Phil Ryken on B. B. Warfield and woman deacons: a correction...

(Tim: Given the importance of this correction, we'll leave this post at the top for a few days. Please check below for more recent posts. Thanks.)

Speaking of Bryan Chapell putting forward Phil Ryken for service on a study committee on woman deacons, I held off correcting some significant errors in Phil's commentary on 1Timothy 3:8-13 until I'd been able to notify him of those errors, giving him a chance to correct the text of the PDF available for download. A week and a half after we exchanged e-mails (Phil was quite cordial, by the way), it appears the text hasn't yet been corrected. The errors appear in Phil's commentary issued as part of P&R's Reformed Expository Commentary Series, and specifically his comments on 1Timothy 3:8-13 where the Apostle Paul enumerates qualifications for the office of deacon. In this text, Phil misquotes B. B. Warfield...

Phil placed this section of his commentary on his church's web site and the document has been widely circulated within the PCA leading up to this year's assembly. It's the section that deals with the controversy of woman deacons, giving Phil's position on the matter. But more importantly, this is where Phil gives the position taken by Princeton's revered B. B. Warfield, and it's Phil's quotes and summary of Warfield that are in error.

Let me simply quote from my e-mail to Phil:

* * *

(Two places) you quote from Warfield's essay which you use to support your position (on woman deacons) are misleading. Here are the quotes from your commentary, followed by the actual text of Warfield's article in the original (B. B. Warfield, “Presbyterian Deaconesses,” Presbyterian Review [1889]):

First, this quote from your commentary:

Closer to our own times, Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield was a strong proponent of women deacons. Warfield taught at Princeton and was among the leading conservative evangelicals at the turn of the twentieth century. He based his argument for deaconesses partly on the example of Phoebe, and partly on a letter from the Roman governor Pliny to the Emperor Trajan. The letter, which was written around A. D. 112, referred to women as holding a servant office in the church. Warfield’s conclusion was that these women “constituted a female diaconate similar to and of like standing with the board of deacons which, in the New Testament, we find in every church.”

(But here is the) text showing Warfield's words as they appear in context in the original. I have placed the words you chose to quote from Warfield in italics, below:

When we seek Biblical warrant, we have only the isolated phrase, “Phebe, the deaconess;” when we ask after the testimony of the first age of the church, we have only Pliny’s witness that the church in Bithynia had ancillæ which they called ministræ; and after that all is darkness until the deaconesses emerge into light again as part of the already considerably corrupted ecclesiastical system of the third century. We have no Biblical account of the qualifications for the office or its duties, and no very early account of the functions it actually exercised. We are left only to the meager inferences that as Phebe was “a deaconess of the church that is at Cenchreae,” the office was a local one and inhered in the individual congregation; that as Pliny tortured two ancillæ, there may have been a plurality of deaconesses in each congregation; and that as the name was primitively the same and the functions exercised by them from the third century were parallel, they constituted a female diaconate similar to and of like standing with the board of deacons which, in the New Testament, we find in every church. Theories aside, this is all we know of the primitive deaconesses.

Seeing these words in context; but more, reading the essay in its entirety clarifies that Warfield was no strong proponent of deaconesses, and no proponent at all of deaconesses as they are employed by churches across the PCA today. More specifically, your use of the above quote from Warfield's text is made to carry more water than those reading the original would think his actual words should rightly bear.

Your readers would hardly be led to the conclusion ...that the paragraph is filled with words and statements such as "only the isolated phrase, 'Phebe the deaconess,'" or "only Pliny's witness," or "after that, all is darkness," or "part of the already considerably corrupted ecclesiastical system of the third century," or "no Biblical account," or "no very early account," or "we are left only to the meager inferences," or "theories aside, this is all we know of the primitive deaconesses."

...Second, this quote from your commentary:

The church of Warfield’s day did not ordain women to serve as deaconesses, but Warfield himself recognized the need for putting the gifts of women into service. He believed that returning women to the ministry of deaconess would restore order in the church: “If the people of a particular church would simply elect women as well as men to the office of deacon, making one board or two separate boards, at their pleasure, of course ordained with the same vows and responsible to the same authority . . . the order is restored.”

