The Diaconate - A Ruling Task Women Deacons or Women Rulers
The debate surrounding women in church office is complex and summons varied responses. Here, however, this particular issue will be addressed: should women be ordained as deacons? Let us state from the outset that women ought not to be ordained as deacons primarily because Scripture places the official (having to do with office) responsibility of the diaconal task in the hands of the eldership. In so doing the Lord teaches that the diaconal task is, in its essence, part of ruling the church and that those who fulfill it in an official way exercise a degree of rule over the church. Inasmuch as we believe Scripture explicitly forbids women to rule in the church we believe women ought not to rule by being ordained as deacons.
1. God — The Great Deacon
In the Old Testament benevolence was the official task only of the king and the elders. This proposition is seen most clearly by noting that the king and elders acted as representatives of God who was the one who cared for the poor and needy. In the Mosaic law, for example, God is described as the one who rules over Israel and guarantees provision and protection to all Israel (Deuteronomy 7:12-16; 8:1-20). The promise of kingdom blessings is conditioned by the obedience of the people to their divine ruler (Deuteronomy 7:12, 13; cf., Exodus19:5, 6). Thus, ultimately it is God who provides not only for Israel but explicitly for the poor and needy among Israel (Deuteronomy 10:18; cf., Proverbs 22:22, 23). On the basis that He provides for the poor and needy, He commands Israel to do so — they are to act in imitation of God and as His representatives.
As the King, the source and enforcer of the law, the Ruler over Israel, God legislated provision and protection for the poor and needy. One place where this emerges clearly is in Deuteronomy 15:7-11. Here the principle enunciated in Deuteronomy 10:19 (where God commands Israel to care for the poor and needy) is expanded. The Lord is not talking necessarily about giving lump sums of money to the poor and needy. He is saying that His people ought to extend loans to the poor and needy in their land. This is said in connection with the year of remission which came once every seven years according to Jewish law. On the seventh year one could not charge interest on the money that he had loaned. If one had 200 dollars and a rich man came to him, a rich man might say to him, "Well, I will pay double interest the year after the seventh." Or at least the lender might envision how his debtor could do him some favor later; that is, the lender might buy a friend. The one making the loan might be satisfied with that. But a poor man might say: "I am not going to pay any interest this seventh year." Because he was a poor man one might think (rightly perhaps) that he would never pay any interest and perhaps not even pay back the principal. He might be poor for a reason. Certainly, he had no favors to bestow. The Scriptures say, "Lend to the poor man anyway." God protects the cause of the poor.
God not only protects the poor under these special conditions, but Deuteronomy 24:12-13 talks about loans to poor men at any time. The Jews (and the Scriptures) allowed one to make loans to his fellow Jew and charge interest or hold some kind of collateral. Deuteronomy 24:12 talks about a very poor man. The only collateral that such a man had to offer was the cloak from his back. So in order to pay debts or in order to buy food he put his coat in hock. The Lord commanded Israel's "bankers" to return his coat to him every night. Perhaps a man would pay his debt a good deal quicker if he had to sleep in the cold, but in the case of the poor and needy (because they were poor) lenders were not to keep his coat overnight.
Still other places show how God protected the poor and needy in His law. Consider Deuteronomy 24:14-15. In verse 15 the Lord talks about a man who lived from day to day. His wage for the day was all the money he had, and from this wage he bought his food. It was necessary if he was going to live at all for him to have the daily food. He was totally dependent, therefore, upon this wage. The Lord said they were to give such a man his wage before the sun went down so he could still go out and buy and trade and do the things he had to do to get food because "he set his heart on it." That is not quite an accurate rendering of the meaning here. It would be better to render, "because his life depended upon it." In other words, the Lord wrote into the Mosaic legislation a law that provided for those who were poor and needy by requiring His people to take care of them. Furthermore God said (vs. 15) that if they did not obey this law the poor and needy would turn to Him, cry against the offenders, and God would lay the charge against them as sin.
2. The Rulers — God's Representative Deacons
The Old Testament pointedly holds the king responsible for seeing that the poor and needy are cared for, i.e. that His law is obeyed by all the people (Deuteronomy 17:13-20). This "diaconal" task is part of the very essence of ruling as is established by the fact that God explicitly holds pagan kings responsible to care for the poor and needy within their kingdoms (cf. Ezekiel 16:29; Daniel 4:27; Proverbs 28:15, 29:14, 31:9, 14).
But who was responsible to see that the poor and needy throughout the kingdom were cared for properly? Who was responsible to rule the people regarding this aspect of divine law? Clearly the answer is the king but the king viewed as fulfilling his function through the local elders (cf. Proverbs 29:14; Deuteronomy 17:18-19).
