Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin.
Before concluding our detailed examination of the office of deacon, we must yet delve into the matter of women assisting the deacons. Historically, such women were called deaconesses, or said to hold “the office of widow.” Regardless of the terminology, we desire to investigate the matter of women assisting the deacons.
The reader should know from the outset that the following articles will not advocate opening the office of deacon to women; nor will these articles evaluate the practice, all too common in Christian churches today, of admitting women to the office of deacon. Of this practice, our evaluation can be simple: Scripture, and therefore God, does not permit women to serve as deacons. The times in which we live—different times and different culture from that of the early New Testament church, we are told—do not call for nor justify admitting women to the office of deacon. Rather, God Himself, whose mind does not change, and whose Word written two thousand years ago still means the same today, requires that only men fill the office of deacon. Notice: “Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife…” (I Tim. 3:12). No woman can be a husband. Not only this, but remember that the same inspired apostle Paul had said to Timothy, with regard specifically to the woman’s place in the instituted church, “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence” (I Tim. 2:12).
As this prohibition of women serving in the office of deacon is clear enough, it is not our purpose to develop that point here.¹
The issue now is whether women—certain, qualified women—may ably and profitably serve to assist the deacons in the work of their office in certain instances. The thesis that I will develop in this series of articles is that certain qualified women can and may so serve.
Why a detailed study of this matter?
First, it relates to the office of deacon, which is my primary concern in these articles.
Second, it forces us to come to grips with all the scriptural data regarding women in relationship to the office of mercy. To say that women may not hold the office of deacon is to adhere to the Scriptures on that point; but to end the matter there is to ignore other relevant teachings of Scripture.
The church of Jesus Christ is as wrong to be ignorant of the God-prescribed way in which women may help the deacons, as she is wrong to allow women to be deacons. Perhaps it is easier for the faithfully Reformed church that would exclude women from the special offices, not to implement the God-prescribed way of letting women help. To let women help the deacons might appear to some to be a compromise, a weakening, an opening of the door, letting the camel stick its nose in the tent. In fact, when the faithfully Reformed church knows that she properly does what God allows her to do, and is concerned not to do what God does not allow her to do, she need not be ashamed, tentative, or concerned about how others will view her.
Third, such a study will take us once again through a survey of church history, which is always beneficial for the church. Our survey of church history will demonstrate that the early New Testament church allowed women to assist the deacons; that within a few centuries this practice degenerated; that at the time of the Reformation, a conscious effort was made to reform the church in this aspect as well; and that since the Reformation, the church has deformed again in this respect. From this historical survey we will conclude that the Reformed church today ought to stand firm in her opposition to women being deacons, but at the same time understand the biblical basis for having women help the deacons, and implement the practice that the early Christian church and the church of the Reformation time implemented.
Finally, such an investigation forces us to evaluate our own practice.
As a denomination, the Protestant Reformed Churches have taken no official stand regarding women helpers to the deacons. I could state that more broadly: while some early Reformed synods did speak in favor of women assisting the deacons, the Reformed churches as a whole have never required the churches to have women helpers for the deacons. It is simply a fact that the Church Order of Dordrecht, 1618-1619, is silent about this matter. This silence is not the same as prohibition. But the point is that, as a denomination, we have no official guidelines or requirements regarding women helping the deacons.
One does find a form of this practice in individual congregations however. Many have a “Helping Hands” committee, which might be under the supervision of the diaconate. It is my understanding that the original purpose of the “Ladies’ Aid Society” in Reformed churches was to help the needy in the church. And, when necessity has required it, the wife of a deacon has helped. Practically speaking, in individual congregations some women do assist the deacons.
So let us evaluate our practice. Let us know the reason for it—do the deacons and the women understand the biblical warrant for this, or are they helping for wrong reasons? Do the deacons implement the women’s assistance properly or improperly? Are the right kind of women solicited to help? Are women assistants used frequently enough, or are certain needs of members in the congregation not being supplied, because the deacons as men are unable to supply them, and they do not seek the help of women?
To be faithfully Reformed is to be always reforming. Granted, the issue I am raising is not an essential matter of doctrine or worship; and while it does relate to church government (the office of deacon), even then it is not a matter of grave importance. But it is a matter of practical importance. Let the deacons involve women, as needed, in the work of mercy. And if deacons are not doing so, let them examine how they can.
With that in mind, let us examine the biblical rationale for women assisting the deacons.
