>The Case for Commissioning (Not Ordaining) Deaconesses May Have Just Gotten Tougher

>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).


>Update on "Tim Keller and Confusion Over Commissioning (Not Ordaining) Deaconesses

>Since I first wrote about the confusion at Redeemer PCA on the ordination of a woman as a deaconess, more information has become available to fill out the story. In addition to Keller’s apology, the minister who made “the mistake” has also provided a public apology. The apology letter was apparently originally sent to his Presbytery and then made public at his permission. However, rather than clearing things up, things continue to get muddier.

First, I was glad to read of the apparent sincerity of the apology of Scott Sauls, the minister who mistakenly ordained a woman as a deaconess. However, he provides information about himself and past ministry that is further confusing to me. While the minister was certainly newer to the staff at Redeemer PCA, he is by no means a young inexperienced minister. He has been in ministry for around 13 years in which he has served two former congregations, one in the PCA and then one in the EPC (a denomination that ordains women). His call to Redeemer PCA brought him out of the EPC back to the PCA. He states in his apology that while in the EPC he did ordain women as deaconesses. Saul does not state in the apology sent to his Presbytery that he has changed his convictions about ordaining women. It seems as though from his perspective, his mistake at Redeemer was not so much that he transgressed biblical teaching and in turn inadvertently broke his ordination vows; rather, his mistake was in forgetting that he was back in the PCA where they don’t do that sort of thing.

Second, the situation becomes more confusing given that just months prior to the mistake, one of his jobs at Redeemer was to communicate the termination of a fellow pastor at Redeemer who was not “the best fit ideologically and ecclesially,” (you can find a copy of the letter here, but in providing the link I am in no way endorsing the content of the blog entry in which it is found, it is just a place where you can read the letter). It has been made known that one of the reasons for the ideological and ecclessial differences rested in the fact that that pastor was not in step with Redeemer concerning its position on women deaconesses. It would appear,then, that Sauls is not a green inexperienced minister who was confused one time, this was a minister who believes in women’s ordination and who participated in the removal of a fellow pastor who was not in agreement. This is not to suggest maliciousness and dishonesty. It just seems to me that when you have a man on staff who believes in and has practiced women’s ordination and a man on that same staff that gets fired because he does not, then it is not much of a surprise that this kind of mistake could happen. The muddier things get, the more potential there is to slip.

Third, the apology letter also heightens the concern I raised before about the lack of objection in the video displayed by the session and congregation of Redeemer. No one balks at what is happening, even when the congregation is charged to submit to “Deb.” In the apology, he states that he didn’t even know about his mistake until he saw the video just “last week.” That means from the time the service took place in May until late November when the video was pointed out to him, no one had said anything to him about his mistake! Maybe nobody else realized the mistake just as he didn’t. Maybe nobody thought it was a mistake. Maybe some people caught it but weren’t sure how to respond. Look, every minister and every session and every congregation is going to make mistakes, but I personally believe that this just underscores the importance of clear instruction and practice. When things are muddy it is easier for mistakes to be made, but more importantly, it makes it easier for mistakes to be missed. Any mistake can be fixed–but only if the mistake is recognized. If there is no clear instruction and practice, then by what standard do you assess what happens?

Lastly, in the apology he refers to the service where he made his mistake in two different ways. Sometimes he refers to it as a “commissioning done in error,” while in the same letter admitting that he ordained the deaconess. Which is it? Was it a commissioning done in error or an actual ordination? It seems that he and Keller just don’t get the seriousness of what happened that day. Even though it was not intentional, he and Redeemer PCA ordained a woman as a deaconess, which is a clear violation of the PCA‘s interpretation of the Bible concerning women’s roles in the church and a clear violation of the practice of PCA polity. This mistake is quite serious and needs to be corrected by more than “apologies.” Has “Deb” and the congregation been led to renounce the vows they took? Have they redone the service so as to actually commission her? Or is she and the congregation still functioning under those erroneous vows? The Bible never speaks of “apologies,” it speaks of confession of sin, repentance and loving constructive discipline. Will Keller, Sauls, and the Redeemer Session and congregation be afforded that form of Christian love?

The bottom line for me is that the apologies of Keller and Sauls are not alleviating concerns, but rather aggravating and compounding them. If you are interested in a more in-depth critique of Keller’s argument for commissioning women deaconesses, especially concerning some of the sources he has used to support his position, then you can read a six-part series (one, two, three, four, five, and six) over at the Bayly Blog (this is not an endorsement of everything found on their blog, but there is much helpful material).

>Tim Keller and Confusion Over "Commissioning" (Not Ordaining) Deaconesses

>*You can also find an update here.

Back in the summer at the General Assembly for the PCA, there was a discussion held between Ligon Duncan and Tim Keller concerning the role of women and the diaconate. You can listen to the first installment of the discussion here, and to the second installment here. The discussion was a follow up to articles that Duncan and Keller had published last year in the PCA periodical By Faith Magazine. Duncan’s article, “The Case for Our Current Policy on Female Deacons” can be read here. Keller’s article, “The Case for Commissioning (Not Ordaining) Deaconesses” can be read here.

