Deaconesses are exotics in church history...

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Speaking of those championing a change in the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in America to allow for woman deacons, one commenter on this blog defended them, writing "No one who is asking us to look into this says we should ignore the scriptures."

Respectfully, I must disagree. If we look at PCA teaching elders who are championing woman deacons, it must be said that some of them fail to affirm, while others oppose the plain teaching of Scripture on sexuality: That since Adam was created first, and then Eve; and since Eve was the one deceived; woman is forbidden to teach or exercise authority over man.

They occasionally come up with scholars (usually modern) they can cite in support of woman deacons, but these scholars have not done any heavy lifting on this issue. Rather, their work amounts to the sort of incidental treatments of a subject that ought never to displace the witness of the Church across history. Thus, it can't be said often enough that the present practice of non-compliant churches within the PCA bears no resemblance to the practice of the Church of the past two thousand years.

For example, some have cited Drs. Doug Moo, Tom Schreiner, and Andreas Köstenberger, as well as the late Dr. Ed Clowney, in support of woman deacons. Several of these men I know and respect. Yet there are others who have given themselves to this subject on a systematic basis who are far better sources in this debate.

Take, for instance, the French historian, Aime Georges Martimort, author of Deaconesses: An Historical Study. (To purchase, click on the title.) Despite the title, Martimort's examination treats both Scripture and church history. Others have commented on Martimort’s work:

This book can be considered the last word on the subject of deaconesses. It deserves a wide readership since there is so much interest in the ordination of women. (Homiletic & Pastoral Review)

Martimort uses his refined skills to give us what should be the definitive work on the subject. (The Diaconate)

So Martimort is foundational to the debate over woman deacons in the PCA and other reformed denominations today. Knowing some will not have the time or inclination to read his work, here are some excerpts...

In the Introduction, Martimort writes:

(In contemporary debates over woman deacons) the caution wisely recommended by Roger Gryson has not always been observed of late. He wrote that "the conscientious historian, who is accustomed not to affirm anything except on the basis of careful and sustained research, is surely obliged to question the naive assurance of those for whom everything is simple and clear at first glance." What is most evident about the history of deaconesses, however, is the complexity of the whole subject.

This note of caution is much-needed in our denomination. Too often we simply state our convictions as if their being our convictions is sufficient to make them true. The very fact that we state them as our own opinions will cause most gentlemen of our day to leave us alone to them, never being so gauche as to argue that a certain person's opinions are--how did they put it in the past?--wrong?

Terminal degree or not; tall-steeple church or not; wealthy and influential or not; published theologian or not; men should be listened to only insofar as they demonstrate disciplined study that has produced the fruit of knowledge of twenty centuries of practice of the Church and an even deeper understanding of what the Word of God says that bears on the subject of woman deacons.

Back to Martimort. Here are excerpts from his first chapter containing a summary of the history of exegesis (study) of the principal texts of Scripture some use to support their advocacy of woman deacons. He begins the chapter titled "Were There Deaconesses in the Church of the First Two Centuries?" with this caution:

A considerable number of exegetes and historians have attempted to supply an answer to this question, whether by citing texts from the New Testament or by scrutinizing authors of the second and early part of the third centuries. The sheer number of commentaries that these documents have inspired, however, demonstrates  conclusively that their proper interpretation is anything but simple; in no way can simple recourse to citations from them settle a controversy that was already being heatedly debated among the Fathers of the Church.

Here is Martimort's summary of scholars' conclusions concerning the possible mention of deaconesses in The Letter from Pliny the Younger To the Emporer Trajan (111-113 A.D.):

Latin: "quo magis necessarium credidi ex duabus ancillis, quae ministrae dicebantur, quid esset veri et per tormenta quaerere." (The question here is the meaning of the word 'ministrae.')

