Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin. Previous article in this series: April 15, 2006, p. 320.
The proper work of the deacons includes the care not only of the poor, but also of those members of the church who are sick, widowed, orphaned, disabled, or in other ways physically afflicted. In past articles we have argued this point both from scriptural principles and from the example of other Reformed diaconates throughout the history of the church. Particularly we noted that the deacons in Geneva, during and after the time of Calvin, cared for people with varied needs, both in the General Hospital and by the various Funds that had been established for this purpose.
Such examples from church history are worth noting. The church of today would be foolish to ignore the historical precedents of our spiritual forefathers.
Yet such examples require evaluation on our part. Did our forefathers act rightly? This question we attempt to answer now, with regard to the example of the deacons in Calvin’s Geneva.
Because the work of the deacons in Geneva was in harmony with Calvin’s understanding and teaching regarding the diaconate, we ought to have his teaching clearly before us. I quote in full that section from his Institutes of the Christian Religion that pertains to the deacons.
The care of the poor was entrusted to the deacons. However, two kinds are mentioned in the letter to the Romans: “He that gives, let him do it with simplicity; … he that shows mercy, with cheerfulness.”
Since it is certain that Paul is speaking of the public office of the church, there must have been two distinct grades. Unless my judgment deceive me, in the first clause he designates the deacons who distribute the alms. But the second refers to those who had devoted themselves to the care of the poor and sick. Of this sort were the widows whom Paul mentions to Timothy.
Women could fill no other public office than to devote themselves to the care of the poor. If we accept this (as it must be accepted), there will be two kinds of deacons: one to serve the church in administering the affairs of the poor; the other, in caring for the poor themselves. But even though the term diakonia? [the Greek word translated “deacon” or “servant,” DJK] itself has a wider application, Scripture specifically designates as deacons those whom the church has appointed to distribute alms and take care of the poor, and serve as stewards of the common chest of the poor. Their origin, institution, and office are described by Luke in The Acts.
For when the Greeks started a rumor that their widows were being neglected in the relief of the poor, the apostles, making the excuse that they were unable to fulfill both functions (preaching the Word and serving at table), asked the multitude to choose seven upright men to whom they might entrust this task
ff. Here, then, is the kind of deacons the apostolic church had, and which we, after their example, should have.¹
Calvin’s understanding of the place of deacons in the church, including his ideas regarding their election, qualifications, and proper work, was sound and biblical. In his Institutes Calvin refers to Acts 6 when speaking of the origin, institution, and office of the deacons, and to Romans 12:8 when speaking of their work. In his commentary on I Timothy 3:8ff., Calvin taught the need for deacons to be qualified. Calvin’s instruction regarding the work of deacons is another area in which he contributed significantly toward the reformation of the church.
It is especially Calvin’s idea that the church should have two kinds of deacons that interests us now.
As the quote from his Institutes indicates, Calvin based his view on his exegesis of two Scripture passages, Romans 12:8 and I Timothy 5:9-10. Commenting on the former passage, Calvin notes that the “givers” were not “those who gave of their own property, but the deacons, who presided in dispensing the public charities of the church,” while those who show mercy are “the widows, and other ministers, who were appointed to take care of the sick, according to the custom of the ancient Church: for there were two different offices,—to provide necessaries for the poor, and to attend to their condition.”²
Calvin understood I Timothy 5:9-10 to teach that widows may be supported at the public expense only when they reached the age of 60, but that receiving such support obligated the widows to consecrate themselves to the ministry of the church:
They were received on the condition that the Church should relieve their poverty, and that, on their part, they should be employed in ministering to the poor, as far as the state of their health allowed. Thus there was a mutual obligation between them and the Church.”³
Before evaluating this aspect of Calvin’s teaching, we do well to examine what exactly Calvin meant by “two kinds of deacons.”
Calvin did not merely mean to say that the deacons’ task is twofold, involving both the care of the poor by giving alms, and the care of the sick, widows, and others in need, by providing health care, meals, and other material necessities. That he did not merely mean this is evident from the fact that he speaks not just of two tasks of the diaconate, but of two kinds of deacons, both of which were to devote themselves to their particular task.
Calvin is unambiguous when he writes that by the first kind of deacon he refers to those who collect and distribute the alms in caring for the poor. Note again the above-quoted statement from his Institutes: “one to serve the church in administering the affairs of the poor.” Also the 1541 Ecclesiastical Ordinances makes this point clearly: “There were always two kinds of deacons in the early Church. The one kind was deputed to receive, dispense, and keep the goods for the poor, not only daily alms, but also possessions, revenues, and pensions….”4
Calvin is also clear regarding the work of the second kind of deacons. Again, from hisInstitutes: “the other, in caring for the poor themselves.” By this Calvin means bodily, hands-on care of the poor and sick. And again, the Ecclesiastical Ordinances are clear: “… the other kind to care for and remember the sick and administer the allowance for the poor, a custom which we still retain at present.”
But regarding exactly who these second kind of deacons were, Calvin is ambiguous. The quote from his Institutes indicates that they were women—the widows of I Timothy 5:9-10. But in theEcclesiastical Ordinances the strong impression is left that these were the procureurs and hospitaller of the General Hospital. Remember from previous articles that these men were, to use modern terminology, the board of directors and the chief operating officer of the hospital. This “strong impression” is left because, immediately after describing the second kind of deacons, and in the same paragraph as that description, the Ordinancesspeak of these positions. These positions were always filled by men, who were elected according to the rule of God in I Timothy 3. Nothing is said about women in this connection.
In pointing out this apparent contradiction between the Ordinances and the Institutes, we must bear in mind that the Institutes express the ideas and words of Calvin himself, while theOrdinances are the decisions of the Consistory of Geneva, not the words of Calvin personally.
