Joe Gibbons

Thoughts on Female Deacons

The deacons do exercise authority. God in His providence showed the early church that the physical needs of the body should not fall onto the elders’ shoulders alone, and so seven men were chosen from among the people. These men were granted authority from the apostles & elders to perform acts of service ministry in the name of the church. As shown in the early church account in Acts 6, this responsibility to care for the physically needy originally lay with the elders.

The support for women being ordained to the diaconate is a movement that, for whatever reason, simply will not go away. It is persistently brought to the fore of various Reformed churches within the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC). As I viewed the 219th General Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP) this week, I was struck by what I thought of as somewhat nebulous argumentation on the part of those who spoke in favor of retaining their denomination’s status quo. Since 1972, the ARP’s Form of Government has allowed local church sessions the freedom to choose whether or not to ordain women to the diaconate. Some estimates place the number of churches that ordain women as deacons as accounting for roughly a quarter of the ARP.
The arguments in favor of keeping this practice sounded very similar to the talking points one would hear from vocal proponents of adopting female deacons in my own church, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). In fact, as recently as 2019, overtures were sent to our general assembly explicitly asking for the PCA’s approval of ordaining women as deacons. These arguments are common enough that they deserve to be addressed.
1. The “Non-Authoritative” Role of Deacons
Paul’s apostolic word to Timothy that he refrain from allowing women to “exercise authority” (1 Tim. 2:12) is a hallmark passage in the discussion concerning church offices. The topic of “authority” has even become something of an artificial dividing line between the realms of deacon’s service & elders’ leadership. The basic notion is that elders possess & wield authority and deacons do not, because their office is based on service & mercy, not on direct spiritual leadership.
The argument goes something like this: deacons do not exercise authority, so therefore 1 Timothy 2:12 does not apply to deacons and as a result the diaconate should be open to women.
This stance is incorrect. The deacons do exercise authority. God in His providence showed the early church that the physical needs of the body should not fall onto the elders’ shoulders alone, and so seven men were chosen from among the people. These men were granted authority from the apostles & elders to perform acts of service ministry in the name of the church. As shown in the early church account in Acts 6, this responsibility to care for the physically needy originally lay with the elders. The PCA’s Book of Church Order states: “In the discharge of their duties the deacons are under the supervision and authority of the Session. In a church in which it is impossible for any reason to secure deacons, the duties of the office shall devolve upon the ruling elders.” (BCO 9-2)
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Baptism, Rightly Administered

We know that the sacraments have a teaching function. They exist to encourage and edify the body of the faithful. By maintaining a standard of the appropriate mode (and therefore appropriate symbolism) for baptizing, we are shepherding our people. We are teaching them about the Lord’s nature of interacting with His people and the way He saves and revives us.

The sacrament of baptism is perhaps the most widely debated topic in the Protestant church world. There is no shortage of fraternal disagreements on this topic, especially within the Reformed evangelical setting. However, debates around baptism often focus around who should be baptized. Is baptism reserved for believers alone? Or are the children of Christians to be baptized as well? Comparatively less ink is spilled debating about the mode of baptism, or how people are to be baptized. The nature of the debate over whether biblical baptism should be administered to families of believers can often distract from this all too important topic. This can lead to misunderstandings about why certain traditions hold the practices they do, or assumptions that one’s own practice is right, without prompting any further investigation into the matter. It has even led to some considering this issue of no consequence at all.
What do the scriptures teach about the mode of baptism? How are believers to be baptized? Unfortunately, there is no “gotcha” passage in the New Testament that points us to a quick resolution of this, but as we tread beyond the usual stomping ground of whether baptizo means to immerse (and only to immerse), we should find a deeper meaning for baptism. Just as what we do with the bread and wine matters for observing communion, what we do with the waters of baptism matters as well.
Signs and Wonders
The Westminster Confession of faith opens its 28th chapter by defining baptism as a sacrament, and listing its many benefits:

Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church, but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God through Jesus Christ, to walk in the newness of life: which sacrament is, by Christ’s own appointment, to be continued in his church until the end of the world.—WCF 28.1

