This General Assembly has been served by the Committee on Women in Church Office with two reports concerning women and the diaconate. Both offer some fairly extensive exegetical argumentation but reach opposed conclusions: the one (the Committee) that women may not be deacons, the other (the Minority) that they may. However, in neither report, nor in the two taken together, does the basic difference between them—and so perhaps the basic issue before this General Assembly—come out as clearly as it might. (The full Committee did not have an opportunity to consider the report of the Minority; it was not produced until after the Committee report had been submitted for inclusion in the Agenda).

The basic difference between the two reports is not that the one favors while the other is opposed to women deacons. An even deeper difference is diverging conceptions of the diaconate as a (special) office or, correlatively and more specifically, of the authority of the (office of) deacon. For the Committee, women may not be deacons because 1 Timothy 2:12 prohibits women to exercise authority in the church, including the authority inherent in the diaconate; all authority in the church is a function, by covenant-based analogy, of the headship of father/husband in the home. The Minority rejects this position and holds that women may be deacons because the authority of the deacon is “delegated authority, authority exercised under the authority of the elders.” The Committee and Minority differ because they have different conceptions of the authority of the deacon and, in that respect, of the office-character of the diaconate.

The ultimate resolution of this difference lies in Scripture. But what about our Form of Government? It might be said that its position concerning authority/office in relation to the diaconate falls between the Committee and the Minority. But that position is surely closer to the former. On the one hand, the work of the deacons is “under the supervision and authority of the session” (11.5). On the other hand, the Form of Government subsumes the specific offices—ministers, elders, and deacons—under a generic notion of office: officers are those who “have been publicly recognized as called of Christ to minister with authority” (5.2). Nothing here even suggests that the authority of the deacon, unlike that of the minister and elder, is delegated authority; rather, deacons, equally with ministers and elders, have their authority to minister from Christ. In the same vein, the procedures for electing, ordaining, and installing ruling elders and deacons are stipulated together in the same chapter and are identical for both offices: (1) the ordination/installation questions are the same for both (25.6.b), and, correspondingly, (2) the congregation promises obedience, without qualification as to its character as obedience, to deacons as well as ruling elders (25.6.c, 6.e, 7.c). Considered from the side of the congregation, and the obedience/submission asked (and required) of it, the authority of ruling elders and deacons is equal and parallel.

Conclusion: What recommendation 2 of the Minority[2] intends, in detail, is not made clear. What is clear is its effect, if adopted. To revise the Form of Government to provide for women deacons will necessitate as well revising its underlying conception of the nature and authority of office. The General Assembly should recognize that—measured by the existing understanding of diaconal authority in the Form of Government—to “open the office of deacon to qualified women” would bring the OPC into conflict with its subordinate standard of government. Scripture is our final standard and wherever it leads we are bound to follow, but we need to be aware of the full dimensions of the revision demanded to avoid conflict in our Form of Government and to be sure that Scripture really does demand such revision.

It has not been my purpose here to debate the report of the Minority. But several further observations do seem in order in light of the preceding comments.

1. (a) Can we be sure that the exercise of (official) authority prohibited to women in 1 Timothy 2:12 is neatly restricted to teaching and closely related ruling? After all, in terms of the verse itself and its syntax, the prohibited exercise of authority over men is made without qualification and, further, is parallel in addition to the prohibition against teaching. The semantics of that syntax are open to interpretation, but the Minority has not addressed that question.

(b) Also, if, as the Minority holds, the authority of headship is not at issue for the office of deacon, why then does Paul stipulate that a deacon must lead/rule/manage his household well (1 Tim. 3:12)—essentially identical to the parallel requirement for overseers (vss. 4–5)? If headship is not at stake in the diaconate, why single out proven headship in the home as a requirement for deacons (as well as elders)—especially since, on the assumption that headship is not at stake, their worthiness for office could be adequately established by other criteria?

2. The Minority makes extensive use of the views of J. Van Bruggen, but does not follow them consistently. The tendency of those views, based on his exegesis of the New Testament, is to break the close bond between overseers (ministers and elders) and deacons characteristic of Reformed church orders—so much so that the office of deacon (as an authoritative, ordained function) disappears; for instance, in setting out his own view, as far as I can discover, he never uses the word “office” (Dutch ambt) for deacons. Apparently, there is really only one office in the church today—that of overseer; all other organized, structured ministry, including the diaconate, exists—without need of ordination—by appointment of the overseers and under their direction.[3] In other words, in relation to the diaconate, Van Bruggen has freed himself from the issue of authority that continues to burden the Minority in his effort to argue for women in the office of deacon.

Van Bruggen’s position on women deacons—in the context of his stimulating, carefully argued work on offices in the apostolic church—merits the thoughtful consideration of the larger Reformed community. But in his laudable attempt to remove deacons out from under the eclipsing shadow of the overseers, it seems to me, he has failed to do justice to the unique bond between the two, as a permanent church order, found in Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3, and reflected elsewhere in the New Testament.

3. An overriding fear for me is that those who favor ordaining women to the office of deacon will suppose that thereby a victory has been gained for women, and their full and rightful participation in the life of the church at last secured. I suspect that the effect of such “victory,” rather, will be to limit that participation and inhibit it from being as full as it ought to be. 1 Peter 4:10–11 gives clear profile to the dual principle of ministry (the gospel in word and deed) for all believers, men and women alike—a principle that the dual office structure (elders and deacons) exists, in part, to facilitate by the leadership it gives.[4] In my judgment, only when the issue of women’s role in the church is no longer encumbered with the question of ordination and office will the church make headway, on the principle of 1 Peter 4:10–11, toward realizing an optimum exercise of gifts given to women—for showing mercy, yes, but for administering and teaching in the church as well.


[1] From the Report of the Committee on Women in Church Office [extracted from the Minutes of the Fifty-fifth General Assembly (1988), 353–55].

[2] That a committee of three be appointed by the moderator to report to the 56th General Assembly concerning what amendments to the Form of Government would be required in order to open the office of deacon to qualified women, and how such amendments could most helpfully be put before the church for consideration.

[3] See, e.g., the summary paragraph in J. Van Bruggen, Ambten in de apostolische kerk: een exegetisch mozaïek (Kampen, NL: Kok, 1984), 117.

[4] See the fuller treatment of this passage in the Report, IV. Women and General Office, A. Biblical Teaching on the Identity of Women, 2.

Richard B. Gaffin Jr. is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and emeritus professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. He lives in Springfield, Virginia and attends Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia. Ordained Servant Online, February 2021.

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Ordained Servant: February 2021

Women and Office

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