Keller believes that a woman in the church can do anything that a non-ordained man can do, therefore, he says that at his church Redeemer PCA, they have non-ordained women who serve on the diaconate. He says he does not believe in ordaining, but commissioning. In an article titled “Women and Ministry, Redeemer Presbyterian Church,” Keller summarizes what takes place at Redeemer PCA:

In a nutshell, our position is this: whatever a non-ruling elder male can do in the church, a woman can do. We do not believe that I Timothy 2:11 or I Cor.14:35-36 precludes women teaching the Bible to men or speaking publicly. To “teach with authority” (I Tim.2:11) refers to disciplinary authority over the doctrine of someone. For example, when an elder says to a member: “You are telling everyone that they must be circumcised in order to be saved–that is a destructive, non-Biblical teaching which is hurting people spiritually. You must desist from it or you will have to leave the church.” That is “teaching authority”–it belongs only to the elders. Thus, women at Redeemer will be free to use all the gifts, privately and publicly. There are no restrictions on ministry at all. There is a restriction on the office of elder… The Deaconesses will be women elected by the congregation who will do discipling, counseling, and shepherding in the church, particularly among the women. Spiritual maturity is the qualification. They will probably also exercise a teaching ministry in the church, depending on their gifts.

Keller says that women will be commissioned not ordained and therefore, the only service from which they are restricted is the office of elder. So he is fine with them “discipling, counseling, shepherding and teaching.” It may be “particularly among women” but not exclusively. The result of Keller’s position is that the waters are muddied and Presbyterian doctrine and practice concerning women and the office of deacon have become confused.

This confusion can be seen in how the roles between men and women have been equated in the diaconte. When one looks at the description of the diaconate at Redeemer’s website, there is no distinction between male and female deacons in how they become a deacon/deaconess, “The Diaconate, a group of men and women nominated, elected and appointed by the Redeemer members . . .” Further confusion is created by the fact that the men and women nominated to office go through the same training. And to add even more confusion, the director of the diaconate is a woman.

The egalitarianism has not only introduced women into roles that are not biblical and confessional, it is also keeping men from theirs. In an attempt to keep men and women deacons on an egalitarian level, not only are the women not ordained, but neither are the men. At Redeemer, therefore, there is no biblical office of deacon since there is no one ordained to that office. All the deacons/deaconesses are commissioned.

Keller has spoken out against those who desire to maintain the PCA’s understanding of women in office, claiming that their fear that commissioning will lead to ordaining is unfounded. Yet, by reducing the office of deacon to something it is not by not ordaining any of them, he has in effect already moved things in the direction of egalitarianism, which, many believe will eventually encroach on the office of elder, as well.

All this confusion seems to have even affected the Teaching Elders at Redeemer, and the PCA confessionalists may have been proven right. This week a video has been making its way around the blogosphere that seriously calls Keller’s position and practice into question. In the video, there is a woman named Deb who is ordained as a deaconess. Wes White provides a detailed analysis of the video over at Johannes Weslianus and shows that it follows the procedure for ordaining someone to office in the PCA Book of Church Order. It gives the appearance that Keller may not being forthright.

Well, yesterday over at Green Baggins, Bob Mattes posted a response that he received directly from Keller, in which he tries to clarify the confusion surrounding this video and the apparent ordination of a deaconess. Keller responds by saying the ordination of a woman deaconess “is not our practice,” that they do not “ask our congregation to obey and submit to them,” and that it would not be their practice in the future. Keller chalks it up to a mistake made by a “newer minister.”

Yet, with this being a mistake and out of line with normal practice, I am surprised that there didn’t seem to be any negative reaction. No elders provide a correction to what happens. None of the other persons that are being installed seem surprised by the mistake. Deb herself does not question what the minister is leading her to do when he asks her to confirm her ordination vows. And no one in the congregation seems to question what is happening. In fact, when the congregation is charged to “acknowledge and receive Deb” and to promise to yield “all that honor and encouragement and obedience in the Lord to which the Word of God and the constitution of this church entitles them,” no one is looking around, no one seems puzzled, and there is a clear, unqualified affirmation from the congregation.

My point is not to suggest that Keller is lying or covering up some secret cabal, or to maliciously draw attention to the minister’s mistake. My point here is that clear water becomes muddied when something is added that shouldn’t be there. Keller and Redeemer’s novel understanding and practice concerning the diaconate has not helped to instruct the body on a proper understanding of polity and doing things in good order, instead it has created a context in which a woman can be ordained (by mistake) and no one seems to blink. And this raises the question, what if there is a time when it is not a mistake? Will they go right along with it like they seemed to this time? When the shepherds try to bend the lines, it is the sheep who pay the price.

