On Women in the Office of Deacon

protesting-suffragettes-early-1900s1The following is an excerpt from a paper presented to the Candidates and Credentials Committee of the  Midwest Presbytery of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) on October 27, 2014:

Deacons are officers in the church set apart by ordination to lead and manage the church’s ministries of love and material provision, and to exhort and stir up the congregation to love one another in practical ways. They have the same spiritual qualifications as elders.  They were first ordained as recorded in Acts 6:6, after a controversy had arisen from the Greek-speaking Christians in the Church at Jerusalem, who contended that their widows were neglected while the Aramaic-speaking widows were not.  It is notable that the seven first deacons, apart from being male, appear to also have Greek names.  The context indicates that they were to perform a portion of the same duties that the apostles were fulfilling, (yet perhaps providing for the Greek-speaking widows, with the apostles continuing to serve the Aramaic-speaking widows.)  (Examples of deacons preaching authoritatively, as Stephen in Acts 6:10 and Philip in Acts 8:4-6, also warrant further investigation.)  If we are to follow this original institution and apply it to the Church today, deacons are assistants to the spiritual leadership of the Church, helpers to the session in the context of a local church, performing functions that the session would otherwise do themselves if there were no deacons.  If elders must be male, then it follows logically that those office-bearers who assist them by performing some of the same duties that they themselves would perform as elders, it follows that deacons must also be male.  If it is not proper for elders to delegate these duties at all unless their particular assistants aka. deacons are available, and if they must otherwise perform the duties themselves as elders, then this same headship qualification of being a male must apply to deacons as it does for elders.

1 Tim 3:11-12 “11 γυναῖκας ὡσαύτως σεμνάς, μὴ διαβόλους, νηφαλίους, πιστὰς ἐν πᾶσιν. 12 διάκονοι ἔστωσαν μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρες, τέκνων καλῶς προϊστάμενοι καὶ τῶν ἰδίων οἴκων·”

The late Rev. Christian Adjemian took “γυναῖκας” in 1 Tim 3:11-12 as a reference to women deacons, arguing that it would make more sense that verse 11 would follow verse 12 instead of preceding it, if the reference were to the wives of deacons. He argues that it is unnatural to take “γυναῖκας” in verse 11 as “wives.”  I do not agree.  In the literary form of a letter, of which 1 Timothy is an exemplar, the structure is more extemporaneous and conversational than would be the case in a work that was edited and went through several redactions and revisions.  It seems quite natural that after referencing bishops or overseers earlier in the chapter, where the wives of the same are not given specific qualifications, but referenced in that the bishops are to be “husbands of one wife” and govern their families well, the wives of deacons would now also come to mind.  (The qualifications given for deacons’ wives are not specifically applied to bishops’ wives, but this should be inferred as an implication by good and necessary consequence from the chapter, i. e. that the same qualifications hold for the wives of the bishops.)  Now, having mentioned and given qualifications for the wives of deacons, the thoughts of the apostle writing this letter would naturally light upon the marriage and family life of the deacons with their wives.  There is nothing unnatural about this flow of consciousness.  It must be noted that a pastoral epistle is not written in the most precisely logical order possible, as if it were a doctoral thesis or a work of systematic theology.  It is a letter.

Dr. Leonard Coppes, in his book, “Who Will Lead Us”, notes that “γυναῖκας” in 1Tim3:11 is found in parallel contrast to “Διακόνους” in verse 8, suggesting that here a different group separate from the deacons is in view (p. 137.) This suggests the correct understanding is that it either refers to the wives of the deacons, or some other group of women who were not a part of the diaconate mentioned in verse 8.  Probably the former interpretation is likely, since this passage does not mention any other group of individuals in the church other than bishops, deacons, and the wives of both, (although Coppes prefers to understand them as an unordained class of women in the church who may have been used to tend widows and women who were ill.)  As noted by B. B. Warfield [(The Presbyterian Review, 10.38, pp. 283, 284.)] and others, Romans 16:1 and its reference to Phoebe is not a conclusive basis on which to build a definition of a distinct office in the Church, given the range of meaning of the term “διάκονον” variously rendered as deacon, minister, servant, etc.

The qualifications given for deacon in 1 Timothy 8:10 are the identical spiritual qualifications given for bishop in 8:2-7. If elders must be male, it follows that deacons must be male.  It is notable that the RPCNA itself did not ordain women deacons until the 1880s, a turbulent time when the early feminist movement was pushing for equal rights for women in many spheres of life, and that around the same time a measure to bring deaconesses into the [Presbyterian Church (USA)] was defeated, as noted by Rev. Brian Schwertley (“A Historical and Biblical Examination of Women Deacons”, p. 1).  This timeline suggests that perhaps the impulse to bring women deacons into the RPCNA was more political than exegetical.  It should also be noted that although now and then in church history an office of “widow” or “deaconess” arises, at no time in history, not in the early church, or any other age until the nineteenth century, were women admitted to an identical office with that of the deacon to rule with them over the administration of mercy ministry as members of the diaconate.  At least, in none of the sources that this author has examined, including those provided [by the committee], no such argument has been made.  All the various historical sources concur on this point.  The offices of the church are appointed by Christ the head for the good of the body (Ephesians 4:11-12), and based on the regulative principle, the church has no more right to innovate in the offices of the church than it does in the polity (presbyterial) or worship commanded in Scripture.

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