The Presbyterian Witness Vol. IX:1 (Spring, 1995) NOTE: [Reprinted in Penpoint Vol. VIII:1 (January, 1997)] © Covenant Media Foundation, 800/553-3938
Ordination of Women: An Interview by Byron Snapp
By Dr. Greg Bahnsen
Q. Why is there an openness in Reformed circles to the ordination of women?
A. In some Reformed circles there is an openness to the ordination of women as elders, and in others an openness to the ordination of women as deacons. We need to distinguish between these.
In the first, it would seem rather plain that men have become open to ordaining women as elders because that is the "politically correct" position to take. It is really butting heads with the direction of our culture to take the strong but, I think, Biblical stance that women are not to have authority over men in the church and, therefore, are not to be elders.
In the case of those denominations that allow women to be ordained to the office of elder, we have to see this as arising from the spirit of our modern age, which feels the liberty to correct God's Word.
Now, in the case of Reformed men who are open to the ordination of women to the office of deacon, that may not be their primary motivation, although such an influence may be working on them as well. Usually what happens, though, is that people are engaged in linguistically fallacious reading of Scripture which makes them think that although women may not be ordained to the office of elder, they may be ordained to the office of deacon. My own conviction is that the openness is based on a failure to draw necessary distinctions. Thus, there is logically fallacious reasoning involved, or it is a failure to see the full Biblical context of the concepts that are involved (such as ordination).
Q. What is the meaning of ordination? Is there a level of authority given to those ordained?
A. The English word ordain is used, for instance, in the King James Version for over 30 different Hebrew and Greek words. Thus we should be cognizant that distinctions have to be drawn. In our discussion we are using ordination as the formal appointment or the ceremonial setting apart to office. We are going to be looking at ordination as it is used in English translations for that particular concept, rather than the many others for which the English word ordain is also used.
Usually in the Bible ordination to office is denoted by the procedure of laying on of hands. Yet we have to be careful. The laying on of hands is not always ordination to office. We have to distinguish it from a gesture or solemn act of blessing, as we see in the action of Jacob blessing his sons or Jesus blessing the children. Laying on of hands can also refer to the transfer of identity or quality. When people brought a guilt offering in the Old Testament, they laid their hand on the head of the animal as a way of indicating that this now became their identity or quality of their sin was transferred to that animal. When Jesus healed people, sometimes He would lay His hand on their head, transferring His wholeness or health to them, as it were.
Laying on of hands, thirdly, can refer to "devoting" something. It can be devoting to curse, as in the Old Testament when a blasphemer has his accusers lay hands on his head before he is executed. It can be a devoting to service, as in the book of Acts when missionaries are sent out after a ceremony of devotion in which hands are laid on them, showing the church's call and consecration of them to that service.
When ordination refers to ordination to office and is denoted by the laying on of hands, it means an act of public recognition, consecration, and installment as an authoritative leader. A clear illustration of this is found in the case of Moses laying his hands on Joshua in Numbers 27. This was a public recognition that he was now installed as the new leader of Israel. In 1 Timothy 4:14, Timothy was ordained by the laying on of hands as a pastor. He had been publicly recognized, set apart, and installed to have the authority of a pastor, as a leader.
The third kind of distinction that has to be drawn, but often isn't by those who are open to women being ordained to the office of deacon, is the distinction between a function or quality and the office that requires that function or quality. The same Greek word is used for the function or quality as is used for the office. Clearly the denotation is different in different settings. A good example is the Greek word for elder. The Greek word refers to someone who is mature. That can either mean someone advanced in age or has the expected qualities of someone who is advanced in age; such as wisdom and discretion.
The same word for elder is also used for a church office. The expectation is that those who hold the office of elder should also have the qualities of one advanced in age or maturity and discretion. The point is that the same Greek word applies to the quality and the office. However, not everyone who is older in the Bible is an elder in terms of church office. If we do not draw this distinction we are going to get into a lot of trouble when we start talking about deacons.
Deacon simply means to be a servant, a waiter, one who serves tables. All of God's people are called upon to be servants. We are all supposed to be deacons. The Bible teaches us to wait on tables for each other. There is also an office called deacon. When we look at the Biblical text and see the word deacon we have to ask, "Is this the quality or function of the servant, or does this refer to the office of deacon?" You cannot automatically assume that all the references are to the same thing.
