Köstenberger on Women Deacons

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It's somewhat unusual to see a complementarian arguing for women deacons, but see Andreas Köstenberger's arguments here. I'm earnestly awaiting his commentary on the pastoral epistles. Two of the most important academic commentaries on those books are by complementarians (George W. Knight in the NIGTC and William Mounce in the WBC), but the best introductory level commentaries have largely been by egalitarians who seem to me to take positions at odds with the text (e.g. Gordon Fee's NIBC, Philip Towner's IVPNTC, the forthcoming Cornerstone by Linda Belleville; I must admit that what I read from Walter Liefeld's NIVAC does justice to the complementarian position and doesn't push egalitarianism very strongly). John Stott (BST) and Kent Hughes and Brian Chapell (PTW) are the exceptions, but they aren't primarily scholars but pastors, and these works are more sermonic/homiletic than commentary. Köstenberger is really on the forefront of the scholarly debate, and I think he's done some of the best work on the issue.

12 Comments

I don't understand how anyone can argue against deaconesses, regardless of your overall view. Besides Phoebe (Romans 16:1), it is a simple historical fact that there were deaconesses in the first few centuries of the Christian Church. One of the early Fathers (I don't have my book with me now, so I can't tell you who or when) even says that we should appoint deaconesses to minister to women to avoid any charge of impropriety against the male presbyters (how very modern). There are powerful arguments, I think, that we need to maintain the form of church government outlined in the New Testament, including the related statements on gender roles within the Church. But what on earth could justify making GREATER restrictions on the ministry positions of women than those that existed in the first century?

Oh, but many congregations insist on keeping the office of deaconess separate from the office of deacon. Either that or they won't even make it an office. It's rare to see complementarians simply calling women deacons.

Also, it's not that they think they're restricting more than the NT offices were restricted. It's that they think the NT office of deacon was restricted to men.

I may be way off but isn't another one of the issues that some people think that the current office of deacon today is far different than the NT idea.

Well, there is something like that. Some people have an office they call deacon, and it's more like the elder/overseer role in th NT. In that case, then complementarians who think the NT elder should be restricted to men will think deacons in such congregations ought to be restricted to men. That wasn't what I meant, though.

Quotes from the article:
"In fact, this is a great opportunity to show that those who are conservative on the so-called “women’s issue” are not against women in ministry as is sometimes alleged but that they affirm the legitimate ministry of women."

Yeah, but we already know that complementarians recognize the legitimate ministry of women is to help the male leaders, teach other women under the ultimate leadership of men, or do non-influential "helping" activities. There's no need to affirm this any more. I get it. Is there anyone who doesn't get it?

"Why should male deacons be affirmed, acknowledged, and recognized for their service but not women who render the same kinds of service?"

Of course, even at a deacon level, male and female deacons don't "render the same kinds of service".

My complementarian church has female deacons. What this means in most cases is that the woman deacon serves as a secretary to a male elder. They "help", "keep track of" or "assist".

Male deacons generally "oversee", "manage" or "administrate" something.

My pastor is very proud of his deacon-secretaries. He thinks it makes him look progressive and respectful of women.

Women have been valuable at "helping", "keeping track of" and "assisting" for years.

I guess the scary thing about Andreas Kostenberger is that he is affirming the idea of giving women an official title which might deceive someone into thinking that they have some sort of authority. It would be safer to call a secretary a "secretary", but if Kostenberger wants to live on the wild side, I'm certainly not going to stop him.

And here's my favorite quote:
"Also, by resisting to appoint women deacons, the church deprives itself of valuable ministry."

Complementarians are anything if not practical.

Yeah, but we already know that complementarians recognize the legitimate ministry of women is to help the male leaders, teach other women under the ultimate leadership of men, or do non-influential "helping" activities. There's no need to affirm this any more. I get it. Is there anyone who doesn't get it?

You severely demean the ministry of many believers, both brothers and sisters, by calling helping ministries non-influential. The main point of I Cor 12 is that all ministries resulting from gifts that help build the church are influential. Paul doesn't take tongues as a private prayer language to be in that category, but all the other gifts he discusses are influencing gifts. They build the church in some manner or other. Acting as if helping ministries do not do that is the very sort of problem he wanted to confront. It's a common debating tactic among egalitarians, but it stems from an unbiblical attitude of favoring certain ministries and gifts as valuable and others as unimportant.

