By Jared Nelson | November 22, 2021
A few years ago, I conducted a funeral for a godly woman in our congregation. In conversation with friends and family, several people mentioned that she had served as a deacon in our church. This surprised me since we – like other congregations of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) – do not have women deacons. However, our congregation has historical roots first in the mainline United Presbyterian Church USA (UPCUSA) and then in the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod (RPCES). When the topic of our beloved sister’s past service in the congregation has come up, those who knew her well have suggested that she was a deacon either in the UPCUSA or in the RPCES. Such speculations have led me to ask the question: did the RPCES have women deacons?
This question tends to come up in the wake of proposals to replace the PCA’s commitment to a male-only diaconate with the implementation of an egalitarian diaconate of men and women. Even without official action, some PCA churches have moved on the issue by implementing one of three innovative practices: 1) appoint or elect “deaconesses” as unordained commissioned church workers to support the work of ordained male deacons; 2) form an egalitarian group of unordained men and women to serve as “deacons” (or, as members of a so-called “diaconate”); or 3) maintain a separate group of unordained commissioned church workers call “deaconesses,” more or less independent from the ordained male deacons.
When the possibility of women deacons comes up in the PCA, or when one of these three novel ecclesial practices are introduced into the life of a PCA congregation, the precedent of the RPCES will almost inevitably enter the discussion. Some have stated that the RPCES as a whole sanctioned women deacons, or at least allowed for individual congregations to ordain women deacons that were identical with deaconesses. This claim seems to have been popularized recently by Sean Michael Lucas in his treatment of the history of the PCA, For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America (P & R Publishing, 2015). Lucas writes, “the RPCES affirmed the freedom of individual congregations to call and ordain women deacons, or deaconesses” (pg. 326). Though Lucas cites a particularly significant RPCES study report on the role of women in the church, he seems not to have explored the official action which the RPCES took in response to the study report (see under point 2, below).
This has led to some misunderstanding in the PCA that some RPCES congregations brought deaconesses into the PCA through Joining and Receiving. Some go so far as to make mention of a “grandfather clause” incorporated in the terms of Joining and Receiving. The claim here is that the RPCES allowed women deacons, and that congregations were allowed to keep them when they came into the PCA.
With the recent publication of the RPCES General Synod minutes online (through the PCA Historical Center, here), now is the time to put the question to rest. What follows are five important historical facts about the women deacons issue as it developed in the RPCES.
1) The original position of the RPCES in its Form of Government specifically forbade women from serving on a congregation’s Board of Deacons.
While the PCA has a Book of Church Order (BCO), the equivalent standard in the RPCES dealing with polity was called the Form of Government (FoG). The RPCES Form of Government (FoG) read: “II, 11. a. The Board of Deacons shall be composed of the pastor together with the deacons elected by the congregation for active service as such. b. Only men may be ordained to the office of deacon.”
The statement in the original Form of Government, however, is not the end of our study. The RPCES did indeed take up the issue of whether this provision in the FoG needed amendment.
2) In 1976, the RPCES considered allowing the ordination of women into the diaconate.
The RPCES erected a study committee in the mid-1970s to study the role of women in the church. In 1976, the 154th General Synod of the RPCES heard this study report on women in ministry. This study committee made several recommendations, including a recommendation to permit local congregations to ordain women deacons. The report further recommended that the Church allow its agencies to place women on church boards. They read as follows:
(a) that women be permitted the office of deacon within the local church and that they enjoy the same privileges, ordination, and installation that the men deacons have traditionally received and that the Form of Government be appropriately changed. (Specific alterations of the FoG such as those suggested by the Study Committee on the Role of Deacons [see these Minutes, pp. 58-63] would achieve the changes proposed above).
(b) that the agencies be permitted to have women as members of their boards if they modify their by-laws accordingly.”
The RPCES General Assembly considered these two proposals, and a lengthy debate occurred. When the matter came to a vote, however…
3) The RPCES rejected both the proposal for women in the diaconate and the proposal to allow women to serve on denominational agency boards.
This Synod rejected both proposals. In defeating the proposal for women deacons, the General Synod adopted the following statement: “We affirm in the absence of any compelling biblical evidence to support the ordination of women to the special office of deacon, that this office be limited to qualified men.”
The Synod likewise rejected proposal “b” that would have allowed women to serve on denominational boards. Thus, neither of these proposals were sent to the presbyteries for a vote.
Though the RPCES debated the issue of women deacons, they never changed their Form of Government to allow churches to ordain women as deacons. Where then did the idea emerge that the RPCES had women deacons? At the same Assembly, we find:
4) The RPCES General Synod acknowledged and affirmed that local RPCES congregations could have unordained “deaconesses.”
Within the statement cited above affirming “the absence of any compelling biblical evidence to support the ordination of women to the special office of deacon” was also the following sentence: “At the same time acknowledging that the Scriptures contain many examples of women who serve, we affirm the right of a local church to have a separate body of unordained women who may be called deaconesses.”
When considering the issue, we must realize that women deacons and deaconesses were two different positions to the RPCES. Women deacons implied ordination and an egalitarian diaconate. Deaconesses suggested a separate group, more along the lines of a few historical anomalies we find in the early church and Calvin’s Geneva of a separate group given this appellation.
This was not completely satisfactory to many in the RPCES, and the issue came up again over the next two General Synods.
