(Tim) In the discussion of the common practice of women serving alongside men as deacons within the PCA, one man comments, “I’m trying to figure out under what circumstances I’d need to think about submitting to a deacon.”
This is the nub of the issue and the fact that it’s so rarely discussed indicates either ignorance concerning the teaching of Scripture about the order of creation of man and woman, or a deliberate clouding of the issue by those opposed to that order. No doubt both are present across our denomination.
Authority isn’t the heart of the office as it is with elders, but to say the office of deacon is not one of authority, but service, is not to say the sex of the one being promised submission is immaterial to congregational vows.
If those pushing women deacons in the PCA were simply to call them “deaconesses” and make it clear that the implementation of the calling would be hedged about with clear lines of demarcation between deaconesses and deacons--all centered on the issue of reserving to men only the exercise of substantive authority over men--many of us would make common cause with them. The fact that this is precisely not what’s being practiced or argued for is most telling. Is this clear?
In other words, if an overture were submitted to general assembly laying out the practice of the early church and calling the PCA to affirm such a ministry of deaconesses, some of us might be on board. The ministry could be described in terms similar to those Brian Schwertley uses describing Calvin’s thoughts on the matter:
For Calvin, the authoritative aspects of being a deacon (i.e., taking care of the financial affairs of the church, and the counseling-judicial aspect) are reserved for the men deacons alone. The women deacons function somewhat like nurses. The food, water, clothing, and medicine, etc., set aside by the deacons are delivered and administered by the deaconesses. This does not mean that deacons were not involved in similar activities. It only means that deaconesses were limited to separate non-authoritative activities” (Schwertley, p. 32; here's a good review of Schwertley's work).
If this is the proposal, I’m guessing it would conform to the past practice of RPCES and would receive the assembly’s support.
Sadly, that’s not what’s being proposed, so I have little hope for our being able to regularize the work of deaconesses within the PCA anytime soon—unless, of course, the many egalitarians within our midst are successful in their efforts to obliterate the creation order of man and woman anywhere outside the session and to get the approval of general assembly for women and men serving as deacons together. (And it must be said that, historically, this has almost universally been the first step toward women elders in reformed ecclesiastical bodies around the world.)
So here’s a proposal: Each time someone brings up the question of women serving in the deaconate, immediately inquire whether they’re speaking of women deacons or deaconesses? And if they respond, “What’s the difference,” simply explain that women deacons are interchangeable with men deacons, and therefore are promised submission by the men of the church and exercise authority over those men once in office. But deaconesses are not promised submission and don’t exercise substantive authority over men.
At that point, ask them once more whether they’re proposing that women serve as deacons or deaconesses? Do they, or do they not, want women to be vowed submission and empowered to exercise authority over the men of the church?
If they still cavil and you’re able to read the clouds, you should know you’re not dealing with an agent of reformation, but deformation.
Here as everywhere else, a return to first principles brings clarity. The Apostle Paul is dealing with teaching and the exercise of authority in the church and he applies the order of creation to the problem with this perspicuous declaration: “For Adam was created first, and then Eve.”
How complicated is that?
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(A Historical and Biblical Examination of Women Deacons, by Brian M. Schwertley, 1998, 155 pages is published by Reformed Witness, 26550 Evergreen Road, Southfield, MI 48076. E-text of the work is available here. Hard copy may be available from Reformation Forum, Post Office Box 306, Holt, MI 48842.)