(But here is the) text showing Warfield's words as they appear in context in the original:

In these arrangements, we observe, “widows” are confused with deaconesses ; and the success of this revival of the office was doubtless greatly handicapped by this unfortunate circumstance, requiring, as it did; that the deaconesses should be at least sixty years old. It is interesting to note, even in this error, the care that the Congregationalists took humbly to follow the Scriptural form; and therefore also it was that they made the office a local one, belonging like the deacons themselves, to the individual church. It was in this understanding of it also that Dr. McGill desired its renewal. “If the people of a particular church” he says, “would simply elect women as well as men to the office of deacon, making one board or two separate boards, at their pleasure, of course ordained with the same vows and responsible to the same authority, as now provided in our constitution, the order is restored.” He suggested, no doubt, further that, “from this beginning, a development could be made of larger boards, in gradation; corresponding to Presbyteries, Synods, and General Assembly, by way of representation; keeping records at every step of such gradation, and reporting their work done or projected to the Judicatories of each plane, composed of ministers and elders.” But he would scarcely have claimed a direct Scriptural warrant for this “development,” as he claimed it for the office of deaconess itself; nor indeed was it wholly congruous with his suggestion that the deaconesses might be incorporated into the already existing board of deacons, who are not organized thus into graded bodies. This development thus appears to be an excrescence on Dr. McGill’s view of the form which the revival of the deaconess should take; the board of deacons find no difficulty in working upon the universal church through the proper officers of the church to which they belong, who represent them along with the whole church; and no more should the corresponding board of deaconesses require a separate parallel organization, carrying up their influence to Presbytery, Synod or Assembly. It is evident that this extension was due to Dr. McGill’s earnest desire to bring the women’s organizations at present existing into some sort of vital connection with the church at large.

Here you see that your assertion that Warfield "believed that returning women to the ministry of deaconess would restore order in the church" stands on a foundation of false attribution. The words you use to support this assertion which you attribute to Warfield himself are not Warfield's words at all. Rather, they are McGill's words, clearly delineated by quote marks in the original.

My dear brother, I'm sure you recognize these are serious errors, and those who have read your commentary, whether hard copy or the e-text that is hosted on your church web site, will be misled by the text as it now stands.

* * *

That's the end of this excerpt from my e-mail to Phil.

Now, just a few comments about these errors. First, I'm certain neither Phil nor the P&R editors were intentional in this error, nor in failing to correct it later. But now that the error is known, it's incumbent upon both the author and publishing company not to allow future distribution of this book without an errata or oops sheet inserted in the book at the pages containing the errors. Similarly with what's available on the web: it should be corrected immediately.

Second, it's clear that this error has received the widest distribution and will be for years to come the most likely place people learn of Warfield's position on woman deacons. So I encourage our readers to read Warfield's complete essay on the subject for themselves, and to give the actual essay the widest possible distribution so the error that's out there will be corrected by people who have read the primary source. Yes, Warfield was supportive of something approximating deaconesses, but how he did and didn't support them is critically important.

Third, learn the lesson I learned years ago, that you should never depend upon modern authors for your knowledge of primary sources. Don't depend on anyone else to read them for you, and to report to you what they say.


Dear Tim,

Thank you for this post. Your close, textual analysis and attention to detail ought to be envied by all aspiring (and aspired) scholars. So many similar disputes could be remedied if individuals would simply read primary sources carefully.

Also, and I'm sorry to leave a comment about a portion of text that you removed, but I see that you excised your brief section about Mark Noll and "The Scandal..." that was near the end of the piece. I thought that was a rather good point.

I have read "The Scandal" twice now, and while I found much of it compelling - after all, I did attend a church for several years where I was discouraged from going to college because the rapture was impending - it was not documented very well (despite its many footnotes) and Noll's argument was in many places rather vague.

If it isn't too much trouble, could you direct me to the sections of the Scandal where Noll misuses primary sources?

all best,


[Tim responds: Joel, I took the Noll part of the post out, but let me correct one thing: It wasn't "sources" but "source." I only found one error dealing with a primary source.]

Tim, thanks for your care in bringing forward Warfield's thoughts and guarding their accurate quotation. From the other thread where you posted the whole Warfield document, did I understand your introduction to say that you agreed with Warfield's approach inasmuch as "deaconess" could be a valid office in the church as long as it did not entail the exercise of authority over men, and thus was not conflated with the male diaconate?

