The Crux of the Matter in the PCA Deaconess Debate

The Crux of the Matter in the PCA Deaconess Debate

The real concern is that it is a sin to say one thing and then do another. The PCA has published a Book of Church Order to show its members how it organizes itself and conducts its affairs. Our officers are required to swear that they approve our form of government; that they will submit to their brethren in the Lord; and that they will seek the church’s peace and purity (BCO 21-5; 24-6). No one has been compelled to do this – any officers and churches that have become part of the PCA have done so freely –but having done so they are compelled to be faithful in fulfilling their conditions and vows of membership.

In recent years there has been much debate in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) over the question of whether it is permissible to ordain women to the diaconal office. The debate has been robust, long-running, and often technical in nature, with the relevant scriptural passages analyzed completely as to the meanings of their words in the original Greek, their grammatical structure, etc.

Yet it is hard to escape the feeling that the academic nature of the debate, its long-endurance and vigor, and its concern with such a narrow question have meant that it has been something of a distraction from other, far more important matters. It is not clear that the basic question is more than one of secondary pragmatic concern: a Christological or soteriological controversy this is not. Even as ecclesiological controversies are concerned it seems to be of less importance than many others, such as those surrounding the nature and proper administration of the sacraments.

Of greater concern are two matters which have been brought to the fore by this question which involve principles that are likely to show themselves in matters of greater consequence. The first is the question of why many desire to have deaconesses. What compels them to believe that the church should reform on this point? Whether or not Acts 6:1-6 relates the institution of the diaconate, the scriptural and historical records suggests that the diaconal office was instituted as a response to practical needs. There would undoubtedly be practical advantages to using women in such a role, not least since so much of the diaconal ministry is directed toward women (especially widows). It is conceivable that practical concerns alone would compel one to desire to ordain deaconesses. It is conceivable as well that the testimony of the New Testament as to the great usefulness of women in providing practical aid might commend the desirability of having deaconesses. In considering these two possibilities charity compels us to suspect that they are a large factor in the motivations of many who desire to open the office of deacon to women.

And yet it is indisputable that this movement occurs at the same time that our society is working to make every occupation open to women, doing so by acting on the principle that there are no meaningful differences between men and women and that they are functionally interchangeable. Or to be more precise, the church somewhat lags the culture on such matters, so that what is now essentially complete in society (the expansion of combat roles to women being the last thing to fall) is now proceeding, albeit tardily, in the church. While the motives of many would-be reformers may be good, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the similarity in aim (removing restrictions from women) inherent in both the church’s movement for deaconesses – itself part of a larger movement to increase the participation of women in ministry – and society’s more aggressive and successful movement to make men and women interchangeable is no coincidence. Whether they realize it or not, at least some of those that propose ordaining deaconesses are acting on impulses learned from society rather than from the church’s immediate needs or from Scripture.

And that is a point of real concern. In his common grace God sometimes permits unbelievers to be broadly correct in their external behavior. It is not so here. The impulse that resents any distinctions of role because it desires for sex to be null and for men and women to be interchangeable is utterly contrary to the witness of Scripture that sexual distinctions are real, legitimate, and ought to be respected.

Even if those that have been influenced by society form only a minority of our would-be reformers, and even if they have only partly assented to society’s ideas on this point or have somewhat modified them in light of their own beliefs, the fact that some of the impetus for change in the church comes from the world, in however diluted a form, is problematic. For if the world has influenced us on this point we might expect it to influence us on various others, including those of greater moral consequence. Having influenced our thinking about sex roles, it is conceivable that it might influence our thinking about sexuality. We might find the world’s basic idea on that point – viz. that sexuality is the result of an immutable orientation that is essential to one’s personal identity – appear among us, not in its full, undiluted expression but clothed in Christian garb and expressing approval of some (but not all) of our own beliefs (say, concerning the sinfulness of certain sexual behaviors) and grafting them on to a foundation of worldliness.

