Friday, February 5, 2016

Women Deacons (Again)?

May the church ordain women as deacons? The Canadian Reformed Church addressed this issue in 2010, in connection with fellowship discussions with the Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPCNA), which ordains women deacons. At that time I addressed this in my post Female Deacons and Church Unity. Subsequently, the CanRC Synod of 2010 found this practice to be a barrier to ecclesiastical fellowship.

Now the issue is again on the table for the next CanRC Synod, to be held this May, 2016. 

The CanRC Committee for Contact with Churches in North America (CCCNA) was to investigate and evaluate the RPCNA position on women deacons. In its report it concludes that the RPCNA practice to ordain women deacons “is not in disobedience to Scriptural teaching” (Reports to General Synod 2016, Vol.1, p.62) and thus “does not present an obstacle to the establishment of ecclesiastical fellowship (ibid, p.63).

This is almost exactly the same recommendation that was made by the CCCNA in 2010, and which was rejected by Synod 2010. Unfortunately, the present CCCNA report interacts very little with the considerations given by Synod 2010 (see below). Thus it raises much the same concerns as before:

1. The CCCNA notes that RPCNA women deacons have a measure of authority (“administrative” authority) over men (Report, p.54). In fact, the report of the CCCNA to Synod 2010 already indicated that the RPCNA office of deacon included also leading, training, overseeing, and teaching (Acts 2010:111).

This would seem to contradict the clear teaching of 1 Tim.2:12 (“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man”).

2. The CCCNA notes that the RPCNA limits 1 Tim.2:12 to apply only to the ruling authority of elders. Although the CCCNA finds the RPCNA exegesis ”unconvincing”(Report, p.54), the CCCNA nevertheless concludes that the RPCNA exegesis is Scriptural.

This contradicts the consideration of Synod 2010 that, if women deacons in the RPCNA in practice exercise authority over men, “this would conflict with Scripture (see 1 Tim.2:12 and 1 Cor.14:34)” (Acts 2010:112). Accepting the RPCNA exegesis as Scripturally valid entails an erosion in the Biblical notion of male headship.

3. It has been argued that, since the RPCNA has ordained women deacons since 1888, feminism played no role. However, this early date in itself does not rule out the presence of unscriptural feminism (Acts 2010:111). Indeed, Rev. Brian M. Schwertley, a former RPCNA pastor documents that the feminism of the time was a decisive factor in the RPCNA decision of1888 (A Historical and Biblical Examination of Women Deacons”.

4. The CCCNA in its report to Synod 2010 noted that “the ordination of women as deacons is a point contested by some ministers within the RPCNA to the extent that they declare an exception on this point” (Reports to Synod Burlington, p.197). Thus, even within the RPCNA, it seems that some ministers are strongly convinced that women deacons are unscriptural.

5. Synod 2013 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 2013:279). 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 the CCCNA recommendation contradicts the position of Synod 2013.

In conclusion, the view of the RPCNA with respect to ordaining women as deacons does contravene Scripture. Therefore this does present a serious obstacle to the establishment of ecclesiastical fellowship. Hence Synod 2016 should inform the RPCNA that ecclesiastical fellowship cannot be established until it reverses its stance on women deacons.
Acts of General Synod Burlington 2010 (p.111-112):

2. Observations
2.9 A total of 21 churches raise concerns about the recommendations of the CCCNA report. The concerns can be summarized as follows: In regard to the ordination of female deacons in the RPCNA:

2.9.1 While the RPCNA claims that deacons in their churches are not part of the government of the church and therefore do not exercise authority, Appendix 4, 4.c of the Report of the CCCNA seems to indicate that the office of deacon in the RPCNA involves not only assistance and administration but also leading, training, overseeing and teaching. Thus the practice of ordaining women as deacons would potentially involve women exercising authority over men, contrary to the injunctions of the apostle in 1 Tim. 2:12 and 1 Cor. 14:34.