This leads some to surmise that Calvin personally desired women to hold the office of deacon in the church, but that society’s view of women and the mentality of the Reformed church at that time would not allow it. William Innes notes that, in Geneva, the involvement of the women “amounted to assisting the hospitaller, either as his wife or as one of the ‘curesses’ or servants. Of course, women were never officially incorporated into the diaconate of the Genevan Church because of social strictures regarding the position of women generally at the time.”5 Elsie McKee also indicates that Calvin’s desire for women deacons was not implemented in Geneva:
Calvin’s sermons on
ff., preached to the Genevan people in 1555, indicates his real regret that their church had no widow deacons. He was, however, chiefly concerned that the poor be cared for, that the functions of the second kind of deacon be carried out, and the hospitaller of the city system and the deacons of the refugee organizations fulfilled these duties adequately. Diaconal functions were more important than the precise personnel who carried out this service to the needy.6
In other words, Calvin wanted women to be deacons, specifically the second kind of deacons, but the church of Geneva was not willing to make them such, and did not feel the need for such. Calvin contented himself with this, because at least the poor and sick were being cared for.
However, the assumption that Calvin personally desired women to hold the special office of deacon in the church is erroneous. The quote from his Institutes helps us here. Yes, he speaks of two “grades” of the public office of deacon, or servant, in the church. But he then points out that the word diakonia (which is translated by the words “minister” or “servant” as well as “deacon” in the King James Version) is used in a broader and narrower sense. Any who, in caring for the body of Christ, care for the earthly and material needs of others, are deacons in a general sense. They are serving in the capacity of believers. But specifically, the word refers to one special office in the church, described in Acts 6. Those who fill this office must be men—a fair reading of his Institutes allows no other conclusion. (Nowhere to my knowledge can Calvin be justly quoted as suggesting that women may function in any of the special offices—that of pastor, elder, or deacon, using the term “deacon” in its narrower sense as in Acts 6 and I Timothy 3). In the words of Brian Schwertley:
For Calvin, the authoritative aspects of being a deacon (i.e., taking care of the financial affairs of the church, and the counseling-judicial aspect) are reserved for the men deacons alone. The women deacons function somewhat like nurses. The food, water, clothing, and medicine, etc., set aside by the deacons are delivered and administered by the deaconesses. This does not mean that deacons were not involved in similar activities. It only means that deaconesses were limited to separate non-authoritative activities.7
In sum, I understand Calvin’s point to be, even though he did not express it so clearly, that deacons in the church of Christ (using “deacons” in the narrower sense to refer to men ordained into the special office) have two main tasks—the financial care of the poor and the hands-on care of the poor and needy. This hands-on care of the poor and needy these deacons can do personally, or may oversee this work as it is done by women deaconesses—using the term in a broader sense.
If this understanding is correct, we can readily agree with Calvin’s ideas.
That the word diakonia can be used in a broader sense (referring to a servant) or narrower (referring to the special office of deacons in the church) is self-evident. The word is used in Matthew 20:26, John 2:5, Romans 13:4, Romans 16:1, and other passages in the broader sense.
That I Timothy 5:9-10 speaks of a special role that women play in the church cannot be disputed. And that this role cannot be that of deacon, holding the special office, has also been pointed out.
Whether Romans 12:8 can truly serve as exegetical support for Calvin’s view is debatable. Without question, Romans 12:6-8 speaks of different gifts given to the members of the church. But the apostle emphasizes that he is speaking of the one body of Christ with all its members (v. 5). We ought not, therefore, interpret verses 6-8 as referring exclusively to the special offices in the church. Indeed, what these verses teach can beapplied to the special offices, but not referredexclusively to them.8 And when we do apply this teaching to the special offices, we ought not to suppose that each gift presupposes a different office, or subset of an office, in the church. All deacons must both give with simplicity and shew mercy with cheerfulness.
We are, however, not dependent on Romans 12:8 for our contention that the work of the deacons involves not only the care of the poor but also the care of those in the church who have other needs. Other passages and teachings of Scripture, which have been set forth both in this article and in our first article on this subject, make the scriptural case sufficiently.
Did our forefathers, and particularly the deacons in Geneva, act rightly in this regard? Insofar as they manifested loving care and tender mercies to all God’s people in all their needs, we can say that they did.
We should not make the mistake of supposing that the example of the deacons in Geneva is irrelevant to us. Their example is relevant because we also are the church of Christ, called to show mercy to those in need. Furthermore, it is relevant because we are Reformed churches, which desire to carry on the teaching of the Reformation. Living in a different age and culture, we might find it necessary to implement the principle differently. But implement it we must.
In the next article, the Lord willing, we will examine the various ways in which our deacons can implement this principle.
¹ John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1559 edition, edited by John McNeill and translated by Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), volume 2, pp. 1061-1062. This is section 4.3.9 in his Institutes.
² John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, translated and edited by John Owen (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989 reprint), p. 463.
³ John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, translated by William Pringle (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989 reprint), p. 128.
4 Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, editor and translator, The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the Time of Calvin (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1966), p. 42. All subsequent quotes from the Ordinances are found on pp. 42-43 of this book.
5 William C. Innes, Social Concern in Calvin’s Geneva (Allison Park, PA: Pickwick Publications, 1983), p. 110.
6 Elsie Anne McKee, Diakonia in the Classical Reformed Tradition and Today (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), p. 77.
7 Brian M. Schwertley, A Historical and Biblical Examination of Women Deacons (Southfield, MI: Reformed Witness, 1998), p. 32.
8 Such is also the view of Robert Haldane and Charles Hodge, expressed in their commentaries on this passage, and of Herman Hoeksema, set forth in his book Righteous by Faith Alone: A Devotional Commentary on Romans (Grandville, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2002), particularly pp. 583-588.