A good example is found in 1 Corinthians 16:15-16 and the last part of verse 18. There is reference here to those who greatly exemplify the function of serving others. In that text Paul says, "Subject yourselves to these." On the one hand you have their function– acting diaconally. But there is more. Paul also says you should put yourselves under their authority. The deacons lead others in diaconal service. They organize it. They resolve conflicts. They have a kind of authority over the position of a servant. That is interesting because you have leaders who are servants. Of course, this is true to the teaching of Christ that those who are to be our leaders are to be those who serve us. If you wash feet, if you are willing to make yourself the least, then God makes you a leader among His people.
To summarize, we have to distinguish how the word ordain is used and focus just on ordination as formal appointment or ceremonial setting apart to office. We have to look at the laying on of hands when it refers to the ceremonial setting apart to office and see that that kind of ordination is a public recognition, consecration of, and installment as a leader with authority. This pertains to two relevant offices in the church. Then when we look at the Greek words for elder and deacon we have to realize that they can be used either for a function and quality or for the formal office. You cannot automatically take all the references in the same way.
Now, we must also consider the concept of office in the Scripture. In the Bible the concept of church office always involves authority or rule. Many people have the mistaken notion that elders have authority and rule but that deacons, because they are servants, do not have authority or rule. The deacon is just a service position. That opinion is simultaneously insulting to elders and deacons. Elders are not to rule without an attitude of service. Jesus said one had to be a servant of all, if one is to lead. It is likewise insulting to suggest that all deacons do is serve, so that their office involves no authority or rule.
In Philippians 1, we see that the continuing offices in the church are deacons and elders. It is obvious to everybody that elders have rule or authority in their office. It ought to be just as obvious that deacons have authority in their office- which is to oversee the service to and the meeting of the more physical needs of the saints.
In Acts 6, we see three different indications that the office of deacon contains authority or rule within it. First, the diaconal office was formulated explicitly as an extension of and supplement to the rule of the apostles. In verse 1 there is the dispute that certain people were not being treated fairly in the distribution of charity. The apostles had to rule and resolve that dispute. The apostles delegated that task to the deacons. Thus just from the fact that the diaconal office is an extension of and a supplement to the apostles, we know it had a kind of authority. Thus if there is a dispute between the Greek-speaking Jews and the Hebrew-speaking Jews, the deacons will resolve it. They have rule or authority enough to expect submission in the resolution of disputes.
Secondly, the verb itself in Acts 6:3 speaks of the deacons being put in charge of the service - the waiting on tables. Another translation is, "We need to appoint them over this." If they are put in charge of it, or appointed over it, clearly they have authority.
Finally, in Acts 6:6, we see that those who are deacons have hands laid upon them. They are ordained. From our earlier study we have found that ordination is the setting apart with authority as a leader. These three indications from Acts 6 tell us that, although the diaconal office focuses on service, nevertheless, as an office, it has authority. That is why hands are laid on the deacons.
In conclusion, since the diaconal office involves authority or rule, we have to remember that 1 Timothy 2:12 lays down a universal prohibition that it is forbidden for women to rule over men in the church. In that case, it is forbidden for women to have an office within the church because office involves rule or authority. Diaconal office, involving rule or authority, is thus closed to women. Now diaconal service is not closed to women any more than being elderly, mature and wise is closed to unordained men. Not every wise elderly man holds the office of elder in the church. Not everyone with a servant-like attitude holds the office of deacon in the church either.
Moreover, in 1 Timothy 3:12, the qualifications for the office of deacon are given. One of the qualifications is that the deacon is to be "the husband of one wife." If the Bible intended to leave the office open to men and women, it would make no sense at all to say "the husband of one wife." I have drawn the conclusion that the office of deacon is not Biblically open to women.
Q. How are we to understand the often mentioned translation in Romans 16:1 that Phoebe was a deaconess?
A. When Phoebe is called a "deaconess" in the Bible, it either means that she is a servant because she has the quality of waiting on tables in her relationship with others or that she has the office of a servant. As, we have seen, she cannot have the office because women cannot rule over men, and office involves authority. When someone says, "The word deacon is used here, and so you have to accept this," then he is guilty of muddled thinking. You could just as easily say, "Here is someone who is elderly; therefore, he must have the office of elder."
Q. Some translate the Greek word in 1 Timothy 3:11 as women, not wives (of deacons). How do you understand this passage?
A. Here Paul is listing the requirements for church officers. He refers to overseers, deacons, women, and then he comes back to deacons. Some people have believed that women can be deacons because he talks about deacons, then women, and then again deacons. However, it seems much more natural to interpret that as "the wives of those who are church officers" must also have the following characteristics. This is much more practical. Women who are married to church officers can be some of the biggest problems in the church if they do not have Christian maturity and wisdom. In v. 12, when Paul talks about deacons being the husband of one wife, this would make no sense if he has just been talking about women as ordained deacons. The attempt to use women in this passage as church officers is refuted by the context itself.
