Book Review: A Historical and Biblical Examination of Women Deacons

A Historical and Biblical Examination of Women Deacons, by Brian M. Schwertley, 1998, 155 pages. Published by Reformed Witness, 26550 Evergreen Road, Southfield, MI 48076. (The book can be obtained, for $5 postage paid, from Reformation Forum, Box 306, Holt, MI 48842.)

Reviewed by the Editor

This is a stimulating book. It vigorously interacts with much that has been written in recent years. And while it may not please anyone, since it does not find itself at home in any present company, yet—for that very reason—I find it very cogent and hope that it will get the attention it deserves.

When I first received it I wondered about the wisdom of dealing with the history of this issue first, and only then dealing directly with the biblical evidence. Yet, as I worked my way through the book I became convinced of the wisdom of this approach. By doing this the author brings out some of the strengths—and weaknesses—of the various positions that have become well known among us. On the one hand there is the view set forth in the majority report found in the minutes of the 55th G.A. of our church. It simply says that women may not serve as deacons. And then, on the other hand, there is the view expressed in a minority report (found in those same minutes) which argues for opening the office of deacon (though not the office of elder) to women.

It is my opinion that Rev. Schwertley has rightly found weakness in both of these entrenched positions. I think he may also be right in defending what is essentially the view that was put forth—in essence at least—by John Calvin, and defended (unsuccessfully) by some of the great men at the Westminster Assembly. This view of John Calvin has already been mentioned in Ordained Servant (vol. 3, #3 p. 61f.). But in reading the material assembled here I could see much more clearly what led these men to virtually the same conclusion.

One of the aspects of this book that some may not enjoy reading has to do with the fact that Rev. Schwertley’s own denomination (the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America) was the first Presbyterian body to open the office of deacon to women (it did so in 1888). I believe he is right in saying that in this decision (as in others) it was the pressure of profound social changes then taking place in the United States of America, rather than biblical exegesis, that brought this about. I do not see how anyone can read what is brought together here without seeing this clearly. And in bringing this out Rev. Schwertley does not hesitate to bring to our notice the fact that even the great Warfield seems to have succumbed to these same influences in his own defense of allowing women to enter the office of deacon.

But these are secondary matters. The main thing is the solid arguments set forth in a defense of non-ordained widows—over sixty years of age—being given a special status and task in edifying of the body of Christ.

It is my hope that this book will receive the attention it deserves.