At their 2012 winter meeting, the Northern California Presbytery received a request to conduct a study on a topic that, so far ,has proven too hot to handle–woman in the diaconate. This request came from Pastor Sam Wheatley of New Song Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City, UT. Following this Presbytery meeting Wheatley’s paper was put up online and has started to garner responses from a number of other PCA blogs.

As this paper, and its author, is sure to gather more and more attention in the coming months, the contributors of Vintage 73 wanted to interact with the topic. Our hope was to seek to understand Pastor Wheatley’s motivations and intentions behind his this. Rather than taking wild guesses, or trying to search old websites for comments Rev. Wheatley might have made, we decided to ask him directly and we are now, with his permission, publishing his response to our questions.

V73: What was your motivation for bring this request at this time? Why not two years ago?

Wheatley: Two years ago our presbytery did bring this up at a presbytery level.  We brought the issue of the diaconate by surveying and describing the various ways that sessions within the Northern California presbytery were organizing their diaconates.  We presented to the presbytery 6 ways that local sessions had interpreted the BCO on the issue of organizing the diaconate with respect to the inclusion of women.  We adopted a resolution that approved all 6 as valid forms for sessions to employ.  For each position we gave a BCO rationale that had been used to arrive at that construction.  This resolution was complained about and resulted in an SJC case.  The SJC ruled that our presbytery did not have the right to make such a resolution.

The reason I and others wanted to bring this up before presbytery was that for many years there has existed a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding this issue.  We desired to bring the issue up in order to have a more thorough and biblical discussion of the diaconate and the role of women in the diaconate. Before doing something overtly political like overturring to change the BCO, I’m seeking to address a tough issue in a biblically faithful and winsome way.  One of the things I’ve always appreciated about the Reformed tradition is the ability to work through the biblical material on complex issues and draw conclusions that keep us in line with orthodox theology and prophetically relevant to our contemporary setting.

V73: How important do you think woman in the diaconate is to the state of the PCA today?

Wheatley: I think this is an important issue mainly because it is asking the question of whether we can do theology — can we think through complex issues with biblical depth on issues facing us. Can we do theology together? If I’m wrong about the theology I need to repent and change.

I think the issue of women and their role and vital participation in the church is something we need to grapple with as a denomination so that we speak to our congregations and the larger culture in gospel-rich ways.

V73: What do you say to the objection that women in the diaconate is a settled issue?

Wheatley: That that is a matter of perspective.  As I try to show in my paper the church has been trying to figure out ways to honor and include women in it’s diaconal outreach in various ways for a long period of time.  I think most people who argue that line are afraid of a slippery slope — that if we allow women into the diaconate we will shortly be ordaining women to serve as elders or pastors.  They have some hesitation because of the history of liberalism in the 20th century that had agendas that were contrary to biblical understanding.  While I appreciate that conservative hesitation — it should not keep us from asking questions and exploring solutions that are in line with the bible and our Reformed heritage.  That other conservative, biblically sound, Reformed denominations like the ARP’s have women in their diaconates should help us to see that this is not a liberal/conservative issue per say.

V73: Do you think that part of the rationale behind this letter lies in the situation you are in as a church planter? or in Salt Lake?

Wheatley: The missional component of this issue is how we view and treat women in our congregation and culture.  I live in a culture on one side that dismisses women and says that their salvation is dependent upon them acquiring a man in their life to make spiritual vows on their behalf.  On the other hand I live in a very secular city that says that gender plays no significant role in an understanding of who we are as humans.  The gospel is the announcement of the reign of God in Christ.  He has rescued and redeemed a people from their sin and is sending us into our world as HIs agents of grace.  To a person coming from Mormonism, it is crucial that they see men and women are equal before God and need no intermediary but Christ to enter into the Kingdom of God.

That in practice is conveyed by the congregation as men and women being represented in our worship service and our mission.  Someone coming to New Song would simply see all sorts of people involved in the service and ministry of the church.  On the other hand we also because of the gospel challenge the secular individualism that is a presupposition. That the pastors and elders of New Song are men brings up the question pretty quickly about church and hierarchy. When we talk about Christian leadership flowing from an understanding of being a servant — that Christ leads by serving and calling His church into an initiative of love and care not domination. And that Christian men are not to remain passive, but to lead in love in their homes, workplaces and church, this brings up a challenge to the radical individualism of our age.  We are a community together, not just an assembly of individuals.

