Why We Do It
So here we are once again doing one of the most fundamental things we should be doing as a body of Christ: calling out, ordaining, and installing individuals for service in the kingdom of God. Having this particular service on the first Sunday of the New Year has become one of the times I look forward to most. Between this week and what next week will be are going to start this New Year by being the church and then celebrating all the things that has accomplished. Speaking of that, I know I’ve said it before, but you will not want to miss next week. It will be a great Sunday to be here and to bring as many friends and neighbors and even family members as you can beat out of the bushes. We are going to have a ton of fun, we’re going to give away some neat prizes, and hear some really powerful stories of the ways God has been at work in our midst the past year.
In any event, this morning we have already had the pleasure of ordaining and installing our four new deacon candidates and now that they are committed, I’m going to preach at them for a bit. Just kidding! Each of the last several years, though, at about this time, I have taken a few minutes to look closely at a passage of Scripture with you to examine the nature of deacon ministry and why we do it the way that we do. This year I want to do the same thing, but from a bit broader a perspective. I want to look at a few different places in the Scriptures with you this morning in order to sketch out a broader context for why we do things the way we do here at Central especially when it comes to deacons and especially when it comes to having women serve as deacons. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, understanding why we are doing the things we are doing is really important if someone is going to be a well-informed, committed, fully functional member of the body here. Second, deacon ministry is something that every church practices in some capacity and I want you to be able to reasonably explain to both a person from another church who does it differently, but also to someone who’s not connected to any church, the whys and hows of our practice here. Third, this is something that I’ve been asked about several times over the past few months (including from some of the youth) and this struck me as as good a time as any to address it. With all that being said, grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures and start finding your way to 1 Corinthians 11. We’ll spend most of our time there and in 1 Timothy 2 this morning, but before we get there I want to sketch a bit of context for you.
The first thing we need to note here is that the place of women in the early church was jarringly different from their place in the broader culture. When the disciples were gathered in the upper room on the day of Pentecost, awaiting the arrival of the Holy Spirit, after Jesus had been resurrected and had returned to the Father’s right hand, the group was 120 folks in size and included both men and women. Both men and women received the Holy Spirit together and began serving together.
Well, after some big, initial successes, the first church in Jerusalem started experiencing some ministry growing pains. The problem was, if the apostles stopped what they were doing to deal with it, the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead—which was the engine of the church—was going to suffer. As a result, they created a new position in the church to be tasked with handling its day-to-day pastoral care ministries.
They took the name for this new position from a word that was traditionally associated with someone who waited on tables as at a restaurant. At restaurants today we call them servers. In Koine Greek they called them diakonos. Today in churches we call them deacons. And so we’ve talked about this before: the position of deacon was created so that members of the body who were recognized by the whole as sufficiently equipped for such a thing could take the lead in the service ministries of the church so that the leaders of the body could give their full focus to the things only they could do without having to worry about aspects of the ministry that somebody else could do.
Now, the first seven deacons (a number probably chosen for its symbolic importance) were men, but this is descriptive rather than prescriptive and for the first couple of hundred years of the church men and women were equally involved in just nearly all of its offices and functions. We can see some evidence for this in the New Testament itself. We see Paul specifically refer to a woman—Phoebe—as a deacon in his letter to the believers in Rome. As a matter of fact—and this is a rare place where I don’t think the ESV translation is the best out there—Paul even refers to a woman, Junia, as an apostle a few verses later. He says that Junia and her husband, Andronicus, are excellent among the apostles. Now, maybe he’s simply referring to the fact that they had the gift of apostleship (which roughly amounts to what we might call today a church planter) instead of their being apostles after the manner of himself, but that’s not what he says. And culturally, for him to list them in this way would have signaled an equality of role within the church body. In addition to this we see various other women serving in important capacities in the early church. Priscilla and Aquila—routinely mentioned in that order which would have been very noteworthy in that culture—were a prominent missionary couple with a powerful teaching ministry. Their most famous student was Apollos, was became another prominent teacher and apologist for the early church movement. There was also Lydia, a wealthy woman who owned a purple dye business in Philippi, was one of the first converts in Europe, and ultimately hosted a church in her home. The point to all of this is that women played a key role in the earliest church and we don’t see many limitations as to what exactly that role was.
But, before some of your heads explode let me go ahead and acknowledge that there are perhaps some folks in the room who have nagging, “but what about’s” getting ready to erupt if they aren’t addressed soon. So let’s address some of these. The fact is that in spite of the culturally remarkable equality of value and to a certain extent of role in the early church, there are some words from Paul about women and their place in the church that are downright hard. We don’t have time to deal with most of these, but we are going to look at a representative sample that is particularly relevant to our purposes for this morning. And while there are a number of theological rabbit trails we could chase here, I want to keep our focus pretty tight. At last, then, let’s turn our attention to 1 Corinthians 11.
