The PCA and Female Deaconesses (IX)
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.” 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.” 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.” 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.” 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.
 Morton Smith, Commentary on the Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America, (Taylors, SC: Southern Presbyterian Press, 20045), p. 253.
 Aimé Martimort, Deaconesses, (K.D. Whitehead [trans.]), (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), p. 35.
 Martimort, Deaconesses, 40.
Labels: The PCA