As I've said many, many times before, including in a conversation with you on another post at this blog [see the August 12, 2006 8:49 AM comment], there are plenty of complementarians who have no problem with women doing things that in some sense teach men, as long as it is not authoritative. This ranges from Craig Blomberg and Gordon Hugenberger, who will allow women to preach as long as it is under a male authority to those like my congregation who will not allow that but who do allow the reading of psalms with some introductory comments, public testimonies by women during the sharing time, and ordinary, everyday teaching ministries like reminding someone of the truth or confronting someone with the truth on a personal level. An in-between position allows women to co-lead Bible studies with men, with both doing teaching. Wherever a complementarian congregation falls on that spectrum, there's simply no legitimate way to get around Paul's allowance of women to prophesy in public meetings, which counts as a kind of teaching, just not an authoritative kind.

So apparently there are people who "don't get it". You seem to be one of them.

Of course, even at a deacon level, male and female deacons don't "render the same kinds of service". My complementarian church has female deacons. What this means in most cases is that the woman deacon serves as a secretary to a male elder. They "help", "keep track of" or "assist". Male deacons generally "oversee", "manage" or "administrate" something. My pastor is very proud of his deacon-secretaries. He thinks it makes him look progressive and respectful of women. Women have been valuable at "helping", "keeping track of" and "assisting" for years.

Interesting argument:

1. My congregation allows women deacons.
2. My congregation does X.
3. Therefore any congregation that has or allows women deacons must do X.

Well, it turns out my congregation has three deacons. One is a woman, and the other two are men. There are differences in the ministries the three do, but there are two reasons, and neither has anything to do with assigning different tasks to male deacons than we assign to women deacons. One is that some are skilled or assigned certain tasks because of abilities. One is the treasurer, for example, and he does certain things the others don't because of that job. It doesn't have anything to do with being a male deacon rather than a female deacon, and it isn't a teaching or authoritative task anyway. When he took a sabbatical, a woman did that job. Both of the men give communion meditations, and the two men who are deacons are in that group. But most of the men in the church do that, including ones with no official office, with officers only tending to do it more often than others. That's not a deacon task but something most of the men in the church take turns doing.

Other than those two things, which have nothing to do with being a male deacon or being a female deacon, the tasks the three deacons largely have nothing at all to do with whether they are male or female. They take turns running special events like our Easter brunch, retreats, ongoing ministries to the needy, one-time ministries to the needy, and all the things you would expect of deacons. Our one deacon who happens to be a woman usually volunteers to handle tasks that a woman might be more appropriate for, such as ministering to women's needs in a more personal way or taking on ministries that are a benefit mostly to women. She also doesn't work full-time and has a lot more time to minister to women during the day if they are stay-home moms. But that isn't the sort of thing that you're talking about. You're talking about giving women deacons very different kinds of tasks entirely, and that doesn't happen among the deacons in my congregation.

So your claim is simply false. Complementarian churches with women deacons do not assign their deacons different tasks as deacons simply for being men and women. The main exceptions to this are churches that call their elders deacons, which is a mistake to begin with. I know plenty of those churches, but basing your argument on those just mistakes what a deacon is.

I guess the scary thing about Andreas Kostenberger is that he is affirming the idea of giving women an official title which might deceive someone into thinking that they have some sort of authority. It would be safer to call a secretary a "secretary", but if Kostenberger wants to live on the wild side, I'm certainly not going to stop him.

If anything of this is true, it is inadvertent as a result of other people wrongly interpreting the Bible on other matters. Speaking the truth on one matter sometimes does allow people to make the mistake of misinterpreting something else to take the first truth out of context or misuse it in some way. Does that excuse the sin of not teaching what the Bible says? I sure hope you don't think that, but you seem to be accusing him of not hiding what the Bible says on the grounds that some might misunderstand what the Bible says if they don't understand something else.

But the fact is that Kostenberger even bothers to correct that misunderstanding on the other issue anyway. He points out in his post that deacons have no governing role in the NT. So the potential misunderstanding that you're accusing him of allowing cannot happen if people read his whole post. He's gone far enough to give reasons to resist that misunderstanding. So I think your charge is profoundly unfair.

Complementarians are anything if not practical.

As long as it doesn't interfere with biblical principles, practicality seems to be an extremely good thing that congregations ought to strive for. It's driving some of what Paul says at the end of I Corinthians, and it's especially prominent throughout Proverbs. I assume you've got some unstated insinuation going on here, but since you didn't bother to say it I don't feel a need to respond to it. I'll simply take it as the good, positive statement that it appears to be at face value.

You say:
"You severely demean the ministry of many believers, both brothers and sisters, by calling helping ministries non-influential."

I said that women are assigned non-influential helping ministries. I did not say that all helping ministries are non-influential.