2.9.2 The ordination of women as deacons is a point contested by some ministers within the RPCNA to the extent that they declare an exception on this point.

2.9.3 Apart from the functioning of women as deacons within the RPCNA, the very fact of ordination implies authority.

 2.9.4 In view of our concern about the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands which seem to be moving in the direction of female office bearers, it would not be wise to compromise our witness by establishing EF with the RPCNA.

2.9.5 Scripture speaks of deacons as men who must be the “husband of but one wife and must manage his children and his household well” (1 Tim. 3:8-12) which passage plainly prohibits the ordination of women to this office. 2.9.6 Scripture indicates that the first deacons were men (Acts 6).

2.9.7 Even though it occurred many years ago, the decision of the RPCNA to allow for the ordination of women as deacons may well show the influence of unscriptural feminism.

2.9.8 Synod Smithers cautioned the Reformed Churches of New Zealand to be careful in their relationship with the CRC of Australia due to the ordination of women as deacons in these churches. 

2.9.9 Ordaining women as deacons is a major issue which must be resolved prior to the establishment of any relationship of EF.

2.9.10 Article 30 of the Belgic Confession indicates that deacons are part of the governing body of the church and can only be men.

3. Considerations
 3.1 While the CCCNA report provides extensive information about the nature and functioning of female deacons in the RPCNA, many serious questions about this practice remain.

3.2 The churches are legitimately concerned that the ordination of women as deacons contradicts the teaching of Scripture that deacons ought to be men (1 Tim. 3:8-12).

3.3 The official RPCNA position is that women deacons do not govern or exercise authority over men; in practice, however, it would seem that they do (see Appendix 4, 4c). If this is the case, this would conflict with Scripture (see 1 Tim. 2:12 and 1 Cor. 14:34 and cf. Article 30, Belgic Confession).

3.4 It would be inconsistent and confusing for the CanRC to enter into EF with a federation of churches which ordain women as deacons while Synod 2007 cautioned the Reformed Churches of New Zealand about their relationship with the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia due to their practice of ordaining women as deacons


Jim Pemberton said...

Feminism-motivated ordination is certainly the wrong reason to ordain women.

As for being biblical, it depends on how a church defines the role of deacon. The Bible allows for a range of understanding of how the deaconate should be defined. In my church, as in many churches in the West, our deacons assume somewhat of an elder role. They have some spiritual authority in the church. This counts women out of the deaconate here. Indeed, if Stephen is an example, then male deacons can function in elder roles. However, we also know that Phoebe was a deacon and that Paul commended her to the Roman church that they should help her in her ministry of service. Whatever that consisted of, it surely wasn't considered an authority role, but it was important enough for Paul to mention. But taking a role of service is a matter of biblical submission, not a matter of corporate authority as feminism would have it.

john byl said...

Hi Jim

Thanks for your comment. In this post I was dealing specifically with deacons in the RPCNA, who do have a measure of authority over men.

As to Phoebe, we are not told that she was ordained, nor that she had any authority over men. But see the discussion on this point on my blog post "Female Deacons and Church Unity", linked in my first paragraph above.

RubeRad said...

dangit, lost my whole comment and have to retype! I'll be extra succinct.

Trying to wrap my head around women deacons, haven't studied it.

Elders have authority, but what authority do deacons have? The office of deacon seems more like servant than master. Even men deacons, if they ask me to help move tables&chairs, or go with them to somebody's house to help with work/repairs or something, I wouldn't think that is an authoritative/binding command, such that I could be disciplined for refusing.

john byl said...

Hi Rube

Thanks for your comment. The problem is that the RPCNA office of deacon involves much more than chairs and repairs. See the reports cited above,which refer to administrative authority, leading,training,teaching,and overseeing.

RubeRad said...

Again I hit that 'sign out' button, which is exactly where I would expect 'submit' to be, and lost a very long comment!