Paul’s big topic starting here and running for the next several chapters is proper order in the worship setting. More to the point: he’s not talking about the role and function of women in the church more broadly. Still, in the context of offering some culturally specific advice about how women should present themselves in the church, he says something worth noting for our purposes this morning. At first read it sounds like he’s just being hateful to women. But if you think for a minute about what he’s saying, you discover something that usually goes entirely overlooked.
Listen to this starting at v. 5: “…but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven.” Again, huh? The command is hard and seems strange, yes, but look a bit closer and see what Paul is assuming here. Paul assumes that women—and married women in particular—are not just praying, but prophesying in the worship setting. If Paul just mentioned women praying in a worship service that would be one thing—no controversy there. But prophesying is a different animal. Prophesying for them was somewhat akin to what preaching is for us. Prophesying is conveying the words of God to His people; it’s speaking on behalf of God to His people. The exact message is obviously going to vary depending on what God has to say, but if the prophecy is legitimate it carries the weight of authority. Moreover, Paul doesn’t say anything about the gendered make-up of this group in which women are praying and prophesying. There’s no reason not to think this was a co-ed group.
Keep all of that in mind and flip over a couple of pages with me to the end of Paul’s discussion of proper order in the worship setting where he comes back to the issue of what role women should play in it. In 1 Corinthians 14:33 and following Paul infamously writes: “As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says.” But wait! Didn’t Paul just assume non-judgmentally that women were actively praying and prophesying in the worship setting? That kind of thing necessarily involves speaking. So what’s going on here? Nothing that sound principles of biblical interpretation can’t handle. When the words of a passage themselves don’t seem to give us any help we have to look to the context to figure out what’s happening.
In this case, the context does not indicate that in v. 34 Paul was making a universal prohibition on women making any noise in worship. If that were the case there wouldn’t be any Scripturally faithful churches around today, least of all us. Paul was probably speaking to a specific situation where because of the culture they brought into the church with them some women in the church in Corinth were causing disruptions during worship that were keeping people from fully engaging with the message of the teacher. More on that another time. The point to these couple of passages from 1 Corinthians, though, is that Paul assumed an active voice and even teaching role for women within the context of at least the worship service and if there then arguably in more places. Let’s keep that in mind as we move forward.
A few years after his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul wrote to his young protégé, Timothy, who was pastoring in Ephesus. In the first letter Paul wrote to Timothy he focused on giving him a lot of intensely practical advice for leading a church well and keeping it from falling to one or another of the heresies common in that day. In 1 Timothy 2, like 1 Corinthians 11-14, Paul deals again with the issue of proper order in the worship setting. And here again Paul offers some hard words that have tended to have even more of an impact on how some churches today understand the role of women in churches than do his words to the Corinthian church. Listen to this starting at v. 11: “Let a woman learn [by the way, that’s a command there—women should be learning—which would have once again been a significant departure from cultural norms] quietly with all submissiveness [as before, Paul doesn’t mean “silent”]. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.”
So obviously here Paul is again jumping with both feet on women from his woman-hating perch. No, he’s not. But, there are nonetheless many biblically-sound, theologically-orthodox, kingdom-advancing churches who understand Paul’s words here to mean that women should not be teaching men (solo-gender groups, youth, and kids are okay), and that they shouldn’t be in any kind of position in which they might have authority over men (including having the title “pastor” and in many cases serving as a deacon). So who’s right? Well, this may sound like I’m equivocating a bit, but my purpose this morning is not to try and sort that out. It’s to explain why we do what we do. Here, then, is how I understand what Paul’s saying and why I think this points to the fact that we’re on track with his instructions.
The real thorny point here is v. 12. When you read various English translations it seems pretty clear. Paul is instructing that women are not to teach men nor to exercise authority over them. But, English translations are not our gold standard as far as trying to understand what Paul was saying goes. Paul didn’t write in English and when you translate something from its original language to another it is often all but impossible to not lose at least a little something from the original. For instance, when filmmakers were translating its title the movie Airplane was sold to German audiences as The Unbelievable Trip in a Wacky Aeroplane. German audiences also got to watch Floppy Coppers Don’t Bite instead of Dragnet. As Good As It Gets in Chinese became Mr. Cat Poop. So you see, you have to be careful with translations. Now, this isn’t at all to say you can’t still place a great deal of trust in the fact that when you read your Bibles at home you are really reading of what Paul wrote or John wrote or Peter wrote or any of those guys. I know some of the guys on the translation committee for the NIV in particular and they spend a ton of time debating things that might seem to most of us to be silly minutiae to even care about, but their efforts reveal how committed they are to making sure the English translation is as faithful to the original Greek and Hebrew as they can get it. My point here is rather that when we come upon tough passages like this relying solely on English translations may not give us all the help we need.
In this case, when you examine the language and grammar Paul actually used, the picture changes just a bit. When Paul says “I do not permit,” it seems like he’s giving a command, right? Well, there is a verbal form in Greek used for giving commands and which Paul uses pretty consistently when he’s giving commands elsewhere in his writings. It’s called the imperative mood—as in, it’s imperative that you do what I’m telling you. Paul doesn’t use that here. He uses what’s called the infinitive. This should still be understood to be a command—the context indicates as much—but if he was intending to give a hard, fast set of instructions that were to last for all time…why didn’t he use the verbal form that would have made that obvious?
