Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Female Deacons and Church Unity

Should the church ordain women as deacons?

The Canadian Reformed Churches say No; the Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPCNA) says Yes.

Since the CanRC is seeking to establish ecclesiastical fellowship with the RPCNA, its Synod 2007 assigned the Committee for Contact with Churches in North America (CCCNA) to investigate the views of the RPCNA on the ordaining women as deacons.

The CCCNA now reports to CanRC Synod 2010 that, whereas the RPCNA permits the ordination of women to the office of deacon, the RPCNA conceives that it to be strictly an office of administration and not of authority. It is not a ruling or teaching office. The deacons do not sit together with the elders as a governing body. The deacons remain under the oversight of elders.

Further, the CCCNA reports that the RPCNA has ordained women deacons since the 1800's (1888, to be exact), before the modern feminist movement. Thus, they assert, the basis for women deacons is the exegesis of biblical texts rather than feminist pressure.

The CCCNA concludes, “While we can continue to discuss whether female deacons as an administrative office is the best or most responsible understanding of the Scriptural data, this office as the RPCNA has it does not appear to contravene Scripture or Confession." [my emphasis]
(Reports to General Synod 2010, Vol.1, 196-197).

The committee thus recommends that Synod decide: That the views of the RPCNA with respect to ordaining women as deacons have been investigated and that they do not present an obstacle to the establishment of ecclesiastical fellowship (ibid, p.199).

Is this recommendation justified? Let's examine the situation more closely:

1. The above report suggests that, since the RPCNA has ordained women since 1888, feminism played no role. This is contested by Rev. Brian M. Schwertley, a former pastor in the RPCNA, in his article A Historical and Biblical Examination of Women Deacons. This article, by the way, gives an excellent overview of the case against the ordination of women deacons. Schwertley gives an interesting historical analysis of the RPCNA decision, showing that the feminism of the time was indeed a decisive factor. It is noteworthy that, in 1939, the RPCNA Synod allowed for women to be ordained also as elders, but this just failed to be ratified by the required 2/3rds of the sessions.

2. The CCCNA itself notes, in an appendix, some inconsistencies in the RPCNA conception of the office of deacon. The RPCNA Constitution lists a number of deaconal duties that “have some measure of authority over and the calling to teach also the men of the church” (ibid, p.217). Thus, in fact, this office as defined by the RPCNA does involve authority and teaching.

3. The Bible clearly prohibits women from teaching or being in authority over men (cf I Tim.2:12) and specifies that ordained deacons should be men (cf Acts 6:3; I Tim.3:12). See Schwertley's above-mentioned article for a detailed examination of other relevant biblical texts.

4. The CCCNA itself notes that “within the RPCNA the presence of female deacons is a debated point, with some ministers declaring an exception to this at their ordination” (p.197). Thus, even within the RPCNA, it seems that some ministers are strongly convinced that women deacons are unscriptural.

5. The Belgic Confession also specifies that deacons are to be “faithful men”. The word "men" is here meant in a specifically masculine, rather than generic, sense. Rev. Daniel Hyde in his commentary With Heart and Mouth: An Exposition of the Belgic Confession explains, “Not only is the noun in the French text, personnage, masculine, but also the noun in the Latin text is even more explicit, viri, which is the word for a man”.

6. CanRC Synod 2007 cautioned the Reformed Churches in New Zealand about their relationship with the Christian Reformed Church in Australia (CRCA) because the CRCA ordains women to the office of deacon (Acts 2007: 34-35). In CRCA churches with women deacons, the deacons may not be part of the ruling body of the church. Hence the CRCA position on women deacons is similar to that of the RPCNA. Thus our CCCNA is now condoning precisely that which Synod 2007 cautioned against.

Given these considerations, I am rather astounded that the CCCNA can conclude that the RPCNA ordination of women deacons does not contravene Scripture or Confession.

Consider the implications. If ordaining female deacons contravenes neither Scripture nor Confession,as the CCCNA claims, does this not entail that those RPCNA ministers objecting to female deacons have unscriptural and unconfessional motives? Indeed, what would prohibit the CanRC itself from ordaining women deacons? All one would have to do, it seems, is to remove the deacons from the ruling council. In fact, this is exactly how the Christian Reformed Church, in 1984, commenced its opening of offices to women.