Tim and David,

Just a question -- Would Warfield's "something approximating deaconesses" *rightly defined and understood* (as you point out) be an acceptable tertium quid between those pushing for ordaining woman deacons and those strongly opposed to it?

Or would you still disagree with and oppose someone *rightly* articulating Warfield's "something approximating deaconesses?


To put Matt's question another way:

From your (Tim's) writings I've learned that feminism is antithetical to Christianity. It necessarily leads to a denial of the headship of God over Christ, the headship of Adam over unregenerate humanity, and the headship of Christ over regenerate humanity (a denial of orthodox Theology, anthropology, and soteriology, respectively).

Further, I've learned that "softer" forms of egalitarianism are on an inevitable slope in that direction.

Was Warfield on that slope?



>Was Warfield on that slope?

Not at all. Read his caveats about womens groups and their influence in the church in his article posted on this blog a couple weeks ago, and you'll see he understands the danger of woman exercising authority over man quite well.

Warfield would have opposed the spirit of the age we're contending against today. Why?

He wrote, "It Says, Scripture Says, God Says."

He would have seen the direct opposition to the plain meaning of God's Word permeating everything these men write and say on the subject.

>did I understand your introduction to say that you agreed with Warfield's approach inasmuch as "deaconess" could be a valid office in the church as long as it did not entail the exercise of authority over men, and thus was not conflated with the male diaconate?

Yes, but I think such an action on the part of the PCA right now would be unwise in the extreme, given the conflation of the biblical office of deacon and these various helps women performed at times in church history. Furthermore, as Warfield points out quite clearly, Scripture itself cannot be said to provide a biblical basis for woman deacons. Warfield's exactly right.

What we find is that at various times the church did precisely what our BCO allows us; namely, to create ad hoc or ancillary groups of women for service to the church--including helping those officers called "deacons." Those women might be called "deaconesses," but across church history they were never exercising authority over men.

And this is where the practice of so many churches of the uber-hip metro-sophisticate variety leave us in a position that we must oppose woman deacons. They want--make no mistake about it, they want--women to exercise authority over men in places other than the pulpit (I hope this is still true) and session (elder) meetings.

Again, as I've said so often before, read the documents. These men put women forward to lead in their churches in every place they possibly can without actually making them ruling or teaching elders (pastors). This is the entire purpose behind their constant refrain, "A woman can do anything an unordained man can do."

This is why I'm opposed to any change in the PCA. I think we have many, many, many men who either have never come to understand the Creation Order of man and woman, or who are opposed to it and seek to undermine it in every way possible that will not bring them up on charges.

Men think if they give the rest of the backward, southern, church the bone of teaching and ruling elders, the rest of the church will let them alone with woman deacons serving alongside man deacons (in the same office), women doing everything in corporate worship except for preaching (and occasionally, maybe even that), women administering the Lord's Supper (keeping a man at the table itself, of course, to maintain appearances), women exercising authority over and teaching men in small groups, women exercising authority over and teaching men in Sunday school classes and various other adult education forums, women vision-casting for the entire church, women discipling men, women teaching Saturday forums on women in the church, and the list goes on ad infinitum.

When we discuss any part of the woman deacon issue in the PCA, we must always bring up two things: First, that what is practiced today in PCA churches around the country is directly contrary to our BCO and the Word of God; and second, whatever is done by women in the church must faithfully represent the Creation order of Adam first, and then Eve; and consequently, must not involve woman teaching or exercising authority over man.

Do I sound like a broken record? Well actually, it's the Apostle Paul exegeting Moses' record of God's action prior to the Fall, all written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. So don't blame me.

Still, if I were to decide to oppose the Word of God in a way that would make me uber-hip and allow my church to grow-grow-grow, I'd not waste my time opposing the women-prohibited-to-teach-or-exercise-authority-over-men part. That's fiddling with the deck chairs on the Titanic.

I'd turn instead to the "If-any-man-wants-to-follow-me-he must-take-up-his-cross part." I mean, really; why waste our time on anything else? That's the heart of it.

Unless our practice and doctrine opposes egalitarian feminism in a way that is constantly clear, unabashed and sending no mixed messages, we haven't begun to contextualize the Gospel in our bloody, rebellious, immoral, egalitarian, feminist culture.

I'd be interested to read Ryken's response to this.

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