Christian Authority

by Jill Nowell, Deaconess Candidate

Who is the ultimate ruler in this world? According to a poem written by William Ross Wallace in 1865, it is the “hand that rocks the cradle.” As recently as 2011, popular singer Beyoncé  performed a song asserting, “Who run the world? Girls!” Some conspiracy theorists would disagree with each contention, claiming it is the current version of the Illuminati, a secretive group of powerful men (and women), who retain power through brainwashing via media manipulation. Really, though, the question arises from the secular realm and is philosophical in nature, with no straight answer in this era of postmodern thought; on any given day, one could argue that a plethora of answers fit the question and each could be accurate. For example, in American on the afternoon of September 11th, 2011, logical arguments could be made for both hatred and love ruling concomitantly: hatred in the act of 9/11 itself, love in the actions of those who were first responders, volunteers, and others who were selfless and gave of themselves to save others.

If the focus of the question is turned toward sacred answers, the response becomes much more concrete: The Bible states in 1 John 5:19 that “we know that we are of God, and the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one.” Satan, the wicked one, certainly would love to lay claim to the title “Ruler of the World.” However, “the power and authority of Satan has been dealt a fatal blow by Christ. The Cross, The Incarnation, the Resurrection, and the Ascension tremendously weakened any power or authority that Satan enjoyed, but it didn’t annihilate him.” Therefore, though Satan’s influence is strong and all who live in this world find themselves in the unenviable position of being swayed by an evil ruler (indeed, even those in Christ are being subjected to the whims of this nefarious, cunning leader and his horde of followers), Christians know that Christ had the ultimate victory on Earth and will be coming again to remake this broken world. A quick survey of the evils of earth reveals that Satan’s sway is strong. Yet, Revelation 19:10 assures us that the “…devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone…(to) be tormented day and night forever and ever.” Therefore, ultimately, at Christ’s return, no doubt about omnipotence on Earth will exist: it will become fully evident to all. Yet, while we await that triumphant day, where is our hope now? How can Christians lay claim to the notion that all authority lies in God, His Son, and within the Holy Spirit? What structural evidence of God do we see today in this fallen world?

First, as Christians, a bedrock of our faith is knowledge that God is the creator of all. Genesis 1:1 proclaims, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The Hebrew word used in this first chapter of the Bible is “Elohim”, which, in Strong’s translation, means “possession of control, authority, or influence over others….” As the true author/creator of everything, God is omnipotent, meaning He is all-powerful. Isaiah 44:24 states, “Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer, And He who formed you from the womb: ‘I am the LORD, who makes all things, Who stretches out the heavens all alone, Who spreads abroad the earth by Myself….” A.W. Tozer puts it thus:

Since He has at His command all the power in the universe, the Lord God omnipotent can do anything as easily as anything else. All His acts are done without effort. He expends no energy that must be replenished. His self-sufficiency makes it unnecessary for Him to look outside of Himself for a renewal of strength. All the power required to do all that He wills to do lies in undiminished fullness in His own infinite being.

Article 1 of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion echoes this omnipotence, adding the qualities of omniscience (“infinite wisdom”) and omnibenevolence (“infinite goodness”): “There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, the Maker and Preserver of all things….” God alone is our able Creator and the One who preserves frail humanity, from conception through death.

Irenaeus of Lyons (AD 130-202) spoke of Jesus Christ, in stating that “he received testimony from all that He was very man, and that He was very God, from the Father, from the Spirit, from angels, from the creation itself, from men, from apostate spirits and demons.” Scripture also attests that Christ, the only begotten Son of God, was with God at creation: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” Despite his co-equal status, Philemon 2:6-7 states “…although He existed in the form of God, [He] did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond servant, and being made in the likeness of man.” Though still God in essence, Christ gave up His power and position to become man. He received the Holy Spirit at His own baptism and began an earthly ministry, where he performed many miracles, some of which are detailed in Matthew 11:3-5: “…the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news preached to them”. Christ was sent in order that the plan of redemption of God’s people would be accomplished on earth, by His own death, resurrection, and ascension.

