If, as a denomination we believe that women serving in the office of deacon is unbiblical, we must make it clear that BCO 9-7 does not allow women to be elected to or serve in the office of deacon.
It had been my intention to support Overture 2 from Central Carolina Presbytery on the subject of deaconesses but unfortunately, the Committee on Constitutional Business (CCB) has ruled Overture 2 to be in conflict with the constitution because it “is contrary to the Constitution as it relies upon the following unwarranted assumptions about the Constitution: (1) that the term “deaconess” necessarily denotes an office equivalent to that of deacon, whereas in Scripture, to which the Constitution is subject, the term diakonos is most commonly used to refer to a person being a servant and not an office bearer; and (2) that it restricts the use of a term (“commissioned”) not defined in the Constitution and uses the term as equivalent to the actions of ordination and installation.”
I will admit that I am completely befuddled by this reasoning and still don’t fully understand how restricting churches from “commissioning deaconesses” could possibly be contrary to the constitution when neither term is ever used in the constitution itself.
But since fighting against the CCB declaration would be almost impossible, I have decided instead to support Overture 13 from Westminster Presbytery [Editor’s note: the original URL (link) referenced is no longer valid, so the link has been removed.], which is essentially the Central Carolina overture without the two terms CCB found to be unconstitutional (deaconess and commission). Overture 13 would amend BCO 9-7 by adding this sentence:
These assistants to the deacons shall not be referred to as deacons, nor are they to be elected by the congregation, ordained, or installed as though they were office bearers in the church.
Here are reasons why I believe that the amendment proposed by this overture is so necessary along with some arguments against common objections:
Introduction: In 1973 in their message to the churches the founders of the PCA explained why the felt it was necessary to leave the PCUS and found a new denomination, amongst those reason they identified several “deviations in doctrine and practice from historic Presbyterian positions” amongst them was “the ordination of women” they went on to state regarding these non-biblical changes:
Change in the Presbyterian Church in the United States came as a gradual thing, and its ascendancy in the denomination, over a long period of time. We confess that it should not have been permitted. Views and practices that undermine and supplant the system of doctrine or polity of a confessional Church ought never to be tolerated. A Church that will not exercise discipline will not long be able to maintain pure doctrine or godly practice.
We once again find ourselves in a position where “gradual changes” in our polity regarding women are being actively pursued and the question is whether we will allow them or whether we will definitively say no, now before we find ourselves drafting yet another “message to the churches.”
That these changes are being actively pursued is undeniable, recently the presbyteries of Northern California, Metro Atlanta and Metro New York adopted proposals that state that they believe that no less than 6 different positions regarding women in the diaconate are, and I quote “in conformity with the general principles of biblical polity”
Some will no doubt believe that allowing women to serve in the office of deaconess isn’t that important and that we should only bother fighting over whether women can be elders. This reasoning is faulty as history indicates that if a denomination of our size loses the fight over whether women can serve as deaconesses it will inevitably also lose the fight over whether women can serve as elders.
For instance, while it took 40 years of constant pressure before women were permitted to serve as deaconesses in the PCUSA, after that it only took eight before they were allowed to serve in the office of elder!
I) Why is this overture needed?
At present, the polity of the PCA in regard to the office of deacon is falling into disarray. While most churches are still following the BCO’s instructions regarding deacons. Other congregations have female deaconesses or deacons, and in many cases they are elected and trained in exactly the same manner as male deacons, and then serve on the diaconate.
In some cases deaconesses are actually in charge of the diaconal ministry of their church, which means they cannot possibly be “assistants to the deacons.” Other churches have chosen to protest the decision not to allow female deacons by not having an ordained diaconate at all and instead have an unordained body of equal men and women carry out the tasks normally assigned to the diaconate.
