Previous article in this series: January 1, 2010, p. 159.

With official sanction, and on a wider scale, Reformed churches ought to permit women to serve as assistants to the deacons.

Arguing that this should be done on a wider scale, I recognize that it is already done to a limited degree by a Helping Hands Committee or by some other means. This is good. Where it is already being done, let us be sure that it is being done with a clear understanding of the biblical basis for it, and that it is being done in a biblical manner. At the same time, let us examine whether we can implement this practice more broadly.

The official sanction that I have in mind would not be that of a statement in the Church Order, or a decision of a broader assembly. Rather, each Reformed diaconate, with the approval of the consistory that oversees its work, would do well to draw up its own policy for implementing this practice in its own congregation.

Other voices

In saying that Reformed churches ought to implement this practice more widely, I echo the voices of other Reformed writers who have already suggested this.

Already in the seventeenth century such a voice was heard. Gysbert Voetius

maintained that there is every reason to continue a type of female ministry in the churches…. Their work should be that of ministering to the poor, the strangers, the sick and especially women and children of the congregation. Many of the tasks which they can perform would be impossible or indelicate for the deacons. …In smaller congregations, where the work would not be so extensive, he argued that this might well be performed by the wives of the deacons.1

Herman Bavinck, writing a century ago, and in the context of the situation of the diaconate in the Netherlands, argued along the same lines:

This development, which the distress of our times calls for, can in the main occur only along the following lines, [as I propose:]….

5. That in large churches the bearers of this office (deacons, DJK) avail themselves, if necessary, of the assistance of deaconesses in the same way the other two offices employ catechists and pastoral visitors of the sick….

7. That they extend their help to all the poor, the sick, the strangers, the prisoners, the mentally retarded, the mentally ill, the widows and orphans, in a word, to all the wretched and needy who exist in the church and are either completely or partially deprived of help from other sources, and that by word and deed they seek to relieve their suffering.2

Brian Schwertley concludes his work, A Historical and Biblical Examination of Women Deacons, by saying:

Given the biblical and historical evidence regarding women deacons, the question asked in the modern debate needs to be changed. The question has been: should the church have deaconesses? The question should be: what type of deaconess does the New Testament authorize? …The simple fact is that having deaconesses in the church is biblical as long as the church defines deaconesses biblically.

It is not enough simply to oppose the “women in the same office as men deacons” view of deaconesses. Churches must study and then put in place the servant-widows that do have divine authorization. Under divine inspiration Paul gives instructions to place godly widows on a list. These servant-widows or deaconesses are needed now just as much as they were in the early church.3

Let the reader understand that Schwertley uses the term “deaconess” to refer to an official position in the church that serves, but is distinct from, the male diaconate.

Near the conclusion of his book, Peter Y. DeJong himself writes:

In the light of the above it should be clear that there is very definitely a place for the ministry of women in the church of Christ. This service, however, does not have an official character, since nowhere in the New Testament is there proof that Christ or the apostles recognized any other offices than those of the ministers of the Word, the elders and the deacons as permanent. Yet the church is depriving herself of a unique opportunity and a fruitful source of help by ignoring the auxiliary aid which pious women can render the poor and the sick. These should be recognized as assistants to the diaconate in the discharge of its God-given functions.4

In saying that this service does not have an official character, DeJong does not mean God has not authorized it; indeed God has, in I Timothy 5. Rather, DeJong is making a clear distinction between this position of ministry of women, and the three special offices in the church.

The Reasons

For various reasons, Reformed diaconates do well to implement this practice more widely, and officially.

The first is that such a practice has scriptural warrant. In our first article on this topic, we noted this biblical warrant, examining I Timothy 5:9-10 at length, and also noting I Timothy 3:11.

The second is that by so doing, our diaconates can carry out the ministry of mercy more fully. This ministry of mercy is not limited to the care of the poor by providing them money with which to pay their bills, but includes the bodily care of all in need, including the aged, the widows, the sick, and the disabled. The care of all such needy might be more than the deacons can reasonably be expected to do, partly because of the limited number of deacons in comparison to the greater number of needy, partly because some of these needy require care during the day when the deacons are at work, and partly because some of the care required involves supplying the bodily and personal needs of women, which male deacons ought not do. To have assistants who are available to help during the day will enable the deacons to meet these needs. The goal, then, is the care of all, such that none are neglected. In the church of Jerusalem, the alleged neglect of some widows in the daily ministrations led the apostles to institute the office of deacon (Acts 6). Let the deacons of Christian churches today take heed that none of their own be neglected.

The third is that by this the church avails herself of the gifts God has given women, and she avails herself of these gifts in a legitimate, God-glorifying way. Those who advocate opening the special offices in the church to women argue their case on the basis of the fact that God has given women gifts for the church to use. They wrongly argue this, not because God has not given gifts to women, but because God has not permitted women, even gifted women, to hold these offices. But God does permit gifted women to be used as assistants to the deacons; so the church rightly avails herself of the gifts of these women by letting them serve in this capacity. Particularly, godly and experienced women who are living out of the power of grace in Christ have the gifts of understanding the needs of women, and the compassion to attend to those needs. The reason why women should not serve in church office—that she was created to be subject to man, I Timothy 2:11-14—does not prevent her from serving as assistants to the deacons, for in assisting, such women place themselves under the deacons’ authority.

