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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 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.



Blogger A Jam C said...

Thank you for all you're doing in helping me understand this better.

8:05 PM  
Blogger Rattlesnake6 said...

No, thank you.

10:36 PM  
Blogger Randy said...


While the church history is significant, women were rarely recognized as equals prior to the past hundred years nearly regardless of the context.

So, it seems that it wounldn't have been normative for women to have been considred equal regardless of the position of power.

In fairness, you've even done this to Deborah in previous conversations about women in leadership.

Yet, when the biblical text is compared to the situation of the day of the writings, the role of women is generally held higher than the authority of the day believed.

On a related note, why is it a matter of who has the most authority in terms of deacons and deaconesses? When Jesus was asked this kind of question by his disciples, he seems to tell them they've missed the entire point of the kingdom.

When we talk about who has positions of power, are we not also missing the point of the kingdom?

6:38 PM  
Blogger Rattlesnake6 said...

What works for you? If I use Scripture, you negate that--although you never present exegesis yourself--because pomos eschew the idea of Christians knowing anything for certain.
Then, you bring in the history of your grandparents, only afterwards to tell me that Church History is significant--in some sense--but obviously not in this sense. Ah, but we forgot Deborah.
What I am demonstrating, Randy, is that neither in the history of the exegesis of the pertinent texts nor in church history can a convincing case be made to substantiate what Dr. Keller is doing in the PCA.

9:43 PM  
Blogger Bradley said...

I think maybe you are asking the wrong questions here:
"On a related note, why is it a matter of who has the most authority in terms of deacons and deaconesses? When Jesus was asked this kind of question by his disciples, he seems to tell them they've missed the entire point of the kingdom." "When we talk about who has positions of power, are we not also missing the point of the kingdom?"
The point is for those who love Jesus, we have to love His word. The Word is so important that Jesus identifies Himself not just with His word, but As his word.
Thus, if we want to identify ourselves as a "lover and apprentice of Jesus" we need to align our lives and our worldview as closely as we can with His life and His worldview.
And we have to do that whether or not we like it, or even if we would prefer to have it another way, for whatever reason.
As Ron is demonstrating, the Bible is as plain as day: the offices of Deacon and Elder (according to Jesus, the One whose way we love and to whom we are apprenticed) are to be occupied by men, for the good of the Church, the Bride of Christ.
This is not as a means of "power" but for guarding and shepherding the flock, nurturing and teaching, administering the sacraments, excercising church discipline-all for the glory of God.

Jesus said, "Seek ye first the kingdon of God, AND HIS RIGHTEOUSNESS, then all these things will be added unto you."

It seems to me your points of contention are not with Ron, but with Christ Himself.

7:30 AM  
Blogger Randy said...

To your observation, "no."

I have contention that Ron supports Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour but doesn't fully embrace the kingdom of God as a current reality.

If the kingdom of God is a current reality, even if it is not fully at hand, means tha men and women are of equal value and are equally embraced by God.

If the kingdom of God is not at hand, we can continue with Leviticus law, God being known best only by the High Priest (aka pastor).

Or we can remember that Paul also tells us that all of us equally have fruits and gifts of the Spirit regardless of our gender (among other things).

Either we believe Paul is accurage here, or we do not. To suggest that women can't hold positions of pastor, elder, and deacon, also negate Paul's announcement that we are all equal in the eyes of God.

Ron's idea of 'equal' is different from mine. I believe God gives us grace and enables us to live and move and have our very being eqaully within the kingdom regardless of our gender.

Females were key to the geneology of Jesus. Females were central to Jesus. Mary. Rahab.

And then we have Deborah leading the chosen people. Yet, Ron totally negates her leadership as something abnormal with little significance to the biblical story.

We can also argue that Rahab the whore should have been stoned. Instead, she is included in the blood lines of Jesus. We have Esther and Ruth. We have Mary. And we have women who are continually surrounding Jesus.

Writing these women into the biblical story wasn't normative for these people; yet God keeps them front and center.

Instead of recongizing their equal giftedness in the kingdom of God, Ron argues for some sort of legalistic heirarchy similiar to the Roman Catholic church.

Instead, I hold the kingdom of God as a reality that needs to be lived into. The biblical story is not some history book to be dissected into little parts.

The biblical story calls us to live into a kingdom that is partially at hand, that is filled with justice and mercy and God's never ending grace.

It is also a story that is not about the laws of Leviticus but about a way of living before a God who wants us to live with his breath filling our bodies and souls.

Instead, Ron argues that men, and not women, should be counting the money and giving it out to those in need.

My life rests fully in the hands of Yahweh. My only real comfort in life and in death is that I belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.


7:00 AM  
Blogger Bradley said...

These verses are not contradictory.

I Timothy 2:12 "And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man"

Galatians 3:28
"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

The Word does not suggest that women should not be deacons pastors or elders, it commands it.
The ultimate "missing the point of the kingdom" is ignoring the King.

If our lives rest in Yahweh, we need to submit to His authority. Or as a Navy friend of mine says "We don't have to like it, we just have to do it."

Grace and Peace.

10:14 AM  
Blogger IceDawg said...

The ultimate "missing the point of the kingdom" is ignoring the King.

Well said bradley. You have hit the nail on the head. The key to Christian life is to live to the clear teaching of Scripture. Looking to the exceptions to negate a rule is not a good habit.

To suggest that women can't hold positions of pastor, elder, and deacon, also negate Paul's announcement that we are all equal in the eyes of God.

I'm sorry Randy, but your writing is contradictory. You are ignoring clear writings from Paul (such as 1 Tim 2) and concentrating on (and misapplying, I might add) the Galatians passage in isolation. I would encourage you to heed your own exhortation to view Paul's writings as accurate. How do you deal with Paul when he directly opposes your main premise. No one is saying that women and men are not equal in God's sight. Christ came and died for both men and women. They simply have different roles. It is the lie of the world that is telling you that the biblical and traditional role of the woman creates a less valuable status for her.

11:41 AM  
Blogger Randy said...

I was simply explaining my perspective; I'm quite sure that I won't convince you otherwise.

I'm reading Herman Ridderbos' "The Coming of the Kingdom," and I would encourage a reading of it.

1:56 PM  
Blogger IceDawg said...


I appreciate the time you take to explain your perspective. My goal with that post was to do nothing else than to point out the inconsistency in your view. You call on the readers here to accept the teaching of Paul (implying that they don't), and then you turn around completely ignore the teaching of Paul. Do you see what I mean?

Thanks for the recommended reading. I have quite a number of books on the go right now, but I do have some Ridderbos on my shelf. When time allows I'll try to give it a read.

3:32 PM  
Blogger Rattlesnake6 said...

Read Ridderbos and he is not in your camp. He was my NT prof in Kampen. Knew him well and know his writings well. He would not agree with your assessment.
I concur with what Bradley and Icedawg said. Interestingly, you have not produced one shred of scriptural exegesis of the texts bradley and ice mentioned. Moreover, you have have not given one piece of historical evidence on the topic being discussed.
It never ceases to amaze me that you have nothing sentient or pertinent to say. I'm reading Herman Bavinck now. I suggest you read all 4 volumes of the "RD" and get back to me.

4:18 PM  
Blogger Bradley said...

Where do you guys find all this time to read?

4:52 PM  
Blogger Solameanie said...

Actually, I am surprised Randy is reading Ridderbos. I figured Derrida would be more his speed. ;)

7:48 PM  

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