I realize that this compromise solution will not satisfy those who honestly believe that the Bible teaches that women should be ordained to the office of deacon, nor will it satisfy those who believe that keeping existing female deacons in their office is a scandal, but it is simply impossible to propose a solution to this issue that will satisfy everyone in the ARP, and I honestly believe that this one would satisfy more people on both sides of the issue than maintaining the increasingly contentious status quo.
I’ll admit that I was disappointed by the study committee report of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP) . It was my hope that after the painstaking exegetical work that was done by First Presbytery and Dr. Bob Cara, the Committee would also seek to wrestle with what the Bible teaches about the office of Deacon and who may hold it. Even if they didn’t agree with the conclusions that First Presbytery had come to, I hoped that they would show via exegesis and argument why women as well as men should be allowed to hold the office of deacon. Sadly, the report contained no exegetical work but argued rather that the status quo (“The Session of each congregation shall determine whether women can serve as deacons in their own particular congregation ARP FOG 5.4) should be continued primarily because:
I) Two other NAPARC churches have female deacons (the RPCNA and the ERQ) and members of other NAPARC churches have unsuccessfully attempted to introduce female deacons to their own denominations. Therefore, since NAPARC allows for a difference of opinion on this subject, we are merely mirroring the overall NAPARC position (Sections 1 & 5 of the Committee Report)
II) The office of deacon, as it is currently explained in the ARP Form of Government is not one of authority and does not require the obedience of church members. (Sections 3 & 4 of the Committee Report)
III) There are differences of opinion on this subject in the ARP and presumably a change might damage the current balance and cause churches that have female deacons to withdraw. (Section 5 of the Committee Report)
IV) There have been orthodox Reformed theologians who have held to the position that women can be deacons (Section 7 of the report)
My thoughts in response are that:
1) We are a denomination that specifically states that our government is to be founded upon the teaching of scripture in the Old and New Testaments (FOG 2.2) not the practice of other denominations, the beliefs of individuals, nor even a desire to avoid conflict. Therefore, we need to face the fact that whatever the actual practice of the New Testament church was regarding deacons, it was not the current practice of the ARP. While an argument might be made that the New Testament church had female deacons, there is no evidence to suggest that some congregations had deaconesses and others explicitly denied them. If Phoebe was an ordained deaconess in Cenchrea (Romans 16:1) rather than simply a servant of the church, then she did not cease to be a deaconess when she reached Rome because some or all the congregations in that city held a different opinion regarding who should be ordained to that office. What the committee needed to do was to examine the scriptures and come to a conclusion over whether women should or should not be ordained to the office of deacon rather than concluding that we need to reaffirm a position that I don’t believe any of us believe is the one taught in Scripture. Additionally, since we believe that it is the Holy Spirit who gifts and calls people for office in the church, do we really believe that the Holy Spirit does so according to geographic location calling and gifting some women in one location but declining to call and gift them if they are in another? Additionally, I would argue our current position isn’t even Presbyterian as Presbyterians have always held that church office is universal rather than merely congregational.
2) The Committee report also does not address the fact that the ARP did not ordain women to the office of deacon from its inception until 1971. This was a major change in historic ARP polity that came as part of the revisions to the Form of Government brought by the Committee to Revise the Constitution. While most of the other revisions passed with little debate the revision to allow congregations to elect women to diaconate was highly contentious and Ware and Gettys note in their History of the Associate Reformed Presbyterians, “The proposed constitution passed the overture votes easily except for chapter VII. That chapter allowed for the election of “persons” to the office of deacon… The vote in overture on this chapter was 154 to 73. Two-thirds majority was required and this chapter passed, but by only five votes.” They go on to note that resistance to this radical change in ARP polity continued and Mississippi Valley Presbytery created its own committee to study the issue and then sent a memorial to the 1973 Synod asking that the chapter be changed back to its original position restricting the office to only males. However, the synod denied this memorial. (The Second Century, A History of the Associate Reformed Presbyterians 1882-1982, p.387-388)