In this passage, the inspired apostle Paul instructs Timothy, the young pastor of the church at Ephesus, regarding taking widows into the “number”:
Let not a widow be taken into the number under threescore years old, having been the wife of one man, Well reported of for good works; if she have brought up children, if she have lodged strangers, if she have washed the saints’ feet, if she have relieved the afflicted, if she have diligently followed every good work.
Significantly for our purposes, verse 11 continues, “But the younger widows refuse….” Paul is clearly making a distinction between older and younger widows. The older ones may be taken into the number; the younger ones, under age 60, may not.
What is this “number”? What is permitted widows of 60 years old and older that is denied younger widows? The English words “be taken into the number” all translate one Greek verb that means to be enrolled, or registered. What is this list, or registry, on which may appear the names of older, but not younger, widows?
As Scripture does not tell us specifically, various explanations have been given.
One explanation that cannot be correct is that such older widows, but not the younger, are entitled to benevolent help from the church. This appears to have been Luther’s explanation:
An old woman of fifty years can feed herself by her own effort. If she is sixty, we should take her in…. That Paul is speaking about the widow whom the church must feed appears clearly from what follows (v. 16): “If any believing woman has relatives who are widows…let the church not be burdened.”²
If correct, this means that younger widows are not eligible for benevolent help from the church. Luther’s attempt to appeal to verse 16 to prove that the church should not feed widows under 60 fails. Speaking to the matter of providing for widows, verse 16 says that the families of widows should help them in their need, so that the church “may relieve them that are widows indeed.” Verse 16 does not mean that only widows indeed, over age 60, are eligible for assistance from the church. If a widow is a widow indeed, yet not 60, the church must take care of her.
Nor does the apostle have in mind the office of deaconess, if by that is meant an official and special office in the church on a par with that of pastor, elder, or deacon. We will argue that the text does refer to a position women hold, but that position does not have the nature of a special office. The Bible verses to which I referred in my introductory remarks indicate that the apostle cannot here be referring to a special office.
Applying the rule that Scripture interprets itself, we rule out these two explanations.
A plausible interpretation of the text, then, is that it describes those women who are permitted to hold a certain position of service to the church, in which they devote themselves to helping those in need. This work of mercy is really the work that is entrusted to the deacons; but as the deacons are men who ought not help women in certain situations, and as the deacons are men with families who must also earn their living and cannot give the degree of care that some in the church need, certain widows are enrolled to do that work.
This interpretation would explain why the qualifications for this position are what they are. Not just any widow of 60 years of age, but only those who have shown themselves in their life to be kind and merciful to those in need may be enrolled.
This was Calvin’s view. Acknowledging that these widows received support from the church, he indicates that they did so in return for a service that they also provided. One reason why the widows of 60 years old may be enrolled is that:
they consecrated themselves to the ministry of the Church, which would have been altogether intolerable, if there were still a likelihood of their being married. 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
And this, our historical survey will show, became the explanation of Reformed churches generally.
So understood, we have one passage that clearly teaches that certain qualified women may ably and profitably serve to assist the deacons in the work of their office.
A second passage that would serve the same purpose is I Timothy 3:11: “Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things.”
Not all are convinced that this passage gives the qualifications of deacons’ wives. Clearly it speaks of women: the Greek word translated “wives” is the common Greek word for women. Clearly it speaks of women who are somehow connected with the diaconate, for the verse is imbedded in the passage of Scripture that most clearly sets forth the qualifications for deacons. Clearly it speaks of women who are not themselves deacons; reading verse 8 (“Likewise must the deacons be grave”) and verse 12 (“Let the deacons be”), it is clear that deacons are referred to, so that in verse 11 (“Even so must their wives”) the apostle speaks of others.
Does the passage speak of deacons’ wives, or of those women who are connected with the office of deacon because they assist the church?
I remain of the opinion, expressed previously,4 that this passage does speak specifically of deacons’ wives. But I also remain of the opinion, expressed previously in this series, that Scripture gives qualifications regarding the wives of deacons because at times their wives must help them in their work.
In other words, we find two passages in Scripture that authorize the deacons to avail themselves of the assistance of certain women in the church, when needed.
Those women may be of two different sorts—widows over sixty, or deacons’ wives.
But in either instance, these must be women who possess spiritual qualifications—women who are discreet, faithful in all things, and compassionate.
With this biblical rationale, we will proceed in our next article to a historical survey of how the church properly, and improperly, permitted women to assist in the work of mercy.