Mailbag #2: Deaconess Qualifications, Private Baptisms, Knowing Members’ Giving

Mailbag
03.13.2015

Deaconess Qualifications »
Private Baptisms »
Knowing Members’ Giving »

Dear 9Marks,

According to 1 Timothy 3:12, the spiritual immaturity of a man’s wife would disqualify him from being a deacon because of his unique responsibility to lead his family. But would the spiritual immaturity and/or unbelief of a woman’s husband disqualify her from being a deaconess? We have women who have unbelieving husbands who are setting a fantastic example for what it means to love an unbelieving husband. I also don’t see any way that their service to the church is compromising their ability to love their family. Are they qualified to be deaconesses?

– Mike, Maryland

Mike,

I’m not sure how an egalitarian would answer this question, but as a complementarian who affirms the role of women deacons (or deaconesses), I do see a formal asymmetry between men and women in the qualification to manage one’s house well. All husbands are responsible to manage their households well in a way that wives are not. I could be wrong here, but this does seem to imply that, formally speaking, a man with an unruly wife may be disqualified from serving as a deacon, while a similarly situated woman with an unruly husband might not be. That’s the formal asymmetry.

But just as quickly as I grant that formal concession, let me threaten to take it away. You still need to submit every such situation to the judgment of wisdom. The spirit, if not the letter, of the elder and deacon qualifications point several times to a supportive spouse. After all, doing the work of an elder or deacon requires commitment and sacrifice. And this extra burden will both fall upon the marriage and potentially give the immaturely Christian or non-Christian spouse an extra reason to find fault with Christianity. When the deaconess asks her slightly sardonic husband to put the kids to bed for yet another evening so that she can help widowed Mrs. Jones work on her finances, the husband might say yes, but make her pay in his own passive-aggressive way. Yes, some of this will simply result from being a Christian. But the deaconess office will increase these burdens. So you want to be sensitive to this possibility.

Furthermore, you might know that she’s a godly and humble woman, but I’d still want to know what kind of presence or reputation her husband has in the church. And how does that reputation or presence land on her? I’m not saying you should let other’s opinions be determinative. I’m just saying you always want to keep your eyes peeled for points of possible disunity in the body. Will her husband’s reputation in any way impact her work? Will it cause people to question her?

Bottom line: formally, yes, I believe that a woman with non-Christian or immature Christian husband can serve as a deaconess, but you always want to assess these on a case-by-case basis, and proceed with caution.

Dear 9Marks,

I have seen a rise in the number of folks who request to do a “private baptism,” a baptism where only one or two people attend, usually family. I would prefer baptisms to occur before the congregation on a Sunday morning. But what do you think about private baptisms?

– Wesley, North Carolina

Wesley,

I don’t like private baptisms for two reasons.

First, the notion of privacy is at odds with the public nature of being “baptized into the name” of Father, Son, and Spirit (see Matt. 28:19). Baptism is precisely the tool that Jesus gave to the church for new believers to make public professions. It is where we publicly associate our name with his name. It calls to mind the Old Testament covenantal declaration, “I will be their people, and they will be my God.” And it is one of two public signs of the New Covenant, just like the rainbow is the very public sign of the Noahic, circumcision is the (errrr) “public” sign of the Abrahamic, and Sabbath-keeping is the public sign of the Mosaic. The idea of “private” baptism makes as much sense private presidential inauguration ceremony. It’s not a mystical, grace-infusing, individual activity. It is the event that publicly inaugurates the Christian life.

Second, a private baptism generally conflicts with the fact that the local church possesses the keys of the kingdom and authority to baptize (see Matt. 16:19; 18:18-20). Think of Matthew 18:18-20, where we learn that the local church possess the authority to bind and loose on earth what’s bound and loosed in heaven. Jesus then grounds this key-wielding authority by invoking the Deuteronomic law for the necessary number of witness in a court of law: “For wherever two or three are gathering in my name, there I am among them.” Is this gathering of two or three any small group in the church? No, it is the church. A church is constituted by at least two or three witnesses gathered in Jesus’ name to preach and wield the keys.

That is the basic unit of kingdom and church authority on earth. It is these two or three (or two or three thousand) gathered in Christ’s name who possess the authority to baptize in his name. In other words, Christians have for far too long proof-texted Matthew 28:19 and read it independently from Matthew 18:18-20.

