Church Fathers to our attention; one of them is well known and the other is less well known. The first is Zephyrinus (died 217A.D.), who was Bishop of Rome from 199A.D. until his death. (Like some today, once he died, he kept on voting.) In 201, he wrote a letter to the bishops of Sicily, instructing them concerning the ordination of both presbyters and deacons. Schwertley reminds us that the term “levite” was synonymous with deacon in the early Church.[11] Zephyrinus explained that the ordinations of presbyters and deacons/Levites was to be performed solemnly on an appropriate occasion, in the presence of many witnesses. Moreover, only those who are “advance tried” and learned men were candidates. Schwertley comments, “When the epistle to Sicily was written there was no mention of deaconesses at all in the western church. The archbishop restricts the diaconal office to ‘learned men.’”[12]

The other Church Father is Cyprian (circa 200-258A.D.), who was the Bishop of Carthage. I mention him because he is one of the most important Church Fathers when it comes to the development of church government in the western church. By Cyprian’s time, the deacons retained their position of authority, ruling along with the presbyters. What is a key here is that even though Cyprian laid a great deal of the groundwork for church government, “There is not one mention of deaconesses in Cyprian’s writings.”[13]

This being the case, why is it that Dr. Keller can say to us that there is sufficient evidence that deaconesses were accepted in the early Church? In our next issue, we’ll examine other fourth century documents.

[1] Comp. Richardson, ECF, 74-120; Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, (NY: Harper & Row, 1953), pp. 115-116.

[2] Aimé Martimort, Deaconesses, (K.D. Whitehead [trans.]), (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), p. 26. Emphasis added.

[3] Brian Schwertley, A Historical and Biblical Examination of Women Deacons, (Southfield, MI: Reformed Witness, 1998), p. 4.

[4] Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson (eds.), The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 34.

[5] Ibid. Regarding the virgins Polycarp writes, “The virgins also must walk in a blameless and pure conscience.” In Chapter 4—Various Exhortations, he says the following of the widows: “Teach the widows to be discreet as respects the faith of the Lord, praying continually for all, being far from all slandering, evil-speaking, false-witnessing, love of money, and every kind of evil; knowing that they are the altar of God, that He clearly perceives all things, and that nothing is hid from Him, neither reasonings, nor reflections, nor any one of the secret things of the heart.”

[6] Martimort, Deaconesses, 27.

[7] Schwertley, HBEWD, 6.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Martimort, Deaconesses, 187ff.

[10] Ibid., 187.

[11] Schwertley, HBEWD, 6.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 7.


Saturday, November 01, 2008

The PCA and Female Deaconesses (VI)

Deaconesses in Church History

Pastor Tim Keller has been attempting to convince the PCA that deaconesses were part and parcel of church history and that all he and the “Redeemer model” churches are doing is simply what the church has done throughout the ages. This begs the question: Is this true? It is a bold assertion and not one to be accepted simply because Dr. Keller or anyone else says it. I will argue that Dr. Keller is precisely wrong on this point and is counting on you and other Presbyteries not to check it out.

Before we look at the historical underpinnings of this issue a word of admonition needs to be spoken to PCA Presbyteries. My theory on Presbytery is that each of us are big boys. We are not there to support our favorite person or friend; we are there to act like men. Let me explain what I mean. First, we are not at Presbytery to support our friends. This is the proverbial “nice guy” mentality. When we are examining a candidate for licensure or ordination, for example, we are to ask the tough questions. Our meeting is not a society of conjecture; neither is it a “good ol’ boys club.” At the end of the day, when a candidate has completed this licensure or ordination exam, we are saying to the PCA folk, “This guy is kosher.” And—and—we are the responsible party for placing our imprimatur on him. It really doesn’t matter if the person who fails is a good friend or even our best friend. He fails based on his performance at that convened body—period. We are not asked to judge if he’s a good guy or if people like him. We hope he is and that they do, but that is not our primary task. Our task is to question him—rigorously—on doctrine and life, on the Westminster Standards, and on the contents of and his adherence to the Book of Church Order. If we are not prepared to do this impartially and judiciously, we should keep our mouth shut when liberalism takes over the PCA.

Second, we are to act like men. One of the many lessons I learned from my time in the military is that if you’re the leader, you might have to put someone in harm’s way. Some tank has to be the lead tank: the ambush magnet. One of your boots on the ground has to be the point man on a patrol. He is likely to be the first one to draw fire. Leaders must be impartial in sending out point men—even if that man is someone you like or admire. It is a sign of leadership that we are prepared to send our friends into a firefight. In the movie U-578, one of the characters asked why he was never given the opportunity to have a command. The answer was that it was because he was too close to his men and would not jeopardize their lives for the sake of the mission.