This creates a MIXED polity with at least two and possibly even three differing practices regarding the biblical office of deacon in the PCA. All of these practices are currently being justified to a greater or lesser extent via a highly questionable interpretation of the “assistants to the deacons” provision of BCO 9-7. If, as a denomination we believe that a woman serving in the office of deacon is unbiblical, we must make it clear that BCO 9-7 does not allow women to be elected to or serve in the office of deacon.
II. Answers to some common objections
1) Wouldn’t this prevent women from serving in other roles in the church and why are we adding new restrictions to the BCO? The only group this overture applies to is “These assistants to the deacons” not Sunday School Teachers, Short Term Missionaries, etc. There is nothing ambiguous about the scope of the overture.
The overture doesn’t add anything new to the BCO; it merely makes clear what the BCO actually teaches. Neither is anything the BCO actually allows being forbidden.
Women can still be appointed Assistants to the Deacons and be called “Assistant to the Deacons” under this overture. This overture merely makes it clear that they are not to be elected and installed as deacons. No opportunities for women to serve in the church that are currently allowed in the BCO are being taken away.
2) The RPCNA has female deacons, and they don’t have female elders, so why shouldn’t we also have them? The RPCNA is often pointed to as an example of a Presbyterian denomination that did not ordain women to the office of Elder after deciding to ordain women to the office of Deacon.
What is often overlooked is the fact that the RPCNA decided to ordain women to the office of deacon at time when it was moving in a theologically liberal direction and that subsequently the RPCNA Synod DID vote to revise their Book of Church Order to ordain women to the office of elder. This change to their book narrowly failed to receive the required ratifying 2/3rds vote of their sessions. So to say that this proves that having women deacons does not necessarily lead to having women elders is rather like saying that because you know of someone who just barely survived, you’ve concluded that crossing the highway at rush hour isn’t dangerous.
Additionally, the RPCNA is nowhere near our size. Historically every denomination of a comparable size to the PCA that has chosen to approve the election of women to the office of deacon, such as the CRC and the PCUSA, has also moved on to elect women to the office of elder. This is despite the fact that these denominations VOWED they would never do so.
3) Some RPCES congregations had female deacons and they became part of the PCA so doesn’t that mean we adopted their practice? While some former RPCES congregations had deaconesses, these deaconesses constituted “a separate body of unordained women” and were NOT part of the diaconate as they currently are in several PCA churches.
Additionally, the RPCES joined and was received into the PCA, not vice-versa. The RPCES agreed to be governed by and comply with our book of church order when they joined the PCA, specifically the RPCES churches were “called upon to follow the faith and order of the church that they enter[ed]” (The PCA.)
Also, many of the churches that now have women deaconesses have no relationship to the former RPCES. Several are churches that started long after J&R.
4) If we adopt overture 13 aren’t we being anti-women? This overture is NOT ANTI-WOMEN nor do we believe that desiring them to be acknowledged as officers in the church is PRO-WOMEN. Women are not a constituency, an interest group, a minority, or a monolithic bloc, and we do them a great disservice when we speak of them as though they are, in the courts of the church.
We greatly err if we assume that all PCA women, or even the majority of PCA women, are in favor of female deacons. The women of many PCA congregations SUPPORT and are praying for the success of this overture. In fact, this overture was partly the result of the requests of several complementarian women in the PCA who are unhappy about the attempts in the last two presbyteries to promote an enlarged role for women in the ministries of the church.
In Conclusion: Whenever the subject of deaconesses is discussed we inevitably hear statements along the lines of “none of us wants to see women ordained.” This language needs to be amended because clearly there are men and women in the PCA who do want to see women ordained.
We’ve had at least two high-profile church plants, both of which were heavily subsidized by MNA, leave for the Reformed Church in America (RCA) largely because they believed women should be ordained. This is especially alarming because the RCA is theologically to the left of the CRC. Clearly, while there are some complementarians in the PCA movement eager to revisit women’s roles in the church, we need to acknowledge that there are also egalitarians.
