Equivocation is the misleading use of a term with more than one meaning or sense (by glossing over which meaning is intended at a particular time). (Wikipedia)
Recently J.A. Medders, a lead pastor at an Acts29 church, wrote a post on why his church has women deacons. There are exegetical and historical problems with his post. Here I am only going to address the way Pastor Medders uses church history. I will address the exegetical issues in later blog posts. By the way, I am not saying this equivocation by Pastor Medders was on purpose. I do not think he was trying to deceive people.
Pastor Medders says
When we are uncertain what the Bible teaches, not because of the Bible, but because of us—we should consider Church History. Historical theology shows us what the Body of Christ before us has done. This practice may not always lead us in the right direction, but it may help us see more clearly. We should always hold exegesis and texts in our hands, and Church History as a voice in the background. For me, the historical evidence here[in favor of women deacons] is overwhelming
There is wisdom in what Pastor Medders says. Church history can teach us a lot. However, it is easy to get sloppy with our history, especially when we are trying to summarize 2,000 years in less than a thousand words.
Does Deaconess Equal Woman Deacon?
The problem with his history lesson is that none of the quotes from church history use the phrase “woman deacon.” All of them say deaconess. This may seem like a petty argument. Don’t they mean the same thing? Perhaps. But this must be proven not asserted. Even if all those quotes used “woman deacon” he must prove they mean the same thing he does. To assume that similar words have the same meaning from Pliny to Calvin to Spurgeon to Pastor Medders is dangerous. To assert that every time someone used the word “deaconess” in the past they meant what Pastor Medders means in the present weakens significantly his historical argument. He does this while never really defining what he means by the phrase “woman deacon.” I am pretty sure I know what he means, but his failure to clarify his position makes it hard to compare his position with the ones from the past.
Brian Schwertly sums this up nicely. While he is only speaking of the patristic age, his point could be expanded to other periods of church history as well.
The study of deaconesses in the patristic age is liable to different interpretations. Some writers (who favor deaconesses in the same office as male deacons) base their argument on the word deaconess without a careful analysis of its meaning or intent. These writers argue that the early church had deaconesses, and so should we. But they are arguing by equivocation. What modern women-deacon advocates are advocating is not women deacons who serve in a separate office from men deacons, who have different qualifications that are based on 1 Timothy 5:9ff. They are advocating something totally foreign to the early church. They believe women deacons would have the same qualifications and serve in the same office as male deacons. They are comparing apples to oranges. They do not bother to carefully examine the character, qualifications and duties of the office of deaconess in the ante-Nicene age but simply rest their case on the name deaconess. They presuppose that their modern conception of a deaconess is the same as the church fathers and councils, despite evidence to the contrary. [Emphasis Mine]
Additional Historical Notes
Here are few more notes from this book that clarify the history of the office of deaconess/woman deacon. The office of deaconess was often built upon I Timothy 5:9 not 3:11. That is why the earliest deaconesses were widows over the age of 60. That age was eventually lowered to 50 and then finally to 40. Some saw I Timothy 3:11 as referring to the same group at I Timothy 5:9. Deaconesses were under the authority of the deacons. Deaconesses ministered primarily to women. They did not minister to men except perhaps in a hospital setting. Deaconesses did baptize women in the early church, but that was because female converts were baptized naked. At some point deaconesses did start getting ordained. But this practice was not part of the earliest records, did not make them equivalent to deacons, and was abandoned at various stages of church history. As one might expect with an office only vaguely described in Scripture, there is quite a bit of variation in both the existence, status, and function of deaconesses throughout church history. To say otherwise is equivocation.
Deacons were part of the ruling class of early church right underneath bishops and priests. Even with this office there was of course variation. They read Scripture, administered the Lord’s Supper, preached in some cases, determined who got financial aid, and were ordained clergy. The office of deacon in the early church was built on Acts 6:1-6. Here is a quote from The Constitution of the Holy Apostles, which indicates some of the authority deacons had. “If any brother, man or woman, come in from another parish, bringing recommendatory letters, let the deacon be the judge of that affair, inquiring whether they be of the faithful, and of the Church? whether they be not defiled by heresy?” In this document, deacons determined whether or a not person could transfer to their parish. It appears from the last phrase that they examined the transfer’s orthodoxy.
We can debate whether or not the deacons should have had this authority, but the point is that historically they did. Church history has examples of deaconesses who had specific tasks and roles in the life of the local body and in the Church at large. But no matter how many times the word deaconess is quoted, church history is not littered with women deacons who had the same status, role, and function as men deacons.
Note: A few updates were made at 2:45 pm on August 15th.