Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin. Previous article in this series: October 15, 2009, p. 36.
In our last article, we surveyed the history of the Christian church permitting women to assist the deacons through the time of the Middle Ages. We concluded that at times the early Christian church did let women perform duties that Scripture does not permit women to perform; that, nevertheless, one cannot appeal to the history of the early church to defend women holding church office; and that the church in her early history did set a positive example of striving to implement the teaching of the apostle in I Timothy 3:11, I Timothy 5:9-10, and I Corinthians 7.
We continue our survey now, limiting our comments to churches that are rooted in the Reformation.
John Calvin’s teaching and the practice of the church in Geneva
That John Calvin was influential in organizing the church’s government and setting the pattern for the church’s life is a well-known fact. Specifically, his influence in regards to women assisting the deacons cannot be overlooked in our historical survey.
I Timothy 3:11, in the midst of the qualifications for the office of deacon, reads: “Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things.” Regarding this passage, Calvin wrote: “He means the wives both of deacons and of bishops, for they must be aids to their husbands in their office; which cannot be, unless their behavior excel that of others.”¹
I Timothy 5:9 says, “Let not a widow be taken into the number under threescore years old, having been the wife of one man”; while verse 10 continues to list the qualifications of the women of whom Paul is speaking. In a previous article, we quoted some of Calvin’s comments on this verse; but to have them before us we quote again, and more fully:
He again points out what kind of widows should be taken under the care of the Church…. First, he describes the age, sixty years; for, being supported at the public expense, it was proper that they should have already reached old age. Besides, there was another and stronger reason; for 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.²
In his Institutes, Calvin expresses his understanding that Scripture speaks of two kinds of 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” [Rom. 12:8, cf. Vg.]. 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 [I Tim. 5:9-10]. Women could fill no other public office than to devote themselves to the care of the poor.³
Two things are important to understand here. First, Calvin divides the diaconate into two categories, not by gender (men in one and women in the other), but by the scope of their work—the one kind distribute the alms, the other care for the poor and sick. Second, Calvin does not mean that the second class of deacons consisted exclusively of women; in fact, some men also devoted themselves to the care of the poor and sick. Rather, he means that the first category consisted exclusively of men, and that any role women played in the work of mercy was limited to the second category. Says Brian Schwertley,
For Calvin, the authoritative aspects of being a deacon…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.4
Schwertley then notes that, whereas the church fathers limited the deaconesses to working with women only, Calvin allowed the women assistants to minister to men as well.
Calvin also responds to those who argue that on the basis of I Timothy 5:9, nuns are to take vows of celibacy and chastity. Our concern is not to note all his arguments, but to see that in this connection he taught that the widows of I Timothy 5:9 served in the church. After saying in Instatutes 4.13.18 that such widows were “received into public ministry,” Calvin says in 4.13.19:
But how is it lawful to apply this passage of Paul to nuns? For deaconesses were created not to appease God with songs or unintelligible mumbling, not to live the rest of the time in idleness, but to discharge the public ministry of the church toward the poor and to strive with all zeal, constancy, and diligence in the task of love.5
The church in Geneva implemented Calvin’s view by allowing women to work in the hospital. (Remember that the hospital was under the oversight of the diaconate, and that the hospitallier, the one who oversaw the day-to-day operations, was a deacon—see Standard Bearer vol. 82, pp. 303ff.) The diaconal account books of the church in Geneva indicate that women “were active as donors, hostesses, landladies, nurses, and recommenders of the poor to the deacons,” that many women helped those served by the “Funds,” and specifically that the widows cared for orphans supported by the “Funds” (see Standard Bearer, vol. 82, pp. 320ff.).6
Other Reformers and Reformed Churches
Calvin was not the only Reformer to teach this, nor did one find women assisting the deacons only in Geneva.
