Critique of Pastor Keller's promotion of woman deacons, part 3: So, are your male deacons ordained?

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(Tim) Pastor Tim Keller recently did a piece promoting woman deacons. It ran in the Presbyterian Church in America's byFaith e-monthly. Section by section, from time to time, I'm critiquing parts of Pastor Keller's article. This is the third installment. (Here are installments one, two, three, four, five, and six.) Readers will note I've not cut any of Pastor Keller's text. His words are indented, mine are not.

The Case for Commissioning (Not Ordaining) Deaconesses

by Tim Keller, published in byFaith, Issue Number 21, August 2008

Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City has since its inception commissioned (but not ordained) deaconesses working alongside male deacons in diaconal work. Why do we do this?

The first note struck is misleading. Reading Pastor Keller's words, we're led to believe that Redeemer is living well within the bounds of PCA polity, making a clear distinction between the men and women who serve in diaconal ministry. This is, of course, the one thing necessary in order to submit to Scripture's doctrine of sexuality--that male and female be clearly delineated in anything approximating authoritative function or office. So, according to Pastor Keller's words, here, he's led his congregation to make a distinction between the men and women serving as deacons. The women are commissioned, the men ordained, right?

That's what I thought when I first read the above. Yet in the back of my mind, a little bell was ringing, causing me to wonder if there wasn't some confusion, here...

But there was much more to read, so I put the questions out of my mind and read on.

Then, this morning when I decided to start a critique of this article, I read the above sentence again and my question returned, this time pertinaciously. Yes, yes; women are commissioned, but what about the men? Are they ordained, making a clear distinction between them and the women assisting them?

So I went looking and found that I, along with most other people who read this article, had been led by these words to a wrong conclusion about Redeemer's practice. Note the difference between these two statements:

Pastor Keller's original precisely as it appeared in byFaith:
Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City has since its inception commissioned (but not ordained) deaconesses working alongside male deacons in diaconal work. Why do we do this?

Pastor Keller's original (in italics), with text added by Tim Bayly (not in italics) to avoid misleading readers:
Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City has since its inception commissioned (but not ordained) deaconesses working alongside male deacons in diaconal work. And to avoid what we believe is an unbiblical distinction between male and female deacons, we do not ordain our male deacons, either. So both men and women serving in diaconal work are commissioned rather than ordained. Why do we do this?

Why leave readers under the mistaken impression that men are still ordained, and that Redeemer makes a distinction between men and women serving in diaconal ministry by ordaining men but only commissioning women? Other readers of Pastor Keller's article were similarly misled. Take, for instance, this comment made by Rick Wheeler of Chester, South Carolina, under Pastor Keller's piece:

A question for clarification: does Redeemer

ordain male deacons, and commission women to work alongside them? This

was the implication I'd gotten from Pastor Keller's article, but

Redeemer's website seems to place them in equal roles.

After Mr. Wheeler asks his question way down in the comments, the answer finally comes: In fact, neither men nor women are ordained to the diaconate. Men and women are treated identically in this regard.

A Personal History

In 1982 the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod (RPCES) joined with the PCA shortly after its 154th Synod had narrowly defeated a motion to ordain women as deacons. But the 156th Synod added, “We also remind churches that they are free to elect Spirit-filled women as deaconesses and set them apart by prayer … . We affirm the right of a local church to have a separate body of unordained women who may be called deaconesses.”

The 1982 PCA General Assembly did not consider the actions of the RPCES Synods to be binding on us, but rather “valuable and significant material which will be used in the perfecting of the Church,” and therefore to be granted respect.

This is the reason that a number of churches with deaconesses, including Philadelphia’s Tenth Presbyterian Church under Jim Boice, came into the PCA and were accepted by our presbyteries at that time. The understanding in these presbyteries was that, under Book of Church Order (BCO) 9-7, godly women could be appointed to assist the deacons in their work, and this was a valid way for sessions to do so. In addition, many PCA Korean churches, keeping the traditional practices from their home country, have unordained but commissioned women working with the diaconate. In the mid-1980s I often attended Tenth Church. I saw how important strong diaconal work was in urban ministry, and also how crucial women were to an effective diaconate.

When we began Redeemer I encouraged our new session to establish a diaconate that included unordained, commissioned deaconesses. Our practice was debated but upheld by our Northeast Presbytery in 1994. It was deemed the right of local sessions to determine how the women mentioned in BCO 9-7 were to be commissioned and identified. Over the years the work of our diaconate has become one of the most crucial aspects of Redeemer’s effectiveness in the city, and without deaconesses that would have never been the case.

This is all well and fine, but it begs the question why Redeemer refuses to ordain their deacons? In other words, what is there about the work of the deaconesses that requires Redeemer to stop ordaining the male deacons?

Clearly, the answer to this question is that, by refusing to ordain her men holding the office of deacon, Redeemer is making a principled stand against our PCA Book of Church Order. It's really quite simple: The PCA Book of Church Order makes a clear distinction between male deacons and those serving in an ancillary capacity assisting those male officers, whether male or female:

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. (Book of Church Order 9-7)

Redeemer believes this distinction outlined by the PCA Book of Church Order has no biblical basis, so they conscientiously object and seek to blur that distinction by refusing to ordain their male diaconal officers. Instead, they commission the men just as they commission the women.

Then, the fancy footwork begins to make it all fit with the Book of Church Order so Redeemer will not become subject to ecclesiastical disciplinary action. This is the context from which to interpret all the talk by Redeemer and her daughter churches of the Book of Church Order not requiring male deacons to be ordained, the Book of Church Order allowing congregations to elect or appoint men or women to assist ordained male deacons in their work, and so on.

Think of how helpful it would be to the unity and peace of the PCA if Pastor Keller were to give up the fancy footwork and forthrightly state the truth:

We disagree with the Book of Church Order concerning woman deacons, and are engaging in civil disobedience because our consciences are bound by the Word of God. We believe "there is no Scriptural basis to differentiate between men and women serving as Deacons under the authority of the Session," so here we stand. We can do no other.