Church Pews

In their excellent book, Unchanging Witness, Professors Fortson and Grams spend a chapter recounting the capitulation of the numerous mainline denominations to the homosexual agenda, including the Episcopal Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church. But the account that caught my attention was the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA).

I am not an expert on the history of the PCUSA, but I believe there were serious issues, such as rejection of the authority of Scripture, rejection of the supernatural, and ordination of women, which preceded their acceptance of homosexuality. If true, their capitulation to the homosexuals was not a surprise. A denomination that ordains women is going to have a hard time barring the doors against homosexuals. Here is the timeline how the PCUSA moved to accepting gays, gay ministers, and eventually same sex marriage (Fortson and Grams p. 157-158):

1978-United Presbyterian Church in the USA adopts a policy forbidding the ordination of homosexuals, but allowing gays and lesbians into church membership.

1979-The Presbyterian Church in the US adopts a similar policy.

1983-These two denominations join to create the PCUSA. The policy from 1978 remains in force.

1983-1993 There was constant debate in the denomination about ordaining homosexuals. So much debate that in 1993 a ban was instituted to prevent the issue from being voted on for three years.

1997-Conservatives passed an amendment to the PCUSA constitution requiring candidates for ordination “to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and woman, or chastity in singleness.”  Liberals presented a substitute amendment which said, “fidelity and integrity in marriage or singleness.” The substitute amendment by the liberals was defeated.

1998-Liberals again pushed for their substitute amendment. Again it was defeated though the votes grew closer. This happened again in 1999 and 2001. Each time the votes for the liberals grew.

2006-A PCUSA task force recommended allowing exceptions to the “fidelity and chastity” clause. This allowed homosexuals to be ordained.

2009-Again the liberals pushed for a vote to change the constitution. Again it was defeated though by the smallest margin yet.

2011-The language from 1997 was finally gotten rid of and openly gay persons could now be ordained to the ministry.

2014-The PCUSA approved a policy allowing pastors to perform same-sex marriages in states where the practice is legal. In that same year an additional vote was made that changed the definition of marriage from one and one woman to two persons. That passed by a 71% majority.

What I find fascinating is how “unrelenting” to use the authors’ word, the pro-gay lobby was. They never stopped bringing up the votes. They found ways around official policy, such as the 2006 task force. They kept pushing and kept fighting until they got what they wanted.  I am sure this began long before 1978, but even from 1978-2014 is a pretty long time. It reminds me of what Edwin Friedman said in his excellent book Failure of Nerve. Pathogens do not stop. They will not stop. They must be cut out. Long before sodomy ever became an issue someone within these denominations compromised on basic Christian teaching. It may have been the authority of Scripture. It may have been human sexuality. It may have been the denial of the resurrection of our Lord. But they compromised and here is the key no one disciplined them for it. Maybe they disciplined them the first time and second time and third time, but eventually they stopped, eventually the good guys gave up.

In the previous chapter Fortson and Grams discuss all the denominations that remain faithful to the Scripture’s teaching on homosexuality, such as the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), and Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS). I look at those denominations and my own, the Communion of Reformed Evangelicals (CREC), and I pray. I pray that we can hold fast. I pray that we have the stamina and backbone to fight. I pray that we have the courage of our brothers in Africa who stood up to the Anglican bishops who compromised. I pray that we are not afraid of being hated, cast out, and maligned. I pray that we can preach faithfully what the Word says. I pray we have the strength to excommunicate when necessary. I pray that our seminaries fire those who compromise. For we can be assured of this; the homosexuals will not stop. Their goal is not live and let live. Their goal is that churches everywhere accept them as true Christians no matter their sexual practices. For the sake of Christ, his sheep, and the lost we must be as unrelenting as they are. If not we will end up just like the PCUSA and the proverb will be fulfilled:

Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain is a righteous man who gives way before the wicked. (Proverbs 25:26)

Did the Early Church Approve of Homosexuality?

Revising history has been one of the common ploys in the gay Christian movement. In particular John Boswell and former Jesuit priest John McNeill have written books that revise the history of the church to be more friendly to gays. These books have been used by gay Christians as proof that Christianity from it’s earliest times was welcoming of homosexuals. Boswell even argues that same-sex unions were approved by Anselm. Their scholarship, if it can be called that, has been called into serious question time and time. Yet they are cited by gay Christians as proof that sodomy really has not been that big a deal in church history.

To combat this error Donald Fortson and Rollin Grams have written Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition.  These authors carefully cite numerous primary sources from the early church into the modern era that show without a doubt that sodomy in all its forms has been condemned by the church. Michael Kruger has a review of the book here. He states:

After reading Fortson’s and Rollin’s book, they may not agree with what Christians have always believed.  But, they would have to admit that Christians have always believed it.

I have only gotten through the chapters on the early church and the Middle ages, but both are valuable and clear. Several points stand out.