There’s also this: at a glance it appears Paul is prohibiting two different activities here on the part of women—teaching men and exercising authority over men. But, in Greek grammar, there is a literary device called a hendiadys in which an author says something and then goes on to include two or more words or phrases joined usually by “and” but also by other conjunctions such as “or,” which may be different from and even contrasting with one another but which are nonetheless both designed to modify the original phrase. Let me give you an example: On occasion our big boys fight with each other. For those of you who have had much interaction with them you know that Josiah is often the one who swings first. Noah, on the other hand, is the one who comes telling on his brother first. Well, one of the ways Noah expresses that Josiah has hit him—in hopes of getting him in the most trouble possible—is that Josiah has hit him good and hard. This is a hendiadys. Noah is not trying to say that Josiah hit him twice (although he may have…), once good and once hard. He’s expressing that Josiah hit him very hard.
Let me get to the point: Paul is very likely using a hendiadys here—as he has already done several times in this same context—such that what he is doing is not prohibiting two different activities on the part of women, but rather a single activity that might be best termed “authoritative teaching.” Well then…what’s authoritative teaching? That’s not exactly clear. Many folks take it to be the kind of exercise of authority and teaching that are often associated with the position of overseer or elder which Paul describes in the next several verses. Okay…but what exactly is an “overseer” or “elder”? Even that’s not exactly clear, but there is general agreement that such a person is the senior leader of a church. In most Baptist churches that would be understood to be the senior pastor. Churches with different (and I would argue equally biblical) understandings of how the church should be administered, though, will understand that office differently and thus may have women serving as lead pastor and doing the lion’s share of the preaching and still be operating consistently with Paul’s instructions here.
More importantly, perhaps, in light of what we are about this morning, this means that women serving as deacons is fully consistent with the vision of the church Paul lays out here and the larger practice of the church in the New Testament. While Paul seems to be limiting the position of senior pastor to men he does no such thing when it comes to the position of deacon. What Paul writes about women a few verses over when offering qualifications for deacons most probably lends itself to this understanding as well for several reasons that there is simply not time this morning to unpack in detail. Indeed, as my own New Testament professor wrote a few years ago: “Until Catholicism developed its monastic orders, somewhat as a substitute, deaconesses served almost universally throughout the early church. Parts of their ministries overlapped with the work of male deacons, while some of their other tasks were forbidden to men—for example, the visitation, pastoral care, catechizing, and superintending the baptism of other women.” All of that is to say this: I think that at Central we are on track with the vision for ministry Paul lays out here both in terms of the way we approach deacon ministry as well as the larger issue of the role of women in ministry.
Let me draw all of this down to a close, though, by saying this: What all of this calls for on our part is not arrogance and an unwillingness to work and worship alongside folks who do not understand all of this as we do, but a big, heaping dose of humility and grace. The fact is, Paul may not be using a hendiadys here in which case churches which hold to a more male-dominated leadership structure than we do are right. I don’t think that’s the case, but both that person and I can make our arguments from the belief that every word of the Bible is true and with a sincere desire to see all of Scripture accurately applied to all of our lives. I personally believe the position of senior pastor—at least in a congregationally structured church like ours—should be limited to men based on what Paul says here, but that’s the only position with any limits on it and even as I say that I must confess a personal struggle with the idea since a good friend of mine—the woman in fact who is most directly responsible for my going into ministry in the first place and who played at least a small role in Lisa and I getting together such that if you like having us and our family here you should send her a thank you note—is the senior pastor of a Baptist church south of Charlottesville. As I understand what Paul is saying here, I don’t think her situation is consistent with it. But, even as I acknowledge that, I also have to acknowledge that she is leading her church to effectively have an impact on their community for the kingdom.
This just brings me back to what I said a second ago: the best attitude we can have to all of this is one of humility and grace. On the one hand, we must endeavor to get this issue right because we believe the Bible matters and that if we stick with what it says we will be the most effective agents for God’s kingdom that we can be. But on the other hand, we must also make sure that our focus doesn’t get so stuck on a nonessential issue such as this one that we lose the ability to work with other local bodies of Christ and even other believers within the body we are currently ministering on the larger goal of advancing the kingdom. If we lose that, it won’t matter what our position on women serving as deacons is because we won’t be headed in the right direction anyway.
God is doing some big things at Central right now—we’re going to celebrate some of those next week and you won’t want to miss it—and while we still have work to do I think our ministry structure, at least when it comes to our deacons, has us in the best position possible to maximize on His work. But our position on women serving as deacons isn’t what’s driving His work, it’s our commitment to creating a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ. That’s who God created us to be and—to close with a bit of a wordy hendiadys—the more we become that church the more fruit we’ll be able to enjoy together, and as long as we keep that as our chief goal it’s exactly what we’re going to see happen.