Wednesday, August 02, 2006
Effete Ecclesiasticism: A Brief Note on Deaconesses and Women Preachers
The ordination of women church officers, particularly the appointment of deaconesses, is part of the ecclesiastical tradition of the Bible Presbyterian churches in Singapore. (1) I hereby refer to the church constitution of True Life Bible Presbyterian Church as the exemplar of local Bible Presbyterian practices. (2) It is clear from article 15 - which concerns the election of deaconesses – as well as article 11 that the female deacon is part of the church session. Consequentially, deaconesses in Singapore’s Bible Presbyterian churches have much ecclesiastical authority over the congregation.
These deaconesses, together with the elders and deacons, constitute the church session, which in turn makes administrative, didactic, financial and ecclesiastical decisions for the church. Indeed, the deaconess exercises her voting rights within the session, thus utilizing her authority in making crucial church decisions concerning doctrines, election of future session members, as well as other matters that have a direct or indirect bearing over the congregation. How the employment of such female authority within the session can be squared with Scripture is, unfortunately, beyond my comprehension. Paul says, “Let the woman learn in silence, with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, was in the transgression (1 Tim. 2:11-14).”
Historically, there is indeed an order of widows (1 Timothy 5:9-14), but this must not be confused with the office of deaconess in contemporary churches. According to Brian Schwertley, “Those who are in favor of women deacons who are in the same office as men deacons reject the idea of an order of widows. Why? Because they want women deacons to have the same office, function, and qualifications as the male diaconate. The deaconesses in the early church had different qualifications (widows over sixty), different functions (primarily to women), different authority (they submitted to the male deacons) and a different office than the male deacons. Modern advocates of women deacons believe that it is perfectly permissible for women who are married, who have dependent children and who are under sixty to be deacons. Yet such thinking clearly contradicts Paul’s command to the younger widows in 1 Timothy 5:11-14.” (3) Thus, deaconesses in Bible Presbyterian churches operate and function at a capacity not permitted by Scripture. In contrast to the order of widows, contemporary deaconesses have true ecclesiastical authority.
It may be argued that, in certain Bible Presbyterian churches of Singapore, the deacons and deaconess do not vote or make certain decisions with the Board of Elders. In this sense, the Board of Elders rules over the diaconate, and the deaconess is therefore exonerated from the charged of usurping the authority of men within the session. This argument, however, is tenuous at best. Schwertley replies, “While it is true that deacons are not pastors or ruling elders and do not vote with the session [only in certain Bible Presbyterian churches in this case], they still have an ecclesiastical authority in the church that is clearly forbidden to women. The deacons [and deaconesses, if any] are the financial officers of the church. The collection of tithes and the management of God’s money is in itself an authoritative function forbidden to women. The collection of tithes and the management of church funds has [sic] always been restricted to men.” (4)
The point is, deaconesses are part of the session according to the Bible Presbyterian Church constitution, and ipso facto, exercise ecclesiastical authority over the men of the congregation. Ironically, the husbands of deaconesses - that is, men within the congregation - have to submit to their wives (deaconesses) within the session, while these deaconesses are supposedly required by Scripture to submit to their husbands at home. “The idea that women are permitted to control the financial affairs of the church when they are not permitted to have the final say regarding the financial affairs of the home is not logical. Is a woman deacon permitted to have authority over her husband’s money in the church, while submitting to his control of the finances in the home? Such a situation is unseemly. The fact that women can be and are the chief financial officers of major corporations is irrelevant. The issue is not one of fitness or ability but of God’s ordained order of authority in the household and in the church.” (5)
There is, however, another controversial role of women within Bible Presbyterian churches. Specifically, women preachers are appointed in numerous Bible Presbyterian mission churches all over Asia. Sometimes, women preachers are even appointed within local Bible Presbyterian congregations. (6) This is clearly an unscriptural practice (1 Cor. 14:34-37, 1 Tim. 2:11-14). (7)
In response to the aforementioned allegations, Rev James Chan, the pastor of Calvary Bible Presbyterian Church (Jurong), wrote: “In the mission field, there are many women missionaries, doing the work which men are unwilling to do. Kelapa Sawit B-P Church was taken care of by Miss Ng Siang Chew. Awana Club and Junior Worship - from the nursery to the young teens - are run by many faithful female teachers because few brothers responded to the need. Let me again quote from Rev [Timothy] Tow in his letter to the Calvary Missions Fellowship (dated April 22, 1994); he wrote, “I take my hat off to women missionaries and preachers. There is no law forbidding them to preach when men are reluctant to venture out. Let the first male to criticize the women speakers be sent to the frontiers to take their place. Amen?” (8)
Such pragmatism is unbecoming of a professedly biblical, fundamentalist institution. Even if the “men are unwilling” to perform the task of preaching, we do not facilitate the gospel work by being disobedient to clear injunctions of Holy Scripture. God’s commandments are clear: women are plainly disallowed to teach men within the congregation. If we truly believe that God is sovereign, even in the salvation of sinners, we must perform the Great Commission according to our Lord’s directives and mandates. We ought to wait patiently for God to raise up suitably qualified servants to do His work. The prophet Samuel proclaims, “Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry (1 Samuel 15:22-23).”
To obey the Word of God is better than sacrifice, and rebellion against God’s injunctions is undoubtedly sin. Paul commands the young Corinthian church, “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak: but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also says the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church. What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only? If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord” (1 Cor. 14:34-37). Let the Church today acknowledge that what Paul wrote “are the commandments of the Lord.”
I “take my hat off” to pastors who obey God’s Word unconditionally and sacrificially, especially when it is inconvenient to do so. Amen?
1. For example, Calvary Bible Presbyterian Church (Tengah) and Tabernacle Bible Presbyterian Church have deaconesses within their sessions.
2. See “Constitution of True Life Bible Presbyterian Church,” The Burning Bush 11, no. 2 (2005): 98-120.
3. Brian Schwertley, A Historical and Biblical Examination of Women Deacons [book on-line]; available from http://www.all-of-grace.org/pub/schwertley/deacon.html; Internet; accessed 10 October 2005. This book provides a historical and theological discussion of the issue of deaconesses.
6. For example, Ms Carol Lee, a lecturer in Far Eastern Bible College, was assigned as teacher of a mixed class on 22nd January 2006 for a Bible Presbyterian congregation in Singapore. The lesson was avowedly doctrinal in nature. This is, but, the tip of the iceberg.
7. For an introduction, see David Cloud, Women Preachers [article on-line]; available from http://www.wayoflife.org/fbns/womenpreachers.htm; Internet; accessed 10 October 2005.
8. James Chan, “Our Bible Presbyterian Faith and Practice,” The Burning Bush 6, no. 1 (2000): 55.