First, the church has always taught that the sin of Sodom was homosexuality. Hospitality is sometimes mentioned alongside of homosexuality, but homosexuality is always mentioned. I read nothing that indicated that the primary problem was homosexual rape either. 

Second, sodomy was often grouped with murder and bestiality as the gravest of sins.

Third, the celibate priesthood was a breeding ground for sodomy. Sodomites priest were common enough that specific punishments were put into law for priests who were sodomites. Despite these laws sodomy continued to be a problem in monasteries.

Fourth, marriage between a man and a woman was always considered the only proper outlet for sexual expression. Sodomy, masturbation, prostitution, bestiality, lesbianism, mistresses, concubines, etc. were all sins of varying degrees with sodomy being at the top of the list.

Finally, there were distinctions made between different types of homosexual behavior, including sex with boys, the dominant male, and the submissive male. But all of these were considered a gross violation of nature. One does not get the impression reading the primary sources that the main concern was sex with boys. The problem was sodomy not the sexual abuse of boys.

Here is the conclusion to their chapter on the church fathers:

This brief survey of the early Christian centuries underscores several assertions that can be made with confidence about Christian attitudes towards homosexual practice. Given the ethnic diversity of Christians and their geographic dispersion throughout the Mediterranean world in the earliest centuries after Christ, the evident consensus on this issue is remarkable…The church fathers were aware of homosexual practices in their culture and consistently condemned such behavior…The Fathers believed homosexual practice was perverse and would lead one down the path to destruction. Same-sex activity was considered a grievous sin against the Creator who designed men and women for each other. In addition to violating divine design, homosexual activity-according to early Christian writers-was an instance of humans abusing and polluting one another. 

Here are some conclusions from their chapter on the Middle Ages:

The cumulative evidence from centuries of medieval sources points to the church’s unequivocal condemnation of all forms of homosexual practice. As in the patristic era, despite the geographical separation and diverse cultures of early medieval Christians, they shared a commitment to biblically defined sexual ethics…no extant source includes an example of medieval Christians expressing toleration of homosexual behavior. There was no medieval deviation from patristic teaching concerning the accepted code of Christian sexual morality…all varieties of homosexual practice were condemned by the medieval church…in the late medieval era, when massive collections of earlier Christian writings  emerged, the compilers of canon law provided a comprehensive picture of the church’s views of homosexual practice. What one observes is a consistent pattern of both denunciation and pastoral care for persons guilty of homosexuality.  

Here is the final paragraph in the chapter on the Middle Ages:

The medieval material indicates a distinction among persons who engaged in same-sex acts. Younger boys experimenting with homosexual sex were treated far more leniently than adults, adults who habitually engaged in homosexual acts were treated more severely than occasional offenders. The texts reveal a medieval awareness that some people felt sexual desire for persons of the same gender, but this did not legitimate acts against nature. Rather extreme measures were taken to help persons with same-sex attraction avoid eternal damnation, from penance to strict requirements concerning their living arrangements. Homosexuality was not viewed as a psychological disorder: it was sin. While homosexuality may have been characteristic of some persons-an orientation-ethics was not reduced to a psychology of inclinations or orientations; it dealt with actions that proceeded from the wickedness of fallen humanity, a humanity that could be transformed through the work of Christ. 

The authors have done the church a great service by doing the research and writing this book. It will be a great resource for the body of Christ as she ministers to those coming out of the gay culture to Jesus and as she stems the tide of the gay Christian movement which attempts to turn the Bible’s teaching on its head and to throw out 2,000 of the church’s teaching on sexuality in general and sodomy specifically.

How Southern Baptist Seminary Stemmed the Evolutionary Tide

Roy Honeycutt the president of Southern Baptist Seminary from 1982-1993 was weak on inerrancy and did not clearly hold to a literal Adam or a young earth. This angered many Southern Baptists in late 80’s, in particular Adrian Rogers, a well known preacher and three time president of the Southern Baptist Convention. However, it still appeared that the evolutionary, non-historical Adam tide, which had overtaken many conservative seminaries in the 80’s and 90’s would also overtake Southern Baptist. However, it did not. Now Southern Baptist is one of the strongest voices for the traditional, conservative interpretation of Genesis 1-3. How did Southern Baptist stem the tide?

The exchanges [between Honeycutt and Rogers] indicated a wider conservative resurgence within the Southern Baptist Convention that was marked by a consistent determination to pursue reformation…Within the Southern Baptist Convention, conservatives increasingly gained majorities, electing individuals to key positions, which began to impact the membership of the Board of Trustees of Southern Seminary. By 1990, the situation had reached a tipping point. A conservative majority was seated on the board and began to implement a requirement of scriptural inerrancy. [Bold is mine.]

