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.” 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.”
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?
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.”
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.”
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. To this Martimort adds, “At the same time, these epistles do not contain even the faintest trace of the existence of any feminine ministry.” 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.”
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, 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.”
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.”Next time, Lord willing, we’ll look at the church father Polycarp, who also lived around the same time.
 Aimé Martimort, Deaconesses, An Historical Study, (K.D. Whitehead [trans.]), (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), p. 25. Emphasis added.
 Ibid. Emphasis added.
 Cyril Richardson (ed.), Early Christian Fathers, (NY: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 19763), p. 178. Emphasis added.
 Brian Schwertley, A Historical and Biblical Examination of Women Deacons, (Stephen Pribble [ed.]), (Southfield, MI: Reformed Witness, 1998), p. 3.
 Comp. Richardson, ECF, 74-120; Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, (NY: Harper & Row, 1953), pp. 115-116.
 Martimort, Deaconesses, 26. Emphasis added.
 Schwertley, HBEWD, 4.
 Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson (eds.), The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 61.
 Ibid., 90.
 Schwertley, HBEWD, 5.
Labels: The PCA