You say:"Complementarian churches with women deacons do not assign their deacons different tasks as deacons simply for being men and women"

Except, apparently, for my highly influential mega-church, with its influential pastor and church-planting ministry, etc, etc.

You say: "But the fact is that Kostenberger even bothers to correct that misunderstanding on the other issue anyway. He points out in his post that deacons have no governing role in the NT. So the potential misunderstanding that you're accusing him of allowing cannot happen if people read his whole post. He's gone far enough to give reasons to resist that misunderstanding. So I think your charge is profoundly unfair."

If the deacons have no governing role in the church, then the role of deacon is really just an arbitrary title/office that could be applied to virtually any sort of helpful, non-governing person in the church in order to suit the needs of the elders. I suppose that is why there is such a great variety of duties and types of deacons.

If that is the case, then the position of deacon does not seem particularly interesting, and it's perfectly logical for the secretaries at my church to be called deacons. The whole issue hardly merits much discussion in the first place.

But I suppose that Kostenberger, being a bible scholar, had to mention it for the sake of thoroughness.

I repeat: The fact that your church does something is not sufficient evidence for the claim that complementarian churches as a whole will always do the same thing, especially given the fact that I've already stated that my church endorses complementarian views and does something very different. Therefore, it is not simply for being complementarians that you end up with a situation like what your church does. Complementarianism doesn't entail that. They've adopted some further (and very strange) view about what deacons are. Thus it is inappropriate to complain that complementarianism leads to such a practice or that a biblical scholar who presents Kostenberger's view is giving permission for such a practice. The problem you point out is a problem, but it is a problem in that view of what deacons do, not in the complementarianism that they also affirm.

Deacons do have some oversight of ministries. They just leading in the way that only elders do, which is what is usually meant by governing. Some churches call elders deacons and then call deacons trustees. But the trustees are carrying out the deacon function, and the deacons are carrying out the elder function. Complementarians will not generally have women deacons in such cases, unless they take the Blomberg/Hugenberger view that women elders are fine as long as the head elder is male.

But if deacons are what they are in the NT then they are not elders, and they do not have the elder task of spiritual leadership in the way that elders do. The elders are the spiritual leaders of the church in the NT. The deacons oversee ministries on the level of more basic physical needs. It is not an arbitrary title assigned to just anyone. It is an office of the church, which means the people occupying that role must fit the requirements given in Titus and I Timothy for the diaconate. The people occupying that role must also be overseeing the kinds of ministries in question. It is not perfectly logical to call a secretary a deacon unless the secretary is overseeing a staff of secretaries (or others who serve in a similar way), meeting with other deacons as a team to discuss the overall tasks of the deacon team, and taking part in the deliberations such a team must make in order to carry out their team's tasks. Otherwise the secretary is someone the deacons would oversee and not a deacon.

In Jeremy's congregation "Both of the men give communion meditations, and the two men who are deacons are in that group. But most of the men in the church do that, including ones with no official office, with officers only tending to do it more often than others. That's not a deacon task but something most of the men in the church take turns doing." But the woman deacon, despite having an official office, does not get to do this. OK, this may not be a part of the biblical or traditional ministry of a deacon, whatever that might be. But it is still a matter of giving different tasks to men deacons than to women deacons, and it is still discriminatory and offensive to women.

Peter, it is not giving different tasks to different deacons because they are male deacons and female deacons. It is giving different tasks to different members of the congregation. Being deacons have nothing to do with it. I counted 24 names on the list of those who were assigned communion meditations for the last nine months. Only three on the list are elders, and only two are deacons. Most gave two meditations during that period, but a little fewer than half, including me, gave just one. No one on the list gave more than two. This is a task that the men of the church split fairly evenly. The reason the one deacon who is a woman doesn't do communion meditations has nothing to do with her being a female deacon. It has to do with her being a woman. Being a deacon is irrelevant. It's not as if there are all these extra tasks that men take on when they're deacons that women don't have when they're deacons. I can't think of even one such task, never mind the whole bunch Tosca seems to have in mind.

You can question complementarian views on whether women should give communion meditations, but that's not what this conversation is about. Given complementarianism, women aren't going to give communion meditations unless you have a modified complementarianism like the Blomberg/Hugenberger view. My point is that holding the Kostenberger view on female deacons doesn't mean you have certain deacon tasks for male deacons and then very different deacon tasks for female deacons. That's what Tosca's church does that I'm saying complementarianism need not do. Tosca's argument was that complementarians will do this if given the idea that women can be deacons, and it's simply not the case. That does not follow from the view Kostenberger is presenting.

