Discussing women and deacons

I mentioned a few weeks ago that Philadelphia Presbytery has submitted an overture to the PCA's General Assembly asking the GA to erect a study committee on Deaconesses. That overture has been echoed by the Western Canada Presbytery, and if I'm able to read this sort of thing at all, the committee will almost certainly be erected.

It may be needless to point out that this issue has caused quite a bit of stir and discussion. The PCA's own magazine,
byFaith, has posted a summary of the announcement of the overture and that has generated quite a bit of discussion in the comments. Other, less "official" sources have also hosted a significant amount of discussion as well. A good bit of the discussion is quite helpful, offering finer points and perspectives that would simply be impossible to gather were it not for this Internet/Information Age that we live in.

Sadly, a lot of the discussion has also deteriorated into mostly or totally unhelpful rant, name-calling, and fear-mongering. A few of the points of discussion may be summed up as follows:
  • "Scripture is clear on this matter (OR, arguing that Scripture isn't clear is a sign of our cultural liberalism and feminism)." The thought process here: because the NIV translates 1 Timothy 3:11 with reference to "their wives" instead of (the equally possible) "the women;" and because it translates "diakonos" Romans 16:1 as "servant" because it refers to a woman, then the issue is clearly settled. But who is to say that these translations are filled with cultural bias or the influence of a historical patriarchalism? Anyone who says, "Scripture is clear" has probably only been looking at English translations.

  • "The Book of Church Order (BCO) already prohibits ordaining women as Deacons." The line of thought here: The BCO is a finished, completed document that is utterly faithful to Scripture and never need be changed or amended to be brought closer to the Bible. This is difficult to reconcile with (common sense and) the Westminster Confession of Faith, which says, "All syonds or councils since the apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as an help in both" (WCF 31.4).

  • "The word that is translated 'Deacon' in the Bible for men is obviously translated as 'servant' for women." Thought process: meaning changes substantially, even fundamentally, based solely on gender. This is an interesting foundational principle-- and one I'd like to hear more support for by other examples before accepting, which the arguers haven't provided.

  • "The Apostles' recognition of Phoebe, and other women in the New Testament, was a function of their cultural role-- something that doesn't apply to us." The appeal here is to the historical context, which of course is a fundamental principle in Bible interpretation. The problem is that these same folks will argue that historical context trumps literary context (or the language of the text itself-- see previous bullet) when Phoebe is mentioned, but when dealing with, say, 1 Timothy 3:11, quickly jump to the next argument...

  • "The historical context doesn't apply, since Paul was writing normative principles to Timothy about the qualifications for Deacons." Line of thought: somehow historical context is disposable for any normative portion of biblical text. The problem with that is that it would rule out the context of the deliverance and redemption of Israel out of Egyptian slavery as the setting for the 10 commandments, for example-- which most would agree poses some problems about a classic Reformed understanding of the 10 commandments.

  • "Allowing women as Deacons (even if the Bible permits it) will inevitably lead to handing over all authority in the church to women." The thinking here is a classic slippery slope notion: if one thing is bad or prohibited, then we dare not go near anything close to that thing. (This was a problem that the Pharisees often had, by the way...)

  • "Allowing women as Deacons is granting them authority and leadership that is unbibilcal." The thought trajectory in this argument is that Deacons have authority of the same sort that Elders have, and the Bible forbids women to have such authority. The problems here are rooted in the (mistaken and unbiblical) idea that Deacons are some kind of "Junior Elder" and therefore share in the role of authority with the Elders. But two problems immediately arise from this line of thought: first, the BCO itself defines the office of Deacon as "one of sympathy and service" (BCO 9.1) while it defines the Elder as office of exercising "government and discipline" (BCO 8.3)-- very different roles, one with clear distinction of authority and the other with, at best, less clear distinction. Secondly, the Deacons are "under the supervision and authority of the Session" (BCO 9.2), which begs the question: what authority do they have that, for example, a Sunday School teacher or WIC (Women in the Church) leader doesn't also have?

  • "We already have the WIC; what do we need women as Deacons for?" The idea here being that the WIC serves as a functional body of "Deaconesses" and we should simply let things remain as they are. Here again, there are two problems with this: first, Scripture does not define for us something like a WIC, and if we desire to pattern our bodies of leadership after Scripture then we should be careful about casually assuming that the WIC fulfills a role that Scripture defines for women. Secondly, and more importantly: the WIC is a ministry of leadership, structured specifically to minister to the women in the church; yet, the office of Deacon is broader than just women. Frankly, I learn a lot from women and have benefited from the ministry and teaching of many women-- and I find the suggestion that women should only minister to other women (and children) short-sighted.

  • "We ought to just do like ____ [insert name of a very large PCA church in the south] with the way they handle Deacon's assistants." I was surprised to see this argument made by more than one or two people. The thinking here: So-and-so has figured it out, and they should set the pace for all PCA churches. Again, problems arise: setting aside the very big assumption that the leadership there really has figured it out and has hit upon the perfect biblical solution, what does this have to do with what the BCO says about Deacons and women? But a closer look at the proposed practices reveals the truth: said PCA church's solution is to hire out the work of "serving tables" to outsiders (many of them unbelievers, all of them African-Americans).
I'm not convinced that blogs and discussion boards (mine included) are completely helpful in matters like these. It seems to me that folks are getting so entrenched in their positions, long before GA, that the possibility of healthy, profitable discussion on a study committee-- and even a good appointment of that committee-- is diminished.

