>Last year at the PCA General Assembly, the issue of commissioning deaconesses was debated by Tim Keller and Ligon Duncan and has continued since then. One of the things that makes the discussion difficult is that there are many who think the issue is about defining what women are allowed to do in the church and what we are allowed to call the women who serve(deaconess?). However, this is not really what is at the heart of the debate. What is really at the heart of the debate can be seen in Keller’s own words from a byFaith article, where he stated, “When we began Redeemer I encouraged our new session to establish a diaconate that included unordained, commissioned deaconesses,” [emphasis mine]. Later in the article when he discussed how to understand Phoebe in Romans 16.1, he utilized Robert Strimple’s argumentation for understanding her as an “office holder.” Still later in the article he noted that he is making a case for a recognized body of deaconing women [emphasis mine]. These statements are just a sampling of what Keller is arguing for, which is a recognized office of unordained women deaconesses commissioned for diaconal work in the church. The purpose here is not to put the spot light on Keller; he is not the only person in the PCA making this case, but his argumentation seems to be representative of what others are saying, as well. So, the issue is really this: there are some in the PCA who want local congregations to have the freedom to commission women to an unordained office of deaconess.
In the ongoing debate on this issue in the PCA, it has become more clear that there is much disagreement about how to understand the provision in the seventh paragraph of the ninth chapter of the Book of Church Order (henceforth, BCO 9-7). In BCO 9-7, there is a provision for the session of a local congregation to select and appoint godly men and women to assist the deacons. Those advocating the commissioning of women to the unordained office of deaconess point to this provision as their Constitutional basis for doing so, and from it, have proposed two basic ideas.
First, many argue that this provides for a class, order, body, or office in which unordained women can serve along side the diaconate, or like a Keller’s congregations, serve on the diaconate. The way Keller works this out is by not ordaining the men who serve as deacons, so that everyone, male and female, on the diaconate are unordained. Second, many argue that the provision of BCO 9-7 allows for the women to be nominated and approved by congregational vote leading to a commissioning service where the deaconess is installed. The process looks nearly identical to the process used for calling, ordaining and installing male deacons to the diaconate, only that in the commissioning, there is no laying on of hands (since that is about ordination). The one thing that seems to be clear in the debate at this point is that it is not about the ordination of women as deaconesses in the PCA, and yet, when there are proponents doing things like equating deaconesses with deacons by not ordaining deacons, electing women to unordained office in a way that mirrors election to ordained office, having women train for unordained office alongside men training for ordained office, and when congregations are having commissioning services that include vows to the woman and to the congregation that looks like ordination and installation, the apparent clarity disappears. What also confuses matters is the assumption that there can be such a thing as an unordained office or unordained officer, and the assumption that “commissioning,” which is not found anywhere in the BCO, let alone defined in the BCO, is a legitimate and acceptable practice in the Church.
The one thing that is clear right now is that there is a tremendous need for clarity. As the debate has raged on, others have recognize this need for clarity and there have been at least six different overtures on this issue submitted for consideration at General Assembly this year. Well, at least that was the case until yesterday. Yesterday, the Committee on Constitutional Business found three of them, Overtures 2, 9, and 10, to be contrary to the Constitution of the PCA. In my personal opinion, this is a shame. Overtures 2 and 9 would actually have brought some clarity to the debate.
First, Overture 2 was responding to the practice of “several churches in the PCA” who “currently elect and commission women to the office of deacon and call them by the title deacons or deaconess and allow them to serve on the diaconate” and use BCO 9-7 as their basis in doing so. Overture 2 sought to bring clarity by proposing that the Assebmly amend BCO 9-7 to prohibit deaconesses by adding an extra sentence to clarify the provision of 9-7 (the proposed addition is in bold type),
It is often expedient that the Session of a church should select and appoint godly men and women of the congregation to assist the deacons in caring for the sick, the widows, the orphans, the prisoners, and others who may be in any distress or need. These assistants to the deacons shall not be referred to as deacons or deaconesses, nor are they to be elected by the congregation nor formally commissioned, ordained, or installed as though they were office bearers in the church.
It is clear from the argumentation of the overture that women are extremely important and necessary to the work of the Church, acknowledging that “the ability of the church to minister to a lost and dying world depends in large part on the self-sacrificing volunteet spirit of our female members.” The intent is not to make it impossible for women to serve and bless the church with their gifts, which BCO 9-7 provides for, but rather, to make the provision more explicit so that it cannot continue to be distorted into something it does not promote or permit. Furthermore, the overture is not just concerned with the unordained women in BCO 9-7, it is also concerned with bringing clarity concerning the unordained men–who they are and how they come to serve.
