The PCA and Female Deaconesses (X)
Ten is a good biblical number, so with this installment I will cease with the discussion surrounding ordained or unordained female deacons or deaconesses. In this issue, I will limit myself to looking at some of the most salient features of the discussion and then close with an appraisal of whether Dr. Keller and those who follow him in his desire to have deaconesses have made a biblical or historical case for their position. We shall also include what the PCA 36th General Assembly declared about the practice of not ordaining either male or female deacons. In other words, we will ask the question of whether Dr. Keller’s position comports with PCA policy and polity.
As we prepare to do this, there is a question that needs to be asked that as far as I know has not been asked to this point: Why did byFaith magazine run Dr. Keller’s and Dr. Duncan’s articles after the decision was made by the 36th General Assembly? Apparently, to the editor’s of byFaith’s mind, the decision of the assembly was sufficiently unclear or non-binding that they believed there should be more discussion on the matter. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that the topic should not be discussed again, but it seems as if the churches have had precious little time to discuss what the 36th GA decided in the aftermath of the assembly.
No one can answer that question except the editors of byFaith. I suspect that we’ll wait in vain for an explanation. So let’s summarize what we’ve learned thus far. As we examined the early history of the Church we discovered the exact opposite of what Dr. Keller contends regarding deaconesses being rampant and fully accepted. Brian Schwertley also reminds us that “Deaconesses were needed not to perform all the functions of the male deacon’s office, but only to perform certain responsibilities toward women.” Is this what Dr. Keller and the “Redeemer model” churches intend? I don’t think so.
Historically, the ordination of deaconesses became commonplace by 381A.D. in the Eastern Church. In fact, there was a “glut” of various people in the Eastern Church being “ordained” for a variety of “offices.” For example, “Deaconesses were ordained, but so were readers, singers, and porters. The ordination of deaconesses was an innovation of the eastern church. It was never universally accepted in the western church.” Yet, even in the Eastern Church a clear difference was made between deacons and deaconesses. For instance, in the document, “The Ordo and the Canons concerning Ordination in the Holy Church,” canon 18 we read, “The deaconess is brought into the diaconicon, or place set apart for deaconesses, and the bishop prays over her; when he has placed her before the altar and she has bowed her head, the bishop then lays his hand upon her head and prays using a prayer that is known and that in no way resembles the prayer used in the ordination of a deacon.” The reason? “The deaconess has a ministry only to women.” Moreover, “The deaconess functioned as an intermediary between women in the church and the deacon and the bishop; thus, any appearance of impropriety was avoided.”
In light of what we’ve learned in previous installments, it is also clear that early Church deaconesses were widows, and not CEOs, CFOs, or “professional” women. These were godly women who fit the description offered in Titus 2. This is not to say, in the least, that those Dr. Keller has in mind are godless women! What I have observed in my own Presbytery is that there is deference and preference given to women—usually in near-idolized positions in secular employment—who are in the work force over “stay-at-home” moms—as if the latter were not in the work force! Trying telling my wife that! Make certain your life insurance is paid up if you tell her that because you are going to have a very unpleasant conversation!
From a historical perspective, it has become evident to us in this series of investigations that in the early Church deaconesses were widows around the age of 60. In the Eastern Church, the age limit was eventually dropped to 40. These “deaconesses” also took a vow of perpetual celibacy and were no longer permitted to either watch or discuss Desperate Housewives. Schwertley summarizes the subject this way: “What modern women-deacon advocates are advocating (what else would an advocate do?—RG) is not women deacons who serve in a separate office from men deacons, who have different qualifications that are based on 1 Timothy 5:9ff. They are advocating something totally foreign to the early church. They believe women deacons would have the same qualifications and serve in the same office as male deacons.” Some might argue that this is not precisely the case, but it is close enough for government work. Seriously, I would like to know where Dr. Keller and those who support his position differ from Schwertley’s summary.
There is not time to engage in a lengthy discussion about what Calvin taught on this matter, but some pertinent quotes will help. In the Institutes (4.3.9 ) Calvin writes, “The care of the poor was entrusted to the deacons. However, two kinds are mentioned in the letter to the Romans: ‘He that gives, let him do it with simplicity; …he that shows mercy, with cheerfulness’ [Rom. 12:8, cf. Vg.]. Since it is certain that Paul is speaking of the public office of the church, there must have been two distinct grades. Unless my judgment deceives me, in the first clause he designates the deacons who distribute the alms. But the second refers to those who had devoted themselves to the care of the poor and sick. Of this sort were the widows whom Paul mentions to Timothy [I Tim. 5:9-10]. Women could fill no other public office than to devote themselves to the care of the poor.” What is noteworthy here is the manner in which Calvin ties the females to 1 Timothy 5 and not to 1 Timothy 3. Dr. Keller has not given a reasonable response to what Calvin wrote and how Dr. Keller is applying that in his congregation. Schwertley opines, “The early church and Calvin had an order of office of widows who happened to be called deaconesses. They were not the same as deacons, as modern advocates of deaconesses assert.” In 4.13.19, Calvin reiterates the fact that the “deaconesses” of his day vowed celibacy. Moreover, these were not young women but those who promised continence from the age of 60 on, according to 1 Timothy 5:9.