V73: In your paper you list some different resolutions from other denominations, are there any which you hope the PCA would adopt?

Wheatley: Yes, I wish we would simply say that the office of deacon is open to qualified men and women. I’d say it should be up to the session.

V73: What do you say to the thinking, “you can have women deacons in other denominations, just go there.” ?

Wheatley: That’s a way of stiff-arming the argument without engaging it.  I am a PCA minister, I came to Christ through the ministry of a PCA church, my mentors in ministry are by and large in the PCA — this is as much my home as theirs.  What I’ve loved about the PCA is the desire to be biblical in it’s theology and practice.  This issue of deacons, to me, has a deeply biblical rationale that according to our tradition, we must take seriously.  If the bible calls us to do or allow something we would be wrong to not obey.

V73: How have you interacted with pastors that disagree with you on this issues?

Wheatley: Yes, our presbytery has had a two year dialogue on this where many do not share my view.  I’ve also read other’s objections.  I’m not saying that I have the issue totally solved, it is a multi-dimensional issue that needs the input of people with much more ability and insight than I possess.

V73: Do you think woman deacons are an issues that has been tightened up in recent years?

Wheatley: What has tightened up is the attitude toward this issue.  In part I think it is part of an agenda by some to tighten the denomination into a more Reformed Fundamentalist rather than a Reformed Evangelical denomination.

V73: Do you see a difference biblically between a deaconess and a deacon?

Wheatley: I can see how you might have a special office of deaconess, but the 1 Tim 3 passage where the women are sandwiched between instructions for male deacons makes me think it was by and large just one office.

V73: What do you say to your fellow elder who is unconvinced of the exegesis and believes that the diaconate is reserved only for men?

Wheatley: That, I hope, this is an issue where brothers can disagree and still work together; that it belongs not in a top tier of theological essentials, but a second or tertiary tier of things that we allow latitude among as a denomination.

V73: To try and line up what New Song does to the BCO and specifically 9-7, do you have ordained deacons and unordained assistants (which you also call deacons)? Or do you have only unordained male and female assistants which you call deacons?

Wheatley: We have unordained men and women who we refer to as deacons.

V73: If the latter, What do you say to the objection that according to our current standards you are withholding ordination from men who deserve to be set aside in that way? i.e. that in the pursuit to honor women we dishonor the men

Wheatley: There is a problem with what we mean by ordination.  Sometimes we talk about ordination as one thing, but the qualifications and routes to ordination are very different.  The qualifications for ordination as a pastor are very different from those of deacon.  And we clearly mean something different about the ordination to elder than to deacon when we say pointedly that the diaconate is not an office of rule, but sympathy and service.  The outcome from my paper was that the Northern California Presbytery put together a study committee to answer how the issue of ordination touches on this issue of the diaconate.

V73: So do you see the office of deacon primarily as a catch-all assistant to the elders or as a leader of mercy and service?

Wheatley: Diaconate ministry is to lead in mercy/service and outreach/mission. The diaconate functions under the authority of the session, but it’s calling is distinct.

V73: In the past the denomination seem split? Why might things be different this time around?

Wheatley: The church isn’t primarily a court, it’s a counsel.  If we run the local church like a counsel, why don’t we run the denomination along the same lines?  Would any reasonable pastor allow this kind of division on the session? Complex issues can’t be solved by a close vote in either direction.  The counsel of the church is that we need to take time, pray, read and re-read scripture, think  and build friendships among those who differ, not politic or power play.  This is what a split session would do; this is what we need to do as a denomination.

V73:How do you think you think this paper and the larger issue might challenge the peace of the church?  do you think this issue is able to be advantageous to the peace of the church?

Wheatley: Peace is not pandering, but conflict done with gospel grace.  What we need is not hegemony to create peace in the PCA, but an ethos of love to pervade all our dialogue and discussions.  Love always wins the day, because it is patient, long-suffering and truth-seeking.

V73: What do you think of the argument that a denomination who doesn’t not allow women deacons demeans the value of women in the church?

Wheatley: The diaconate is not the only way to value women.  There are many ways to do that, but having women involved in visible roles in the church speaks volumes about the church’s view of women and how it values and honors their contribution.  I think what needs to be highlighted in the diaconate is the gifting by the Spirit for ministry not the gender of the one so gifted.

V73: How can others be praying for your presbytery and New Song during this situation?

Wheatley: I pray that through this we all could learn how to love one another better and do theology without acrimony and party faction.