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 (http://rongleason.blogspot.com) 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.
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.” 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).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.” Next time we’ll look at 1 Timothy 3 and 5.
 Calvin, Acts, 238.
 R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 19614), 247.
Labels: The PCA