Brief Statement on Deaconesses in the Work of Tenth Church

by Phil Ryken September 5, 2008

uring the past year, the proper involvement of women in the diaconal ministry of the church has become a major topic of discussion both in the Philadelphia Presbytery and in the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).  The history and ministry of Philadelphia’s Tenth Presbyterian Church have been a point of reference by all sides in that discussion, both locally and nationally.  The purpose of this brief statement is to clarify our views and practices. 

This clarification is needed, first, because some of our own members have questions about current diaconal practices in the PCA.  It is also needed to provide context and in some cases correction to what other people have said about the ministry of deaconesses at Tenth Church.  

Recently our denominational magazine featured somewhat opposing articles by two close friends of our congregation, both of whom referred explicitly to Tenth’s past and present views on women and the diaconate [see Ligon Duncan, “The Case for Our Current Policy on Female Deacons,” and Tim Keller, “The Case for Commissioning (Not Ordaining) Deaconesses,” byFaith, Fall 2008].  Although these articles presented Tenth’s position accurately, I believe they would benefit from further context.  Also, not all of the comments about Tenth’s practices on the Internet have been entirely accurate.  

This brief statement, then, and the supporting documents that follow, are intended to help provide more information to anyone who wishes to understand our views. 

To begin with, as Presbyterians we desire to honor God in the way that we organize the spiritual government of our church.  Fundamentally, this means seeking to follow the teaching of Scripture in all matters of faith and practice.  More specifically, it means submitting to the Presbyterian Book of Church Order that our elders and deacons have vowed to uphold.  In keeping with the biblical government of the church, we desire to see the spiritual gifts of all our men and women flourish in the church, including through ministries of mercy [see our statement on “Leadership and Service Opportunities for Women”]. 

To be clear, we do not believe that women should be ordained to the office of elder, believing as we do that this practice is contrary to Scripture.  Indeed, our views on this subject were one of our primary reasons for voting as a congregation in 1980 to leave our former denomination.  

Nor do we ordain women as deacons.  Although this was our former practice, since joining the PCA in 1982 we have sought to honor the teaching of Scripture and our adoption of the Book of Church Order by ordaining men only as deacons—a useful and dignified office. 

At the same time, we have appointed gifted women to assist the deacons in their ministry [for a short description of the relationship between our deacons and deaconesses, see the excerpt from the “Tenth Church By-Laws”].  Each year women are nominated for service, approved by the Session, and presented to the congregation for election at our Congregational Meeting in December.  In January they are commissioned for their service through prayer, much the way we commission our Sunday School teachers and short-term workers, which includes neither the laying on of hands by the elders—a rite of ordination—nor the congregational vow of obedience which church members make to deacons as officers of the church. 

My own personal view is that our current practices follow the teaching of Scripture.  I believe I understand the case for ordaining women as deacons.  Indeed, I have presented that case below, in a slightly amended excerpt from my commentary on 1 Timothy [“What About Deaconesses?”].  Still, I remain unconvinced that the New Testament teaches that women should be ordained as deacons.  As the excerpt also makes clear, I believe strongly that women should be encouraged to exercise their gifts of mercy, that they should be honored for their service, and that it is appropriate for this ministry to be formally organized by the church. 

This ministry itself is more important than any title we give it, but I believe that “deaconess” is the best term to use.  The word has biblical warrant (Rom. 16:1).  It has a long and noble history in the church, from the early church fathers, through the reformers, to the present day.  It preserves the proper distinction between deacons and deaconesses.  

The term has the further virtue of meaning in English almost exactly what our Book of Church Order recommends for women involved in diaconal ministry.  According to Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, a “deaconess” is “a woman chosen to assist in the church ministry,” which is what our Book of Church Order calls for: “It is often expedient that the Session of a church should select and appoint godly men and women of the congregation to assist the deacons in caring for the sick, the widows, the orphans, the prisoners, and others who may be in any distress or need” [BCO 9-7].  

Finally, there are two minor points that may need correction or clarification.  Ligon Duncan’s article may give some readers the impression that I would like to see PCA polity amended.  To the contrary, I believe that Tenth’s current practice is close to ideal, and that it is fully in keeping with our present Book of Church Order 

Also, I am not certain Tim Keller is right when he says that the PCA’s respect for the actions of the RPCES Synods [including the statement of the 156th Synod that “churches are free to elect Spirit-filled women as deaconesses”] played a role in Tenth’s eventual decision to join the PCA.  I say this because none of our current elders remember this being an important factor in their discussion and subsequent decision.  

Still, Dr. Keller is making an important point: Tenth (and perhaps some other churches) joined the PCA with the open intent to commission (but not to ordain) women as deaconesses, and to do so in submission to the Book of Church Order, as has been our practice now for nearly thirty years.

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