If we are to arrive at any satisfactory conclusions about the question of the ordination of deaconesses and its theological merits it is not sufficient for the discussion to remain at the level of exploring the exegetical ambiguities of two Greek words (γυναῖκας in 1 Timothy 3:11 and διάκονον in Romans 16:1). Certainly, this exegetical data must be studied and incorporated into the larger ecclesiological treatment of the question and there have been many such studies. However, for the church to arrive at any substantive conclusions about the doctrinal question of the office of deaconess something more is requisite than a narrow treatment of these two passages. This is apparent, especially among complementarian strands of the modern Presbyterian tradition. Committed complementarians who wish to affirm the doctrinal soundness of ordaining deaconesses in parity with male deacons invariably must also engage the question of the authority of the office of deacon. In order to maintain an unequivocal complementarianism in their ecclesiology, such proponents must evacuate the office of deacon of the sort of ecclesial authority which would conflict with Paul’s prohibitions in 1 Timothy 2:11-12. The question of the office of deaconess is, after all the exegesis has been conducted, still ecclesiological in character. That is to say, it is a question which finally must enter into the domain of systematic theology. This means then that any consideration of the systematic theological merits of an office of deaconess must be pressed for its interconnections with other features of Presbyterian ecclesiology (i.e. the nature of church office and ordination, the nature of church power and authority, the relationship between church offices, etc.).
As already noted, the conversation has already made some incursions into the synthetic, systematic questions involved in a consideration of deaconesses and the office of deacon. These articles will be an attempt to advance that theological task further, in particular to bring into better light the nature of the churchly authority which has been invested by Christ in the office of deacon. First, in the remainder of this article I will take up the question of the New Testament basis for the diaconate as a perpetual office of the church, in particular whether or not Acts 6:1-6 can be taken as the establishment of this perpetual office and then consider the implications of that establishment as it relates to the office of elder. In the second article, I will consider how the office of deacon functions as a representative organ of the Body of the church. In my third article, I will explore how this representative office exercises its own specific kind of church power, and thus a specific kind of churchly authority. The overall goal then is to set in clear relief the ecclesiological reality that the office of deacon is authoritative in its own unique way, and thus that it is inescapably problematic for Presbyterian complementarians to try to ordain women to this office.
Acts 6 and the Establishment of the Office of Deacon
It may seem unnecessary to dyed-in-the-wool, divine right (jus divinum) Presbyterians to retrace the exegetical and systematic-theological case that the office of deacon is a perpetual office in the church established by the apostles in Acts 6:1-6. However, the current state of the conversation indicates that this seemingly redundant effort is quite mandatory. Strands of the conversation surrounding the deaconate and deaconesses call into question the exegetical case that the deaconate is a distinct church office established by the Apostles in Acts 6:1-6. Consequently, rather than being a sheer redundancy, a case for this needs to be taken up as a task of theological retrieval.
The position that the choosing of the seven men in Acts 6 represents the first establishment of the office of deacon certainly has a pedigree stretching back into the antiquity of the church. Irenaeus held that Stephen was the first deacon chosen by the apostles. But, while ancient historical pedigree is a weighty factor to be considered in theology, it does not of itself establish a doctrine. Precious to the Reformed faith is the conviction that Scripture alone has the ultimate and exclusive power of deciding theological questions. So, an exegetical examination of Acts 6:1-6 is perennially requisite for this question.