Against those who announce this single text proves the existence of woman deacons in the Early Church, Martimort writes: translate this word simply as "deaconess" is certainly to force the sense of the text unduly and to get caught in a plain anachronism. R. Gryson reaches the following conclusion about this particular point: "We are permitted on the basis of the title given to these ministrae to associate them with 'the women' who are themselves associated with deacons in 1Timothy 3:11, but in so doing we must not lose sight of the fact that this association remains a very fragile and contingent one." (p. 26)

Chapter 8 is titled, "The Disappearance of Deaconesses and the Memory of Them that Remained." Explaining the purpose of the deaconesses who disappeared, Martimort writes:

...the presence of deaconesses was, in antiquity, a necessity...for the the baptism of women [out of concern for modesty], for their education and also for the direction of the "daughters of the covenant."

This theme is consistent across the centuries: That deaconesses--not female deacons--were a function of needs in the church related to other women (for instance, "accompanying women wishing to speak to the bishop, priest or deacon"), or needs related to the care of the sick and dying.

Never were deaconesses used to minister to men in any way analogous to the use woman deacons are put to today in PCA churches engaging in civil disobedience against our Book of Church Order at this point. These churches break with all prior church practice across the centuries in their statements about their woman deacons leading, teaching, and discipling men just as their man deacons do.

Speaking of the Romans 16:1,2 text that refers to Phoebe as "diakonos of the church at Cenchreae," Martimort writes:

...there is an anachronism involved in giving this word a precise meaning corresponding to an ecclesiastical institution to which the first real references, as we shall see, date from much later--from some time after the year 200 A.D. Even more than that, it is possible to argue that what follows in the text provides the best clue to the nature of the service rendered by Phoebe. St. Paul specifies that for him, as for many others, she has been a helper, or protectress (prostatis). This term suggests activities pertaining to the established and accepted practices, recognized by all, of providing hospitality and assistance. This interpretation is especially plausible when we remember that Cenchreae was the port of Corinth facing east; it was there that the Christian brethren from Syria or Asia Minor would normally have debarked in Greece.

In his Conclusion, Martimort provides this summary of his research along with wise counsel we'd do well to heed today:

In the end, in my opinion, the conclusion that must impose itself at the termination of a historical study such as ours, conducted in accordance with the requirements of modern scholarship, is that theologians must strictly guard against trying to prove hypotheses dependent upon only a part of the documentation available, a part taken out of context at that. The complexity of the facts about deaconesses and the proper context of these facts prove to be quite extraordinary. There exists a significant danger of distorting both the facts and the texts whenever one is dealing with them secondhand. It is also very difficult to avoid falling into anachronisms when trying to resolve the problems of the present by reference to the solutions appropriate to a past that is long gone.

For the fact is that the ancient institution of deaconesses, even in its own time, was encumbered with not a few ambiguities, as we have seen. In my opinion, if the restoration of the institution of deaconesses were indeed to be sought after so many centuries, such a restoration itself could only be fraught with ambiguity. **The real importance and efficaciousness of the role of women in the Church has always been vividly perceived in the consciousness of the hierarchy and of the faithful as much more broad than the historical role that deaconesses in fact played** [my emphasis]. And perhaps a proposal based on an "archeological" institution might even obscure the fact that the call to serve the Church is urgently addressed today to *all* [his emphasis] women, especially in the area of the transmission of Faith and works of charity. (pp. 249,250)

Note carefully: Across church history in those limited times and places where deaconesses were utilized, the "historical role deaconesses in fact played" was more limited than the broader role played by the other women of the church. Martimort's scholarship shreds the claims made by PCA men who are pushing for woman deacons who would exercise authority, teach, and lead men and women alike, that this is a restoration of the practice of the Apostolic Age or any other age of church history.

Unless they change their tack and begin proposing deaconesses who will be subordinate to the male officers of the church and whose duties will be clearly limited to work focussed on the women, children, sick, and dying of the church, there should be no quarter granted to those claiming to be voices of reform in this matter.

Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

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