So what is baptism all about? Well, it is a sign (or a symbol) of the Christian’s regeneration and the remission of their sins. Baptism displays, in symbolic visual form, the new birth that is experienced by the believer and wrought by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13). For once we were dead in our tresspasses and sins, but God “made us alive, together with Christ–” (Eph. 2:5) God has given His church baptism to show us that in Christ we are made alive.
This baptism verifies the promises of the Gospel in scripture. God promised to revive, and so he showers us with the water of life through His Spirit. God promised to cleanse, and so he washes us of our sin & iniquity. It is the Gospel in picture, for the person being baptized and for all who witness the event and consider the sign. More than an empty ceremony, it gives testimony to the promise of redemption; it shows God as he holds out a righteousness that can be had by faith. In this way, baptism is similar to circumcision in that it preaches to those who receive it, although baptism does this more than circumcision ever could. Circumcision as a sign showed Christians in the Old Testament that they, by their sin, were fundamentally broken as creatures and needed their wickedness removed in order to stand in the light of a holy God. Baptism shows us more, as the washing with water pictures our Savior who was covered by our sin and cleansed as he rose again on the third day.
And yet, baptism does even more. It shows us, as Chad van Dixhoorn writes, not only redemption promised and redemption accomplished, but redemption applied.1 Baptism points us to something real, something that happened. This sign represents to us the way in which we were brought into the house of God, and the relationship between our spiritual baptism and our righteous standing with Christ before God. Paul says as much in Galatians: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Gal. 3:27) Just as Christians are joined to the visible church at their baptism, so they are ushered into Christ’s arms when they are resurrected through spiritual baptism.
Problems With Immersion
The question then becomes, what does this symbolism have to do with the mode of baptism? This particular moment is where many well-meaning Baptists ride down the hill as the cavalry coming to the rescue, declaring with every fiber of their being that immersion (or dipping) is the appropriate mode, and in fact, the only biblical mode. They are not without reason to have such confidence in immersion, as it conveys much through its symbolism. They derive their meaning from the language of being buried with Christ from places in scripture like Romans 6:4 and Colossians 2:12. The Baptist connects these passages with what he sees as the “burial” in water during an immersion baptism, or the “watery grave” as the prominent preacher Adrian Rogers called it, and there consider the matter to be ended.
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Look at the PCA Book (of Church Order)

I challenge you to consider the BCO in light of what the Bible says about the church. Read it carefully and deliberately. If you disagree with a statement made in its pages, ask why, and investigate further. Ask your pastor and elders about it. Order pleases the Lord, and he desires for his people to be built up and edified, by all the teachings of the Bible about the church. The BCO helps the local church accomplish this vital task.

Like many in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) who come from baptistic backgrounds, I found my church’s inquirers’ class to be a welcome & intriguing experience. Most Baptist churches in the United States can fall anywhere along a wide spectrum of educational practices and confessional commitments, so it was a refreshing drink of mature biblical doctrine to walk week-by-week through the Westminster Confession. My wife and I came to our church already presbycurious, but emerged from the inquirers’ class as full-fledged Westminsterians. We couldn’t get enough of the glorious teaching contained within our Standards. We craved more.
As I spoke with my pastor and elders throughout this class, I came to learn there was more.
You see, Presbyterians love books. They love order even more. They even have a whole book devoted to the establishing & keeping of order in the church. Reading the PCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO) has helped me to learn about my denomination and to love it even more. Laity in our church would find much benefit from the troves of wisdom in its pages. Many a pastor labors in its pages, and perhaps even many elders & deacons, but I believe it can be of great use to the everyday believer in forming their thoughts about the church in its operation.
Giving Shape to the Church
Oftentimes as we read popular works of theology, we gain many insights into what Scripture teaches about God, the Christian, salvation, repentance, and living out life as Christ’s redeemed. The doctrine of the Church, however, can sometimes be unfortunately neglected or even wholly ignored. The BCO provides the reader with the standards by which a Presbyterian church is constituted and maintained. It outlines the scriptural doctrine of church government and defines both the visible church and the powers of that church. It details a governing structure for the local church, its initial organization, its officers, and the rights and duties of its members. The courts of the session, the presbytery, and the general assembly are all defined, as well as the relation of elders to the courts.
For laypersons, the Form of Government (Part 1) of the BCO teaches us about the church, properly governed. We are taught that the visible church’s government reaches its perfection in the presbytery, but that the absence of presbytery doesn’t deny the existence of the church. This comforts many of us who have loved ones and relations outside of Presbyterian churches. This also teaches us what to expect of and for our pastor, how to relate to him in his ministry, and how a church can call a pastor if it does not have one. For any who have spent time in the Wild West of nondenominational churches, such guidance is like water from a spring. No church and no church order is perfect in its execution, but the procedures that the BCO lay out for a church to live by provide a firm foundation of unity & practice for a covenant body of believers.
Spare the Rod and Spoil the Church
Church discipline is a dirty word in many circles of the evangelical world, and not without good reason. Some Christians may have felt the overzealous hand of a church or officers who thought that excessive discipline was the best way to separate the chaff from the wheat. Others may have been exposed to church environments where practical discipline was entirely absent and unrepentant flagrant sin abounded in the body of believers. Neither of these are healthy, nor are they faithful biblical expressions of Christ’s command to care for His sheep. For these tender matters, the BCO is singularly useful as well. In its second part, The Rules of Discipline, standards are laid down for the church to know what church discipline is and how it is to be exercised. BCO 27-3 guides us to the Bible’s described ends for church discipline: the glory of God, the purity of His church, and the keeping and reclaiming of disobedient sinners. Discipline has godliness for its principal end in the life of a Christian; not the stoking of egos, but the salvation of sinners.
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Where to find the BCO?1. The PCA website2. The Apple App Store3. Consult with your elders about one of those legendary blue binders.
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Exploring Overture 15 from the PCA General Assembly

