Female Deacons in the PCA

In Defense of a Recently Passed Overture

One of the overtures voted on by the Presbyterian Church in America’s General Assembly this summer was the addition of the underlined words to a section of our Book of Church Order (Section 7-3):

No one who holds office in the Church ought to usurp authority therein, or receive official titles of spiritual preeminence, except such as are employed in the Scripture. Furthermore, unordained people should not be referred to as, or given the titles connected to, the ecclesial offices of pastor, elder, or deacon.

Since this overture had already been approved by last year’s general assembly and by two thirds of the PCA’s presbyteries, it only required a majority vote of the General Assembly this year. Nonetheless, speeches were made against the overture. I was somewhat taken aback by several of these responses. One speaker argued that his specific Korean cultural heritage necessitated biblical titles for office being used for men or women in the church who do not hold those offices. Another speaker simply stated that his church had been calling women deacons for decades. A third argued that his church refused to ordain anyone to the office of deacon, since they were unable to ordain women to that office. What was most troubling to me is that not a single speaker even attempted to make the argument that our polity, as expressed in our binding Book of Church Order, allows women to be called by biblical titles for office. It was just that their culture requires it, or that they had been ignoring our polity for years anyway, so why fret about it?

The most surprising speech of all, however, was from one speaker who stated that the Bible clearly allows women to be ordained to the office of deacon, which, by necessary implication, means that this speaker does not believe our polity is correct. One can, of course, disagree with the polity of the PCA and still be a Christian. But officers in the PCA have bound themselves to adhere to our Book of Church order. No one has forced them to take such a vow against their will. But once such a vow is made, it binds a minister to adhere to it faithfully. The third question asked of ministers in the PCA at their ordination, which must be answered affirmatively, reads as follows: “Do you approve of the form of government and discipline of the Presbyterian Church in America, in conformity with the general principles of Biblical polity?” To disregard a point of that form of government and discipline, then, is to break one’s ordination vow. Be that as it may, I want to focus in this article on the confused linguistic error at the heart of this minister’s argument in support of ordaining women deacons. Given the confusion surrounding the issue, it is worth presenting a simple explanation for why female deacons are not biblically warranted.

The argument, or at least a major portion of it, is one commonly found in modern biblical commentaries and works of egalitarian biblical scholarship, namely that Phoebe is called a deacon in Romans 16:1. The English Standard Version renders this verse like this: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae,” The word “servant” in this verse is the Greek noun diakonos. This word is the same word found in 1 Timothy 3:8–13:

Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. 11 Their wives [lit. “the women”] likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. 12 Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. 13 For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

One part of the argument for women being ordained to the office of deacon, then, is based on the fact that the Greek word diakonos is applied to a woman (Phoebe). Another major plank of the argument is that there is a shift 1 Timothy 3:8–13 from male deacons (3:8–10) to female deacons (3:11).

The first argument (about Phoebe) is fallacious, being based on a simple, but significant, linguistic error. The error is fairly easy to describe in general terms. Imagine I were to ask an average English speaker the following question: “What is the meaning of the word bar?” What answer would I receive? I can imagine many: it is a place to get a drink, a legal licensing body, a long object used to hit people with, a verb synonymous with “forbidding.” I’m sure there are several more possible answers. Which one is correct? The obvious answer is that without a context none of them is correct. It is impossible to know. That’s how words work. We use them in various contexts that make their meaning immediately obvious. If I say, “Do you want to meet me at Harry’s Bar for a drink after work?” every normal English speaker knows what I mean. The context makes it clear.

“Biblical” words such as diakonos are normal words used by everyday speakers of the day. The word at its most basic simply means “servant” or “one who serves” in some capacity. It is used often (around 30 times) as a noun, but also in its verbal form (nearly 40 times), for example, in John 12:26: “If anyone serves [diakonē] me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant [noun: diakonos] be also. If anyone serves [diakonē] me, the Father will honor him.” It is clear in such contexts that both the noun and the verb refer simply to any act of service to Christ.

