Christianity: Doctrine and Ethics

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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.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Deaconesses: What Does Scripture Say?

We are asking the question about the biblical legitimacy of female deacons. This is rapidly becoming a controversial issue in the P.C.A., and there are those therefore who are attempting to skirt their vows by the practice of un-ordained, “commissioned” male and female deacons. In reality, this merely complicates matters and advances the notion that if two wrongs don’t make a right, why not try a third? In other words, some of my colleagues are striving to incorporate women into ecclesiastical life in a way not prescribed by the Word of God.

As I mentioned briefly last time, I am very much in favor of using the manifold gifts and talents of godly women in the local congregation. I am also very much in favor of women not only being theologians, but being good theologians. I thoroughly enjoy being in the presence of intelligent and competent sisters in the Lord. What I am not in favor of is placing women in positions for the sake of enculturation or adapting to the culture. This is “contextualization” of the worse and most tendentious kind.

As we approach any issue or subject as Christians, our first question should be: What does Scripture say? Therefore, I will look at the pertinent texts in the Bible that address our subject and give you my impressions and interpretations. I will attempt to put everything on the table and not to avoid the difficult texts. I will not, however, as one woman wrote to me on my blog site ( force a text to say what it clearly does not say. Her translation of Phoebe’s position in Romans 16:1-2 was “champion.” Clearly, this is a translation that is not supported by exegesis, but rather by an overt feminism and that is a great deal of the problem that we face in the modern Church. That translation is as ridiculous as translating “helper” in Genesis 2:18 as “warrior.” It is totally unwarranted.

Having made these qualifying remarks, we will take a little bit of time and make some brief remarks about Acts 6:1-6; 1 Timothy 3:1-11; 1 Timothy 5:9-10; and Romans 16:1-2. These are summary comments that I made in a recent debate in Georgia. We’ll begin with Acts 6.

Acts 6:1-6

Although some today question whether Acts 6:1-6 is speaking about Deacons, it was an accepted fact by the Reformers that this was the case. As early as the 1530s, Martin Bucer included his support in his work Von der waren Seelsorge (Concerning the True Care of Souls). It was the view of John Calvin, Heinrich Bullinger, and the other Reformers. It was the view of the Southern Presbyterians John Girardeau, T.E. Peck, Robert Dabney, and James Thornwell. It was also taught by Herman Bavinck and Abraham Kuyper, the Reformed Dutch theologians in general, and more recently Cees Trimp, professor of pastoral theology in Kampen, The Netherlands. It is the view of Simon Kistemaker, F.F. Bruce, and R.C.H. Lenski.

If there is this affirmation by this prestigious gathering of scholars, what might the objections be to seeing the 7 in Acts 6 as Deacons? The first objection is quite understandable: the word Deacon does not appear in the verses in question. How should this objection be answered then? I want to direct your attention to the verses 2 & 4. Verse 2 reads, “And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve (to deacon) tables (διακονεῖν τραπέζαις; diakoneîn trapédzais).’”

Verse 4 is also pertinent for our purposes. When the apostles explain that from this time forward they will devote themselves to prayer and to the ministry (deaconing) of the Word, they are showing that all the New Testament are those of service.

At the end of the day, I grant that “the Seven” are not called “Deacons,” but that is hardly relevant in the book of Acts. For instance, we all acknowledge that Paul was an apostle, but in the book of Acts he is never referred to as an apostle. While these seven spiritual men are never called Deacons, it is clear from the text that what they were called to do was completely in line with the labors of a Deacon.

During the recent debate, my opponent drew attention to the fact that all seven of those chosen were Greeks. This is true. Every name in the list of those chosen is a Greek name. While I believe this manifests the trust in the New Testament Church that the Hebrews would entrust the distribution of food and money to their new Greek brothers in Christ. What is equally significant about “the Seven” is not only that they are all Greeks, but also that they are all men. Verse 3 imparts a clear command: “Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute.” (Emphasis added.)

Since the New Testament Church was in her infancy stage in Acts 6 and if God planned to deviate from his divinely-ordained plan and structure given in creation, this would have been the ideal spot to instigate the change. All things being equal, this was the ideal place and time to introduce the fact that now women are to be included in ecclesiastical offices. Yet the scriptures are silent at a place where we might expect them to speak. Verse 5 is quite explicit reminding us that men (ἀνήρ; anér) were chosen. Luke employs a Greek word that indicates specifically a man as opposed to the general word for “person” or “human being”: anthropos. In other words, he employed the word that often accepts gender; man in contrast to woman.