The Objections

Some will object that such a plan is not necessary. After all, many sick or elderly church members have family who can care for their needs. And the government or other organizations make provision for such needs also, with meals on wheels, home health care nurses, affordable taxi services for low income people, and other services.

That some have family who can care for their needs does not render this care by the deacons and women assistants unnecessary. For, first, not all have family; and second, especially if one needs constant care, his family cannot provide that care constantly. Let me underscore this last statement. Is there someone in your congregation who provides full-time care to an aged parent, or a disabled child? Let the deacons assist, by arranging to give the caregiver a break from time to time!

That the government has its ways of helping does not mean the church need not help. That the church must care for her own is a fundamental principle of the work of the deacons. If the church must care for her poor through her deacons rather than leaving the government to care for them, so must the church care for her other needy rather than leaving them to the cruel mercies of the government (Prov. 12:10).

Others might argue such a plan to be unfeasible, for whatever reason. In answer, the Scriptures give warrant for this practice. The church will always face difficulties as she strives to serve our Lord faithfully. Satan will see to this, in his desire to turn the church from the way of obedience; and the sovereign Lord will see to it, as He tests our faith. However, the proper response to such difficulties is not to cease doing what is good, but to persevere in that good.

The Implementation

In implementing this plan, the diaconates will have to address the following matters.

First, they will have to spell out in what instances they would use the help of women. Such instances might include bringing or arranging meals for individuals or families; arranging transportation to and from doctors’ offices; checking on elderly people who live in their own homes, and arranging for household chores to be done; and attending to bodily needs of the elderly. But let the deacons spell out these instances, so that the women and congregation know what to expect.

Second, the deacons will have to decide which women to use, and which criteria to use in selecting the women. Both I Timothy 3:11 and 5:9-10 make clear that these women must be qualified, not only with the natural gifts and abilities for this work, but also with spiritual qualifications. The deacons ought not avail themselves of the help of just any woman who is willing to help. They should carefully screen and select those whom they will use in this capacity. The deacons do well to evaluate whether these women have a genuine love for God’s people. Have they manifested compassion for the saints throughout their lives, or is this an entirely new practice for them (I Tim. 5:10)?

The deacons should judge whether these are women who can guard their tongues (“not slanderers,” I Tim. 3:11). The sick or elderly might confide certain struggles to their caregivers. Will the women make these private matters public, by gossip? Those women who help might become critical of or impatient with those they are helping (not at all uncommon, when a perfectly healthy caregiver does not understand the limitations of age and disease); but does this criticism and frustration get spread throughout the congregation, so as to give the needy person a bad name? Or, in the very nature of the case, these women might witness embarrassing or humorous events that make a good story for others; but are they able to hold their tongue, to save the embarrassment of the needy person from being known by the church?

The deacons ought consider whether the woman is “grave” (I Tim. 3:11), that is, honorable and respected. Few aged or infirm, needy though they be, desire to be attended to by one, even if a member of the church, whose general character and reputation is questionable. And let the deacons be convinced a woman will faithfully serve the church’s needy, and not seek her own profit. The world can provide enough caregivers who take sinful advantage of the needy; let not the church provide such.

The deacons ought consider whether the woman is old enough. With age comes maturity and patience, as well as more time to devote to such tasks, not having young children at home. For good reason the inspired apostle prescribed that such women must be at least 60 years old (I Tim. 5:9). I do not understand this prescription to mean that today also, women who assist the deacons must be at least 60. But the principle is that they must be mature and godly women, and that their maturity has been manifest for many years.

In determining which women to allow to serve in this capacity, the deacons must make a formal evaluation. Just as the whole body of officebearers consciously applies the test of Scripture (I Tim. 3, Titus 1) to the men they are nominating for special office, so the whole body of deacons must evaluate how well prospective assistants measure up to the requirements of Scripture. And a formal decision must be taken, to permit these women to serve.

Third, the deacons will have to make clear to their assistants what work is expected of them, what work is not expected of them, and for how long the deacons desire them to serve. To be clear on these matters at the outset will help avoid frustration on the part of the women.

Fourth, the deacons must have a clear idea of how they will oversee the work of these women, and how they will hold them accountable. These women are not replacing the deacons in their work, but they are serving the deacons; they are not caring for the needy merely as members of the body of Christ, but in an official capacity. So it is necessary that the women be accountable to the deacons, and that the deacons insist on such accountability. A monthly report to be read and treated at the monthly deacons’ meeting would be a good step in this direction.

The Benefit

The main benefit of implementing such a practice is that in this way the communion of saints is more plainly manifested, and the members of the body show their care for each other.

This benefits the needy who receive the care of which they stood in need. It also benefits the congregation and the assistants themselves. In giving, we receive, which is more blessed (Acts 20:35). A second benefit is that in this way the church of Jesus Christ shows herself to be self-sufficient in a right way. She is not self-sufficient as regards her need for grace in Christ—she is not sufficient in herself at all for this, but she relies completely on God. But she is self-sufficient in that she can care for her own, and does not need society and civil government to care for her.

Thus the church shows that her God and Savior is Himself all-sufficient—He cares for His own, through Christ as Mediator, by the agency of Christ’s church.