As I read Dr. Keller’s article about what Redeemer said to his Presbytery back in the mid-1990s he was, in a word, in your face about it. What is even worse is that his Presbytery did not have the fortitude to tell Dr. Keller that what he was proposing was out of line with Scripture, the confessions, and the BCO and that he either got in line or he needed to look elsewhere. Those men did not have the requisite backbone so here we are more than a decade later having a protracted discussion about deaconesses and a brewing crisis in the PCA. Let there be no mistake about this. These are very serious times. How serious? They are serious enough for some to question how much longer they can or want to remain in the PCA. Speaking for myself, I am prepared to stay. I made a very conscious decision to come into the PCA from the Reformed churches in the Netherlands and Canada. I love the PCA and am committed to it, but I am not committed to the blind, slavish following of something that is unbiblical. I am not committed to undo what has been the historic position of the PCA on this issue. I am not alone.

Some Documents from the Early Church

We will not be able to cover every conceivable document from the early Church that will answer the questions surrounding deaconesses. It is quite telling, however, that “the Biblia Patristica does not contain any reference to either Romans 16:1 or 1 Timothy 3:11 as having been cited in the Christian literature of the second century.”[1] In point of fact, with the exception of the questionable reference we examined in our last issue from Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan, “all of the texts usually employed in the effort to prove that the institution of deaconesses existed uniformly during this period refer to widows, not deaconesses.”[2]

This is important for a couple of reasons. In the first place, it is the precise opposite of what Dr. Keller—and PCA men and Presbyteries that support him—says. Has anyone done the historical research or is this another example of truth by declaration. In the second place, in the discussion swirling about deaconesses in the PCA I have heard precious little—nothing actually—about how these modern day deaconesses need to comport with the New Testament concept of widows in 1 Timothy 5. If we were to enroll these “deaconesses” on the role of widows there would be a number of biblical stipulations that would come into play, including age and perpetual chastity. That is not going to happen, is it?

The Didache

One of the early documents from the history of the Church (circa 100A.D.) is purported to be a kind of compilation of the teachings of the apostles. It is simply called The Didache. In Section 15, we read the following regarding the administration of the affairs of the Church: “You must, then, elect for yourselves bishops and deacons who are a credit to the Lord, men who are gentle, generous, faithful, and well tried. For their ministry to you is identical with that of the prophets and teachers. You must not, therefore, despise them, for along with the prophets and teachers they enjoy a place of honor among you.”[3]

Brian Schwertley adds, “The word aner is used, which can refer only to the male sex. The placing of deacon alongside of bishop (and in other early Christian literature, presbyter) indicates that very early in the church male deacons had authority. They, along with the bishop, are the ‘honored ones.’ There is no record of an official order of deaconesses in the church at the time the Didache was written.”[4]

The Epistles of Ignatius (circa 115A.D.)

We’ll conclude this installment with a quick look at the letters of Ignatius of Antioch. These are important and pertinent because they date from approximately the same time as the document of Pliny the Younger, cited by Dr. Keller.

Ignatius’ letters bear witness of a well-organized and well established local church hierarchy composed of bishops, presbyters, and deacons.[5] To this Martimort adds, “At the same time, these epistles do not contain even the faintest trace of the existence of any feminine ministry.”[6] Schwertley reinforces this notion when he says of Ignatius, “His description of the diaconate is inconsistent with the idea of deaconesses who function in the same office as male deacons.”[7]

When Ignatius wrote to the (Milk of) Magnesians, chapter 6 (Preserve Harmony) he stated, “…I exhort you to study to do all things with a divine harmony, while your bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles, along with your deacons[8], who are most dear to me, and are entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ, who was before the beginning of time, and in the end was revealed.” The “authoritative” place of deacons in Ignatius’ view is emphasized in his letter to the Smyrnaeans, where he writes in chapter 9 (Honor the Bishop), “Let the laity be subject to the deacons; the deacons to the presbyters; the presbyters to the bishop; the bishop to Christ, even as He is to the Father.”[9]

In the writings of Ignatius, who is believed to have been a disciple of the apostle John, there is reference to both obedience and submission to the bishop, presbyters, and deacons. “The theory that women and men held the same office of deacon in the early church until at some time the office of deacon was given more authority than the Scripture warrants, forcing women into a separate office, does not have a shred of historical evidence.”[10]

Next time, Lord willing, we’ll look at the church father Polycarp, who also lived around the same time.

[1] Aimé Martimort, Deaconesses, An Historical Study, (K.D. Whitehead [trans.]), (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), p. 25. Emphasis added.

[2] Ibid. Emphasis added.

[3] Cyril Richardson (ed.), Early Christian Fathers, (NY: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 19763), p. 178. Emphasis added.

[4] Brian Schwertley, A Historical and Biblical Examination of Women Deacons, (Stephen Pribble [ed.]), (Southfield, MI: Reformed Witness, 1998), p. 3.

[5] Comp. Richardson, ECF, 74-120; Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, (NY: Harper & Row, 1953), pp. 115-116.

[6] Martimort, Deaconesses, 26. Emphasis added.

[7] Schwertley, HBEWD, 4.

[8] Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson (eds.), The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 61.

[9] Ibid., 90.

[10] Schwertley, HBEWD, 5.