The intent of verse 6 is that the people of God were actively involved in this process. Listening to the apostles’ request, the Church presented their choices to the apostles, who then, in turn, prayed over them and “ordained and installed” them by the laying on of hands. Calvin comments, “The laying on of hands was a solemn sign of consecration under law. To this end, do the apostles now lay their hands upon the deacons, that they may know that they are offered to God.”[1] Lenski also explains the laying on of hands as an Old Testament symbolic act, which transferred an office, with its duties and privileges to the recipient(s). It also portrayed the bestowal of the divine blessings that were necessary for the important ecclesiastical word (Comp. Num. 27:18; Deut. 34:9).[2]

Lenski adds, “These seven were in no sense presbyters of the Jerusalem congregation; they were not elected for that purpose. What is later reported about Stephen and about Philip has nothing to do with their official duties in the congregation. These activities were the result of gifts and of opportunities that extend beyond their specific office. The offices that came into being in the apostolic Church were not fluid, but well defined.”[3] Next time we’ll look at 1 Timothy 3 and 5.

[1] Calvin, Acts, 238.

[2] R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 19614), 247.

[3] Ibid.


Friday, February 04, 2011

The PCA’s New Dilemma about Deacons (XI)

On Saturday, January 29, 2011 I was privileged to debate one of my esteemed colleagues, H. Alan Foster, from East Lanier Community Church in Buford, GA. Rev. Foster is a church planter from Perimeter Church in Duluth, GA. Our topic was female deaconesses. Rev. Foster spoke in favor of them and I constituted “the loyal opposition.” It was a friendly, “safe” exchange. As far as I have been able to ascertain, the debate and subsequent Q/A were not recorded. Therefore, I have decided to give you the essence of my side of the discussion in installments. I hope that Rev. Foster will also make his paper available to the PCA so that you can hear both sides of the debate.

I would like to go on record stating that this was actually a debate. I hold decided views and settled convictions on this matter; Rev. Foster and I are at opposite ends of the theological spectrum when it comes to deaconesses, as well as the issue of whether it is right to commission male and female deacons. The General Assembly of the PCA has already spoken clearly and unequivocally on this; pastors in the PCA who refuse to conform are, I believe, in an ethical bind. In fact, I am convinced that PCA pastors would not allow the type of blatant rebellion among their congregants that they tolerate in themselves.

My part of the discussion consisted of several parts: an introduction; the biblical background to the controversy; the historical background; the Reformation, Puritan, and Southern Presbyterian background; the Dutch background; the stance of the PCA Book of Church Order and the 36th General Assembly of the PCA’s decision on the matter; the baneful effects of the so-called Second Great Awakening under the leadership of Charles Finney; and finally, some statements which propose solutions for women who want to serve in Christ’s Church.

Therefore, without further ado, let’s get started with my introduction.

Some Introductory Statements

Before I launch into my various points and arguments, I want to make some preliminary and introductory observations and clarifications.

First, my wife is seminary trained. Before we left Toronto, Canada (my second congregation in a foreign country), my wife enrolled in Biblical Counseling at Ontario Theological Seminary. Because of my call to Southern California (my third congregation in a foreign country), she was only able to finish one-year-and-change of her degree; however, in that time and in all her course work, she maintained a 4.0 GPA. In other words, she is semi-literate. I make this observation to make the point that she is quite qualified theologically and is also well-trained in theology. She is, in a word, a student of the Bible. More than that, she is a godly woman, which, by the way, is a strong biblical qualification.

I often hear the argument that certain congregations in the PCA are dealing with “professional” women. But that is a red herring and a false dilemma when it comes to Christ’s Church, isn’t it? The real question is not whether a particular congregation has women who are CEOs, CFOs, doctors, lawyers, or pantsuit business women. Some congregations have more than others, and in reality, most if not all congregations have such women. I know that mine in California does. But the true distinctions we need to be examining are not the distinctions of “professional” or “non-professional,” but rather “godly” or “ungodly.” I certainly believe that a professional woman can be a very godly woman as well, but I also contend that her place in society does not, in any way, qualify her for an ecclesiastical office anymore than a man’s place in society means that he will be a good office-bearer.

Second, my argument is not about gifted women. My own congregation never ceases to amaze me with a view to how many highly gifted and talented women the Lord has sent to us. The women at Grace Presbyterian Church in Yorba Linda are some of the most talented and accomplished women with whom I have ever come into contact. They are intelligent, competent, and uncompromising in their pursuit of God’s truth. They are God-honoring, Christ-centered, Spirit-filled women. Did I mention that they are also very good shots? What I’m aiming at here is merely this: My argument against deaconesses and “commissioning” male and female deacons without ordaining them has nothing whatsoever to do with women being either inept or incompetent. I respect them highly and greatly and am privileged to be in their presence. However, as I will argue later, I also am fully convinced that the practice of “commissioning” male and female deacons is not merely a matter of preference. I will argue that it is thoroughly unbiblical and that those who make this a practice in their congregations are out of step with both Scripture and the BCO.