I found the CanRC report online (but this comment box does not allow me to link it here). It would be helpful if you could link the RPCNA sources directly, instead of me trying to discern them only through quotes.

It seems to me the RPCNA is waffling if they want to simultaneously assert that deacon is 'a "serving” office, having no share in the ruling/governing of the church, with only a lesser “administrative” authority.' Is it serving or does it have authority? How is having authority not ruling/governing?

I am inclined to agree with the notion/definition of deacon as serving, to mean that the office confers no authority, only duties of service.

The 'apostolic root' argument I don't buy. The whole point in Acts is that the Apostles couldn't get their Apostolic work done, so they created a non-apostolic office for non-apostles to do non-apostolic tasks so they could focus on duties that actually are apostolic. So by definition, diaconal tasks are non-apostolic.

There's also (in american presbyterian churches I have experience with) the non-biblical, non-spiritual role of Trustee or Treasurer, which is required to be a financial organization wrt the state. The board of Trustees has 'oversight' over the churches financial resources, and the Treasurer has the 'authority' (in a legal/secular/banking sense) to write checks, but that's not spiritual, and is anyways subject to the decision-making authority of the session of elders and voting congregation, who tells the treasurer or other 'authorized' check-signers who they can cut checks to.

Maybe that's the kind of thing RPCNA is getting at with 'administrative authority'?

RubeRad said...

Oh yeah, and training/teaching: I don't see how that is part of the job description of a deacon, but it obviously belongs to elders, and I believe it can be delegated -- to lay members equally with deacons. For instance I am neither an elder nor a deacon, but I occasionally teach catechism (aka sunday school) at my OPC -- but always mindful that everything I say is subject to authority/correction of elders. I would expect the same of any deacon that might teach catechism.


JohnV said...

We can make anything at all out of the office of deacon, even to the point of denying it to be an office: as long as it is subject to what we make it to be instead of what the Bible makes it to be.

We may appoint any man, woman or child to any position we want, and call that position whatever we want. But if we call that position, say, "deacon", may we legally and properly say that it is the exact same position that the Bible talks about, just because it has the same name?

Different churches do different things with the offices, but the question is whether those offices, any one of them or all of them, are the offices that Christ instituted in His Word. The question is: if a church opens the office of deacon to women, is it still the office that was instituted by Christ? It is not a question of what the church thinks of the office they have invented, or the people they have installed into these offices; the question is whether you or I ought to recognize that office which the church has redefined as the office Christ instituted.

"It depends on how a church defines the office..." is not how we need to justify women in office. It has to bed: "It depend on whether a church properly defines the office..."

Well, that's my thinking on it.

RubeRad said...

About Belgic 30, I do see that the Belgic confession published on the CanRC site says "faithful men". Various bodies have that rendered in english as "faithful men" or "faithful persons", and the original french (which Schaff says "must be considered authoritative") says 'personnages', not 'hommes'. Did CanRC make an explicit confessional commitment to male officers when it adopted (edited?) its translation of the Belgic? (Then again, right next to that original French, Schaff chose to reproduce an English version that says "men")

RubeRad said...

"It depends on how a church defines the office..." JohnV you are right, churches don't get to decide to define however they want, but to interpret Jim Pemberton charitably would be "It depends on how the bible defines the office of deacon, which is something that a church has to study and decide"

john byl said...

In my post "Female deacons and church unity" I note that 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”. The article specifies that "faith men are chosen in agreement with the rule that the apostle Paul gave to Timothy", which entails such texts as 1 Tim.2:12 and 1 Tim.3:12. Moreover, in that same article, it is specified that the deacons--along with the elders and pastors--form the (governing)council of the local church.

JohnV said...

Hi RubeRad:

There is still the idea that the Bible "allows a range in understanding" being used to, 1) negate the idea that there is a univocal understanding, and 2) make all understandings of equal authority, in the absence of an authoritative understanding.