Corrie Ten Boom states: “Trying to do the Lord’s work in your own strength is the most confusing, exhausting, and tedious of work. But when you are filled with the Holy Spirit, then the ministry of Jesus just flows out of you.” God’s Spirit, whom Genesis 1:2 declares “…was hovering over the face of the waters” at creation, is also the Holy Spirit we refer to when baptizing in the name of the “Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. He is the third person of the Trinity, “…proceeding from the Father and the Son, is of one substance, majesty, and glory, with the Father and the Son, very and eternal God.” Peter enunciates a co-equal relationship between God and the Holy Spirit when he chastises Ananias for lying directly to God when “…Satan filled (his) heart to lie to the Holy Spirit….” The Spirit is included in the Grace, as a legitimate third person of the Trinity; Jesus also presents Him in Luke 12:12 as a teacher, capable of empowering believers to speak of Christ in the very moment a retort is required. In John 14:16, the Holy Spirit comes from the Father, through the prayers of Jesus, as “another Helper” to abide with the disciples (and mankind) forever, as the Spirit of Truth. The Spirit “…dwells with you and will be in you” and acts as a guide, regenerator (through baptism), sanctifier, revealer of God’s truth/will to believers, and giver of spiritual gifts. Very importantly, we are ensured of the validity of Holy Scripture as God’s Word, through the intercession of the Holy Spirit; He inspired the writers to record the words of the Bible: “…no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit is alive and active within the hearts and minds of believers to this day.

Oswald Chambers beautifully sums up the power of the function of the Trinity in Christian lives: “My unrestrained commitment of myself to God gives the Holy Spirit the opportunity to grant to me the holiness of Jesus Christ.” Through Christian faith, in perfect harmony, the Three-in-One works to allow the chance for transformation into the likeness of Christ. When congregations recite the Apostles’ and Nicene Creed, our collective belief in the work of the Trinity is affirmed. We follow the truth of Article 8, which states the creeds, along with the Athanasius’s Creed, “…ought thoroughly to be received and believed; for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.” From initial creation of the entire universe, through redemption from sin unto eternal life, to daily guidance, wisdom, and power, the Trinity provides the necessary power for Christians to live a life that is forever meaningful, salvaged from death, provided direction and insight, and full of supernatural ability.


On Being a Deaconess

Yet the Bible is equally clear that God calls all of His people, male and female, to serve faithfully in His Kingdom. Therefore, it is important to have a sound answer for those who assert that any service by a woman puts the Church on a “slippery slope” toward disobedience. In fact, the opposite is true. The Church is diminished if any member is wrongly disqualified from exercising his or her gifts (within the proper authority structure) in response to the Great Commission.

The appropriate response to the widespread acceptance of women’s ordination is not to impose an overly restrictive view of Christian ministry on the Church and relegate women to the kitchen and the nursery. Rather, the answer is for us to take a courageous stand in every area of life by forbidding what God forbids, requiring what God requires, and allowing what God allows. And the simple fact is that God requires everyone, both male and female, to be active in ministry to the extent that He has provided gifts and opportunities.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence of this requirement is the baptismal charge in the liturgy of the Reformed Episcopal Church, which is based on the baptismal liturgy in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. When a baby girl is baptized, the priest signs her with the Sign of the Cross, “in token that hereafter she shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner, against sin, the world, and the devil; and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto his life’s end” (REC BCP, page 465). Though the responsibilities of men and women are different, we are engaged in the same spiritual warfare, and we are jointly building the same Kingdom.

Since God requires women to be active in ministry, fighting manfully under his banner, and allows women to serve as Deaconesses (as demonstrated by Scripture and by records of the early Church), it would be profitable to explore what a Deaconess does and how this office fits into the structure of the Church.

A woman who has been set apart for the work of a Deaconess in the Reformed Episcopal Church serves at the will of the Bishop Ordinary and as his representative in the venue where she is assigned to serve. In a parish, she operates under the authority of both the Bishop and the Rector to assist with many facets of the life of the Church, including teaching (though not sermons at the Eucharist), preparations for worship, visiting the sick, and ministry to women and children. One important function of a Deaconess is to assist women in situations where the presence of a man might cause both parties some unnecessary embarrassment, such as visiting new mothers in the hospital and counseling women on private and personal issues. Though there have been some minor differences in the duties of a Deaconess throughout the life of the Church, and though the office was lost in the western Church for many years, the duties that have been approved by the REC bishops are in line with the practices of the historic Church.

