What We Believe
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In 1986 I was elected an alternate to the study committee “Hermeneutics of Women in Church Office” by the 53rd General Assembly. Upon the resignation of George Cottenden I became a member and then the chairman. The committee broadened its scope, renaming it the “Committee on Women in Church Office,” and submitted its final report to the 55th General Assembly (1988). Shortly after this I responded to Dr. Strimple’s summary of his Minority report which appeared in the June/July 1988 issue of New Horizons titled “Phoebe Was A Deacon, Other Women Should Be, Too.”[1] I also gave a summary of the report in that same issue of New Horizons.[2] I should say that Dr. Strimple was one of my favorite professors and opposing his position was daunting, since I never found anything but sound orthodoxy based on careful exegesis in all that he taught.

Now, in 2021,[3] I think the topic is still germane in light of contemporary discussions about the place of women in the church. While I do not think that anyone in our circles is advocating the ordination of women to special office, including the office of deacon, I believe that it is important to articulate why ordained office is restricted to men. And, more importantly, why this restriction does not inhibit the broad biblical arena of service open to all women and men in our churches.

The question before our church is not whether or not women should be performing diaconal work but rather, whether or not women should be ordained to the special office of New Testament deacon. The work of the deacons is not the issue. Who should lead in this work is the question before us. Therefore, the point at issue is the nature and authority of the office of deacon.

Using the Regulative Principle

As firm believers in the infallible Word, our church is committed to the principle that the doctrine and practice that bind the church must be “expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” (WCF 1.6). The last phrase of this regulative principle is often misunderstood and misapplied.

Dr. Strimple indicates that the “positive scriptural warrant” demanded by this principle is a matter of degrees. He alleges that the demand for one hundred percent clarity “may well leave us paralyzed” (p. 17). This entirely misses the point of our Confession. The principle is a matter of logic (syllogistic reasoning), not probability. The binding conclusions deduced from Scripture must be based on express scriptural premises.

For example, in 1 Corinthians 1:2 Paul addresses all of the saints in the Corinthian church, male and female. In chapter 11 he delivers the Lord’s command for the church to partake of the Lord s Supper. Based on these two clear premises we conclude that women are commanded to partake, too. The conclusion is as binding as the premises. This has nothing to do with probability. If either of the two premises in such a deduction is false or merely probable (unclear), the conclusion is invalid and not binding on the church. This is why our Confession instructs us to let the clear passages explain the unclear (WCF 1.9). Romans 16:1–2 and 1 Timothy 3:11 prove that some women were recognized for their diaconal service in the New Testament churches. But, these passages do not provide the premises to prove that women were ordained to the office of deacon.

The Minority’s assertion that we need biblical warrant to exclude women from the ordained office of deacon based on Genesis 1:27 and Galatians 3:28 is unfounded. These two passages prove that men and women are ontologically equal as God’s image-bearers and as redeemed in Christ. They refer to the general office of believer and not special office or marriage roles. I hope to demonstrate that the biblical doctrines of office and ordination, as well as passages dealing with special offices in the New Testament, explicitly exclude women from the eldership and the diaconate.

Ordination and Office

Ordination is the biblical rite of transferring authority from one group of divinely-called leaders (office-bearers) to another, usually with the symbolic “laying on of hands” (1 Tim. 4:14; 5:22). Numbers 27:15–23 is a classic text on ordination. Notice the strong emphasis on authority. “Let the LORD, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation (v. 16). … You shall invest him with some of your authority, that all the congregation of the people of Israel may obey” (v. 20). This was not a magical rite but a public symbol of identification and transfer of power in recognition of God’s call to office.

It is no surprise to find ordination in the New Testament. In fact, the first ordination which we encounter after Pentecost is in connection with deacons in Acts 6:1–6. The absence of the noun deacon in this passage does not argue against seeing this as the first appearance of New Testament deacons. Here the apostolic foundation was laid for the ordinary office of deacon delineated in 1 Timothy 3. The verb διακονεῖν (diakonein), “to serve (to deacon),” is used in Acts 6:2, and the ministry of “serving (deaconing)” is used in vss. 1 and 4 (διακονία). Furthermore, there is a list of qualifications for (v. 3) and ordination to (v. 6) the office.