Returning to the point, in so far as the desire for deaconesses is a result of being influenced by the world it is a bad desire that ought to be opposed. It is not clear how much of a role this worldly influence plays, nor is it clear how it could be easily identified in most cases. It seems a fair assumption that it plays a significant role, and those that desire reform ought to examine themselves to see to it that their motives come rather from practical concerns and the New Testament’s testimony to women’s abilities in mercy ministry than from any desire to be in step with the ethos of our culture.[1]

The second matter which our present diaconal debate somewhat obscures is of greater consequence, and such is its solemnity that I approach it with reluctance. Some among us have so desired deaconesses that they have not waited for reform and have instituted them on their own initiative and against the Book of Church Order’s (BCO) limitation of the office to men (7-2). This action has taken a variety of forms.

One PCA church has pastors, elders, and servant leaders as its officers, tasks the latter with “budget formation, local and global giving, our mercy fund, and our adoption fund,” and lists women among their number.[2] In other cases “men are ordained as deacons and women are commissioned as deaconesses without ordination, though both the men and the women are elected by the congregation and serve as equal partners in diaconal ministry,” what has been called the “equal partners” view.[3] In others “both men and women serve as equal partners in diaconal ministry and are often described as ‘deacon’ or ‘deaconess’ though no one is ordained to this ministry,” what is referred to as the “nobody ordained” view.[4] In some cases it is not clear what approach has been used: churches simply list deaconesses alongside of their deacons, with no explanation as to how they have been selected or whether they differ from the deacons.[5]

Consider: in questions of misadministration matters of fact are as important as those of form, and often more so. A church which has ordained deaconesses at this time is guilty of insubordination to the constitution. It is not clear that the churches that have deaconesses are guilty of that. But there are many that have de facto deaconesses on account of a variety of clever organizational arrangements, many of which contravene our constitution on anything but the most hackneyed reading.

The BCO does not provide for unordained deacons (17-1), for “servant leaders” (1-4), or for diaconal assistants (see footnote) or others who do the work of the diaconal office in a regular, organized fashion but who do not formally hold the office (9-1 through 4).[6] It regards the office of deacon as “ordinary and perpetual” (7-2; 9-1) and assumes that a church will lack it only because of extraordinary circumstances that make it “impossible” “to secure deacons” (9-2). In such cases their duties devolve upon the ruling elders (9-2), not upon an unofficial or unordained class of people: the BCO knows nothing of a church willfully foregoing deacons, and one that does so contradicts historic American Presbyterian theory and practice, which has maintained that the office is as much jure divino as that of elder,[7] and one of whose crowning achievements has been that we have gone farthest in restoring the office to its proper place as opposed to the practice of other polities which have utterly transformed or neglected it.

Anyone who does the work of a deacon, not occasionally or in one’s private life, but in conjunction with the church’s organized ministry and at its behest, is functionally a deacon, irrespective of whether or not he or she formally holds the office. Those churches that have de facto deaconesses are therefore no less culpable of disobeying our constitution than any (if there are such) who have ordained women to the office.

Now we come to the crux of the matter, concerning which several preliminary remarks are needed. It is possible for God’s people to stumble into sin, and the commission of an offense does not necessarily mean that the offender is a false professor; they could be sincere believers who have stumbled. In cases where this has occurred it is appropriate for the error to be confronted, and doing so ought to be motivated by compassionate concern rather than embittered criticism. “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Prov. 27:5-6a). In considering these matters my criticism is not motivated by any pleasure in quarreling (I have none), but by a sincere conviction that there is wrongdoing that ought to be repented.

Now lay aside the questions of the permissibility and desirability of deaconesses, for they are not the real issue here. The real concern is that it is a sin to say one thing and then do another. The PCA has published a Book of Church Order to show its members how it organizes itself and conducts its affairs. Our officers are required to swear that they approve our form of government; that they will submit to their brethren in the Lord; and that they will seek the church’s peace and purity (BCO 21-5; 24-6). No one has been compelled to do this – any officers and churches that have become part of the PCA have done so freely –but having done so they are compelled to be faithful in fulfilling their conditions and vows of membership.

And promising that one approves the church’s government and then doing what is obviously in violation of it is not being true to one’s vows. It is oathbreaking, one of the worst forms of lying and a thing which God hates (Prov. 6:17, 19), the saying of the right formula to get a desired office and authority but then elevating one’s own desires above the rules of the body which one swore to obey and which has given one honors and authority to administer its affairs and teach its doctrine. This is a matter of simple honesty.