Why, then, would someone make the argument that women should be ordained to the office of deacon? First, one has to accept that there is an office of deacon. 1 Timothy 3:8–13 is the main text that shows that there is such an office. One might quibble over the words “office,” and “ordination,” but there is clearly a process of setting men apart for a specific vocation within the church, seen especially in v. 10: “And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless.” Men move from not being deacons, to a time of testing, and finally to being qualified to “serve as deacons.” Hence, ordination to a specific office.

If the word diakonos (deacon) is used for that office, and is also applied to Phoebe, is it not a simple case: women can be ordained to the office of deacon? This is the argument the minister made at General Assembly. It is a linguistic error, however, as we saw above, to assume that the specific use of a word in one context transfers to any, or every, context in which that word is used. To do so would be the equivalent of my friend insisting that when I asked if he wanted to meet me at Harry’s Bar I was talking about a lead pipe in his neighbor Harry’s garage. “But you said Harry’s Bar!” One simply cannot assume that the meaning of the specific word (diakonos) used of a man set apart for a unique office or vocation (as in 1 Timothy 3:8–10) transfers to all other instances of that word. Words don’t work that way in any language, and New Testament Greek is not a special case of theological language that follows special rules. It was the common language of the day in most of the Mediterranean world. It is fairly obvious that the word “deacon” (diakonos) is not used in the specific sense in which it is employed in 1 Timothy 3:8–13 in all the many others uses of the word throughout the New Testament. It is also not used that way of Phoebe. She is described in Romans 16:1 as one who serves in the church at Cenchreae. A noble service, no doubt, since Paul singles it out for special mention. But to impute more to the word diakonos in this verse is to assume what the context does not show, namely that Paul’s restrictive use of the word in 1 Timothy 3:8–12 applies every time the word is used in the New Testament.

Now, another argument is usually made as well. It insists that Paul shifts from male deacons (1 Timothy 3:8–10) to describe female deacons in 3:11. That verse literally reads as follows: “The women likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.” What women is Paul referring to? Female deaconesses, the argument goes. Verses 8–10 were about male deacons, verse 11, then, is about female deacons. This is not a linguistic error. It is a contextual one, which is pretty obvious when you simply move to the next verse (v. 12): “Let deacons [diakonoi] each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well.” This is obviously only applicable to men. “Those who serve well as deacons [the participle diakonēsantes],” which is masculine in grammatical gender, also refers to the men mentioned in v. 12.

Are we to believe, then, that the qualifications for deacons enumerated in vv. 8–10, and 12 are only for male deacons (not being double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain, holding the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience, undergoing a period of testing to prove their blamelessness, having only one spouse, managing their children and their own households well), as well as the blessing of v. 13 (gaining a good standing for themselves and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus)? And that the only qualification for female deacons is that they are to be dignified (considering v. 8, why mention this twice, if it is the same office?), refrain from slander and be sober-minded and faithful? Of course not. “The women” of v. 11 is indeed, as the ESV translates it, ‘their wives” (the deacons’ wives). The shift from men (vv. 8–10), to women (v. 11), back to men (vv. 12–13) is nonsensical otherwise. 1 Timothy 3:8–12, therefore, does not refer to women serving in the office of deacon.

The PCA is right, then, to restrict the office of deacon to qualified men. It was right for the General Assembly this summer to pass the overture adding extra clarity to our Book of Church Order mandating that “unordained people should not be referred to as, or given the titles connected to, the ecclesial offices of pastor, elder, or deacon.” This would include a bar on calling women “deaconesses,” a title clearly “connected to the ecclesial [office] of . . . deacon.” Faithfulness to Scripture demands it; faithfulness to our binding constitutional documents demands it; and faithfulness to our ordination vows, made to God himself, demands it.

Image Credit: Unsplash

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Ben C. Dunson is Founding and Contributing Editor of American Reformer. He is also Visiting Professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Greenville, SC), having previously taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX), Reformation Bible College (Sanford, FL), and Redeemer University (Ontario, Canada). He lives in the northern suburbs of Dallas with his wife and four boys.

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