This issue has caused disunity, confusion, and chaos in the PCA for far too long. If we desire that this particular sword should depart our house, then we will acknowledge that Overture 29 needs Overture 15 to be effective and pass both through our presbyteries. The two overtures go hand-in-hand. The one works through the other.

Recently, the Presbyterian Church in America held its 49th General Assembly in Birmingham, Alabama. Much lively debate was once again centered around issues of human sexuality. This was not out of choice or obsession, as most commissioners would readily admit, but out of necessity. Since 2018, the denomination has been rocked and troubled by the collective frustrations of Side-B “Gay Christianity” and the repercussions & lasting legacy of the Revoice Conference. It is the issue of the day in the PCA and everyone is looking for a solution to restore the peace and purity of the church. The most recent attempts at reaching a solution are Overtures 29 and 15, both of which are being sent out for presbytery approval
Many criticisms have mounted towards Overture 15, some with merit & some without. Let us consider Overture 15 in light of the Westminster Standards, the PCA’s own AIC Report of Human Sexuality, and Overture 29 itself. Let us see what it addresses and how it fits into the framework provided by these three streams of teaching.
False Dichotomy
First, a bit of context. Overture 29 was approved by the Overtures Committee, while Overture 15 was put forward to the assembly via minority report. Overture 29 was considered a ‘bipartisan’ success gaining wide support in the Overtures Committee and in the assembly, passing on the floor with a vote of 90% in favor and only one commissioner speaking against it. Overture 15 was the subject of significant floor debate, and passed the assembly with a much narrower 54% vote in favor.
Critics of either overture would like you to think that the two amendments are diametrically opposed. Some vocal proponents of Overture 15 argued that Overture 29 does not go far enough in its language and lacks teeth, leaving room for equivocation on the part of lower courts. Some who would see Overture 29 as a unifying compromise say that Overture 15 goes too far, that it will bind the courts and arbitrarily disqualify some men from church office.
The reality is that both of these views are wrong. As the minority report stated, Overture 29 wonderfully defines the standard, and Overture 15 clearly applies that standard by drawing a line in the sand that shall not be crossed. The truth is, to be effective & unifying in our current moment in the PCA, Overture 29 needs Overture 15. Taken together, these two overtures build up the defenses of the Book of Church Order’s standard of holiness for officers in light of repeated attacks on the Church from the world.
To recap, Overture 29 seeks to amend BCO 16 by adding the following paragraph:
16-4. Officers in the Presbyterian Church in America must be above reproach in their walk and Christlike in their character. Those who deny the sinfulness of fallen desires, or who deny the reality and hope of progressive sanctification, or who fail to pursue Spirit-empowered victory over their sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions are not qualified for ordained office.
Our standard of conduct is always the Word of God, which transcends any culture; whether a sin is especially hated or excused in a particular society shall neither excuse those who are unrepentant nor bar those who are clearly repentant.
Overture 15 seeks to amend BCO 7 by adding the following paragraph:
7-4. Men who describe themselves as homosexual, even those who describe themselves as homosexual and claim to practice celibacy by refraining from homosexual conduct, are disqualified from holding office in the Presbyterian Church in America.
In Light of the Westminster Standards
It is often said that the Church does not invent new doctrine; it merely refines & codifies the teachings of Holy Scripture in light of challenges, controversies, or attacks from without or within. The standard which Overture 15 seeks to codify is not a new imposition upon the church or its requirements for officers. While it meets a particular need for the current time of difficulty the PCA finds itself in, the requirement is as old as the Reformed tradition itself.
Westminster Larger Catechism 139 clearly contains these sins & their attached desires as forbidden by the 7th Commandment. Besides expressly forbidding sodomy, there are also prohibitions on ‘all unclean imaginations, thoughts, purposes, and affections.’ Cherishing a homosexual or gay self-conception is clearly a product of an unclean imagination & affections, particularly realized within our postmodern era. A man holding to this decayed self-conception is worthy of our love, pity, and ministry of care, but not the weighty responsibility of church office.
It is almost as if the Westminster Divines were present in the 21st century to hear argumentation of Side B proponents. LC 139 goes beyond refraining from the external sin of sodomy and pushes us to remember the innermost places where we must be chaste: our hearts & minds. The divines would not have allowed men who serve as church officers to envelop themselves in worldly desires & appetites of the flesh as though they were not to be repented of, but instead used as casual descriptors. The divines would have directed such men to continue to seek Christ and to cast off what the world tells him about how his sin defines him and instead adopt what the Bible says about him as a new creation.
In Light of the AIC Report on Human Sexuality