One thing led to another and

Having for some years slowed the transition toward a conservative evangelicalism, Honeycutt announced his retirement in 1992, and R. Albert Mohler was elected president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1993. With the support of the seminary’s trustees, Mohler moved to implement a meaningful adherence to the seminary’s historic Abstract of Principles, along with other faculty requirements, leading to major transitions in faculty between 1994 and 1997. These changes brought the seminary to a firmly conservative evangelical position. 

The process is not complicated, but it does require courage. Determine to pursue reformation/resist unbiblical thinking, begin to make the changes necessary to get the right men in right places, put those men in authority, and then let them clean house. Now if we could just get Covenant Seminary to follow suit.

All the quotes are from The Quest for the Historical Adam.

Deacons and Authority

One of the shifts made by those who are advocating including women among the deacons is to say that deacons do not exercise ruling authority. Therefore women can be deacons and not violate I Timothy 2:12. I will get to the exegetical arguments in the future. But here are some initial thoughts on that idea.

All church offices, by that I mean officially recognized positions in the body ordained or not, come with some level of authority.  When someone is ordained, appointed, instituted or whatever word is used into a position they are being given authority either by the bishop, presbytery, session, board, congregation or some other entity to do something.  Some offices have more and some have less authority. Some are pretty high up the authority ladder and some are on the lower rungs. Some offices have expansive authority, covering numerous areas in the church, while some have a very narrow authority. But all offices/positions exercise authority. All offices are also offices of service. They serve the church by exercising authority in the areas where authority has been given to them. Service and authority go hand in hand in the church. One cannot simply say women can be deacons because deacons do not exercise authority. One could argue that deacons do not exercise the type of authority Paul is forbidding to women in I Timothy 2:12 and therefore women can be deacons. But the issue is one of the nature of the authority in question, not the fact of authority. This also means that refusing to ordain deacons does not automatically bring a church’s diaconate in line with I Timothy 2:12. It is possible to not ordain deacons and still violate that verse.

My research on the diaconate is not extensive, so I am open to correction. But based on the research I have done I believe what I say below is accurate. Again I am focused on history here, not exegesis of relevant passages.

Deacons have not had equal authority to ministers/priests/elders throughout church history. They could at times perform the same functions, but that was usually when authority was delegated by the priests/elders to the deacons.

However, deacons have had ruling authority on some level. That is, throughout history putting women on par with men in the diaconate was seen as a violation of I Timothy 2:12, as well as the general tenor of Scripture. To decide that the diaconate has no ruling authority requires a reshaping of the office as it has been historically understood. This may be necessary, but it should not be undertaken without substantial exegetical and historical research. And it should be stated clearly that reshaping of the office is what is actually happening. Some women deacon advocates sound like they are making a modest proposal in line with how the church has always functioned. This is not the case.

Here is a list from this book on some of the things deacons did in the early church: assist in the Lord’s Supper, read the Scriptures in worship, read a sermon if the minister was absent, baptize on occasion, help the congregation follow the worship service, maintain order in worship, give a homily, and distribute gifts. From the same book in Calvin’s Geneva deacons received, sought out, and distributed money, goods, and skills among the needy sometimes seeking out those who were not giving regularly. They also were administrators of the hospital, which was a home for the sick, the elderly, homeless refugees fleeing persecution, and temporary homeless from Geneva. Some deacons functioned at these jobs full time. Deaconesses were an integral part of what the deacons did in Geneva. However, it does not appear from the books I have that they were equivalent to deacons in Geneva, though their jobs did overlap at points. Fast forward to the present, I recently read about some deacons who went into the home of a family requesting financial aid, evaluated whether or not the father was actually trying to work, determined how much aid the family was to receive and for how long, and finally determined where to send that aid.

Collecting, managing, and determining who receives the gifts given to the local body has traditionally been the duty of the deacons. There have been other duties, but this was at the core of what they did, especially if Acts 6:1-6 is taken as establishing deacons or being a prototype for deacons, as the passage has been historically understood. It is difficult to picture this task being accomplished without the deacons having some type of ruling authority. Also divesting the diaconate of ruling authority would seem to undermine one of their specific purposes: allowing the elders more freedom to administer the Word and Sacraments.

I understand that the early church’s view on church offices, ordination, and the sacraments are different from my views. I understand that in Geneva there was an intersection of church and charity that we do not have. That is, hospitals, homes for the elderly, orphanages, care for the poor, and homeless shelters are not normally under the direct oversight of a church today. But even with these differences noted, it is impossible to picture deacons doing the job they have done historically without ruling authority. We can debate whether or not they should have this level of authority.  However, this debate is not just about whether we should put women in the diaconate. It is about who deacons are and what they are supposed to be doing.  A shift to include women in the diaconate, if it is an honest shift, must redefine the office of deacon as it has been historically understood.

Women Deacons and Equivocation

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.