Now of course there are exceptions. The Ethiopian eunuch is the most well known one, and this precedent carves out a space for exceptions in missionary frontier settings. There simply was no church in which Philip could baptize the eunuch. And if you’re Adoniram Judson baptizing your first Burmese convert, go ahead! But notice, even this example falls within the authorization of Matthew 18: two are gathered in Christ’s name.

So, a practical question: Will my church accept the baptism of someone applying for membership who was privately baptized? Somewhat begrudgingly, as a pastoral concession, yes. We’d consider it a true, but irregular baptism. A self-baptism? No, we wouldn’t accept that. Baptism by a church that teaches a false gospel? No, we wouldn’t accept that either. A paedo-baptism? Nope, but that’s another whole can of worms!

For all of this, look out for Bobby Jamieson’s upcoming book: Going Public: Why Baptism Is Required For Church Membership.

Dear 9Marks,

With regular tithing being a part of the church covenant that our members are expected to agree to and sign, should the elders hold members accountable to giving?

– Greg, Wisconsin

Greg,

Great question. I’m confident there are resources out there with a better answer to that question than I can give, but here are a few thoughts.

Biblical observation 1: We should instruct the congregation as a whole to give (see 2 Cor. 8-9; 1 Cor. 9:14), but we cannot require it of any individual, say, by threatening them with excommunication. After all, people should give “not reluctantly or under compulsion,” but cheerfully (2 Cor. 9:7). We cannot compel them.

Biblical observation 2: The New Testament does not establish a precise percentage for how much people should give, as the Old Testament does in various places. Instead, it offers these “how much” principles: (i) “in keeping with your income” (1 Cor. 16:2); (ii) “with rich generosity . . . beyond their ability . . . excel in this grace of giving” (2 Cor. 8:2,3,7). These two things stand in meaningful tension. On the one hand, we should remove the burden of false guilt and man-made law and let people make reasonable calculations about how much they are able to give while still taking care of their other God-assigned stewardships. On the other hand, we should generally encourage people to be generous and to trust God with their financial welfare.

Pastoral application 1: I don’t have the ability to determine if an individual is sinning or acting by faith in how much or how little he or she is giving. I don’t have X-Ray eyes that see into the heart, nor do I have heaven’s calculator that is able to assess all the variables of a person’s circumstances, income, debts, costs, opportunities, and so forth in order to prescribe for them the way of righteousness and wisdom in their offering-plate check.

Pastoral application 2: Certainly we should preach about giving to the congregation as a whole from the pulpit.

Pastoral application 3: I think it’s acceptable, even good, to occasionally ask members about their giving in the course of one-on-one discipleship. But I would not treat that question specially, and I would probably only do it in the context of asking a person about other areas of their life: “How do you feel like you’re doing spiritually? Times of prayer good? Battles against lust? Time with your kids? How’s giving and generosity going? Relationships at work?” In other words, in my pastoral care for members of the church, I should be interested in whether or not Jesus has been crowned as Lord in every area of a person’s life, including their bank account, but not in a way that’s distinct from any other area.

Pastoral application 4: I will ask such a question (as well as questions about other sensitive ares, e.g. lust) always gauging the amount of trust and built-up capital I have in the relationship. Generally speaking, I need to sense that the person is both teachable and trusts me before I enter into these more sensitive domains. That’s a general rule, not an absolute one.

Pastoral application 5: I don’t think elders should examine the financial records of who is giving, or how much they are giving, for two reasons: First, it will tempt the elders to treat the big givers specially. Second, it’s not pastorally useful. You might see that John Jones is giving what seems like a paltry amount relative to what you assume is his fancy law-firm income. Well, you don’t know all of his circumstances. He might have a good God-fearing reason for giving that amount. Do you really think the New Testament intends for elders to look at the records of every member, and then to ask every member to open their financial books for an elder audit any time something looks suspicious? Or to chase people down like insurance agency fraud investigators? I have a hard time imagining it. Such a pattern would probably sow suspicion, fear, and legalism in the congregation.

Here’s the bottom line: We preach generosity. We disciple carefully, always encouraging people to trust God with their money. But then we leave the details to them and how the Holy Spirit is working in their hearts, knowing that the New Testament treats how much a person gives as a matter of liberty.

9Marks exists to build healthy churches.

Join the 9Marks community and we'll send you articles about church life and pastoral ministry.

You have successfully subscribed.