The Ad-Interim Committee Report on Human Sexuality was received with broad support by all wings of the PCA when it was presented to the 48th General Assembly in 2021 for being eminently applicable in this area. It helped to clarify definitions, parse through seemingly impenetrable cultural language barriers, and provide context for conversations around sexuality. Overture 15 fits perfectly within its pastoral framework.
Statement 10 of the AIC Report states that it is ‘inappropriate to juxtapose this sinful desire, or any other sinful desire, as an identity marker alongside our identity as new creations in Christ.’
While recently it has become common practice in PCA circles to avoid “identity” language as it is often vague and unhelpful, here it stands as a synonym with the “describes” wording in Overture 15. The message is clear: Christians are to avoid defining or describing themselves by their sinful desires.
Statement 10 continues: ‘​​Our burden is that we do not justify our sin struggles by affixing them to our identity as Christians. Churches should be gentle, patient, and intentional with believers who call themselves “gay Christians,” encouraging them, as part of the process of sanctification, to leave behind identification language rooted in sinful desires, to live chaste lives, to refrain from entering into temptation, and to mortify their sinful desires.’
How can we as the Church come alongside believers struggling with homosexual desires and encourage them? How can the PCA tell our people that the Holy Spirit can progressively sanctify them, and at the same time allow our officers to describe themselves by their impure lusts & affections? How can we allow the promotion of a lifestyle of celibacy in our officers, at the expense of chastity? How can we minister to poor sinners caught up in homosexual lifestyles, when we have nothing to offer them but a life of outward conformity? This is the particular issue that Overture 15 addresses. Our officers must be above reproach in their Christian walk, not as an futile exercise in reaching perfection, but to serve their purpose of edifying the body.
In Light of Overture 29
Take a close look at what Overture 15 seeks to prohibit. Men ‘who describe themselves as homosexual’ are disqualified. This is not a statement of experience. This is not even a statement of temptation to sin. This is a statement of how a man, a supposedly mature Christian man who is being considered by a church as an officer candidate, describes himself.
Imagine an officer in the PCA habitually describing himself as a thief, a drunkard, an adulterer, or a rapist. You would surely be shaken by this self-description. You might have questions as to whether he is speaking of his past, before his conversion to Christ or in some great trial of sinful relapse. Tragically, he insists he is describing himself at the present time. Now, imagine this officer describing himself by these words, and then going on to say that while he abstains from these particular sins, he feels such a strong desire to commit these particular sins daily that he chooses to describe himself by those sinful desires. It is his chosen self-description of his Christian walk. He is a thieving Christian. He is a drunken Christian. He is a fornicating Christian. He binds himself up in his remaining corruption as a self-descriptor. This postmodern contortion cannot be made square with Paul’s admonition to ‘put off your old self’ (Eph. 4:22).
Overture 29 says that those ‘who deny the reality and hope of progressive sanctification, or who fail to pursue Spirit-empowered victory over their sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions are not qualified for ordained office’. This is the language that won overwhelming support on the general assembly floor. This raises the question: who in the PCA is denying the reality & hope of progressive deliverance from their sinful temptations? Who is saying that their sinful desires describe them? It is not thieves nor drunkards. Sadly, it is homosexuals who are being deceived by the world that their desires are uniquely descriptive of their lives and are an intrinsic part of their humanity. Overture 15 takes the exegetical language of Overture 29 and applies it to our current controversy in the PCA, adding actionable teeth with its addition to Chapter 7 of the Book of Church Order, which is exactly where strict officer requirements are explicitly stated.
The rapid advance of LGBTQ+ ideology into broader culture, into institutions, and indeed, into the church, has clearly necessitated this response. The PCA has arrived at the moment where we are asking ourselves: how does the church preach not just Gospel redemption, but Gospel transformation to a listening world? One way is through its officers, the heralds of Christ’s kingdom. While no one on this side of glory will see perfection, these men are recognized by and for their exemplary Christian character more so than any other qualification. Remember Paul as he says ‘be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.’ (1 Cor. 11:1) Overture 15 seeks to apply this principle to the Side B/Revoice controversy.
This issue has caused disunity, confusion, and chaos in the PCA for far too long. If we desire that this particular sword should depart our house, then we will acknowledge that Overture 29 needs Overture 15 to be effective and pass both through our presbyteries. The two overtures go hand-in-hand. The one works through the other.
Joe Gibbons is a member of First Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburg, Miss. This article is used with permission.
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