I'm not decided about the matter. I've held back from my inclination to dig into the issue and study it to the point of deciding what my mind is about it-- though I'll take the time to do that before GA. But I am struck by this: most of the arguments against the study committee (summarized above) go against my logical inclinations-- committing fallacies and demonstrating inconsistency frequently-- and these weaken the case against a committee significantly. So I'm obviously in favor of erecting a study committee, even if I'm not decided on the issue of women as Deacons/Deaconesses.

Maybe I shouldn't be, but I'm surprised that brothers and sisters in the PCA can't have a more constructive conversation about all of this. As much as anything, reading some of these discussions have caused me to grieve the lack of brotherly love and charitable grace within our denomination, and my heart has frequently been heavy about it over the past few weeks. Why is an overture to study ANY part of the BCO to consider if it is fully and truly based on Scripture so threatening?

One commenter (Scott Truax of Peace Presbyterian Church, Cary, NC) at the
byFaith page summed it up the best: "If we follow Scripture, we have nothing to fear."

"It's a gospel issue"

I was reading this article in Christianity Today about Jim Wallis, who is a leader among a Christians with a progressive political perspective, and I was struck by the fact that Ted Olsen (who interviewed Wallis) asserted that, for some, the issue of blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples is, in Olsen's words, "a gospel issue."

It's not.

Make no mistake: it IS an important issue. And it certainly is an issue of biblical authority. But it is NOT a
gospel issue.

There's a key difference between an issue that is a matter of biblical authority and a "gospel" issue. A Gospel issue is one that actually threatens the truth of the Gospel-- such as a challenge to the incarnation of Christ, an assertion that the resurrection didn't happen, a claim that Jesus didn't live a sinless life, etc. Something that questions the underlying concepts of salvation is a Gospel issue. Thus, when folks in the PCA express their concern about the Federal Vision's position on Justification, for example, they are demonstrating concern about a Gospel issue.

There are a number of issues of biblical authority that aren't Gospel issues. Questions of infant baptism vs. believer's baptism, or of the function of the sacraments, are issues of biblical authority.
These are very important issues. But they aren't matters of Gospel integrity, in the same sense that Jesus being God in the flesh is a matter of Gospel integrity.

Take note of this: it is possible for someone to be in error on an issue of biblical authority and still be a Christian, and it's possible for them to remain in their error and not be considered a heretic. This is because there are differing degrees of error in terms of understanding matters of biblical truth and authority:

Working through this concept, then, Here's how these break down:

  • Truth: these are the real "gospel issues" that are universally agreed-upon as aspects of salvation, as well as a few other core beliefs (which include biblical inerrancy and authority, by the way). You might think of these as that which is required for membership in the church.
  • Mistaken opinions: Minor matters of conscience typically fall here-- someone who is of the opinion that liberty in Christ allows them to drink as much alcohol as they want on occasion, for example, holds a mistaken opinion about biblical truth. In terms of agreement or disagreement, you might think of these matters to be often matters of "semantic" differences-- where often our language and the way we say things suggests differences that suggest differences that aren't really there.
  • Errors: These are problematic, but not necessarily matters to divide over. Issues like "paedocommunion"-- where a child is offered the sacrament of communion on the basis of baptism, not on the basis of a profession of faith-- have been judged to be in this category. As such a matter was recently described by our presbytery, these might be judged as more than semantic, but not out of accord with the fundamentals of our system of doctrine.
  • Systemic errors: When we get to this stage, there are concerns that may lead to division, without requiring that we dismiss those who differ as "unbelievers." For example, in the PCA we hold that the Assemblies of God theologians have instituted systemic error in the way they view the gift of tongues. I would also argue that matters such as the one discussed with Wallis, regarding the blessing of same-sex unions by the church, falls into this category. Presbytery would label these as beliefs which "strike at the vitals of our system of doctrine."
  • Heresy: These are matters that violate the essence of the Gospel-- in other words, they are true "gospel issues" in the same way that the category of "Truth" above is, only in an opposing sense. When the remonstrants challenged the idea of the total depravity of man-- arguing that man in not inherently sinful, that he can, in fact, act in true and pure righteousness-- they were guilty of heresy. (Incidentally, they were judged as such by the courts of the church, and the response to their various points of doctrine was what we call the "five points of Calvinism.")
(Credit to David Jones and Michael Williams for this concept.)

I think it is not just useful, but essential for Christians to gain a better understanding of this. We all disagree on something-- and if you view disagreement as strictly a black-and-white, right or wrong, truth or heresy matter, then you are asserting that someone who is or may be a true brother or sister in Christ has given up the gospel.

Worse, you are asserting that your perspective is completely right and biblical-- which is never the case.

Princess Molly

Over Christmas, my step-sister Louise played princess with Molly. This was the first time, really, that Molly had played princess to that extent, and all of us were a little bit surprised by how much she took to it!