The real problem of the feminization of the evangelical church also needs to be acknowledged. If any study committee is really needed by the PCA, it is a study committee designed to figure out why men are leaving the church in unprecedented numbers and what we can do about it. In his book Why Men Hate Going to Church (Thomas Nelson, 2005), David Murrow cites the following sobering statistics:
· Just 35 percent of men in the U.S. attend church weekly.
· Women comprise more than 60 percent of the typical adult congregation on any given Sunday.
· At least one-fifth of married women regularly worship without their husbands.
· The majority of men attend services and nothing more.
· Men 18-29 are the least likely demographic group to be in church.
Any sort of objective view of the situation would tell us that American Christianity is in no danger of excluding females. Women already dominate in most denominations, and fewer and fewer denominations place any limitations on female ordination.
For instance, our own congregation is boxed in on our street by a PCUSA church with a female pastor and a mostly older female congregation, a Baptist church also with a mostly female membership, and now a Pentecostal church also with a female pastor and a female congregation. Our congregation is one of the only churches in the area with a strong representation of young males, and not coincidentally we are also one of the last hold-outs committed to exclusively male leadership.
Of all the problems evangelicalism is grappling with, excessive male involvement is not one of them, and certainly the available evidence indicates that as female leadership in the church waxes, male involvement wanes.
APPENDIX: Was Phoebe a Deaconess?
From the New Testament Commentary on Romans by William Hendriksen.
By Calling Phoebe a servant of Cenchrea’s church Paul probably means that she occupied a stable position, performed a definite and important function, in and for the church. She is accordingly called a diakonos of that congregation. In Rom. 15:8 Christ was described as having become a diakonos, that is, a servant, of the circumcised. To them he ministered. However, the word Diakonos can also be used in a more specialized or technical sense. In Phil. 1:1 and I Tim. 3:8 it refers, in the plural, to deacons.
If that technical sense pertains to the word as used here in Rom. 16:1, then Paul is calling Phoebe a deaconess. Now it must be granted that in a later century the ecclesiastical office of deaconess was not unknown. The question, however is “Does the New Testament either here (Rom. 16:1) or anywhere else, refer to such an ecclesiastical office, namely, that of deaconess?” On this subject there is a division of opinion.
The absence of any mention of deaconesses in the rest of the New Testament is a fact. … In order to discover what kind of specific function Paul has in mind when he calls Phoebe a diakonos of the church at Cenchrea, we should pay close attention to what he says; namely, “Extend to her a welcome in the Lord that is worthy of the saints,” meaning, such a welcome as would be fitting for saints to give. He adds, “Give her any help she may need … for she has been a helper to many people and to me personally.”
This may well be the key to the solution of the problem we are discussing. In light of the facts reported in 16:1, 2, what kind of help would Phoebe need when she arrived in Rome, which was clearly not the place of her residence? Would it not be protection and especially hospitality? And what kind of help did those travelers need who were passing through, and stopping over at, the seaport Cenchrea, Phoebe’s home-town, proceeding from west to east or from east to west? Is it not a fact that even today such very busy junctions make strangers feel somewhat uneasy? Was not what they needed a cordial word of greeting, good advice, protection against danger, and frequently even a friendly home in which to pass the night, or even the days and nights until the next ship would leave harbor on the way to their destination?
In a word it was hospitality that was needed at very busy Cenchrea. And it was hospitality Phoebe knew how to offer. Is it not probable that, like Lydia (Acts 16:11-15, 40), Phoebe was a well-to-do Christian lady, blessed with an alert mind and with a heart overflowing with the spirit of kindness and helpfulness? Perhaps, also like Lydia, Phoebe was a businesswoman.
We can well understand that Paul must have referred many a “case” to Phoebe. For that reason, and probably also for other reasons, Paul is able to say, “For she has been a great help to many people and to me personally.”
The lesson is clear Two extremes should be avoided: (a) that of ordaining women to an ecclesiastical office when there is no warrant for doing so in Scripture; and (b) that of ignoring the very important and valuable services devout and alert women are able to render to the church of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Andrew Webb is pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville, N.C.