By Bob Allen
A leader in the so-called New Calvinism resurgence in Southern Baptist life says he believes the Bible permits women to serve as deacons.
David Platt, pastor of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Ala., addressed the topic in an archived sermon excerpted recently in a blog on his website for Radical, a parachurch ministry to promote discipleship training around the world.
Platt, 34, dubbed the youngest megachurch pastor in America when he took over the 4,300-member flock in 2006, said in a series of messages titled “Secret Church,” that the Bible describes two leadership roles assigned within the local church.
He said elders — a term he regards as a synonym for “pastor” and “overseers” — are presented as “guys who are modeling the character of Christ.”
“And I say ‘guys’ because you don’t see in any of those lists women mentioned — that, biblically, elders are men, leaders in the church in this way,” Platt said. “In the same way, picture it just like in the home, what God has designed in Ephesians chapter 5. And this is not an equality discussion or a value discussion, this is the way God has designed our homes and our families and our spiritual family, faith family.”
When it comes to the office of “deacon” — presented as “leading servants who use their gifts to build up the body of Christ” — Platt said the gender issue is less clear.
“What about women?” he asked rhetorically. “We’ve seen that elders are men. What about deacons? And basically there are two schools of thought on this one. Can women be deacons? There are two schools of thought. One says yes and the other says no.”
“So here’s the deal, and this is — about 12:00/12:30 is when I like to throw out something controversial, usually, at Secret Church, so hopefully you won’t remember — but this is where there are obviously a lot of different views all across this room, I think, on that. Well, there’s two different views separated all across this room.”
Pratt said Bible scholars and pastors that he respects come down on both sides.
“Some of you might be thinking: ‘Well, look at First Timothy 3. Like, it’s pretty easy. Like, it says, ‘Deacons must be dignified, not double-tongued,’ et cetera. And then it says in 11, ‘Their wives, likewise, must be dignified, not slanderous, but servant-minded, faithful in all things. Each deacon can be the husband of one wife.’ So some say, ‘Well, that just — it’s that easy.’”
“I don’t think it’s necessarily that easy here,” he said. “Four things I want you to think about that point to what I think is a possibility that, yes, yes, women can be deacons in the church.”
First, Platt noted, that some ancient Bible manuscripts omit the word “their” in verse 11. “And the picture is, many people, many Bible scholars, believe that this is just talking about women,” he said. “And there’s ambiguity there.”
Platt also questioned why in transitioning from elders to deacons Paul didn’t say anything about elders’ wives, given that an elder had more leadership responsibility than a deacon.
Third, Platt cited “what I call the Phoebe factor.” Romans 16:1 says, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae.” Platt said the biblical Greek word translated as servant is diakonon, “which would seem to point to a deacon role.”
“Now, here’s the deal,” Platt continued. “What I think is important — because there are all kinds of different pictures of church structure represented around this room, and there are churches represented in this room that, if I could be honest, deacons basically serve as elders, and deacons are more of an overseeing body — if that’s the case in a church then I would not say, then, women should be deacons, because they’re basically serving as elders in an overall role.”
“But when it comes to, okay, somebody leading out in a hospitality ministry, somebody leading out in a variety of different ministries and you look in the New Testament and you see 17 different women that Paul mentions that are in significant leadership positions in the church doing different things in the church, serving in different ways in the church, I think the reality is if we have a proper understanding of elders and deacons and where they fit, I think it makes total sense that it’s certainly possible.”
The 2000 Baptist Faith and Message says that “while both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture,” but it doesn’t say whether women can serve as deacons. In the home, it says a wife “is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ.”
Conservative churches typically, however, reserve ordination, a ceremony that sets an individual Christian apart for leadership roles like pastor and deacon, for men who meet qualifications outlined in Bible passages like the one in First Timothy.
When First Baptist Church in Oklahoma City elected its first three women as deacons in 1983, Baptist Press treated it as headline news.
Platt, who earned the M.Div., Th.M. and Ph.D. at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, sparked controversy in 2012, when he criticized use of the “sinner’s prayer” to lead people into thinking they have accepted Christ.
“I’m convinced that many people in our churches are simply missing the life of Christ, and a lot of it has to do with what we’ve sold them as the gospel, i.e. pray this prayer, accept Jesus into your heart, invite Christ into your life,” Platt said.
“Should it not concern us that there is no such superstitious prayer in the New Testament?” he continued. “Should it not concern us that the Bible never uses the phrase, ‘accept Jesus into your heart’ or ‘invite Christ into your life?’ It’s not the gospel we see being preached. It’s modern evangelism built on sinking sand, and it runs the risk of disillusioning millions of souls.”
Reaction to the comment and Platt’s invitation to preach at the SBC Pastors Conference led to a 2012 Southern Baptist Convention resolution affirming the sinner’s prayer “as a biblical expression of repentance and faith.”