Clearly, the views of the RPCNA with respect to ordaining women as deacons do in fact contravene both Scripture and Confession. Thus this does present a serious obstacle to the establishment of ecclesiastical fellowship. Hence Synod 2010 should urge the RPCNA to reconsider its stance on women deacons.


Anonymous said...

John, what of Phoebe in Rom. 16? She is called a diakonos of the church, and commended by Paul for her role, is she not? Note too that in the greek Phoebe is so called with the masculine form of the noun (diakonos).

Dennis Venema

Slabbert said...

See here who Febe was:

See also here, dr. George Knight's article why women cannot be deacons: (Go to the 'Vrou in die ampte' link). The article itself is there in English: "Should women be elected to the office of deacon?"

john byl said...


Thanks for your comment. And Slabbert, thanks for your useful links.

I should add that Brian Schwertley, in the above article I linked, has a long discussion on Romans 16:1-2. He concludes that Phoebe belonged to the order of widows. Let me quote just one paragraph:

“The duty of interpreters is to interpret Scripture within both a narrow and a broad context. Scripture is to be used to interpret Scripture. The clearer passages are to be used to shed light on the more difficult and ambiguous passages. Everyone acknowledges that Romans 16:1-2 cannot be properly understood in isolation. When the different interpretations are compared, we should pick the interpretation that best fits in with the more explicit passages on church ecclesiology. Those interpreters who believe that Phoebe was an ordained deacon in the same office with male deacons have a serious problem. The clear passages on the subject (Ac. 6:1-6; 1 Tim. 3:8-10, 12) contradict their assertion. Thus they are forced to reinterpret the clear passages to somehow not contradict their interpretation of a disputed, ambiguous passage. Those interpreters, such as Calvin and Rutherford, who argue that Phoebe was in the order of widows do justice to the immediate as well as to the broader context. They are not forced into embarrassing exegetical gymnastics to circumvent the clear teaching of Acts 6:1-6 and 1 Timothy 3:12.”

Anonymous said...

Hi John,

A quick scan of the greek shows that the term diakonos is not used to refer to the seven men appointed in Acts 6:1-6. I think to use this passage as "clear teaching on the office of deacon" is thus in question. Interestingly, Peter says their appointment is to allow the twelve to continue serving the word (diakonia tos logos). The usage of servant/deacon language here is tied to what I would argue is a teaching function (serving the word).

I think what one considers "clear teaching" and what one considers "obscure" must also be open to examination.



Anonymous said...

mea cupla- there is the use of the word to describe "serving tables" - contrasted with "serving the word." Are you saying that the function the seven provide is the equivalent of the office of deacon in the NT?

Dennis Venema

John Byl said...

Hi Dennis

Yes, that seems to be the case.

Schwertley writes:

"Aside from a few rare exceptions,the church throughout its entire history has interpreted Acts 6:1-6 as the institution of the diaconal office."

"The Constitution of the RPCNA...officially recognizes Acts 6:1-3 as the institution of the diaconal office."

Also, in the Belgic Confession Acts 6 is cited in connection with the deacon's office (Art.30 & 31). The CanRC form for ordination of deacons cites Acts 6 as the institution of the office of deacon.

See also, for example, the article of George Knight mentioned by Slabbert ( (Go to the 'Vrou in die ampte' link). Knight writes:

"The seven elected at Jerusalem were elected ‘to serve tables’ (Acts 6:2, using
the correlative verb form of the noun diakonos, namely, diakonÅ¡o), and the description of their office in correlation with that of the apostles(the first elders, see 1 Peter 5:1) leads one to recognize that they were the first ‘deacons'."

Slabbert said...

1. In the 'Form for Elder and Deacons' of the CanRC, Filp.1:1 and Acts 6:1-7 are the Scripture references at this paragraph:

"For the sake of this service of love, Christ has given deacons to His church (Filp.1:1) When the apostles realized that they would have to give up preaching the Word of God if they had to devote their full attention to the daily support of the needy, they assigned this duty to seven brothers chosen by the congregation (Acts 6:1-7). It is therefore the responsibility of the deacons to see to the good progress of this service of charity in the church."