It is crucial to note that the purpose of the apostles was to appoint men over this responsibility. The verb used means “to put in charge of” (v. 3 καταστήσομεν katastēsomen). This language is strikingly similar to that of Numbers 27:16 mentioned above. The apostles understood the importance of ordination in delegating a portion of their ministry to the seven men. Ordination to office is public appointment to oversee the ministry of the church whether it is word or deed ministry.

When the offices of elder and deacon are set forth by Paul in 1 Timothy 2 and 3, the theme of authority and leadership is prominent. In 2:12–13 women are explicitly forbidden to teach or exercise authority over men in the church. Paul’s purpose in writing the entire section was that “you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God” (3:15). Authority in the church is analogous to authority in the family (household). Therefore, both elders and deacons should be proven family leaders before they can have leadership in the larger family of the church. Both are to rule (lead, manage, προϊστάμενοι, proistamenoi cf. 1 Thess. 5:12) their own households well (3:4, 12). The emphasis is on oversight and authoritative leadership.

Philippians 1:1 indicates that the apostle thought of both elders and deacons as leaders of the Philippian congregation, since he singles them out in his greeting. The fact that elders and deacons lead in distinct spheres in no way reduces the leadership involved in each. The titles stand as complements, not as a contrast. Paul’s intention is to address them as leaders not to contrast their ministries. Word and deed ministry represents a division of labor in the life of the church (1 Pet. 4:10–11) which is reflected in the two offices provided to give servant leadership in these ministries.

Acts 6 is clear in emphasizing the oversight involved in both offices. Our Form of Government reflects this emphasis in stating that the board of deacons “shall oversee the ministry of mercy” (FG 11.4, p. 14). Furthermore, when a deacon is ordained, the congregation is asked to “promise to yield him all that honor, encouragement, and obedience in the Lord to which his office, according to the Word of God and the Constitution of the church, entitles him” (FG 25.7.c, p. 73). The authority conferred to serve by leading is clear.

Deaconing Women

Who, then, was Phoebe? As I have suggested in the title, she was a deaconess; but she was not ordained. Only three of the thirty New Testament uses of the word διάκονος (diakonos), found in Romans 16:1, clearly refer to the office of deacon. For this reason the KJV, the NIV, and the ESV translate this word as “servant” in Romans 16:1. The most that can be ascertained from this reference is that Phoebe was recognized for her diaconal service in the Cenchrean church. Nothing is said of her leadership in ordained office.

As the Minority inadvertently concludes, we must look elsewhere to decide whether or not it is “proper for a woman to serve in the office of deacon.” What is disturbing is that the Minority is willing to ordain women to the diaconate based on a “natural understanding” of a passage which says nothing about ordained office. It is just at this point that we must be guided by 1 Timothy 2 and 3.

Who, then, were the “women” of 1 Timothy 3:11? While both the KJV, the NIV, and the ESV translate this word as “wives” (γυναῖκας, gunaikos), this probably limits the word more than the context requires. The absence of the possessive pronoun “their” is decisive at this point, though certainly deacons’ wives may have been included. The most that can be deduced from this verse is that some women, like Phoebe, were closely and publicly associated with the work of the deacons (which as Acts 6 shows would be of special help in dealing with ministry to women).

The very presence of this verse in the middle of Paul’s discussion of qualifications for the office of deacon proves that he could not have women office-bearers in mind. If women were included in the office of deacon, Paul would have no reason to single out “women” in verse 11. Furthermore, the requirement for deacons to be husbands of one wife and rule their own households well (v. 12) would make no sense. If Paul had female deacons in mind, surely he would have used that word to refer to them here.

What we have in Romans 16:1–2 and 1 Timothy 3:11 are what Calvin wisely referred to as a “second order” of deacons made up of an auxiliary of women who assisted the ordained deacons (Institutes 4.3.9).