I’ve been told more than once that it’s “too bad” I can never be a “real Deacon” or a Priest, as though my office was an indication that women are inferior to men. To that statement, I would offer two observations regarding ministry.

First, none of us is worthy even to gather up the crumbs under God’s table, yet we have been made heirs with Christ, and we are invited to gather at His table to join the family feast. What a remarkable privilege that is! I am just so glad to be a part of God’s family that I am pleased to serve Him in any capacity that brings Him glory and demonstrates my gratitude for His grace. All Christians, including non-ordained men who faithfully serve Christ, should share that same joy.

Second, most of the work to be done in the Kingdom of God does not require ordination. Christians don’t need Apostolic “binding and loosing” authority to visit those who are sick or imprisoned, to feed the hungry, to comfort the sorrowful, to lift up the downtrodden, or even to teach the Gospel in a variety of settings. We do need a heart inclined toward loving service rather than a head filled with visions of wielding power. Too often, Holy Orders are sought only for the purpose of gaining honor and authority in the Church. While it is true that the Church should honor the representatives of Christ and should be obedient to their authority in Christ, it is equally true that Apostolic authority is neither a battleaxe nor an emperor’s wreath.

Rather, Apostolic authority is best viewed as a shepherd’s staff representing the solemn responsibility to bear witness to the sacrificial love and unyielding truth of Jesus Christ, the Great Shepherd who gave His life for the sheep. The example of loving leadership should then disseminate through the Church so that all the members of the Body of Christ are free to use their gifts to the glory of God, for each other’s edification, and for the advancement of the Kingdom in the world. Only when we develop a right view of authority and of Holy Order can we fulfill our solemn duty to bring the light of Christ to the world.

And that is precisely where women who hold the office of Deaconess can assist the modern Church in preparing other women to fulfill their calling. By maintaining a proper relationship to the authority structure within the Church and by being an official, representative of those who are called and duly ordained in Apostolic succession, Deaconesses have the opportunity to demonstrate within the Church what Eve should have been, a helper to Adam in the pursuit of the purpose of God.

Even before the Fall, God’s intended authority structure was for men to have primary authority and for women to serve as their vice-regents. Eve’s ministry was to be a helper suitable to Adam in his work in the world (Genesis 2:18), an argument that St. Paul also uses in I Corinthians 11:9-11. He refers to this authority structure as one in which women do not approach God without a covering, which consists of her recognition that she, like the angels, is never to act on her own volition.

This situation in no way demeans women, for St. Paul indicates that there is order even within the Trinity; he says that the head of Christ is God. The Son willingly submits to the Father, as can be seen in Matthew 20, where we read that the mother of James and John asked that her sons be considered for top honors in the Kingdom. Jesus stated that such honors were not His to give but belonged to the Father alone. If our Lord was pleased to operate within the economy of the Godhead, how much more should we be willing to maintain the order that God intended for us!

Wherever women in the New Testament Church are mentioned as being in any sort of ministry, it is always evident that they are operating within God-given boundaries. In Acts, we are told that Apollos was taught by the husband-and-wife team of Aquila and Priscilla, not by Priscilla in defiance of her husband’s authority. In Romans, St. Paul commends Phoebe because she had been “a helper of many,” including himself, and in Philippians, he mentions other women who had labored with him in the Gospel. This language echoes Genesis 2, in that Phoebe was a help-meet, not a free agent. St. Philip’s daughters prophesied, but only under the covering of his authority. We are not told their names, just that they proclaimed the Gospel.

So in exercising the office of Deaconess, I am testifying to the great truth that God is an orderly Ruler; I am not saying that women are inferior to men. Similarly, the Son is not inferior to the Father, nor is the Spirit in any way inferior to either. Based on the order that exists within the Trinity, Holy Order in the Church is established by God for His own glory and for our own good.

Discerning a Call

How does a woman know she is called to the office of Deaconess? I have answered this question many times since I was Set Apart in 2003; some of the women who inquired found the answer too difficult, and they decided not to pursue the office. But that is as it should be. It is a serious matter to make vows that take us into greater service to Christ and into a more formal and accountable relationship with His Church. I purposely do not try to encourage a woman to pursue this path. What I do encourage her to do is count the cost and allow God to lead her in the path in which He wants her to go.