One argument that has been marshalled against the episode of Acts 6:1-6 being the origination of the office of deacon is that the word “deacon” is never used to describe the men who are set apart by the laying of hands in the narrative. But taken by itself this argument appears simply to be an instance of the word/concept fallacy. That is to say, just because the word “deacon” is not used in the passage does not, by itself, establish that the concept of the office of deacon is not present in the events of the narrative. Even though the specific Greek noun for “deacon” is never used to describe the men in Acts 6:1-6, other words in the same family as the word for “deacon” are. In Acts 6:1 the daily distribution to the widows is called a “diaconia” (διακονίᾳ). Then in Acts 6:2 the Apostles say they cannot abandon their work of the ministry of the Word in order to “serve tables.” That task of serving in Greek is “diaconein” (διακονεῖν). We should zoom out and note the fact that the “diaconia” word group sometimes has a broad meaning in the New Testament to refer to service in general (hence the debate over Paul’s description of Phoebe in Rom. 16:1), but there are many places where the word group instead has a very specific sense. It seems to be almost a technical term in a certain pattern of usage which refers to ministry to the physical and financial needs of the poor. For example, at the end of Acts 11 prophets foretell a coming famine and in response the disciples in Antioch determine to send relief to the Christians in Judea. The Greek word in Acts 11:29 to describe that financial relief is “diaconian” (διακονίαν). At the conclusion of Romans 15 Paul talks about a collection which he is taking up in order to alleviate the needs of the poor among the church of Jerusalem. There in Rom. 15:25 he calls that collection of money a “diaconon” (διακονῶν).Other examples could be multiplied but the point should be clear that the word group of the term “diaconia” in the Greek of the NT at times had come to refer specifically and almost technically to the care of the physical and financial needs of the poor.
Such a specific/technical usage of the word appears plainly to be Luke’s intent in Acts 6:1 and Acts 6:2. Consequently the task to which the seven men are appointed by the laying on of hands in Acts 6 is to the “diaconia,” that is the focused care for the physical and financial needs of the poor. So, while the title of “deacon” (diaconos) may not be applied to the seven men who are appointed in Acts 6, versions of the technical term of “diaconia” are used to describe the work they are appointed to oversee and administer. Hence, it is not hard to see the plausibility of why the historic view of Presbyterian church government has appealed to Acts 6:1-6 in order to explicate the church offices Paul references in Phillipians 1:1 and in 1 Timothy 3:8-15. It is natural to assume that the men called “deacons” (diaconos) of whom Paul speaks about as officers in these passages are officers who are called to oversee and administer the official task of “diaconia” which is spoken of in Acts 6 and other places, that is the ordained task of focused care for the physical and financial needs of the poor.
Furthermore, even though the title of the church office of “deacon” is not used in Acts 6:1-6, all the other pieces are there to indicate that these men are being appointed unto a church office. There is a specific task which they are appointed to oversee: the diaconia, the church’s care for the physical and financial needs of the poor. There is a congregational election of these men implied in the instruction of the Apostles in Acts 6:3, “Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (ESV). And then there is an apostolic ordination by means of the laying on of hands (Acts 6:6). And in light of the larger conversation about the propriety of ordaining women to this office, a significant fact in Acts 6 is that all seven people chosen are men. Only men are selected because the Apostle’s instructions seem to imply such a restriction: “pick out from among you seven men” (Act 6:3 ESV). The Apostles do not just use the generic masculine term which often simply refers to people (ἄνθρωπος). They use the term which most always is a specialized term to refer to males (ἄνδρας). It appears then that the candidate pool for the congregational election was to be restricted to males by direct Apostolic instruction.
Why might this be the case? An answer to that question is opened up in light of something John Owen notes about the office of deacon in Acts 6.
The care of making provisions for the poor being made in the church an institution of Christ, was naturally incumbent on them who were the first, only officers of the church; that is, the apostles. This is plain from the occasion of the institution of the office of the deacons, Acts vi. 1-6. The whole work and care of the church being in their hands, it was impossible that they should attend unto the whole, and all the parts of it in any manner.
One manifest implication of Acts 6:1-6 is that the official oversight of the “diaconia,” (i.e. the church’s care for the physical and financial needs of the poor) had originally lain in the hands of the Apostles themselves. Hence the duties which are delegated to the office of deacon in Acts 6 are duties which are originally contained in the vocation of the office of the Apostles.
The background story for the conflict which puts the Apostles into the quandary they solve by the ordination of the seven men to the office of deacon is set in Acts 4:32-37. It is clear in Acts 4:32-37 that the diaconal care and the common benevolence fund which was contributed to by the ordinary members of the church was overseen by the Apostles. The members of the church of Jerusalem sold their property, took the proceeds, and then “laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Act 4:35 ESV). The authority to oversee and to administer the diaconia of the church was an authority that originally rested exclusively in the hands of the Apostles.