That Heinrich Bullinger (in Zurich), Philip Melanchthon (Luther’s assistant and successor, in Germany), and Theodore Beza (Calvin’s successor in Geneva) taught the same, Elsie Anne McKee demonstrates.7
Peter Y. DeJong notes that the first mention of “deaconesses” (in the sense outlined by Calvin) “is found in the Reformed churches in the principality of Sedan in France, where a society known as the ‘demoiselles de charite’ devoted themselves to the care of the poor and sick,” and goes on to speak of other Reformed synods that spoke to the matter, and congregations that implemented such.8
The Articles of Wesel, 1568, said, “In those places where it is convenient we are of the opinion that women of proven faith and pious walk and who are of an advanced age, according to the example of the Apostles, can also be admitted to this office.” Which office? The statement is made in chapter five, “Concerning the Deacons,” and is made after making a twofold distinction in the office, as Calvin had done. Women were permitted to be admitted to the office of deacon in its second kind, who were “in the main to care for the sick, the wounded and the prisoners.”9
DeJong traces the development of the thinking of Reformed churches on this subject over the next 15 years or so. In 1575, the Church Order(presumably that of Wesel) required the consistory to choose four deaconesses of any age. In 1580 the Classis of Wesel decided that if the Reformed churches were to implement the help of women, they should follow the requirements set forth by Paul, choosing widows for that purpose. Then in 1581 the Synod of Middelburg dealt with the issue:
16. Whether it would be advisable to re-introduce the office of deaconess? Answer: No, because of various inconveniences which might follow therefrom. But in times of pestilence or other diseases, if there is any service to be done for sick women, not fitting for [male] deacons, they shall provide it by their wives or by others qualified for this.10
Notwithstanding this decision, the congregation at Amsterdam permitted a body of women to serve the deacons, and a “few other churches also made use of the services of women, such as the congregations of Emden and Utrecht, but never was such work regarded as strictly official.”11
But after the 1500s we do not read of such anymore. Was the practice so commonplace, that nothing more was said about it? Or did it die out? The latter, apparently. Lambert Daneau wrote this in 1577, regarding the lack of widows assisting the deacons: “For in this our age, in all reformed churches, the use of this rule and precept is lacking. From which it appears that things which pertain to a particular polity of the church, and have been established and received only for reason of times or places or persons, are not permanent.”12 In other words, Paul laid down a rule that may be used as needed, but is not obligatory on the churches.
No doubt one reason why this practice died out is that civil governments began taking over more of the work of the church, including the relief of the poor and care of the sick. Another, suggested by Emile Doumergue, is that “cautious men…feared the ‘inconveniences’ of this innovation.”13
The nineteenth century to the present.
In the last two centuries, the idea of having deaconesses has again come to the fore in Christian churches. Various Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, and Mennonite denominations permit women to become deaconesses (sometimes, but not always, distinct from the office of deacon), and to serve especially in teaching and in medical work. A detailed examination of the role of women in the work of mercy in the last two centuries is both impossible and unnecessary for our purposes.14 We limit our remaining remarks to Reformed churches.
Peter DeJong notes that “within recent years the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands have again awakened to the realization of the important place which women can and ought to fill in the ministry of mercy.”15 However, among confessionally and faithfully Reformed churches in North America, I know of none that have an official policy regarding women assisting the deacons, or a structured approach regarding the same.
The only significant development in the last two centuries within North American, confessionally Reformed denominations is the departure by some from the scriptural principle that men only may serve in church office—a principle determined and revealed by God Himself, requiring the church to submit to God’s will in this regard. Women have served as deacons in the Reformed Church in America since 1972,16 and the Christian Reformed Church in North America first allowed women to serve as deacons in 1984.17
Reformed churches must continue to exclude women from the office of deacon. This is not to ignore or despise the gifts of women; it is simply to continue to be faithful to God’s Word. God Himself knows the gifts of mercy and compassion that He has given to women in the church, and provides a way for such gifts to be used for the church as a whole. The way is not that women serve as deacons, but that they serve as assistants to the deacons.
What remains to be done, then, is further to defend such an idea, and to give some ideas as to how it could be implemented.
¹ John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, transl. Rev. William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989 reprint), p. 87.
² Calvin, Commentaries, p. 128.
³ John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, transl. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), vol. 2, p. 1061.
4. Brian M. Schwertley, A Historical and Biblical Examination of Women Deacons (Southfield, MI: Reformed Witness, 1998), p. 32.
5. Calvin, Institutes, vol. 2, pp. 1273 and 1274.
6. Jeannine E. Olson, Calvin and Social Welfare: Deacons and the Bourse francaise (Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 1989), pp. 80-81.
7. Elsie Anne McKee, John Calvin on the Diaconate and Liturgical Almsgiving (Geneva: Librarie Droz S.A., 1984), pp. 212, 213, and 219.
8. Peter Y. DeJong, The Ministry of Mercy for Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1963), pp. 242-243.
9. Richard R. DeRidder, Translation of Ecclesiastical Manual including the decisions of the Netherlands Synods and other significant matters relating to the government of the churches, by P. Biesterveld and H. H. Kuyper (Grand Rapids, MI: Calvin Theological Seminary, 1982), pp. 33 and 34.
10. DeRidder, p. 129.
11. DeJong, p. 243.
12. As quoted in McKee, pp. 219-220.
13. As summarized by McKee, p. 221.
14. The interested reader can find an exhaustive and scholarly study of this topic by reading chapters 5-8 of Jeannine E. Olson’s book Deacons and Deaconesses Through the Centuries (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005). Specifically regarding the position and work of deaconesses in Baptist churches, one can confer Charles W. DeWeese’s book Women Deacons and Deaconesses: 400 Years of Baptist Service (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2005). For an older work that treats the position and work of deaconesses in Lutheran churches, one can read Frederick S. Weiser’s book Love’s Response: A Story of Lutheran Deaconesses in America (Philadelphia, PA: The Board of Publication of the United Lutheran Church in America, 1962).
15. DeJong, pp. 244-245.