The involvement of elders in benevolence is seen not only in their role as executors of the law sitting as judges over Israel but also in their role as dispensers of the third tithe. In the ancient world the non-levitical elders were responsible for civil matters while the levitical elders were responsible for ecclesiastical matters (Deuteronomy 1:15, 16, 16:18, 17:9; 2 Chronicles19:8-11). These non-levitical elders sat at the gate of the town where they held court when the need arose (Ruth 4:1, 2; Proverbs 31:23). Every third year, Israelites were to deposit a tithe for the poor and needy (called the third tithe) at the gates of the towns in which they lived (Deuteronomy 14:28, 29). This, the only provision for a "diaconal offering" to be presented by the community as a whole, raises the problem of distribution.
We have little doubt that the elders "ruled" over this diaconal offering. First, note that the towns in view here were the walled cities (Hebrew IR means walled town as compared to HASER which signifies a non-walled town). These stronger walled or fortified towns were not always large but were ordinarily the places where people sought refuge when they were threatened by invaders. They were safe places, refuges. Secondly, these would naturally tend to be the central cultural points of any given area. Third, the dwellings in these towns would be more secure and, therefore, the towns were the most likely places for the rich to build their homes. Building there would minimize the danger of physical harm to themselves and their families and of plunder of their worldly goods. Fourth, construction of such towns required a greater investment of resources and this would require investments by the rich. Those who paid for the construction of a safe place would probably live in that place enjoying its benefits. Fifth, non-levitical elders were chosen from among heads of households who had distinguished themselves as family and community leaders (Deuteronomy 1:15). Sixth, such distinction would not be forthcoming to one who had proved himself incompetent in business. Seventh, the elders were those who were sufficiently wealthy to have time to sit at the gates of their towns as judges and counsellors. Eighth, the third tithe to be "laid up at thy gates" was mandatory on all Israel. Ninth, it was specifically to be brought to the gates of the towns where the elders sat (Deuteronomy 16:18). Tenth, the elders were responsible to guarantee that the poor and needy received their just due before the law (Deuteronomy 1:17, 16:18-20, 24:17, 18). Therefore, we conclude that the third tithe deposited within the gates of the towns was given into the hands of the elders (there were no levitical elders ruling every town) who were responsible to distribute it equitably among the poor and needy.
3. New Testament King and Elders and Deacons — God's Representatives
The ancient responsibility of the earthly king and his representatives to care for the poor and needy finds fulfillment in the New Testament.
Christ announced that He was the long-expected Davidic king who would establish His kingdom and its provision for the poor and needy (Luke 4:18; Mathew11:2f.; cf., Isaiah11:4, 16:1). As the earthly human king standing as God's ruler, He healed, fed the hungry, etc.
Several Old Testament themes regarding the official benevolence of God find New Testament expression. Just as God's king (Christ) cared for the poor and needy so those who ruled under His headship did so. The apostles saw to the poor and needy (Acts 6:1). It was part of their service or ruling over God's people. So in Acts 6:2, 4 the task of the apostles is described as the ministry (diakonia) of tables and the ministry (diakonia) of the Word. The word deacon is not used to describe those who were ordained to the ministry of tables. It is not necessary, however, that the word appear. Those apostolic helpers functioned in diakonia and were ordained to do so. They were deacons. It is important to note that before their appointment, the apostles, rulers over the church, fulfilled the benevolent task as representatives of Christ the great king.
Equally significant is the fact that when the diaconal offering for the saints in Jerusalem was sent it was handed over to the elders (Acts 11:29, 30). There is nothing unnatural in this when it is seen against the Old Testament background. If the rulers of the Old Testament church handled the diaconal offerings why should not their New Testament counterparts do so?
Also, when Paul established churches he saw the necessity of caring for the poor (cf., Galatians 2:10) although he saw no necessity of ordaining deacons — he established his churches with only elders (Acts 14:23). The elders as rulers and governors in God's stead were to judicate and to tend for the poor — as did their Old Testament counterparts.
Finally, the qualifications for the office of elder and deacon clearly recall the Old Testament pattern for elders. Old Testament non-levitical elders were to be leaders in their communities, i.e. heads of households who distinguished themselves as "heads." So, Paul teaches that New Testament elders must first establish themselves as good rulers over their own households if they are to rule over the church (the household of faith, 1 Timothy 3:4, 5). Significantly, he requires deacons to have proved themselves (presumably as mature individuals, 1 Timothy 3:8) and, also to be good rulers over their own households (vs. 12). These similar requirements for elders and deacons when viewed against the Old Testament background and the practice of benevolence in Acts 6 and 11 suggest, if not establish, that the essence of the office of elder and deacon is the same — viz., rule over the church. The essence is the same but the specific assignments are not, inasmuch as only the elder is responsible officially for the teaching, discipline and sacraments of the church — the ministry of the Word.
Therefore, since the official practice of caring for the poor and the needy is essentially a ruler's task and part of ruling, and since women are not to rule over the church (1 Timothy2:12-14), women should not be ordained as deacons in Christ's church.