Friday, May 9, 2008

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."

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