As for discrimination, there's nothing wrong with discrimination in itself. Discrimination is only wrong when there's no good reason to do it (or especially when there's a good reason not to do it). As an egalitarian, you happen to think that's the case here. But complementarians don't grant that assumption. If complementarians are right, then there is a good reason to discriminate, and thus it doesn't count as wrongful discrimination but turns out to be morally justified, even obligatory, discrimination. So moving from the fact of discrimination to the conclusion of wrongness is question-begging. It assumes the complementarian view to be false from the outset.

We'd have to go back to the beginning to discuss those issues, but that's not something I'm doing in this post, which isn't about whether complementarian views on teaching and having authority are the correct views. It is about whether complementarians ought to restrict the diaconate to men. Kostenberger says no, and I agree. It is no objection to that to say that some complementarians have a very odd view of what deacons are and then to claim that Kostenberger is giving permission to act on such a weird view, as if complementarianism entails such action.

You say: "But if deacons are what they are in the NT then they are not elders, and they do not have the elder task of spiritual leadership in the way that elders do. The elders are the spiritual leaders of the church in the NT. The deacons oversee ministries on the level of more basic physical needs."

What an extraordinarily complicated situation is created here.

You believe the office of deacon requires:
1. A position of oversight but not "governing" oversight.
2. A ministry for "basic physical needs", with a limited degree of spiritual oversight, or, presumably, influence.
3. Full compliance with complementarian principles for women, but an attempt to create equitable roles for female and male deacons, in order to avoid the "secretary syndrome".

You said: "My point is that holding the Kostenberger view on female deacons doesn't mean you have certain deacon tasks for male deacons and then very different deacon tasks for female deacons."

Your point is that the presence of women deacons must shape the definitions and tasks of the office of deacon itself. The role of deacons is determined, in the minds of certain complementarians, simply by the presence of a NT female deacon, Phoebe.

Otherwise, the verses discussing deacons give an IMPRESSION that deacons will be authoritative leaders in the church, and therefore are held to certain standards as models to the church community.

Kostenberger: "Paul’s mention of women deacons coheres well with his earlier prohibition of women serving in teaching or ruling functions over men (1 Tim. 2:12) and his lack of mention of women elders in 1 Tim. 3:1-7."

A conservative complementarian church with female deacons must have a highly restricted definition of the office, in order to appear equitable to both male and female deacons.

A more "progressive" complementarian church will have a looser definition of what all of their deacons may do.

Since the tasks of deacons are undefined in scripture, there is no conflict in each church determining what their deacons will do. The result is that a complementarian church can have deacons that have an extremely small and restricted leadership role (versus churches with very influential deacons) and still be able to claim to have female deacons.

The kind of governing that elders do that no one else does is teaching in an authoritative way and providing direction to the congregation. Deacons do not do that. That doesn't mean there's nothing for them to oversee. That's not very complicated.

There are no male and female deacon tasks. I didn't say that the reason for that is to avoid the secretary syndrome. The reason for that is that they are both deacons, and deacons are not male-only positions. The secretary syndrome is an inappropriate pretense of having female deacons. But the point of having male and female deacons with similar tasks is not to avoid the wrong way to do it. It's because that's what deacons are.

Otherwise, the verses discussing deacons give an IMPRESSION that deacons will be authoritative leaders in the church, and therefore are held to certain standards as models to the church community.

What do you mean by saying this is otherwise true? It's true period. Deacons have authority as officers in the church. But it's not the authoritative teaching or spiritual direction that they elders provide. You're acting as if there's no sense of authority over anything if it's not the authoritative teaching or spiritual direction of elders.

A conservative complementarian church with female deacons must have a highly restricted definition of the office, in order to appear equitable to both male and female deacons.

I think I've demonstrated that this doesn't follow.

A more "progressive" complementarian church will have a looser definition of what all of their deacons may do.

A more "progressive" complementarian view shouldn't make any difference whether the deacons will have additional tasks. The difference is whether women in the church in general will have roles like teaching the scriptures to the whole congregation or serving as elders. The Blomberg/Stott/Hugenberger view will allow for that. It doesn't change what deacons do in their role as deacons.

I never said that a church might not do what you describe. My point is that it need not. You were acting as if Kostenberger's view gives permission for a church to do that, and I've been arguing that it doesn't follow from his view that that's what should be done. Nothing he said by itself allows for that. You need to add several other claims, at least one of which he seems not to endorse, since he explicitly rules it out in the very post we're discussing (and I think in his commentary even moreso).

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