My first worry here is not whether women may be in office, but whether the Bible is regarded as inviolable. But close behind, on this issue, is whether we may install women as deacons and still claim to uphold the Biblical office.


RubeRad said...

Thx for that. Thinking of historical times, I don't really think it's realistic to imagine the reformers of Guido's time ordaining women deacons. Then again, it was surprising to read from the report "As CanRC, we only have to look at our own history to see how certain Dutch Reformed churches, following John Calvin, once thought it was exegetically justifiable to ordain “deaconesses” to serve a particular role within the church (see the CCCNA letter in Appendix 1, p.ii-iii)"

RubeRad said...

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all. There are many issues about which scripture does not nail down only a univocal understanding. You might see the scriptures speaking clearly and univocally on this issue, but there are others who don't. That doesn't mean they necessarily regard the bible as violable.

I once heard baptist prof/author Glenn Scorgie advocate ordination of women, with a catchphrase of "the trajectory of scripture", i.e. scripture is a product of its anti-women time, but it was headed towards egalitarianism, so we can disregard what is written in favor of what we guess might have been written later. (Of course he didn't say it that baldly)

In other words, scripture does say ..., BUT...

But in this case I don't see that happening. What I see is people saying, "yes the bible is inerrant, but we can't be certain/convinced that the correct interpretation of these passages is this way, or the other way"

That's a huge difference.

RubeRad said...

Sorry, the quote is "trajectory of the Spirit". On Amazon you can 'Look Inside' his book Back to Eden, he opens the book with this metaphor in chapter 1.

john byl said...

If you read that section more closely, you will see that Calvin's deaconesses were not full-fledged female deacons. They were the widows mentioned in 1 Tim.5:9-10. These women were only to take care of the poor, and NOT to administer the affairs of the poor,which was in the domain of the (male) deacons.

RubeRad said...

OK thx. I'm not sure I get though what "administer the affairs of the poor" means though, is that somehow meaning that deacons (authoritatively) tell people how to spend/save/budget their money? "take care of the poor" is in line with that I see as the role of male deacons

JohnV said...


What you're talking about is what is clear in people's minds, not what is clear in Scripture. Some things are harder than others to understand; but that's the problem of the student, not the teacher.

My reference was not about whether one part or another was clear to me, or to you, or to anyone else: the point was that the Scripture is clear.

A good example, it seems to me, is Einstein's equation showing the relationship between mass and energy. Apparently its supposed to be a proof of some kind, but that doesn't mean I understand it. Maybe if I studied all the math and theory needed so that I can understand it, then it will be clear. Just because I don't understand it, along with a great multitude of others, doesn't mean it isn't clear. It's my understanding that is unclear, not the equation.

In the same way, the Bible is clear, and will become clear to the mind that takes the time and discipline to understand.

The question remains: is the office, once opened up to women, still the office that Christ instituted?


RubeRad said...

No, the question is, what parts of scripture are so clear that we cannot tolerate disagreement, and which are unclear enough that we can.

WCF does not say "the scripture is plenty clear, but people just don't understand it", it says "All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all". 2 Pet 3:16, Peter says that "[Paul's] letters contain some things that are hard to understand."

Do you have a clear understanding of everything in scripture? Assuming no, please let me know which unclarities of yours I should disfellowship you for, that would help me out a lot. (And are you sure that everything you think you have a clear understanding about, you understand correctly?)

JohnV said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JohnV said...


As to your reference to WCF ch. I, “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all”, where does it say that the Scripture is not clear? Everything is not equally (“alike”) clear in themselves, but require varying depths of understanding and wisdom ; but it does not deny that all things in Scripture are clear.

Trigonometry isn’t clear to someone just learning the times tables; it takes education and practice to get to that level; but it can be seen clearly, eventually. Why wouldn’t other things, especially things that require true wisdom, not be the same? In the end, these more difficult things can become clear too, given enough study and wisdom, even though they might still be unclear to many others.