The committee ruled, however, that amending BCO 9-7 this way was contrary to the Constitution for two reasons. One, it assumed that the term “deaconess” necessarily denotes an office equivalent to that of deacon. This assumption is unwarranted since the Bible uses the term diakonos (deacon) most commonly to refer “to a person being a servant and not an office bearer.” Second, the overture was ruled contrary to the Constitution because it was restricting the use of the term “commissioning” (a term that is not defined by the Constitution) as “equivalent to the actions of ordination and installation.” The point of the overture was to bring clarity to the discussion by making the very point that the men and women appointed to assist the deacons in BCO 9-7 should not be treated like they hold an office and that the procedure by which they come to serve should not look like ordination and installation, which is a much needed statement right now.
And yet, the ruling can help in moving the discussion along and helping to provide for some clarity in two ways. First, in saying that we should not assume the terms deacon and deaconess to refer to an office holder undercuts one of the arguments put forward by the proponents of commissioning deaconesses. Proponents of commissioning women to the unordained office of deaconess like to point to Romans 16.1 where Phoebe is referred to as a deaconess. They argue that since Phoebe is referred to by the feminine form of diakonos that she held the office of deaconess. But this is the only occurence of a woman in the New Testament being referred to as deaconess. So why leap to the conclusion that office of deaconess is in view there? One could apply the committee’s position to this argument this way, “Just because one is referred to as deacon or deaconess, one time in Romans 16.1 and no where else, it does not mean that an office is in view since the terms mostly refer to general service. What the committee’s decision does is put the impetus on the interpreter to demonstrate “office of deacon” is in view when the word deacon is used and not just assume it or declare it to be the case. One should not simply assume “office” when they see the word deacon, and this should govern the discussions surrounding Romans 16.1.
Second, even though Overture 2 will not be considered, the committee’s second reason for ruling it contrary to the Constitution can still be helpful in addressing the procedure being used by proponents of commissioning women to the undordained office of deaconess. Overture 2 wanted to bring clarity to BCO 9-7 by clarifying that the unordaned men and women assisting the deacons were doing so because of the Session’s right to “select and appoint” in contradistinction from them serving because of being “formally commissioned, ordained or installed as though they were office bearers in the church.” The ruling of the committee can still help to make this point given that the committee admits that “commission” is not defined in the Constitution. If commissioning is not defined in the Constitution (and by the way it’s not even found in it), then why are congregations doing it at all? On grounds are they doing something in a worship service as part of how they structure their ministry that is based on something not provided for, not defined, not even found in the Constitution? Do you want a good reason for why the PCA should not commission women to the unordained office of deaconess? Because the Constitution doesn’t prescribe it, allow it, define it or even address it.
But this is also a third way that the committee’s actions are helpful. In addition to ruling that Overtures 2 and 9 were contrary to the Constitution, it also found Overture 10 in conflict with the Constitution. In that overture, there were several amendments to the BCO being offered, all of which had to do with the idea of separating ordination from office. It wanted to argue that there can be such a thing as an unordained office and an unordained officer. The committee’s response was very clear, “The insertion of ‘ordained’ to describe the office of elder and deacon in the proposed revision of BCO 7-2 implies that there is an unordained office, which conflicts with BCO 17-1.” With regards to the idea of an unordained officer, the committee’s response was once again quite clear, when it argued that “the existence of deacons who have not been ordained . . . also conflicts with BCO 17-1. The point here seems clear: there is no such thing as an unordained office or unordained officer, and this should include the idea of an unordained office of deaconess.
These rulings, should help move the discussion along and I hope that those proposing commissioning (something that the Constitution doesn’t define and shouldn’t look like ordination and installation since they’re not the same) women to the unordained office (something that doesn’t exist and is in clear conflict with the Church’s Constitution) of deaconesses will pay attention to these rulings and allow them to constrain their ideas, practices and pursuits. As it is said in Overture 25, “until or unless there are constitutional amendments to change our BCO, each court is to be reminded to be faithful in upholding the constitutional views of the Church.” Let us all strive to fulfill our vows to be subject to our brothers in the Lord (#4) and to zealously maintain the purity, peace and unity of the church (#6).