Q. Increasingly seminaries appear to be open to the ordination of women. Are the churches desirous of this teaching - and thus the seminaries are following along in order to get students and a continued support base financially - or, in your opinion, are the seminaries setting the standards for the church to follow?
A. This is an awkward question to answer. I realize that in our day Reformed seminaries don't want to say, "We are willing to compromise the Word of God for money." Of course, this is not an appropriate statement to lay on them.
It is possible that people rationalize about their motives and do not want to admit the worst of them. When there is not anywhere close to a good argument in the Bible for women being ordained (even to the office of deacon), then one must suspect that even though leaders of seminaries do not want to put this out in front of themselves, they are being motivated by cultural pressures. In addition, there is the financial consideration that a seminary can increase its student body by bringing women there. Many women would say, "Why should I bother going to seminary, if I am not going to be able to use this in the church?" Thus if a seminary is open to the ordination of women, women might see a greater reason to come and study at the seminary.
Q. If a denomination ordains women to the office of deacon, historically should we expect women to be ordained to the office of elder in future years?
A. Again, we have to distinguish between what is logically required and what people will volitionally commit themselves to. That works both ways. Sometimes the position someone takes logically entails something that he refuses to follow after. On the other hand, sometimes people are committed to things that are not logically required by their other commitments at all.
I would say that when you see women being ordained to office as deacons, you have already violated the principles that (1) office involves authority or rule and (2) women are not supposed to have rule over men. If you are willing to violate those principles here, there is nothing to keep you from violating them when it comes to elders either. That doesn't mean everyone who approves women being ordained to the office of deacon will go with the logic of their position. They might, by an act of will, resist drawing that conclusion. As you know, though, over time when a body makes a decision, an initial act of will is not going to keep the body from eventually moving in that direction. My conviction is that we have not only seen this kind of gradualist compromise in the past, but this will prove to be the pattern of compromise in the future over the women's issue. If women are ordained as deacons in a denomination, it would be expected down the line, though people will deny it now, that women would be ordained as elders eventually.
Q. As Scholar-in-Residence for the Southern California Center for Christian Studies, could you comment on the study center's position in this? Do you offer courses that address this issue?
A. We are very concerned at the study center that people learn to think clearly, faithfully, and Biblically. Thus we put great emphasis on exegesis, logic, and systematic theology. We want people to know how to interpret the Bible properly (hermeneutics). Individuals who would like to learn how to handle the Word of God in a faithful way have the opportunity to take relevant courses without moving across country, uprooting their families, church situation, or their jobs. They can study - hopefully in a very competent fashion - subjects like critical thinking, hermeneutics, exegesis, and systematic theology with us.
Q. How can we expect a hermeneutic that allows women to be ordained to influence other areas of Biblical interpretation?
A. Again, the principles that are used in the controversial situation are principles that by extension may be used on other theological questions as well. If we don't get down our methodology (our hermeneutic) and make sure it is sound, then we have left ourselves open in one degree or another to unorthodox conclusions down the line. It is a matter of consistency in our principles.
Sure, many people are willing by an act of volition to engage in using double standards. But that is not pleasing to God. That is having unequal weights and measures, if I might use a metaphor. God requires us to think His thoughts after Him. God is not inconsistent with His principles. Thus consistent hermeneutics is very important.
Q. Can only those interested in pursuing a Master's degree take courses through the study center?
A. No, we offer courses at all levels. We can train students at the high school and college levels as well.
Additionally, as far as I know, we have the least expensive tuition for any competent school of Reformed study in the nation. We do not have artificial deadlines for a student completing the material. We are more interested in a student understanding the material than having it completed by some particular date. Hopefully, we have exemplified by our own output at SCCCS that the kind of work one will do with us is of the highest quality.
Q. Do you utilize video or only audio instruction?
A. We have courses that use different kinds of material. Some courses are all reading courses. Most courses also make use of lecture material on tapes. We do not have any courses that require video usage, although we do have some courses that are available on video.
Q. Do you have women enrolled in courses at the study center?
A. Yes. We are glad to have them study with us, even though we do not prepare women to be officers in the church. Somebody might ask the question, "May a woman teach theology in any setting?" The answer from the Bible should be clear. We do know that Priscilla was very helpful in teaching theology to Apollos. We encourage women to develop their minds and their theological abilities. We give no encouragement to the idea that this can only be for the purpose of their becoming church officers.