Some things are harder to understand, but that does not mean that they are not clear. The clarity is commensurate with the wisdom required to understand.

The modern practice is to muddy the understanding, and then blame the Scripture for being unclear; followed by an assumption of licence to make of it what seems best to us. People start with one point, such as questioning the meaning of the word ‘day’ in Genesis One, then question the historicity of Adam, and eventually, at least for some, the question comes up whether Christ really died and rose again: all these things were clear at one time; all these modern changes are based upon questioning the clarity of Scripture as a pretext or licence to amend doctrine to fit the times. Isn’t opening the office of deacon to women the same?


RubeRad said...

No, it's not the same at all. "those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation" are guaranteed (or at least confessed) to be "clear" in scripture. Whether women may be deacons is not necessary for salvation.

As for what WCF and 2pet3:16 are saying, I think it's pretty clear, and you're denying the obvious force of the text. Some scripture is not plain, some scripture is not clear, some scripture is (specifically Paul's letters are) hard to understand. Stalemate.

JohnV said...

I think we'll just have to disagree on that point: "hard to understand" does not mean 'unclear' to me; it just means it takes more to make it clear to my weak mind.

The basic question is whether women may also be installed in the office of deacon, whether the Bible allows for that. So far all I've seen is that our changed language allows for that, and thus how we now interpret the Bible as compared to how our forefathers did.

What made it unclear? It seems to me that the way we changed our language to fit our culture is what made it unclear, not the Bible itself.

Just a thought.


RubeRad said...

"I think we'll just have to disagree on that point"

Is us disagreeing about this point different than you and Dr Byl disagreeing with women-ordainers?

"The basic question is whether women may also be installed in the office of deacon..."

Actually, I think the basic question of this post is, given that RPCNA does ordain women deacons, and CanRC does not, does that disagreement "present an obstacle to the establishment of ecclesiastical fellowship".

I don't care so much (today at least) whether women deacons are biblical or not; I'm more interested in how critical the issue is to the unity of the church.

RubeRad said...

To put a point on it specific to this blog, according to the CanRC website, it has ecclesiastical fellowship with the OPC. But since the OPC Creation report of 2004, the OPC has officially allowed the ordination of ministers who hold creation views such as day-age, framework, analogical (subject to examination guidelines concerning theology of ex nihilo, federal headship, covenant of works, etc). All of those non-ordinary-day views are anathema to Dr Byl, but apparently the CanRC doesn't consider that a big enough problem to terminate ecclesiastical fellowship.

Is women deacons a more important issue than non-ordinary-day creation?

JohnV said...

As I said above, RubeRad, the point for me is Sola Scriptura. It won’t be a question about which is more important, either non-ordinary-day creation or women deacons. Whether it is this issue or another, if it is brought through in the church on the basis of the Bible’s lack of either clarity or sufficiency then it is done at the cost of Sola Scriptura: these (perspicuity and sufficiency) are necessary to a doctrine of Scripture which holds the Bible as the authoritative rule for faith and life.


RubeRad said...

Well you gotta draw a line somewhere, every disagreement about theology at some level comes down to the clarity of scripture; one person this the scripture says this, another thinks the scripture says that. Why are you willing to 'agree to disagree' with me about how hard it is to understand 'hard to understand', instead of cutting me off for undercutting sola scriptura?

I guess the guideline for a church body to draw the line is their confession, that must be one of the main points of it.

But still I wonder if there is a distinction between laying down in the confession "this is what we believe (and enforce among our own minsters)" vs "this smaller set of standards is what we require to maintain ecclesiastical fellowship"

JohnV said...


If Dr. Byl permits me, I'll give it one last try.

