Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Female Deacons, 4

Did the earliest Christian communities apppoint female as well as male deacons?

My own study suggests that before the 1860s, writers within the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement gave one answer: Yes. The New Testament churches ordained and employed not only elders and deacons, but deaconesses as well. So, they said, modern-day churches have Bible sanction and should do the same. Take a look:

"From Ro. 16:1 as well as from 1 Tm. 3:11 it appears that females were constituted deaconesses in the primitive church."
Alexander Campbell, "Order," Millennial Harbinger 6, no. 10 (1835), p. 507.

"It is generally regarded, among our brethren, as an essential element in the restoration of the primitive order, to ordain, in every church, both deacons and deaconesses."

W. K. Pendleton, "Discipline, No. 7," Millennial Harbinger 5, no. 5 (1848), p. 292.

"The Phoebes should . . . constitute a part of the diakonoi of every fully organized congregation."

Robert Milligan, "The Permanent Orders of the Christian Ministry -- Of Deacons," Millennial Harbinger 5, no. 11 (1855), p. 626.


Bob Bliss said...

Frank, I appreciate your study on the subject. I would like to interject a couple of things I have thought of. I don't doubt that 1Tim.3:11 approves the "ordaining" of women who fit the qualifications to special tasks of service. It is clear from Romans 16:1 that the church not only appointed women to serve but also sent them to other cities as part of the ministry process. I don't see why we today cannot appoint qualified women as we do qualified men.

Here are my hurdles in dealing with the text. First, Paul doesn't give them a title as he does with the men. He calls the men by the masculine form for servant but just addresses the women as women. He obviously knows the feminine form for servant (Romans 16:1) so why doesn't he use it here as he did with the men? I would hesitate in calling them deaconnesses or even female deacons for that reason. Second, why is the text embedded or encased in the male qualifications and not given separate space? I have been reading Leland Ryken (and some others) who have convinced me that form communicates a message. I think that because Paul didn't use a feminine word for servant and because the qualifications are encased in the men's qualifications that we should hesitate in putting the female servants on par with the men. I think this fits in well with the overall tenor of both testaments in showing that men are still the spiritual leaders in God's community and the home. If you have any thoughts regarding my handling of the text I'd be happy to hear them.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Wow, What great observations. Thank you for this comment.

About hurdle #1, I have wondered if Paul and the earliest Christians didn't speak of diakonoi in the same way that he used the term anthropoi. Commentators are forever explaining that anthropoi means what we mean by "brothers and sisters." So why can't diakonoi mean "deacons--male and female"?

Re hurdle #2, what can I say? We do hear "likewise" in 3:11 which is what makes most interpreters think that we have a group of women here who are in some way comparable to the deacons addressed in v. 8. Of course, you already know this.

Was it J N D Kelly or someone else (?) who suggested that when Paul turns to "the women" in 1 Tm 3:11, he has in mind BOTH female deacons and the enrolled widows of whom he'll speak in chapter 5. For reasons that you have pointed to, Bob, this seems like a stretch to me. But I found it intriguing.

Thanks again.

Bob Bliss said...

It is possible that in verse 8 diakonous refers to the men of v.8-10, 12-13 and to the women of v.11. As far as I can tell most commentators/scholars haven't yet decided how to take "women" in v.11 either in a category of servants alone or as "wives." I doubt seriously that Paul is addressing wives since usually it is in the genitive possessive. But there is always that one case. Plus "likewise" seems to indicate that just as he is giving qualifications to male servants he is also giving qualifications to female servants. It still feels like a stretch though to extend diakonous of v.8 to the women of v.9. However, it is an interesting question you pose.

In Hurdle #2 I didn't fully explain my thinking. If form does communicate a message then perhaps Paul by encasing the qualifications for women servants within the qualifications for men servants that is subtly telling us that qualified women servants are still to maintain the aura of male spiritual leadership. In other words they are not quite on an equal footing with the men servants. It may be that by giving them a title (deaconness) we are elevating them to a position that Paul didn't intend. But I do agree that Paul is extending a position to qualified women to serve the church.

A further thought on my part, I'm not sure we should consider deacons as "leaders." I believe that elders have been given oversight over other the members of a congregation (male and female) and that makes them leaders (or managers). Deacons are given oversight over a task. When oversight over a task is given they are serving at the oversight of someone else - that's what a servant does. I think by not making this distinction we have kept women from serving in this qualified way. I don't' have any qualms with a qualified woman servant taking charge of the Bible School department in a congregation. She is charged with a task not with overseeing people. I realize that her task does require some supervising but it is still not in the same way as elders. She is responsible for the Bible School not the teachers or other helpers in the Bible school. In Romans 16:1 Paul tells the Roman church to help Phoebe in whatever she needs. She has been charged by the church in Cenchrea with a task and it is the right thing to help her in whatever she needs. Perhaps if our fellowship had made this distinction we wouldn't be having to deal with the role of women in the church as a divisive issue today.

Frank Bellizzi said...

You are exactly right, Bob. To our shame, the Churches of Christ have a hard time discussing female deacons precisely because we don't truly know what deacons are in the first place. And that's ironic. It's not as though we never hang out in 1 Timothy 3 or never talk about "elders and deacons." As someone else said, When we realize that deacons are not JV elders, then it's a lot less anxious discussing female deacons.

Bob Bliss said...

Frank, I think your 100% right, deacons are not jv elders. But now that you and I have corrected our brotherhood how do we go about getting our people to think properly about the precise roles of deacons?

Frank Bellizzi said...

The problem we're describing will be a hard habit to break. Even in a congregation where I had done a good bit of what I thought was good teaching about service and servants, the very mention of female deacons seemed like a renunciation of biblical concepts of gender and leadership.

Maybe it would help if congregations completely stopped the business of having deacons in name only. My elders at Wallingford, CT insisted on a ministry for every deacon ordained. They expected deacons to regularly report.

Maybe even a step better would be to have a deacon (or more) for every ministry. That is, the need for ministry leadership emerges before anyone is appointed, ala Acts 6:1-6.

I think that over the years that sort of practice would speak louder than the sermons on deacons.