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No. 41: The Triune Office Reconsidered

Rite Reasons, Studies in Worship, No. 41
Copyright (c) 1995 Biblical Horizons
September, 1995

Traditionally, the three offices in the Presbyterian churches have been teaching elder, ruling elder, and deacon. These have been associated with priest, elder, and Levite respectively. We have seen that the deacon is in fact an apprentice and assistance elder.

We have also seen that Levites as well as priests went through a warrior stage and then matured to an elder stage of life. Levites were not mere assistants to the priests. At the tabernacle and temple, yes, that is what they were. But the Levites were also scattered in Israel for two other purposes. They maintained their own cities, including the cities of refuge, and they served as pastors of local synagogues throughout Israel. They were pastors and educators. As pastors, they ministered the Word of God in local assemblies. And because they were to teach Israel the Law of God, we can easily imagine that their cities were libraries and schools. In the cities of refuge, they maintained courts to try those accused of capital crimes, functioning essentially as defense attorneys “against” the prosecution brought by the avenger of blood and his local ruling elders.

Thus, the Levites did everything the New Covenant pastor does, except the sacraments, which were the unique duty of the priests. In the New Covenant, these two functions are joined, and so the New Covenant equivalent of both Levite and priest is the teaching elder.

This makes for two offices: ruler and pastor, with diaconal assistant/apprentices for each. Is there a third office?

We can begin by saying that the question does not come from nowhere. God’s triune personhood is replicated all over human life, and so it is proper to ask if it is also replicated in ecclesiastical office. Moreover, we can rather easily see that ruling elders “image” the Father primarily, and pastors “image” Christ primarily. Is there an "office" that images the Spirit primarily?

I believe there may be: the elder woman. In today’s climate of opinion, it is risky to suggest this, and I know in advance that there will be those who perversely twist what I am about to set forth in order to accuse me of error; but so be it.

First of all, an elder woman is not a ruling or teaching elder. She is not a pastor. “Churches” that have “woman pastors” are at best only Bible studies. When the “woman pastor” serves bread and wine, she is only serving bread and wine. There is no covenant renewal, and no sacramental blessing from Christ. This is because women cannot be pastors.

Note that I did not write that women may not be pastors, but that they cannot be. You and I cannot flap our wings and fly, because we don’t have wings. It is not a matter of permission but of fact. Similarly, men cannot get pregnant and have babies (except in movies). It is not a matter of permission but of fact. Just so, women cannot pastor churches. God did not design them for this purpose, and so they are simply unable to do it. Only a man can represent the Divine Father and Husband to the congregation.

Similarly, women cannot rule as elders in the Church. It is not a matter of law but of fact.

With these caveats in mind, however, we must do justice to the "office of women” in the Church as the Bible sets it out. What the Bible teaches is that women are radically different from men. For this reason, men often do not know how to deal with women’s problems. Other, older women are, however, able to do so. Thus, the office of elder woman, as I propose it, is to be filled by older women who advise and counsel other women.

Does the Bible show some women set apart for ministry in the Church? Yes. First, there were deaconesses who assisted women at the Tabernacle, such as Jephthah’s daughter and the women mentioned in Exodus 38:8 and 1 Samuel 2:22. Second, the gospels call attention to women who served as deaconesses to the Lord Jesus Christ, along with the apostles. And third, the epistles mention such women and their appointed roles.

In 1 Timothy 3:11, when discussing deacons, Paul gives instruction to women. Some have said that this refers to the wives of the deacons, but if that be the case, why is nothing said about the wives of the overseers in verses 1-7? Clearly, the reference is to deaconesses, women who serve as women in the Church. Phoebe is referred to as such in Romans 16:1.

Paul refers to older widows who have a ministry of prayer and hospitality in 1 Timothy 5:5 & 10. The ministry of older women to younger is described in Titus 2:3-5. The former passage refers clearly to some kind of "office," because the woman is put on a roll and supported by the Church, but the latter passage refers to older women in general.

Let me sum matters up thus far. First, women always serve under male authority. Second, women cannot be elder-overseers, pastors, or deacons in the Church. Third, there is a ministry of women to women, which is organized to some extent, and which has its roots in the Old Testament.

For this reasons, it seems to me that it would be good if the Church recognized the office of elder woman and deaconess. I believe there are two reasons why the post-Reformation Church has not imitated the early Church in this regard. First, the preaching-centeredness of the Reformation Church, and its post-tribal northern European culture, caused the Church to become overly masculine, obscuring the role of women. Second, in the modern age feminists have insisted that there is no difference between men and women and have argued that women should be ruling elders and pastors. Both of these trends, I submit, are destructive.

