Critique of Pastor Keller's promotion of woman deacons, part 6: RPCES decisively rejected woman deacons...

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(Tim) The past couple of weeks, I've spent a great deal of time tracking down the historical record concerning the actions of the 154th (1976) Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod (RPCES) related to woman deacons.


Tim Keller wrote an article, recently, for the PCA's byFaith magazine arguing that the PCA should allow woman deacons because, just before joining with the PCA in 1982, the 154th (1976) Synod of the RPCES, "narrowly defeated a motion to ordain women as deacons."

Keller suggests the trajectory of the RPCES immediately prior to her union with the PCA was towards lifting her own restrictions against woman deacons, and therefore this same trajectory should lead the PCA now, thirty years later, to change our polity. Here's how Keller puts it:

A Personal History: In 1982 the Reformed

Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod (RPCES) joined with the PCA

shortly after its 154th Synod had narrowly defeated a motion to ordain

women as deacons. ...The

1982 PCA General Assembly did not consider the actions of the RPCES

Synods to be binding on us, but rather “valuable and significant

material which will be used in the perfecting of the Church,” and

therefore to be granted respect.

For Keller's argument to work, though, his version of history has to be right.

It's not.

The RPCES did not vote whether to have woman deacons at its 154th (1976) Synod. And when the vote was taken, woman deacons were not "narrowly defeated." The vote was decisive...

The Minutes of the 155th (1977) Synod reflect the defeat of this initiative was so clear that no division of the house was called for and only two commissioners asked the Stated Clerk to enter into the Minutes their disagreement with Synod's action (disapproving woman deacons). Further, talking with a number of men present at that Synod, I couldn't find anyone willing to characterize woman deacons as "narrowly defeated." Rather, RPCES Synod Minutes, the written record, and men's recollection was that the matter was dealt with definitively.

At the time, the Stated Clerk of the RPCES was Dr. Paul Gilchrist (who later served for many years as the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church in America). When I contacted Dr. Gilchrist for his summary of the matter as the presiding stated clerk at the synods in question, he responded:

I have just recently read the articles in the Fall 08 issue of byFaith regarding the debate on “deaconesses” in the  PCA. I felt both Ligon Duncan and Tim Keller presented a fair analysis of their positions. However, permit me a slight correction in Tim Keller’s article: He starts by saying that “the 154th Synod [of the RPCES] had narrowly defeated a motion  to  ordain women as deacons.”
...I looked at the actions as reprinted from the Minutes in Documents of Synod which I edited. Actually, the close vote that was defeated was on recommendation (b) “that the agencies be permitted to have women as members of their boards if they modify their by-laws accordingly.” This vote was lost 65 to 67 (see pp. 436f). The rest of the report of the 154th Synod (1976) was recommitted and the committee enlarged.
Then when the enlarged committee reported in 1977, the 155th Synod heard the report but the minority report was amended after lengthy debate and several amendments, and this minority report was adopted with only two negative votes recorded: The motion as adopted was as follows: “We affirm in the absence of any compelling biblical evidence to support the ordination of women to the special office of deacon, that this office be limited to qualified men. At the same time acknowledging that the Scriptures contain many examples of women who serve, we affirm the right of a local church to have a separate body of unordained women who may be called deaconesses.” (p. 475).
I believe that the lost vote of 65 to 67 in 1976 has been mistaken for a close vote on deaconesses. If I remember correctly and the minutes bear this out, that close vote on women serving on boards of agencies signaled that the rest was in jeopardy and thus the rest of the report was recommitted. In 1977, the votes were so overwhelming that no count was necessary, hence no record of it other than that only two members recorded their negative votes.

Beyond the stated clerk, I also spoke with two members of the Study Committee on Role of Women in the Church which brought the recommendation for woman deacons to the RPCES Synods. One of the men was in favor of woman deacons, the other opposed, but both Steve Smallman and George Knight recalled the committee's majority recommendation was rejected decisively.

Pastor Smallman was the member in favor of woman deacons. He currently serves as Moderator of the PCA's Philadelphia Presbytery where the overture to this past year's PCA General Assembly requesting the appointment of a study committee on woman deacons originated. Asked whether woman deacons were "narrowly defeated" by the RPCES, Smallman responded:

It's my strong recollection that, in the end, the question of

ordaining women as deacons was given a fair hearing and biblical arguments

were listened to. But in the end, it was not a matter of great

controversy in the RPCES church. There was not a strong movement to

elect women as deacons. While the Study Committee recommended the RPCES

begin to elect and ordain women as deacons, this was by no means a

majority opinion when debated in the synod. I don't think it's accurate

to say it was narrowly defeated--the defeat was substantial.

Mandate was the RPCES's paper of record. In its June 14, 1976 issue, Mandate reported the 154th Syndod had recommitted woman deacons to the Study Committee for further study. The motion to recommmit was itself controversial, passing by the narrow vote of 79-76. The Study Committee had not gotten its Majority Report to commissioners in a timely manner; the second half of its Report wasn't put into commissioners' hands until they arrived at Synod, which also meant no minority report opposing the Committee's Majority Report and Recommendations could be prepared or distributed to Synod.