It is always important that the Church establishes her order based on the scripture. If there are some with differing opinions about what the scripture teaches, then there is a proper place to have that discussion. But once the Church speaks, then it is incumbent on the officers to instruct the congregations and align their practices with those standards. If one finds that the decision of the Church goes against his conscience, then he is free to disagree and has the liberty to serve in a Church in which he does not have to go against conscience. But if he chooses to stay, then it is best for everyone that the decision of the Church be maintained with as much clarity as is possible. Let us pray that amidst this confusion that clarity will prevail.

*Read on to an update of this post here.

>The Small Things of Life

>For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? . . . Matthew 16.26

Several months ago, Grace OPC was blessed to ordain and install Dr. Jim Knox as a deacon to serve as a missionary doctor in Uganda.

For years, Jim has served on several short-term mission trips to Uganda, and has been planning to go to Uganda full time as a missionary doctor. Well, Jim has safely arrived and has already begun his diaconal ministry to the Karamojong people by working in a medical clinic.

Recently, Jim sent an update sharing how much he enjoys Uganda and provided a list of observations outlining some of the differences between living in the U.S. and Uganda:

1. Every time you wash your hands, it is like you have been out playing in the mud. Even in just walking back from the clinic, the dust can make my hands that dirty as we are in the middle of the dry season.

2. Every time I take a shower I wash off so much dirt. It looks like I just have a really great tan, but it ends up being mostly the brown dust!

3. Although it has been a long while since the mission has run out of water, we are still conscientious of water usage. So, for example, when I take a shower, I turn off the water every time I can. When I am putting the soap on my hair, I turn the water off. Etc.

4. I have begun taking showers between 4 and 6 pm. The water actually feels nice at this time of day. Otherwise, it is just too cold for me. This is the time when the day is the hottest, so the water has warmed up a bit and it is okay to have some coolness to cool you down.

5. The compost has to be taken outside every night. Otherwise, the cockroaches will multiply rapidly. They are all the small cockroaches (nothing like those in Texas or Philadelphia).

6. You always have to turn on a flash light before you move about at all at night. Just to be sure there are no scorpions, snakes, or whatever on the ground. So, I use a flashlight ever single day.

7. I wear a hat pretty much every day (I never wore a hat in the USA) because of the equatorial sun.

8. We sleep under mosquito nets.

9. By the way, “mosquito” is pronounced “moss-kwee-toe”. “Fruit” is pronounced “frew–eet”. “Guitar” is pronounced by some as “gwee–tar”. If some has diarrhoea (yes, the British spelling is used), no one says, “Do you have diarrhoea?” Everyone asks the question, “Are you diarrhating?”

10. The stove in the big community kitchen that I use burns things really easily. So, you basically just have to stand by the stove the entire time. I have been able to make a Texas sheet cake, a pumpkin cake, a spice cake, as well as various other things on the stove top. The cakes all tasted okay, but they tasted nothing like when I have made them in the USA. I guess that the ingredients are just not exactly the same.

11. I get to roast my own G-nuts. The Africans call what we call peanuts, G-nuts or groundnuts. One of the families just gave me the great idea of trying to roast my G-nuts with various things like garlic or chili, etc. G-nuts have really become a staple food for me.

12. All of our laundry is hand-washed. We hire someone to do our laundry for us. She scrubs each piece of clothing by hand. So, clothing has to be pretty tough, or it just disintegrates. But, it is so clean!! Even with all of the dust and stains.

13. I wear the same clothes for so many days in a row. Otherwise, the K-jong notice when you have multiple changes of clothes. Plus, the smells here are just different. Baths are not as common, so no one notices if you have on the same pair of clothes. [I do change my underwear every day, though, just in case you were wondering!!!]

14. When I go running, people just stare at me. It is really funny to have people stop whatever they are doing, look at you, and just continue to look at you until you are out of sight. I have had several people start to run with me, all the while speaking excitedly in Karamajong!! I can understand when someone asks me in K-jong “Where are you going?” But, I don’t know how to explain that I am just going in a circle, with no specific final destination.

15. All vegetables are soaked in a dilute bleach solution, just to kill anything that might be on their outsides!

16. I have begun to really enjoy cold water. I usually just have always drunk room temperature water, but this cold weather is growing on me. There is only one temperature that comes out of the tap, so cold water comes from storing water in the refrigerator.

17. Cabbage is a staple vegetable. I have made cabbage salad, using cabbage just like lettuce with carrots, onions, etc. I have made that cabbage salad that you put raman (yes, they are available even in Uganda) noodles and almonds (although I have to use G-nuts instead of almonds). Any suggestions for ways to cook cabbage. A head of cabbage costs less than 50 cents.

18. You can’t put toilet paper in the toilet. You have to put it in a bucket beside the toilet, to be burned later. So far, I think that I have only forgotten 3 times since I have been here!! the plumbing just can’t handle it!

19. There is a gecko in our kitchen who has lost its tail. There are geckos and skinks all over the place! They are cute, in a reptilian sort-of way!

20. When you go to the grocery store in the city of Mbale, they just use a calculator to add up your total. They don’t have regular cash registers.