2. The meaning of a word is not only determined by etymology, but also use and context. The word 'diakonos' basically has a primary (one who serves in different settings, Rom.16:1) and secondary meaning (the specific office of someone who serves, 1 Tim.3). Context must determine which one to use. Christ, Paul, other persons and even the devil's followers are called 'diakonos' (Rom.15:8; 1 Cor.3:5; 2 Cor.11:14,15; Col.1:17; etc.), but that does not mean any of them stood in die 'office of deacon'.

In one of our Afrikaans translation's over here, the 'diakonon' of Rom.16:1 were translated as 'deaconess', probably with some agenda, and not as 'servant' as most other translations of the Bible do here. The context of Rom.16:1 is also not about 'deacon offices', but 'greetings' to and different people's servanthood. Maybe the word 'helper' (prostatis) in v.2 should be given more attention about what her calling actually was. Maybe she was one of the 'prominent woman' of Acts 13:50; 17:12 and used her influence to help and protect the Lord's flock, also her officers, like Paul ?

Anonymous said...

Why do some men continually ignore the female prophets in the bible. We can do more than bake for consistory meetings...

brad said...

I think it might be of interest to note that if you look at 1 Timothy 3:8-13 as Paul is laying out the qualifications for deacons following the qualifications of elders that he adds in the line translated "In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything." vs 11.

In Greek the word translated "their wives" is only the word "wives" or "women" and could very well imply that these are qualifications for a female deacon.

It also might be important to note that deacons are servant evangelist and have no authority over the body that is the responsibility of the Elders. And when we look at Elders qualifications there is nothing at all said about the "wives" or "women" listed in the qualifications.

Also in Romans 16:1 the word translated "commend" is the same as the word for ordain. This is just something to think about.

john byl said...

Hi Brad

Thanks for your thoughts. I refer you to the detailed discussion by Schwertley on 1 Tim.3:8-13

He argues that, if it is to refer to "women" rather than "wives" then it is more plausible that it refers to "deaconesses" in the sense of the order of widows (1 Tim.5:9), whose duties differed from that of male deacons.

Henry said...

Hi Dr Byl,

may I briefly ask what is your church's (and your own) interpretation of 1Cor14:34 in light of 1Cor11:5? Do you take the Grudem/Carson approach (that it is only referring to judging prophecy) or do you take a more literal approach such as:



john byl said...

Hi Henry

Thanks for your question. It seems to me Calvin's approach is more consistent to other biblical texts dealing with male headship. Calvin notes that 1 Cor.11:5, while forbidding women to pray or prophesy with heads uncovered, does not commend that they should pray or prophesy. (see the parallel, also in 1 Cor. concerning eating meat offered to idols, where Paul first seems to allow it but later prohibits it).

Calvin (Commentary on 1 Corinthians):

"Every woman praying or prophesying. Here we have the second proposition — that women ought to have their heads covered when they pray or prophesy; otherwise they dishonor their head. For as the man honors his head by showing his liberty, so the woman, by showing her subjection. Hence, on the other hand, if the woman uncovers her head, she shakes off subjection — involving contempt of her husband. It may seem, however, to be superfluous for Paul to forbid the woman to prophesy with her head uncovered, while elsewhere he wholly prohibits women from speaking in the Church. It would not, therefore, be allowable for them to prophesy even with a covering upon their head, and hence it follows that it is to no purpose that he argues here as to a covering. It may be replied, that the Apostle, by here condemning the one, does not commend the other. For when he reproves them for prophesying with their head uncovered, he at the same time does not give them permission to prophesy in some other way, but rather delays his condemnation of that vice to another passage, namely in 1 Corinthians 14. In this reply there is nothing amiss, though at the same time it might suit sufficiently well to say, that the Apostle requires women to show their modesty — not merely in a place in which the whole Church is assembled, but also in any more dignified assembly, either of matrons or of men, such as are sometimes convened in private houses."

Henry said...

many thanks that is very interesting.