Van Bruggen

It is somewhat surprising that the Minority should quote so extensively from Prof. J. Van Bruggen.[4] In Offices in the Apostolic Church,[5] Van Bruggen contends that there is one continuing office in the New Testament, that of overseer or elder. Therefore, deacons should not be ordained as part of the consistory (session and diaconate). They should be “assistants” to the elders and not “deacon-office-bearers.” They are to be elected and appointed, not ordained.[6]

This would effectively remove the possibility “of unlocking the office of teaching and overseeing for women, which Scripture expressly forbids.” If this one-office scheme is to work, “then either one has to change the profile of the diaconate or to declare that the deaconesses to be elected are not female-deacons.” Out of great respect for the history of his church, with its high view of deacons as ordained office-bearers, he concludes, “It is possible to leave the situation concerning the deacons as it is and to create next to it a second diaconate (with deaconesses).”

While I disagree with Van Bruggen’s conclusion that deacons are not ordained officers, I appreciate his respect for the authority connected with ordained office. He has dealt with this question quite differently than the Minority.

Some Practical Effects

Let us conclude by focusing on the practical effects of these three views before us: If the deacons are not ordained (Van Bruggen) or have no overseeing authority (requiring a revision of our Form of Government) though ordained (Minority), the oversight of the broad range of diaconal ministry will burden the elders in precisely the way that the New Testament diaconal office was designed to avoid (Acts 6:2b, 4).

If women are ordained to the diaconate, it is hard to understand how this will square with the biblical doctrines of the office of deacon and the authoritative nature of ordination. And because our churches associate authority with ordination and office, two dangerous results are likely: (a) women deacons will exercise authority and oversight in policy-making and administration, and (b) it will only be a short step to “unlock” (Van Bruggen) the office of elder to women.

If we add a deacon’s auxiliary to our present structure, the ordained deacons will lead the auxiliary in its work, relieve the session of direct oversight, and will not compromise on the issue of male headship and authority in the church. And the Phoebes (as well as the Stephens) will be mobilized to use their gifts to God’s glory and the good of the whole body of Christ.

Our church’s limiting the ordination of officers to men is not inimical to, but goes hand-in-hand with, the robust enumeration and encouragement of women’s gifts in fruitful ministry in the church. We should expect this since the Word of God is clear in limiting special office to men and in encouraging women to exercise all of their God-given gifts in the general office of believer.

One of the influences that radical feminism has infected the church with is that special office is a privilege that women are being denied, whereas the Bible wants us to think of it as a heavy responsibility from which women are being lovingly exempted. “And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28). While this is not the only reason for the exclusion of women from special office, it is rarely considered. The other reasons are articulated in the 1988 general assembly report. But it most certainly does not imply that women are in anyway ontologically inferior to men, as the report also clearly asserts.

Women’s ordination is like the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Only one tree surrounded by gorgeous fruit is chosen as the loyalty test, and yet that is the one that gets the attention. The devil is a master magician.

Back in 1998 the OPC defeated the proposal of ordaining women to the diaconate, thus, sending a clear signal to our churches and to a watching world that we follow Scripture and do not allow the zeitgeist of the fallen world to alter the doctrine and life of Christ’s church. Let us gladly acknowledge the ministries and gifts of the Phoebes in our churches in the way our Lord has ordained in his infallible Word.

Endnotes

[1] Robert Strimple, “Phoebe Was A Deacon, Other Women Should Be, Too,” New Horizons, 9:6 (June/July 1988): 17–18.

[2] Gregory E. Reynolds, “A Summary Report of the Committee on Women in Ordained Office,” New Horizons, 9:6 (June/July 1988): 16.

[3] This present article is based on an article with the same title originally published in New Horizons, 9:7 (Aug/Sept 1988): 17–18. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the committee.

[4] New Testament professor emeritus in the “Article 31” seminary in Kampen, the Netherlands.

[5] J. Van Bruggen, Ambten in de apostolische kerk: een exegetisch mozaïek (Kampen: Kok, 1984).

[6] Quotes are from an “Unofficial and Preliminary Translation of Chapter Five” by Adam DeJong, and thus are not paginated.

Gregory E. Reynolds is pastor emeritus of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, February 2021.

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Ordained Servant: February 2021

Women and Office

Also in this issue

Women Deacons? Focusing the Issue[1]

Commentary on the Form of Government of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapter 13

The Irony of Modern Catholic History by George Weigel

The Confession of Faith: A Critical Text and Introduction by John Bower

Ecclesiastical Sonnets - Part 2, “The Point At Issue” (XXX)

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