This fact forms the basis for the rationale of the traditional assumption in Presbyterian polity that the office of deacon is contained in the office of elder. The Book of Church Order for the PCA allows for a church to become organized as a particular church without deacons because, “If deacons are not elected, the duties of the office shall devolve upon the session, until deacons can be secured” (BCO 5-9.e.). The work of the office of deacon in the polity of the PCA is not autonomous from the elders. And the elders of a church cannot simply appoint deacons and then not take oversight of or interest in their work. It belongs to the duties of a Session of Elders “to require these officers to devote themselves to their work; to examine the records of the proceedings of the deacons; to approve and adopt the budget…” (BCO 12-5.b.). The elders are required to concern themselves with the work of the diaconate not only because they have oversight over all the affairs of a congregation, but even more especially because the duties of the office of deacon are contained in the office of elder. Hence the instruction of Wilhelmus à Brakel about deacons:
First, they must collect. They must do so in cooperation with the ministers and the elders, who together must superintend both the poor as well as those who have means. For the office of the ministry includes the offices of elder and deacon, and the office of elder includes the office of deacon.
We have before us now the first piece of the answer to the question of why the congregational election of deacons in Acts 6 seems to be restricted exclusively to male candidates. It appears to be an authoritative office of sorts. The authority of the office of deacon is an authority over a particular aspect of the function of the office of Apostles, a specific subset of their ordained duties. Further this is so not simply with respect to the Apostles in their unique role as an extraordinary office of the church, but rather the Apostles as they are, in the expression of the apostle Peter, fellow-elders (1 Pet. 5:1). That is to say, just as the shepherding, overseeing, and teaching functions of the office of Apostle are functions which belong to the continuing office of elder, so too the function of the oversight and administration of the diaconia of the church is a function which belongs to the continuing office of elder. The authority to oversee and administer the diaconia of the church is an authority contained in the office of elder and then delegated to the office of deacon. It belonged to the authority and responsibility of the Apostles as fellow elders to oversee the funds laid at their feet by the church and then to distribute to each as any had need (Acts 4:35). When the exercise of that authority and oversight became too burdensome for the apostles to continue to bear it was delegated to the new office of deacon (Acts 6:1-6).
Thus, in the situation of the church in the post-Apostolic era, the authority and oversight of the collection and administration of the diaconia of the church resides in the hands of the elders who can exercise such authority and oversight even without any deacons in a congregation. Furthermore even when deacons are ordained in a congregation the elders must still continue to take responsibility and oversight of the diaconal work delegated to the deacons because the authority and responsibility of the office of deacon is contained in their own office of elder. The churchly authority of the office of deacon is a specific subset of the churchly authority of the office of elder. We have now the first piece of the puzzle for us to begin to see how, contrary to many arguments which have tried to evacuate the office of deacon of any sort of authority in the church, the office of deacon does indeed have a specific kind of authority in the church. That authority certainly does not completely overlap with the all the various kinds of authoritative church powers which belong to the office of elders, and it is an authority exercised in submission to the authority of the oversight of elders. Nevertheless, the authority of the office of deacon is a real authority, and as we will see in the next articles it is an authority exercised on behalf of the whole Church Body and over the whole Church Body as they are officers who are representatives of Christ and the Body of Christ. Consequently, that churchly authority of the office of deacon makes it very problematic for those who confess that Presbyterianism is the Biblical form of church government to ordain women to that office and not run afoul of Paul’s injunction in 1 Timothy 2:12 – “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man…”
For an overview of Evangelical Complementarianism see the representative essays in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism(ed. by John Piper and Wayne Grudem; Wheaton, IL: Crossway).
See James B. Hurley, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective,(Grand Rapids: MI: 1981), pgs. 224-233 for an example of this.
For examples see Edmond Clowney, The Church, pg. 213.
Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.12.10
For an example of this see A.F. Walls, “Deacon,” in The New Bible Dictionary,3rded., (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2004), pg. 262.
John Owen, The Works of John Owen, (ed. by William H. Goold; East Peoria, IL: Banner of Truth Trust, 1968), vol. 16, pgs. 144-145.
Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, (ed. Joel R. Beeke, trans. Bartel Elshout; Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 1993), vol. 2, pg. 151