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RPC Deacon Assistants to be called Deaconesses

September 19 2017
September 19 2017
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One of the bedrock commitments of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is its commitment to the authority and trustworthiness of the Bible. The PCA recognizes that in order to be faithful to the living Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, we must be faithful to the written Word revealed in the Scriptures. This commitment, though, comes with attendant risks. Many times the Bible’s teachings conflict with contemporary claims being made by the culture on issues like human dignity, economics, politics, beauty, sexuality, salvation, etc., which require Christians seeking to be faithful to the Scriptures to take unpopular stands. Throughout history, the Church and believers have had to negotiate this tension, which is always something of a moving target.

So, it shouldn’t surprise us that the Bible’s teachings about the roles of men and women in the church and at home might sound strange to our contemporary context. In the ancient world it was no different. Then, the Bible’s teaching that women were of equal worth and dignity before God and others was subversive to the prevailing male-dominated culture. In today’s context, however, the Bible’s teaching that though men and women are of equal worth and dignity, God has designed the genders to function in a complementary way rather than an identical one is subversive for different reasons. Nevertheless, though these conflicts occur at opposite extremes, the reason they exist at all arises from a common commitment to Biblical fidelity. The question is always and must always be, “What does the Bible say about this issue?”

This past summer, at the PCA’s 45th General Assembly (GA), which met in Greensboro, NC, one of the most important issues being addressed was precisely on this topic, the Biblical and historical role of women in the life of the church. At the 2016 GA, the moderator appointed an Ad Interim Committee, a group of both qualified men and women, to study this issue with the goal of reporting back at 2017’s GA. After serving together throughout the year, the committee presented its report and recommendations titled, “Women Serving in the Ministry of the Church.”

From the outset, the report affirmed the PCA’s longstanding commitment to a complementarian view of male and female relationships within the church and that ordained office is reserved for men.

The Presbyterian Church in America is joyfully and confessionally committed to the Bible's teaching on the complementarity of men and women. As a denomination, we believe that this teaching is true, good, and beautiful. We affirm the full dignity of men and women as created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-28). We also humbly and happily embrace Scripture’s clear teaching that the eldership is to be composed of qualified men (1 Tim. 2:12; 3:1-7; 16 5:17), who are entrusted by Christ with the ministry of the authoritative teaching and ruling of the church for the building up of the whole body (Eph. 4:11-13).

While there is much to appreciate about this affirmation, the report observed that it has proven an inadequate response for many congregations wanting to include women in a variety of ministry contexts not requiring ordination. Specifically, what does a principled commitment to complementarianism actually look like? For this reason, the committee was tasked to explore:

[T]he role of women in diaconal ministry; the best way to promote the use of women's gifts and ministry in the church; in what settings is it appropriate for women to teach; whether deacons ought to be ordained; what the nature of the diaconal office is; whether women may serve on denominational boards and agencies, and the like (1).

In response, the report provided extensive Biblical and theological basis for a complementarian perspective. These conclusions also demonstrated that Scripture encourages and expects women to serve in a wide array of ministry roles, many of which are not commonly performed by women in the PCA.

One of the strongest segments of the report was how the church has interpreted the key Biblical passages that bear on this issue (cf. Rom. 16:1; 1 Tim. 3:11) and a historical survey of the various ways women have served in diaconal ministry. It was noted that throughout the history of the church women have served in a wide array of diaconal capacities. In some cases these roles were ordained and in others they were not, but in almost all of these situations the women serving were designated deaconesses. For example, at his church in Geneva John Calvin allowed for two types of deacons: Men who performed acts of administration, distribution of alms and care for the poor, while women (deaconesses) devoted themselves only to care of the poor (28; cf. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4:3:9). While some historians suggest these were both ordained roles in the church, the evidence is probably weighted toward male deacons who were ordained and female deaconesses were appointed, but not ordained.

This is particularly relevant to the PCA because this type of distinction and its application is at the heart of the report’s sixth recommendation, which encourages “sessions and presbyteries [to] select and appoint godly women and men of the congregation to assist the ordained diaconate.” This recommendation further notes that this is already constitutionally appropriate.

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 are not officers of the church (Book of Church Order 7-2) and, as such, are not subjects for ordination (BCO 9-7).

Recommendations two and three lend further support and widen the scope of this direction.

2) That sessions, presbyteries, and the General Assembly recognize that, from the founding of the PCA, there has been a variety of views and practices regarding the ways in which women may serve the Lord and the church within scriptural and constitutional parameters, without ordination, and that such mutual respect for said views and practices continues.

3) That sessions, presbyteries and the General Assembly strive to develop, recognize, and utilize the gifts, skills, knowledge, and wisdom of godly women in the local, regional, and national church, and particularly consider overtures that would allow qualified women to serve on appropriate committees and agencies within the church.

Perhaps the greatest encouragement coming from the report for us at Redeemer Presbyterian Church was that it affirmed many of our longstanding practices, which seek to equip and involve women at every level of ministry not requiring ordination. Even so, though these are already settled convictions at Redeemer, the report did influence the Session at its September meeting to make one important change to its current policy on Deacon Assistants. Again, Deacon Assistants are women who are trained and appointed by the Session to assist the deacons in their ministry (per BCO 9-7). Going forward, however, Redeemer’s Deacon Assistants will be titled Deaconesses. In light of the report’s conclusions, the Session agreed that the word deaconess is a more dignified, pastoral and biblically faithful title for the important role these women fulfill in our congregation.

If you’d like to discuss this, please do so with one of the elders or pastors. I also encourage you to read the full report, “Women Serving in the Ministry of the Church,” online at www.pcaac.org.


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