5) The RPCES revisited the issue multiple times, affirming again and again that the office of deacon was open to men only:
The RPCES reaffirmed several times the important distinction between “women deacons” and “deaconesses.” This prompted at least one presbytery to overture the 155th General Synod (1977) with proposals like: “BE IT THEREFORE RESOLVED that the Florida Presbytery expresses the consensus of opinion that churches be permitted to establish deaconesses to be set-apart (be appointed by elders or by election of congregation, but not to be ordained) for special functional duties and/or services within the light of Scripture, especially 1 Timothy 3: II and Acts 6:3.”
The next year (1978) a similar attempt and result occurred, and while the 156th General Synod of the RPCES recognized and tolerated that some churches had a separate group they called deaconesses, it remained clear: this group was not called an office, was forbidden the language of ordination, and was not officially recognized by the Form of Government. Subsequent attempts to ordain women as deacons, and even an attempt to insert a chapter on unordained deaconesses in the Form of Government, failed at subsequent Synods. This means that even though the group called “deaconesses” in some churches in the RPCES was given a General Synod acknowledgement and affirmation, it was never officially recognized in the Standards of the RPCES.
CONCLUSION – Did the RPCES have women deacons?
Let’s first acknowledge that there are two different questions when looking at the historical record: 1) Did the RPCES have women deacons? 2) Did the RPCES have unordained deaconesses?
Did the RPCES have women deacons? The short answer to this question is: no. On several occasions, the RPCES rejected the proposal that the office of deacon be recognized to be an egalitarian office open both to men and to women. By official declaration time and again, the RPCES upheld the biblical position that the office of deacon is open only to men. At the Synodical level, the Church repeatedly rejected proposals to allow local sessions to ordain female deacons.
When Joining and Receiving with the PCA took place, the final form of the RPCES Form of Government read: “II, 11. a. The Board of Deacons shall be composed of the pastor together with the deacons elected by the congregation for active service as such. b. Only men may be ordained to the office of deacon.”
Did the RPCES have unordained deaconesses? The answer is: yes and no. The General Synod did approve a statement on churches having deaconesses. However, this allowance was never formally incorporated into the polity of the RPCES. The Synod did not send it down to the presbyteries for consideration to include it into the denomination’s constitution (i.e., Form of Government). It is most appropriate to qualify this “yes” as an “unofficial yes.” Those presbyters who were in favor of the practice of unordained deaconesses seemed to understand this “yes” as unofficial, as there were failed attempts to recognize officially this unordained group in the RPCES.
Considering the foregoing, how do we understand the statements from the General Synod about deaconesses? Certainly the RPCES recognized that there were women who served the needs of the church throughout history and in the present day, and one of those people in the early church was Phoebe in Romans 16. She was referred to as a “deaconess” or “servant,” and so the RPCES in its General Synod statements concluded that giving women that name was not “unbiblical.” Yet, the Church forbade the ordination of women to an office of the church due to a lack of biblical evidence in favor of ordaining women to the office. In the Church’s words cited above, the Synod concluded that “in the absence of any compelling biblical evidence to support the ordination of women to the special office of deacon, that this office be limited to qualified men.” Thus, the RPCES argued that Christian Liberty is not properly applied to structures or offices of the church.
This record of the Synodical actions of the RPCES provides important context to the ongoing discussion of the place of women in the life of PCA congregations since the RPCES is a part of the history of the PCA. In that shared history, the RPCES thoroughly considered and definitively rejected the proposal that a common group of men and woman should serve together on a diaconate. The RPCES rejected on multiple occasions the proposal that sessions be permitted to ordain women to the office of deacon.
In the process of Joining and Receiving, the RPCES churches coming into the PCA accepted and adopted the PCA’s Constitution, which includes the PCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO). Moreover, there were no grandfathered exemptions or exceptions granted to congregations coming out of the RPCES. The RPCES neither gave “deaconesses” an official status in their standards prior to Joining and Receiving, nor did they reserve any “Grandfathered” status for “deaconesses” after Joining and Receiving.
Ironically, what some wanted (viz. officially recognized “deaconesses”) in the RPCES was more of an official reality in the PCA than in the RPCES. The PCA’s BCO 9-7 allows for Sessions to “select and appoint godly men and women to assist the deacons,” (originally written as just “godly women” but changed and adopted to “men and women” in 1974). One can only surmise that some RPCES congregations understood this to be a legitimate basis for continuing to have women as deacons’ assistants (with official status as “assistants”) serving under the unofficial title of “deaconesses.”
The historical record in the development of our (PCA and RPCES) polity is clear: we have never had an egalitarian office of deacon which entailed the ordination of women. Yet, both the PCA and RPCES have recognized the work and talents of godly women assisting the deacons. In the RPCES, this recognition took form as an unofficial separate group that some in the RPCES churches called “deaconesses.” In the PCA, this recognition was expressed officially in the Church’s Constitution under BCO 9-7 in describing godly women selected and appointed by the session as “deacon assistants.”
RPCES FoG: http://www.pcahistory.org/bco/rpces/FoG.pdf
Discussion on women deacons in RPCES: https://pcahistory.org/rgo/rpces/docsynod/156.html?fbclid=IwAR0eAvyWwrPcgptVaJ0RY6Oic1Upc6OCECwsCZTuciGsav-fcPDNxD9q5Ks
History of BCO 9-7: http://www.pcahistory.org/bco/fog/09/07.html
Minutes of the RPCES: Minutes of the RPCES Synods (pcahistory.org)