Fast and loose with primary sources...

(David) Advocates of an inclusive diaconate in the PCA show greatest disdain for primary sources not in their treatment of the works of men but in their handling of the Word of God. If it's embarrassing to misread Warfield, it's shameful to permit a tendentious view to warp our teaching of God's Word.

Where is this failure most evident in the arguments of advocates of mixed diaconates?

First, in claiming the office of "deaconess" for Phoebe while generally denying that office to the seven selected to serve the needs of widows in Acts 6, advocates of a mixed diaconate display a troublingly selective approach to what constitutes the office of deacon in Scripture.

Though it's true that the seven of Acts 6 are never called deacons, Luke's description of their ordination and work so closely mirrors the calling and tasks associated with the diaconal office in 1 Timothy 3 and 4 that for millennia the Church has assumed these men to be the original biblical deacons. Yet advocates of a mixed diaconate frequently deny the office of deacon to the seven because of the obvious authority they wielded both in Word and deed (think of Stephen and Philip's subsequent ministry in Acts).

Phoebe, on the other hand, they declare an official member of the office on the basis of Paul calling her a deaconess--a word that in the absence of any description of her service could equally (and most likely does) mean that she served the church, literally, as a "servant" in keeping with Christ's call to servanthood for all His disciples.

Second, arguments for a mixed diaconate in the PCA inherently claim the Biblical necessity of PCA polity and deny all other views--even the views of many other equally Reformed bodies across the centuries. Why? because the office of elder must contain both pastors and laymen if the office of deacon is to be rendered so devoid of authority that a church which claims to be complementarian can ordain women to the diaconal office without obvious hypocrisy.

If, however, there is the slightest chance that the PCA's particular two-office view is not the sole and perfect representation of Biblical polity, if, for example, the Scottish Reformed church is even possibly correct in ordaining pastors as elders and lay leadership to the diaconate, then arguments for a mixed diaconate (at least in the context of the officially complementarian PCA) become hubristic claims for the perfection of PCA polity--claims even the Westminster divines were unwilling to make for an office they simply called "church governor" because of divisions in their midst over whether the office the PCA calls "ruling elder" actually possesses New Testament warrant. 

In the end, it's impossible to argue the office of deacon without assuming a particular understanding of the office of elder. As Iain Murray demonstrates in his article on the controverted history of the office of elder in the Reformed church, any view of the diaconal office which denies it ecclesiastical authority is provincial--and in the context of the debate over female deacons, tendentious to boot.

Finally, and most troublingly, advocates of a mixed diaconate studiously ignore the implications of Paul's statement about deacons who serve well in 1 Timothy 3:13:

"For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a good standing and great boldness in the faith that is in Christ Jesus."

The Greek word (παρρησία) translated "great boldness" by the KJV is defined by Strong's as "freedom in speaking, unreservedness in speech." Kittel says of Luke's use of the word in Acts, "Παρρησία is so closely related to the λαλεῖν or διδάσκειν of the apostles that παρρησιάζεσθαι almost takes on the sense 'to preach,' cf. 9:27, 14:3, 18:26, 19:8

Kittel says of παρρησία in 1 Timothy 3:13, "The reference... is to παρρησία towards God and men. If we are to expound παρρησία here with reference to that wherein it finds expression, then it is the 'unhampered and joyful word, both in prayer and in dealings with men.' It presupposes καλῶς διακονεῖν and is grounded ἐν πίστει τῇ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ."

Indeed, such boldness is immediately evident in Stephen's sermon before the Sanhedrin in Acts 7 following faithful service as a deacon in Acts 6.

Calvin says in his commentary on 1 Timothy 3:13,

...this passage has been commonly interpreted as describing elevation to a higher rank, as if the Apostle called to the honor of being presbyters those who had faithfully discharged the office of a deacon. For my own part, though I do not deny that the order of deacons might sometimes be the nursery out of which presbyters were taken, yet I take Paul’s words as meaning, more simply, that they who have discharged this ministry in a proper manner are worthy of no small honor; because it is not a mean employment, but a highly honorable office. Now by this expression he intimates how much it is for the advantage of the Church to have this office discharged by choice men; because the holy discharge of it procures esteem and reverence.

We would do far better exegetically to imitate Calvin in provisionally accepting the early Church's view of the diaconate as a nursery for presbyters than to diminish the authority of the diaconate by making it radically less than the eldership.

In the end, the argument over female deacons is a biblical argument, and it's in their handling of Scripture that advocates of female deacons show greatest disdain for Primary Sources.


Good thoughts here and thanks, though 'Green House for Presbyters' rather than 'Nursery for Presbyters' might be rhetorically more effective.

This also highlights the liturgical dimension of the diaconate, a matter almost always ignored (heck, liturgy is almost always ignored!). The 'reduction' of the diaconate to mercy ministry alone without reference to public worship and proclamation sets the table for the feminization of the leadership community. Making sure the diaconate plays a significant role in liturgy assists in safe-guarding the Biblical teaching on this matter.

Pastor Cassidy's comment about nurserys and greenhouses as metaphors for the diaconate is interesting, and it points toward women in some form of diaconal ministry that needs to be considered ...

If early church council canons provide us with evidence about how they assessed "deaconesses," that evidence suggests some form of legitimacy for such an order. Moreover, to think of the diaconate as a nursery or greenhouse for the presbyterate left-handedly confirms the idea that deaconesses were originally considered to have some sort of 'legitimacy.

Here's a path which I wish someone with more knowledge of the evolution of church ministry could explore for us:

Others have noted the specific roles deaconesses played, particularly in discipleship of new female converts and supervising/assisting them in receiving the sacrament of baptism. If the value and need for these ministries did not fall away, why did deaconesses themselves disappear sometime after the sixth or seventh century?

Could it be that their fading away was occasioned by an emerging notion that the diaconate is, after all, a greenhouse for presbyters? Such a notion of the diaconate, coupled with a clear-headed understanding that the presbyterate is closed to women ... well, you can see what I'm wondering.

>why did deaconesses themselves disappear sometime after the sixth or seventh century?

Actually, starting around the eleventh century, deaconesses entirely disappeared for five centuries in both the Greek and Latin churches. And prior to their disappearance, their existence had been of a sporadic nature tied to needs related to women religious (convents), baptismal anointings done immediately prior to baptism that were a function of the requirements of modesty, ministry to female believers living in pagan households not accessible to men, and domestic ministries such as the catechesis of women and ministry to the sick and dying.

Neither their duties during the time of their existence nor their disappearance had anything to do with deacons moving into the office of elder or bishop. Across church history, the exercise of authority over men by deaconesses was simply not an issue. It was unknown.

So, for us to ask questions of the church of past centuries related to women serving as deacons rather than deaconesses--those church officers who do exercise authority over men--is to give ourselves to anachronistic, and therefore fallacious, thinking. It was unknown.

To answer your question directly then, Bill, deaconesses always served in a subordinate and ancillary role to deacons. Therefore the disappearance of deaconesses was no function of deacons moving into a more authoritative office or function. Given the bifurcation of deacons and deaconesses universally practiced and understood across church history, there was no danger of deaconesses riding deacons' coattails into either an office or function prohibited by the Word of God where it prohibits woman from teaching or exercising authority over man.

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