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.