Typical of commissioners' responses to this failure was this statement by Robert Petterson, then of Tulsa, Oklahoma: "We got the report too late, and we don't have a clear enough idea ourselves of what is involved. We need more time." *

Finally, the PCA Archive has been quite helpful in providing the church a treasure trove of historical documents related to woman deacons (scroll to the bottom of the page). One of these documents is a summary of RPCES Synod actions on woman deacons written by Gordon Clark.

Clark was strongly opposed to any change in the polity of the RPCES to allow woman deacons and wrote a paper opposing the Study Committee's Majority Report. He tried to get his paper distributed to Synod Commissioners but was stymied in that effort and forced to find another venue for its publication. It was left to The Trinity Review to publish Clark's paper in its January/February 1981 issue. As I write, I have a hard copy on the desk next to me.

In the first paragraph of his paper, Clark summarizes the issue before the RPCES at the time. Note carefully Clark's distinction between the historic Presbyterian and Reformed practice of deaconesses (which he supported) and the modern proposal to ordain women as deacons (which he opposed). This distinction must be understood by anyone seeking to make sense of the current debate over woman deacons in the PCA.

The 154th Synod of the RPCES (May 1976) received and included in its minutes the Report of a Study Committee on the Role of Women in the Church. The Report recommended the ordination of women as deacons. The matter at hand is not a matter of deaconesses. For years the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (now the U.P.C.U.S.A., United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.) and the Reformed Church in America cooperated in supporting a Deaconess School in Philadelphia; and its graduates served in those denominations. The matter now at hand, however, is not to acknowledge Presbyterian practice, but the quite different and novel proposal to ordain women as deacons.

Following the publication of this paper opposing woman deacons, the decision was made to include the paper as an appendix to a Trinity Foundation volume. Shortly before his death (in 1985), Clark outlined the historical context of the debate in a preface to that appendix:

The Synod of 1976 of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod considered a Report advocating the ordination of women as deacons. Its non-controversial first half had been distributed some weeks in advance; but the second half was not made public until Synod convened. Since the commissioners had had no opportunity to study it, they wisely took no action on [and recommitted] the second half. After Synod adjourned, a paper was written analyzing the arguments of the Report. The committee prevented this paper from being included among the reports distributed before the Synod of 1977. To date no analysis of the controversial second half of the 1976 Report has been published. Therefore the author of the paper [Clark himself] now makes it public on his own responsibility.

Since the Synod of 1977 decisively rejected the ordination of women as deacons, some persons may think that the present publication is superfluous. The author disagrees. First, shortly after the Synod of 1976, the Presbyterian Journal, without identifying its sources, reported that the advocates of ordination of women predicted that they would push their program through within four years. Hence in spite of the 1977 action, future Synods may have to face the question again. Second, before the 1977 Synod met, one minister, with the prior approval of the Midwestern Presbytery, the Presbytery within whose bounds Covenant Seminary is located, actually ordained one or more women. This of course was a deliberate violation of our Form of Government. It indicates that illegal actions are considered appropriate to attain the end in view.

Then third, since as yet no formal analysis of the original Report has been published, the present paper is not altogether superfluous, at least in the opinion of the author, Gordon H. Clark.

There are a number of interesting details, here, but one that is crucial: Clark categorically states, on the record and among those present at the Synod, that the RPCES "decisively rejected the ordination of women as


To the degree that PCA men today are inclined to give the RPCES actions the weight Keller admonishes us to give them, acknowledging the RPCES has provided us "valuable and significant

material which (should) be used in the perfecting of the Church (and) granted respect," it is crucial those actions be acurately reported. We must know what the RPCES believed concerning woman deacons--what actions the RPCES took.

To that end, let the record show that the RPCES did not vote on woman deacons in its 154th (1976) Synod. And when the RPCES Synod did vote on woman deacons one year later, at its 155th (1977) Synod, woman deacons were not "narrowly defeated."

Rather, the RPCES overwhelmingly affirmed that the office of deacon is limited by Scripture to men only.

Keller's article in byFaith misled readers. I'm convinced the error was an honest mistake on the part of Keller and the magazine's editors, but byFaith needs to issue a correction.

* * *

* It's a fair question whether Keller is remembering this vote to recommit as the narrow defeat of women deacons? But a motion to recommit cannot be construed as a vote on woman deacons since men wanting woman deacons may have voted to recommit and others opposed to woman deacons may have voted against it, believing the matter had been studied enough and needed simply to be repudiated. It also should be kept in mind that, when the matter was voted on directly--woman deacons or no--it was rejected decisively. And that was only a year later. Thus any meaning one was inclined to read into the vote to recommit would have to be interpreted by the actual vote one year later.