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” (ἡσυχίᾳ; hēsuchía) and in “all submissiveness” (ἐν πάσῃ ὑποταγῇ; 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 and Gerhand von Rad and they do not translate it as “warrior.” The Dutch Old Testament scholars G.C. Aalders and W.H. Gispen, 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.”
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.” 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.”
 Claus Westermann, Genesis, in Biblischer Kommentar Altes Testament, (Neukirchen: Neukirchener Verlag, 19762).
 Gerhard von Rad, Genesis, in Das alte Testament Deutsch, (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1972.)
 G.C. Aalders, Genesis, in Korte Verklaring der Heilige Schrift, (Kampen: Kok, 1933).
 W.H. Gispen, Genesis, in Commentaar op het Oude Testament, (Kampen: Kok, 1974).
 Bruce Waltke, Genesis, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 88.
 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.
 Ibid., 166.
Labels: The PCA