Third, I will argue more fully that the oft-debated text in 1 Timothy 2:8-15 is not a culturally bound text applying only to a situation in Ephesus when Paul penned these words to Timothy (and the Church). The words are, however, an argument from creation, as the verses 13-15 clearly indicate. The admonition for women to “learn quietly” (συχίᾳ; hēsuchía) and in “all submissiveness” (ν πσ ποταγ; én pásē hupotagē) has reference to the creation order. More than that, it refers to God’s divine order given to both male and female in creation itself. Genesis 1:26-28 makes it abundantly clear that both man and woman are equally created in the image of God. It was God who gave a “helper fit for Adam” (cf. Gen. 2:18). Carolyn Custis James notwithstanding, the Hebrew word for “helper” is not translated “warrior.” This is, on Ms. James’ part, a huge ideological stretch. I have consulted the commentaries of the German scholars Claus Westermann[1] and Gerhand von Rad[2] and they do not translate it as “warrior.” The Dutch Old Testament scholars G.C. Aalders[3] and W.H. Gispen,[4] and also Keil and Delitzsch, John Skinner in the International Critical Commentary, Victor Hamilton in The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, and Bruce Waltke, in his commentary on Genesis all translate Eve as “helper.” Waltke opines that the word “helper” “suggests that the man has governmental priority.”[5]

There are a number of reasons why Ms. James’ translation of “helper” as connoting “warrior” is bogus and self-serving, but consider the following: First, why would God hang the tag of “warrior” on Eve and not say something similar about Adam? Was he away at a knitting class getting in touch with his feminine side when God decided on the name “helper”? Thus, why is Eve the warrior and Adam also not the warrior? Nothing is said about Adam in this regard, so why the woman? Second, why was it necessary for anyone to be a “warrior” prior to the Fall? God took them from the good earth and placed them in a perfect garden–a garden where there was no sin. That is definitely something to think about.

God ordained a particular order in creation. Adam and Eve formed, as it were, the first home and the first marriage. As we know it, the home is the divinely appointed union in which the husband’s servant leadership of his wife and the wife’s submission to and honor of her husband is the bedrock of society and the Church. The divine order established and ordained by God in the home was to be carried over into the Church. When I say this, I am not referring merely to the New Testament Church. Article 27 of the Belgic Confession says this about the nature of God’s Church: “We believe and profess one catholic or universal Church, which is a holy congregation of true Christian believers, all expecting their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by his blood, sanctified, and sealed by the Holy Spirit. This Church has been from the beginning of the world, and will be to the end thereof…” (Emphasis added.) The order God established in the home is meant to carry over into the Church. The divine order is Adam as the federal head and Eve as his helper. Adam is not superior in his creation in the image of God or in the possession of spiritual gifts. There is, however, a functional order and subordination ordained by God that rules out inferiority. This, I am convinced, is what Paul is describing in 1 Timothy 2:8-15. He argues from creation and not from culture.

Fourth, no one I know denies that women appear throughout Scripture as those helping in myriad ways. These are Old Testament and New Testament saints who are highly gifted and talented women, and they do not require an ecclesiastical office to use their gifts in a God-honoring manner. This is an essential point to which we’ll return later. Christians, all Christians, have spiritual gifts and those gifts are to be used for the benefit of the entire congregation; however, not everyone who is gifted has an ecclesiastical office.

This leads me to my fifth introductory remark. The Bible is “restrictive” in many ways, both to men and to women. Therefore, “One must not assume that any restriction, even if it does exclude women from certain aspects of ecclesiastical leadership on the basis of gender, is a new or unusual way for God to work.”[6] Allow me to use an example involving men. No one in the Old Testament appointed himself to the priesthood, did he? The priests were limited to Aaron and to his descendants (cf. Ex. 28:43-29:9; Lev. 8:1-36; 10:8-11; 21:1-15). But there was even a limitation within the limitation. Not all those in Aaron’s lineage were allowed to serve as priests. Being a relative of Aaron was not a free pass to seminary. Not every man in the priestly tribe could serve as a priest. Leviticus 21:5, 16-21 makes it crystal clear that those with certain physical defects were categorically forbidden to serve. Patterson is precisely correct when she concludes, “God has sovereignly reserved the right to set the general boundaries for leadership in the church.”[7]

Finally, those Teaching and Ruling Elders in the PCA who do not act in accordance with their vows to uphold the clear and unequivocal teachings of Scripture and the BCO are in an ethical bind. The major problem is that at the ordination and installation of Teaching and Ruling Elders, a solemn vow is made publicly. It is a sacred vow made in relationship to an ecclesiastical office that cannot be disregarded with impunity.

[1] Claus Westermann, Genesis, in Biblischer Kommentar Altes Testament, (Neukirchen: Neukirchener Verlag, 19762).

[2] Gerhard von Rad, Genesis, in Das alte Testament Deutsch, (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1972.)

[3] G.C. Aalders, Genesis, in Korte Verklaring der Heilige Schrift, (Kampen: Kok, 1933).

[4] W.H. Gispen, Genesis, in Commentaar op het Oude Testament, (Kampen: Kok, 1974).

[5] Bruce Waltke, Genesis, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 88.

[6] Dorothy K. Patterson, “What Should a Woman Do in the Church?” in Andreas J. Köstenberger & Thomas Schreiner, Women in the Church, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 20052), 165.

[7] Ibid., 166.