What Did the 36th General Assembly of the PCA Decide?
In one sense, all of this is somewhat academic. In the cases of
The exceptions taken are standard, talking-points exceptions. I heard it in my Presbytery and it’s repeated so frequently that it seems like someone faxed or emailed the talking points and now it’s standard fare. It goes like this: “Ordination and obedience to deacons (specifically BCO 24-5, 24-6). Whereas the BCO correctly identifies Deacons as an office in the church, I believe it misinterprets Scripture regarding their ordination. The question to the congregation in 24-5 asks them to yield obedience to Deacons. In 24-6 (and various other places) the Deacons are referred to as ordained in the same manner as Elders. Until the BCO is amended, I intend to elect and install unordained deaconesses. This is allowable under BCO 9-7.” That is almost verbatim what I heard on the floor of South Coast Presbytery.
As I have pointed out before, BCO 9-7 merely states that the Session can select and appoint godly men and women of the congregation to assist the deacons in caring for the sick, the widows, the orphans, the prisoners, and others who may be in distress or need. The precise wording of the GA to the reference to BCO 9-7 reads, “The appeal to BCO 9-7 is flawed because 9-7 addresses people appointed by the Session, not members of a diaconate (Board of Deacons, 9-4). According to BCO 9-3 and 9-4, a diaconate may only include men that are elected, ordained, and installed.”
What is most disturbing is the in-your-face ultimatum issued by the candidates: Until the BCO is amended, I intend to elect and install unordained deaconesses. Why does the PCA allow this kind of attitude? Someone needs to be taken out to the woodshed. Why would any Presbytery tolerate such an attitude from a candidate, even if that candidate has been ordained in another Presbytery? Is it the case that presbyters lack the necessary masculinity to stand up in the face of such attitudes? Are we afraid? Have we become so effeminate that we no longer possess a resolve to do what we have agreed is the right thing to do? Again, please hear me well: I am not saying that we can never revisit the issue, but there are two things worthy of reasoned reflection. First, the matter is settled in the Book of Church Order. Presbyters made a vow, gave their word that they would uphold it. That BCO is unequivocally clear about Elders and Deacons. Presbyteries are called upon to uphold what is there, irrespective of personal opinion, friendships, or ecclesiastical allegiances.
Second, until the BCO is changed—if it ever is—then what we vow is the “rule of law.” It is hard to imagine a pastor encouraging a member not to follow the rule of law in society, but in point of fact, there are PCA pastors who hold to the rule of law in society and not in the Church. What have we vowed? The GA summarized it for us. It is clear: 1) Men only are to be elected by a congregation to the office of deacon. 2) Women cannot be elected by a congregation to the office of deacon. 3) Women cannot be commissioned or ordained as deacons. 4) Women cannot serve on diaconates.
So what happens next? Do we continue to re-invent the wheel? Jeff Snyder wrote, “Our society has reached a pinnacle of self-expression and respect for individuality rare or unmatched in the history of civilization. Our entire popular culture—from fashion magazines to the cinema—positively screams the matchless worth of the individual, glories in eccentricity, nonconformity, independent judgment, and self-determination.” It’s one thing when this description matches what we see in the world; it is quite another when it also describes those who call themselves evangelicals or Christians. It is ratcheted up several notches when it is applicable to ecclesiastical leaders, who have given their words to uphold certain standards.
You might recall the book by poet Robert Bly entitled Iron John: A Book About Men (1990). Bly was a liberal, antiwar activist, who eventually ended up giving a feminist seminar promoting New Age goddess worship. In his book, Bly is stilled concerned about what he called the “soft male.” His solution to this problem was ludicrous. He held seminars where men would put on warrior face-paint, beat drums, dance around camp fires (this sounds dumber the more I write about it!), as well as symbolic sword holding. All this occurred, in part, because of ideological feminism and the decline of real masculinity in this country.A very interesting part of Bly’s book, however, was the rite of passage from boyhood to manhood, found in other cultures. There was a time when a boy became a man. In the South, where I grew up, it was getting your first shotgun. My father gave me mine for Christmas when I was 10. I still have it. Bly describes a moment when a boy becomes a man. He is recognized as an adult with all the privileges and responsibilities that attend to his new status. Bly says that he becomes a warrior. In the most literal sense, he stands ready to fight for what is right, to fight in the defense of his people or homeland. I submit that we are rapidly losing this warrior mentality. I’m not talking about Conan the Barbarian, but a willingness to do the right thing. It will be interesting to see how the PCA responds to those who basically thumb their noses—tastefully of course, at the 2008 GA decision.
 Brian Schwertley, A Historical and Biblical Examination of Women Deacons, (Southfield, MI: Reformed Witness, 1998), p. 12.
 Ibid., Emphasis added.
 Aimé Martimort, Deaconesses, (K.D. Whitehead [trans.]), (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), p. 53. Emphasis added.
 Schwertley, HBEWD, 14.
 Ibid., 17.
 Calvin, Inst. 4.3.9, 1061.
 Schwertley, HBEWD, 21.
 Calvin, Inst., 4.13.19, 1274.
 Jeff Snyder, A Nation of Cowards, (Lonedell, MO: Accurate Press, 2001), p. 15.
Labels: The PCA