Now one might rejoin that the matter is not so simple. The promised acceptance of our form of government is not unqualified but “in conformity with the general principles of Biblical polity” (ordination vow #3), and one might assert that such general principles in some way mitigate the claims of the government of whom one has sworn approval.[8] If any is inclined to make such a case he is free to do so, but he will have a hard case on his hands, for as our former stated clerk has stated “there is [no] detailed explanation of what affirming a belief in the general principles of biblical polity” means.[9] Or one might assert, what was also anticipated in that same statement, that the general nature of ordination vows in some way absolves him of the duty of obeying every particular of the church’s form of government. That would seem to find an insuperable difficulty in the principle that the more generic is one’s vow, the wider are his obligations: a man who has promised to materially support his wife has an easier task than one who has promised to be a good husband, for being a good husband requires far more than merely meeting his wife’s material needs.

Then too, it would seem to be a principle of polity (and everything else we do) that we should mean what we say and say what we mean. Or in the words of our Lord, “let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’” (Matt. 5:37, NKJV). There is no room for dissembling, partly disagreeing in one’s own mind but not declaring that fact, or attempting to mitigate what one meant after an oath has been made. We do not meet this standard if we say that the Book of Church Order is a part of the church’s constitution (BCO Preface, §III) and our officers swear to approve it and to obey their brothers who govern in light of it, but then actually do so only insofar as it accords with their own beliefs.

Scripture ascribes to the church great power and dignity as the body of Christ, and regards lying to it as a grievous offense (Acts 5:3-11). Now it may be that the church is currently wrong and that it should employ an office of deaconess – I am not convinced of it at this time, but it is a serious position that deserves a fair hearing and that has been held by some of God’s foremost lights among us (e.g., Warfield) – but that is separate from the question of obeying our constitution as currently written, a failure to do which rather harms than helps the case for deaconesses. Or it may be that the church should not compel men to answer generic vows of submission to the church or to approval of its government, or else that it should formally modify the BCO to permit a diversity of practices regarding mercy ministry. Those are all fair, open questions.

What is not an open question is what one is required to do if he has freely sworn to do something. Simple, faithful obedience is required, and the only means of seeking a release is by removing to a different denomination, resigning office, or seeking a modification of the form of government which one has sworn to approve. To disobey is rebellion (Num. 16:1-49), which is in God’s sight “as the sin of divination” (1 Sam. 15:23), a thing which he will not tolerate among his people (Deut. 18:10-14); and well might we fear that his chastisement draws near to us because of our failures in this. May we all repent forthwith lest he come to us in judgment (1 Pet. 4:17).

Tom Hervey is a member of Woodruff Road Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Simpsonville, S.C.

[1] One may rejoin that chauvinism is also a social phenomenon and that opponents of deaconesses should similarly examine themselves and mortify any motives of opposition that come from it. The charge is freely granted.


[3] Minutes of the Thirty-Ninth General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, p. 553

[4] Ibid., p. 554

[5] E.g.,

[6] BCO 9-7 provides for sessions to appoint godly men or women to assist the deacons in “caring for the sick, widows,” etc. but expressly says that they hold no office and are not eligible for ordination. It would be improper to appoint deacon’s assistants but then have them functionally be simply deacons; i.e. to use 9-7 as a means of skirting BCO 7-2’s requirement that only men be ordained as deacons. Northern California Presbytery was cited for an exception concerning this very thing by the 36th General Assembly, in which BCO 9-7 was mistakenly asserted as allowing the election and installation of unordained deacons and deaconesses that would form a body called a diaconate. Minutes of the Thirty-Ninth General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, pp. 469-471

[7] If Presbyterian government is established by divine law in its principles and in some measure its particulars, and if deacons are established as one of the particular offices Christ has given his church, as they are, then the jure divino nature of the whole system adheres also to this constituent part in so far as it too is given by scriptural revelation.

[8] This was the position of Northern California Presbytery that was at issue in Standing Judicial Commission cases 2009-25 and 2009-26. Minutes, p.553.

[9] “Issues Facing PCA” by L. Roy Taylor, p. 3, note 7. The original says, “now detailed explanation,” but context suggests this was a usage error and it has been reproduced in accord with its intended meaning here.

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