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.

Women in church leadership

One of the more difficult questions facing many churches (and I say "many" because some churches have answered the question for themselves, not because it isn't a question for them) is, what is the role of women in leadership in the church?

The PCA has, since its inception, proclaimed a "complementarian" position on women in leadership. The "complementarian" view stands squarely between the egalitarian (with unequivocal removal of distinction between men and women in terms of leadership and/or authority) and the patriarchal (with unequivocal denial of any sort of leadership or authority to any woman). How to implement this has frequently been in dispute: at worst, the complementarian position appears little different from the patriarchal position, with perhaps the exception of allowing women to minister to other women (and usually children); at best, applying the complementarian view is summed up in the idea that a woman may perform any act of service or leadership (apart from preaching in public worship) that a non-ordained man may also perform.

One complicating factor in applying the complementarian position has been that the PCA's Book of Church Order (BCO) does not
currently allow for women to be "ordained" to any leadership office-- Elder or Deacon. An overture for the upcoming General Assembly, from the Philadelphia Presbytery, may bring some modification to this, or at least clarification for how it is to be implemented. I appreciate the spirit of this overture, and how it asks for clarification even if the "status quo" is maintained. Should the BCO be amended to allow women to serve as Deacons, it might actually make the issue more complex-- but in this case simplicity hasn't historically proven to be beneficial, when it comes to the application of seemingly simple ideas. Simplicity in this issue usually results in either denying women opportunity or ignoring biblical guidance.

Another complicating factor, ironically, is the difference between leadership and authority. Ironically, because for years (centuries? millennia?) this has been the argument that I have heard tossed back at women who argue that they are denied opportunity for service and the exercise of their gifts. Yet more recently confusion on this point has been the justification for relegating women to only teaching children or perhaps other women. Why is granting women a role of leadership a tacit breech of biblical distinctions for authority?

As a counterexample: if leadership somehow equals authority to the point where biblical boundaries are crossed, why have a two-office view (Elders and Deacons) in the first place? Isn't the granting of authority to
male Deacons at least raising the possibility that the boundaries will be crossed? Of course it is-- and sometimes those boundaries ARE crossed. Yet we don't eliminate the office of Deacon to protect the authority of the Elder. We don't eliminate the organization of a presbytery to protect the authority of the local congregation, either. Thus, we shouldn't prevent women from having a role of leadership simply to limit their authority.

I'm glad for the Philadelphia Presbytery overture, and I look forward to seeing the PCA mature through this discussion. What do you think?

Is atonement even possible?

This clip from NBC's E.R. perfectly illustrates the emptiness of believing in nothing much at all. In the end, the "hope" that comes from the warm, sweet, sentimental stuff of "whatever works for you" and "we're all just trying our best" is empty, shallow, and pretty hopeless. "Sometimes it's easier to feel guilty than forgiven" sounds great when the realities of eternity are distant and objective; when eternity is near, however, I would respond just as this man did: "what does that even mean?"

The work of the cross, though-- while difficult to face in its true, unvarnished reality-- is a work that offers substance when real hope is needed. When you're facing the hard facts of death, judgment, and condemnation, you need "someone who will look [you] in the eye and tell [you] how to find forgiveness."

The only hope-- the only answer to the question, "is atonement even possible? What does God want from me?"-- is the hope of the cross.

Ed Stetzer)

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.

Theological worldview quiz

I took a quiz today on "what is your theological worldview?" I'd be interested to know: how did you score on this quiz? If you would, take the quiz and list the top three, including percentages. Thanks!

The results, for me at least, are not very surprising:

What's your theological worldview?
created with QuizFarm.com
You scored as Reformed Evangelical

You are a Reformed Evangelical. You take the Bible very seriously because it is God's Word. You most likely hold to TULIP and are sceptical about the possibilities of universal atonement or resistible grace. The most important thing the Church can do is make sure people hear how they can go to heaven when they die.

Reformed Evangelical




Evangelical Holiness/Wesleyan


Neo orthodox


Roman Catholic




Classical Liberal




Modern Liberal