But should we have been? I've been thinking about that, especially since my sister Ann Louise asked me (and others) what we thought about it. I'll try to summarize my thoughts.

The Scriptures clearly portray believers as sons and daughters of the King-- adopted, true, but sons and daughters nevertheless. In fact, when you read the accounts of how the last days will be for believers-- especially in the first part of Revelation 20-- it is clear that, as the holy children of God, set apart for His glory, we will somehow reign with Him in that glory.

What also appears to be true-- as it is latent in the words of all Scripture-- is that we were intended to reign with God from the very beginning. In part, this is what it means to be created in His image. We get this, and long for this, the most when we pause to consider how un-natural our sin is. That is what Plantinga meant when he wrote his marvelous book Not the Way It's Supposed to Be-- that "shalom," true peace and harmony with God, includes a sense of the holiness and majesty that we only see shadows of.

This idea is so rich, and has such broad application to the church. Individually, it means that, when we sin and wallow in the lowliness of instant gratification, forsaking our majesty, we ought to think, "I'm better than that!" Our means to obedience is God's grace, but our motivation for obedience is not only His grace but His dignity bestowed on us in creation, and restored in us through the cross. Corporately, it requires us to re-consider the "us vs. them" mentality that so permeates contemporary Evangelical Christianity. Yes, we are "beggars telling other beggars where to find bread" but only in the sense that the prince and the pauper traded places, and the prince got his first taste of what it means to be a beggar.

This applies to the question directly, because if this is true-- in other words, if what the Scriptures say about "the way it is supposed to be"-- then we were made for royalty. We were made to be princes and princesses. And in childlike understanding, perhaps we express this inclination best when we resonate with stories, tales, movies that suggest that all of us can have a "fairy-tale" life. In fact, it isn't a fairy tale at all.

I think little girls express this through their pretend, while little boys express this through their struggle with what looks to us like independence (but is really more of a spiritual "muscle-flexing" like a prince ought to occasionally try out). Adults express it in similar ways, but it seems much further off-- probably because so much of our view of ourselves and our world has been shaped by fallenness that we can't see past it easily.

The Pevensies weren't out of place as the kings and queens of Narnia; they were right where they were intended to be.

One way I agree with the Federal Vision proponents

One of the controversies brewing in the ranks of the PCA is concerning a theological perspective now known as "Federal Vision". Many will be aware that the PCA's General Assembly appointed a study committee in 2006 to examine Federal Vision theology, and that committee returned in 2007 with their report which was received by the Assembly (though not without some controversy).

This issue is an incredibly difficult one to understand; this is partly because, until very recently, there has not been any clear statement of exactly what it means to adhere to a Federal Vision position-- and, in some people's view, the study committee report mentioned above did not solve this problem, because there were no members of the committee that actually held the position. Others claimed that the committee's report made equivocations between the Federal Vision and other controversial perspectives that are not necessarily associated with Federal Vision. Our own Covenant Presbytery recently bumped into this as an ordained PCA Pastor, in good standing with another presbytery, met significant resistance to his transfer into Covenant Presbytery because of his sympathy toward paedocommunion (offering the sacrament of the Lord's Supper to any baptized child of any age); there seemed to be some concern among a few members of presbytery that his sympathy toward the one (Paedocommunion) automatically cast him in the category of the other (Federal Vision sympathizers). (Thankfully, there has been a document released, called "A Joint Federal Vision Statement," that summarizes their perspective.)

But I digress. In a recent dialogue with others on the blog that a friend of mine writes, I learned a good deal about the structure of the arguments that the Federal Vision (or FV) proponents bring to the table. What I believe many do not realize is that they actually make TWO arguments:

First, they assert that the Westminster Confession of Faith, as helpful as it is, does not offer exhaustive definitions for the terms that it uses to categorize theological concepts. In other words, just as there are often several ways (or definitions) that a word may be used, though we only mean one of those at any particular moment-- so it is with theological terms. They claim that the Bible itself makes use of many terms in broader ways than the Westminster Confession does; thus, they say, the terminology of the Confession is useful, but it isn't exhaustive or comprehensive.

Second, they stipulate that there are other uses for certain terms, and that these other uses could (and, if they are correct, should) change the way that we understand things like church membership, practices of the sacraments, and even how we judge whether someone is justified before Christ.

It is the second argument that has gotten all of the press and attention-- but the first argument has mostly been ignored! This has led to inevitable confusion, because without the first argument then the FV proponents appear to be making all sorts of logical errors and fallacies (when, in fact, they are not).

As far as I have read and learned, I cannot agree with the FV positions on the second argument. However, as far as the first argument goes, I wholeheartedly agree. I love the Westminster Confession, and agree with it almost completely (and Covenant Presbytery has indicated that the ways that I disagree are not even substantial enough to be considered exceptions). But I do not believe it is a sufficient and comprehensive measure of truth; in fact, the Confession itself claims that it is not so. We need the Bible for many reasons-- and one of them is that it presents us with a richer, fuller sense of what theological concepts mean than what any systematic theology can offer.