Finally, a caveat: My model suggests that the ministry of women is most closely associated with the role of the Spirit. The Spirit, after all, creates the Bride for the Son, and so He is the sponsor of all things feminine. Women in ministry work with other women to make them better women, and thus their work is closest to that of the Spirit. But at the same time, the Spirit is invisible and untraceable in His work. Unlike the Father and the Son, who stand out as Official Persons, the Spirit is hard to grasp. For that reason, perhaps, the ministry of women in the Church should not be made official but should remain unofficial.

Clearly more work needs to be done on this matter, but I am convinced that the Protestant church has failed to do justice to the role of women in the Church, and reformation is needed in this area.


The Woman Question

(The following is taken from my book, The Sociology of the Church.)

Having moved to a discussion of Church officers, we naturally come to the question of the place of women in the Church. This question has come to occupy a very large place in modern ecclesiological discussion. Liberal churches have simply ignored what the Bible says on the subject, and have ordained women to every office that formerly only men might hold. Some orthodox protestant churches have debated whether or not women might be “ordained” to the "office" of deacon, while others have reopened the question of whether or not women may be permitted to vote in congregational plebiscites. Certain charismatic churches (in the radical Wesleyan tradition) present a confused face, with their female preachers.

The question before us is this: What may women do, and what may they not do in the Church? I fear that conservatives have become so taken up with answering liberal critics of the historic position, or else so taken up with detailed spadework in the texts of various important passages (both of these labors being necessary), that there has been a dearth of good theological, and therefore practical, reflection on the subject. I hope here to make some contribution to this last area.

The question comes: May women prophesy? May they rule in the State? In the Church? May they act as priests? Before trying to answer these questions, it would be well to step back and examine the questions themselves. What hidden assumptions are involved in the way these questions are asked?

I believe that the hidden assumption is this: It is assumed that the human calling to serve God as prophet, priest, and king is more universal than sexual differentiation. Protestants especially start from the assumption of the “universal priesthood of all believers,” and from this it follows that “both men and women are priests” in this sense.

This in my opinion obscures the issue. Suppose we were to say, “No, it is not true that both men and women are prophets, priests, and kings. Rather, only men are prophets, priests, and kings; women are prophetesses, priestesses, and queens.” If we phrase our canon in that fashion, we are asserting that the differentiation of humanity into male and female must totally qualify the notion of office or function.

On the basis of what is said in Genesis 2 and 3, we have to think in this latter fashion. Man was given his calling to dress and to guard the garden before the woman was created. The woman was then brought to be his helper. She also dresses and guards the garden, but as a woman, not as a man. She guards and dresses in a way different from the way a man guards and dresses.

Let us return to our questions. May women prophesy? It seems so. There are prophetesses in both the Old and New Testaments, and while they are few in number, nothing in the text indicates anything unusual about them. In the Bible (as opposed to systematic theology), a prophet is simply one who speaks for another, in terms of God’s council. Thus, the first reference to a prophet in the Bible is to Abraham, who is said to speak to God on behalf of Abimelech (an activity generally seen as priestly by systematicians). May a woman speak for her husband? Certainly. This being the case, it is certainly proper for a woman to speak to the whole Church on behalf of God, the heavenly Husband.

But, a prophet prophesies not only as a representative of the Father/Husband/Son, but also as a symbol thereof; while the prophetess prophesies simply as a representative, as the Mother/Bride/Daughter.

May women be judges? It seems so. Deborah is the premier example here. Does that mean that a woman may exercise authority over a man, in this sense? Clearly, yes. The whole theology of Judges 4 and 5 revolves around Deborah as the Mother of Israel, whose sons hearken to her voice and thus win the battle (the Mother, then, of the Seed). May a woman exercise authority on behalf of her husband? Certainly. This being the case, it is certainly proper for a woman to be involved in making judgments in the Church.

But, a king rules not only as a representative of the Father/Husband/Son, but also as a symbol thereof; while the queen is only a representative.

May women be priests? Clearly not, at least in the special sense. There are no priestesses in Scripture. Why not? Protestants (and also Catholics) are not clear on why, however. The question is this: What is the kernal of the priestly office that men have, and that women do not? The following answers are inadequate:

1. The priest offers prayers and sacrifices on behalf of the people. But if the people are the Bride of God, then surely females would make better representatives. It cannot, then, be the case that the priest is simply a representative of the people. Besides, to say this and no more makes the priest the same as the prophet.