The first question that the Bishop asks a woman who is being set apart is, “Dearly beloved in the Lord, who are minded to take upon you this service in the Church of God, have you duly considered how weighty an undertaking this is, and are you prepared with a willing mind to take upon you this office?” While God makes His will known in a variety of ways, the discernment process of “due consideration” should begin with a self-examination that includes the following questions:

Have I demonstrated steady growth in grace and Christian character, evidenced by a life that is increasing in the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?
These foundations are important for any Christian, but they are non-negotiable for anyone who wants to take on more responsibility in the Church.
What is my level of commitment to Christ, as expressed by my attendance at worship, my connection to the life of the Church, my prayer life, and my desire to study the Bible?

Take a few courses from Cranmer House or at least begin studying theology, Church history, and Christian ethics. See if you are eager to learn and apt to teach others what you have learned.

Am I already involved in many activities related to the ministry of a Deaconess, such as Altar Guild, works of mercy, teaching, and support of the work of the parish?
A related question is whether your life is overflowing with activities and obligations unrelated to Church life which you cannot give up and which would hinder your ability to serve as a Deaconess.

The preceding questions are fairly straightforward, and the answers should be evident to you. The next questions are a bit more difficult, as they are focused on assessing with your relationships with others, and as such, they require additional soul searching as well as consultation with your spiritual fathers and others among whom you currently serve. These are the points that often prevent women from pursuing the office any further.

Am I willing to submit myself humbly to the order of the Church?
There are many people who view themselves as being devoted individually to Christ but not to the Church, and who are specifically unwilling to submit to the direction of Bishops and/or Priests. One of the vows taken in the Setting Apart of Deaconesses is this: “Will you be obedient to those who are over you in the Lord, cheerfully and faithfully performing the service that shall be appointed to you as Deaconess in singleness of heart?” In one sense, as a Deaconess, I have less freedom than other parishioners, but I took my vows joyfully because in the service of Christ and His Church, there is perfect freedom.

Do my fathers in Christ see a potential in me for this ministry?
If your Rector, your Bishop, and other spiritual leaders suggest that you may want to consider the office, then you have an important road sign that validates your own assessment of a possible call. However, if you have some notion that you want to be a Deaconess, but your pastor is hesitant to support you in this decision, you should reconsider your decision. Perhaps the answer is “not yet,” not until you have developed some of the characteristics already discussed. Perhaps the answer is “not at all” because God has other plans for your life. Either way, rest in His goodness.

Are my peers confident in my ability to pursue this ministry?
If those to whom and with whom you minister are encouraging you to consider the office of Deaconess, then your desire to be Set Apart is most likely confirmed by the witness of the congregation. That is not to say that everyone you meet will believe that you should be a Deaconess. It is to say that most of the people who have been touched by your ministry should be willing to support your decision to pursue candidacy and should almost see it as the logical outcome of your loving service.

A woman who is called to the office of Deaconess will say with the Psalmist, “One thing I have desired of the LORD, that will I seek: That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in His temple” (Psalm 27:4). Yet her desire for the presence of the Lord is to be turned outward in service to the Church. Her awesome responsibility, as well as her enduring joy, is to support her spiritual fathers in the care and teaching of the people of God. A Deaconess can be the official representative of the Church in situations that are made awkward by the presence of a man, and her insight can often enable a priest to provide better care to the flock.

Finally, it would be dishonest for me to close this discussion without offering a sufficient warning: the closer you get to Christ and the more committed you become to serving Him, the more Satan will torment you. If you do become convinced through prayerful discernment that you are called to be a Deaconess, expect resistance and spiritual warfare like you have never seen. Satan will try to convince you that you are unworthy, unable, unprepared—in short, he will do anything to turn you back from your commitment to service. But Christ is sufficient even in times of persecution.

So if, after all of the hurdles I’ve presented, you are still convinced that God is calling you, talk to your parish priest to see if it’s time for you to start the process of submitting an application.

— Dss. Teresa R. Johnson
Adjunct Professor of Deaconess Studies, Cranmer Theological House