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.” 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.” (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.”
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.” 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.”
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).”
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.” 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.” 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.”
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.” 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.”
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.
 Aimé Martimort, Deaconesses, (K.D. Whitehead [trans.]), (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), p. 28.
 Ibid. Citing G. Claesson, Index Tertullianeus, 3 Vols., (Paris: Etudes Augustiniennes, 1974-1975).
 Ibid., 28-29.
 Ibid., 29. Emphases added.
 Brian Schwertley, A Historical and Biblical Examination of Women Deacons, (Southfield, MI: Reformed Witness, 1998), p. 7.
 Ibid., 8.
 Ibid., 2. Emphases added.
 Schwertley, HBEWD, 8.
Labels: The PCA