2. The priest represents God in passing judgments on the people. Again, this is not enough. After all, a woman may represent her husband, as we have seen in the case of Deborah. And if the Church is our Mother, rearing us as her children, why not have women as rulers in the Church? Besides, to say this and no more makes the priest the same as the king.

The correct answer is this: The priest is a guard, and as a guard, he must guard something. What he guards is the Bride, and as the guardian of the Bride, he must be a figure of the Father/Husband/Son. That is, he must be a male.

We can go back to Genesis 2 and 3 for more insight into this. In brief we find the following:

God gives man two tasks: the kingly task of dressing the garden, and the priestly task of guarding it.

First of all, God teaches man about the kingly, shepherding, wisdom task. He brings animals to man, for man to name, acquire wisdom, and so forth. Man learns from the animals that he lacks something, something needed for his kingly task. God provides what man lacks: a helper fitted for him, a queen.

Second of all, God teaches man about the priestly, guarding, sacramental eating task. He brings an animal to man, for man to guard against. The animal assaults the wife, offering a demonic substitute for the sacrament. The man guards the wife, rejects the animal, and has a sacramental meal with God, feeding his wife. From this, the man learns that he lacks something, something needed for his priestly task. God provides what man lacks: a robe of judicial authority.

Of course, this is not what happened. Man failed the priestly task. He stood by and permitted his wife to interact with the serpent. He failed to guard her, or the garden. He permitted her to partake of the table of demons. He received instruction from her mouth, and food from her hand, the reverse of the proper order.

Now, the important thing to note at this point is that the woman was not present when the man entered into the kingly task. She was brought in to help him with it, making her a queen. But, when the test regarding the priestly task came about, it was precisely in terms of whether or not the man would guard his wife.

We have to note that the Bible repeatedly says that Eve was deceived (1 Tim 2:14; 2 Cor. 11:3). She was not constitutionally created to be able to guard the garden, and she is not blamed for the fall. But, when Adam is called on the carpet, he advances from failing to guard his wife, to attacking her openly. In this, Adam totally reverses the relation he should have, and becomes the precise antithesis of what he was to symbolize: God’s relation to His Bride.

Are women priests then? No, at least not in this ultimate, special sense. But what about the “priesthood of all believers?” What the Reformers meant by this phrase is that any person can and should approach God without having to go through any mediator except Christ alone. [More accurately, they meant that any believer can be an intercessor for another; it is not necessary to have a special priest as one’s intercessor.] In terms of what they meant, they were right. But, what they should have called it was not “universal priesthood,” but “universal Bridehood.” The privilege of approaching God is not a priestly privilege, but is the privilege of the Mother/Bride/Daughter. [More accurately, they should have called it “universal prophethood,” since the office of intercession is prophetic, not distinctly priestly.]

All the same, women do perform priestly tasks. They do guard the home. They do instruct their children (and informally they can instruct men). They do prepare meals and serve them. Are these not “priestly” tasks? Certainly, but we have to make two distinctions.

The first is the same one we have already made concerning prophecy and rule. Women are never priests, but priestesses. A priestess can only guard under the authority of a priest.

Second, we have to distinguish between the general and the special. There is a special meal, and special office, in the Church. In connection with these, the priestly task must be performed in an exclusively masculine fashion, in order that the relationship between God and His Bride may be set out clearly. 

Having noted this, we can now go back and assert the following propositions:

Both men and women can and may perform the task of prophecy in both the general and special areas.

Both men and women can and may perform the task of ruling in both the general and special areas.

Both men and women can and may perform the task of guarding in the general area, but only men can, and thus may, perform the task of guarding in the special area.

How about women as deacons? Impossible, because to be a deacon you have to be a man. How about deaconnesses, then? No problem. Both in the Old and in the New Testament, certain women are set aside to assist the elders with certain tasks (Ex. 38:8; 1 Sam. 2:22; Jud. 11:40; Mt. 27:55-56; Luke 8:2-3; Rom. 16:1; Phil. 4:2-3; 1 Tim. 3:11; 1 Tim. 5:3-10). This, of course, is not a special ruling function.

A deacon is an assistant and an apprentice elder. Joshua was Moses’ deacon. Elisha was Elijah’s deacon. The twelve were Jesus’ deacons, until they ascended to eldership, and then they selected other trainees under them. A deaconness is an assistant to the elders, but never an apprentice.