If there is something that is too hard for me, then I ask someone who knows. For some things, an explanation is enough; for other things it can be an entire process of education. For example, I’ve played guitar for many, many years. But only recently I’ve learned a new way of looking at the guitar fretboard, and what used to be very unclear is now quite clear, thanks to what someone taught me. So it is with many things: they might be hard to understand but they can be made clear.

Now, a question: was it unclear all the time, or was it just hard? Now that it is clear, does that mean that it was not clear before? What changed? The thing itself, or me?

So also, the Bible was clear all the time; it was just my mind that makes it seem as unclear.

It is that way with all of life. Christianity advocates education, so that the harder things, which really were clear all the time, may now also be clear to us, given enough education.

There’s a lot of things that Paul said that are hard to understand. My mind goes immediately to Romans 1 - 7. That section of the Bible is a carefully argued argument, and anyone who has studied logic can’t help but admire Paul’s grasp of it. Paul wrote most of the epistles in the New Testament; he took a lot of trouble to explain things to us. Here’s the question, then: are we going to tell Paul that he failed to make things clear, just because people in our day disagree on what he meant? Are we going to tell the Holy Spirit that He failed to make things clear in the Bible? Or are we going to confess that we were unclear on what the Bible said?

Just because some things aren’t easy, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t clear. Some things need only explanation, other things require education; and some things require a lot of education; and some things we’ll just never know in this life. But one day Christ will come back, and, as Cramner pointed out, all our need for dissembling will fall away: things will then be clear.

They always were clear. It was our fallen intellect that clouded things for us

RubeRad said...

You keep asserting (based on personal experience) that the bible is only clear, and any difficulty to understand is only our problem. But that isn't what we confess. I refer again to WCF 1.7. We do not confess that through "due use of the ordinary means [we] may attain unto a sufficient understanding of" everything in scripture, but only "those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation [which] are so clearly propounded". We don't confess that with enough study we will attain to understanding of ALL the scripture, but only the CLEAR scripture.

I still don't understand why you are willing to say 'agree to disagree' with me on this point, but not to any women deaconers. What's the criteria that separates us?

Anyways, I think we've already crossed the line on Dr Byl's rule #3, so I think we're done.

JohnV said...

Dr. Byl:

Reading through Schwertly's study on the deaconate (which you referenced in your earlier blogspot on women deacons) it seems to me that the RPCNA also at one time recognized that the Bible called for men to be deacons.

And it seems to me also, going by that same study, that they did not say they were wrong about that, but rather only that the Bible did not forbid women to hold the office; and that only by way of changing their definition of the office so that it was no longer an authoritative position. And again, not because they were wrong before, but because changing times or circumstances allowed for opposite conclusions from the same texts.

Not that they would put it that way, and not that Schwertly specifically makes that observation, but it does seem to be a conclusion one must be drawn to.

Wherever in Reformed history the deaconate was open to women it was on the basis of a definition of the office which excluded an ecclesiastical position of authority. In other words, they made distinctions about the office which would allow women to hold the same position which men deacons had held until then. To put it differently, even the men no longer held the same office they held before.

Schwertly makes the point that the Bible indicates two distinct positions which use the same name; and that the Bible's references to these make sense only if they are kept distinct. A deaconess is recognized, but not as a deacon like the original seven.

Schwertly's report suggests that a bit of exegetical acrobatics is required to argue for women deacons. In other words, there seems generally to be more explaining away rather than opening up of Scripture.

But I think the point is that at one time all Reformed churches thought the Bible to be clear about an office of deacon which was authoritative, and recognized that only men could serve as deacons of that sort. They may have argued for and against women deacons, but always maintaining the distinction between the two.

Now, there are a few red flags that popped up as I read the report, but on the whole I think it at least shows us that the question isn't just whether women may serve as deacons in the church; there's a lot more to it than that.

For example, are we justified in changing our definition of a previously recognized office? and: Are we justified in changing something which was previously recognized as Bible teaching into something which becomes only church policy; and do that without saying we were wrong before?

Just a few thoughts