In our last letter we had turned to a discussion of the work of deacons. I answered in part your questions concerning the recent decision of the Christian Reformed Church to allow women into the office of deacons provided that they were not considered as elders and given the same authority as elders. But I did not finish this question: we talked about the use of the term “deacon” and the term “deaconess” in Scripture and found that the argument of the Christian Reformed Church was fallacious on this point. But there is another aspect to this question which we must now discuss.
The whole argument of the decision of the Christian Reformed Church quite obviously hinges on the erroneous idea that deacons do not exercise authority within the Church. That this is the argument (although it is not explicitly stated), is evident from the fact that the decision refuses to allow women to serve as elders or ministers, and refuses to allow a congregation to install deaconesses if these women should in any way share in the work of elders or possess in some way the authority which elders possess.
This position is by no means the position of all within the Christian Reformed Church. There are those who take the position that women may function in all these offices; and they insist that the Churches grievously err when they deny these offices to women. But there are others (and they prevailed at Synod) who believe that women may not serve as elders and ministers, but may serve as deacons, because there is no authority exercised in the office of deacon.
To put it a little differently: there are passages in Scripture which speak of women exercising authority in the Church. But there are differences of interpretation concerning these passages. The two clearest passages are I Corinthians 14:34, 35 and I Timothy 2:11, 12. Those who do not believe that women ought to be elders and ministers appeal to these passages as decisive. Those who do maintain that women may also function in the church as elders and ministers consider these passages to be stipulations which apply to Paul’s day, but that they have no normative force for the Church of today.
So there are three positions: 1) Those who maintain that women may not be officebearers at all; 2) Those who maintain that women may be deaconesses but not ministers and elders; 3) Those who maintain that women may serve in any office.
We are primarily concerned now with the second group. And we are concerned with that group because their position is, apparently, that the office of deacon is an office without authority. So we have to show two things. We have to show first of all that the two passages to which we referred above specifically deny women authority in the Church; and we have to show that the office of deacon is also an office of authority. If these two things can be shown, then we must conclude that Scripture forbids women officebearers.
That the two passages referred to earlier deny women a position of authority in the Church is admitted by almost every one. So clear is this that even those who insist that women are permitted to hold office do not question the interpretation of the passages so much; they rather simply relegate these passages to the dust pile of outmoded practices. They were relevant for Paul’s day when women were considered inferior; but they are no longer of interest or concern to us now that we have learned that women and men are on a plane of equality.
The two passages read: “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.” I Cor. 14:34, 35. “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” I Timothy 2:11, 12
These texts are clear. There are a couple of points which we can briefly notice. 1) They both speak of the Church, and this is usually agreed upon by all commentators. The passage in Corinthians clearly speaks of the Church, for it is mentioned in so many words: “Let your women keep silence in the churches . . . for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.” This is also true of the passage in Timothy however. The whole chapter deals with practices in the Church. In the first verses already Paul is talking about prayers which ought to be uttered in the church services which Timothy as a minister of the gospel is called to lead. Never has the Church applied this passage to life in general. Paul suffers not a woman to teach; but no one, to my knowledge, has ever said that a woman may not teach her children in the home; that a woman may not teach in Christian Schools; that a woman may not teach in Sunday School, provided that the Sunday School is kept separate from the institutional life of the Church. 2) They both enjoin women to silence. That is, while both enjoin upon women submission to authority, both also expressly state that women must be silent; They may not teach. And, their subjection to authority within the Church is expressly described as silence in the official and institutional life of the church. 3) Paul states in Corinthians that this is not merely a rule which he thinks appropriate for the circumstances in which the churches of his day find themselves, but he specifically states that this is a matter of the law: “as also saith the law.” The whole normative force of the law of God is at stake here.
This teaches therefore, without doubt, that women may occupy no position of authority within the Church—especially not a position of authority in which they speak. And so the question is: Is this true of the office of deacons? Everyone recognizes that it is true’ of the office of elders and of the office of ministers. But is it also true of the office of deacons? That is the question which needs yet to be answered.
There are several reasons why we must take the position that also deacons exercise authority in the church and are called to speak the Word of God. We shall take the time to enumerate these reasons and briefly discuss them.
1)There are two places where the Scriptures speak of the qualifications of deacons, and both places mention qualifications which refer to a special office of authority and bringing the Word. The first such passage is Acts 6:1-7 where we have the record of the institution of the office. The part of that passage which is of immediate interest to us is vs. 3: “Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.” Now it ought to be clear to anyone that if these men were entrusted with no other work than to provide sufficient food for the Grecian widows who were neglected in the daily ministrations, they would not have to be men who were full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom. It takes neither the Holy Spirit nor wisdom to see to it that certain widows have enough to eat. These qualifications speak clearly of the fact that more was required of them. They were to have a work which they could perform only if they were full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom. It is interesting to note, perhaps in passing, that at least two of these deacons also were evangelists who preached the gospel. Stephen and Philip both preached. And while this office of evangelist was unique in a certain sense, nevertheless, the early Church apparently did not think it strange that two deacons should preach. If I were arguing for women elders and ministers, I would certainly appeal to this passage. I would argue: if Scripture permits women deacons, then we have no reason to forbid the offices of elders and ministers to women because it is clear from Acts that the two New Testament deacons also preached.
The same is true of the passage in I Timothy 3 where Paul specifically speaks of the qualifications of deacons. Among other things he mentions: “grave, not double-tongued,” “holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience,” “ruling their children and their own houses well.” Now, again, if the work of deacons is only to distribute money, why are these qualifications listed which have nothing to do with this work? Why must a deacon be grave and not double-tongued if he does not “speak” in the church anyway? Why must a deacon hold the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience if he is not to bring the Word of God to those in need? Why must a deacon show that he knows how to rule his children and his own house if he is not going to exercise authority in the Church anyway? No, we must conclude that the office of deacon also involves speaking authoritatively the Word of God.
These passages of Scripture are decisive. If women are to keep silence in the Church and not usurp authority over the man, then it surely follows that they cannot function in the office of deacon. But there is more. 2) That deacons speak the Word of God authoritatively also follows from the very nature of the office. It is a fundamental principle of all Reformed Church polity that Christ and Christ alone is the Officebearer in His Church. This is expressly taught in many places, but Peter says this in so many words in I Peter 2:25: “For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.” That Christ is the only Officebearer in His Church means simply that all the care of the Church is exercised by Christ. He alone provides for all the needs of His people. He alone, as the good Shepherd, feeds and nourishes them. He alone saves and redeems them. He alone exercises all authority over them. And He does this in such a way that He is their Prophet and Priest and King. He feeds them with His Word. He rules over them and disciplines them. He cares for all their needs. He makes their griefs and sorrows, their sicknesses and poverty, their trouble and distress the object of His sympathetic and merciful care.
But this care of Christ is exercised over all His sheep through the offices which He has ordained in the Church, for He is in heaven and we are on earth. We shall someday be in heaven, and then we shall have no further need of ministers, elders, and deacons for we shall be with Christ. But while we are on earth, we have this need. Christ provides it.
But the authority which He exercises through the offices is exercised through all the offices. There are not two offices which are authoritative and one which is not. This is absurd. If one is not then it is simply not an office in the Church. But all three are offices, instituted by Christ, through which Christ comes to us in all our need.
There are a few more reasons yet why we must consider the office of deacon authoritative; but we shall have to defer discussion of them till our next exchange of correspondence.
Fraternally in Christ,