This article looks at the possibility of women in office, and discusses the view of Luther and Calvin, the arguments for ordaining women, and the role of women in the Bible.

Source: The Outlook, 1979. 7 pages.

Should We Have Female Office-Bearers?

One of the most fascinating characteristics ob­servable in the works of the great reformers Luther and Calvin is the spontaneous reverence which they show for Scripture.

They ask no questions about its authority; without any doubt it was and it is the Word of God.

All efforts to find in their works beginnings of a negative-critical attitude toward the Bible have failed; to them the expression "It is written" was the end of all contradiction.

In the same way we are struck by their spontane­ous repudiation of the ministry of women in the church, that is that ministry while rules the church in the name and with the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Luther's Convictions🔗

What did Luther say about it? — he was con­fronted by this problem by Anabaptists and enthusiasts who claimed a charismatic calling for women. He responded to them in his "Von Schleichern and Winkelpredigern" (1532) 1 and mentioned in the work several prophetesses from the Bible, but he added that these women in special circumstances had received a special calling from the Lord. The rule for the life of the church was, however, to be found in the commandment of Paul to keep silent which was clearly inspired by the Holy Spirit. This command, declares Paul, is the command of the Lord. As for the rest, women can and should "pray, sing, praise and say Amen, and read and teach one another in the household, admonishing, comforting, and also expounding the Holy Scriptures" as well as they possibly can. 2

He repeated the same in 1539: "The Holy Spirit has excluded women, children and incapable people from the office of preaching."

Calvin's View🔗

What did Calvin say about it? — he wrote about this topic in detail in his commentaries. But almost in passing he did the same in his Institutes, as if he took it for granted that everyone would agree.

Writing about the so-called emergency-baptism as it was practiced also by women in the Roman Catholic church he expressed himself in the follow­ing way:

Even in the smallest things, as in food and drink, whatever we undertake with a doubtful conscience, Paul openly pronounces to be sin (Romans 14:23). Therefore in baptism by women there is much graver sin where it is plain that a rule given by Christ is violated, inasmuch as we know that it is unlawful to put asunder what God has joined to­gether (Matthew 19:6; Mark 10:9).

The meaning of the words of Calvin is clear from the context. He had just explained that Christ had ordained that the preachers of the gospel should also be "ministers of baptism" (Matthew 28:19), and that evidently men were appointed to do so; as soon as women began to baptize they put asunder that one office. 3

Moreover, Calvin referred to the unanimous con­sensus of the ancient church in this matter; only heretics had allowed women to baptize.

This was the way in which the Reformers read their Bible and understood the history of the Christian church; in more recent times the situation has considerably changed, as well in the world in general as in different churches.

Changes in Today's World🔗

As far as the world in general is concerned, the Dutch Professor J. van Bruggen mentions a threefold emancipation.

According to him the emancipation of women in the beginning of the 20th century was social and cultural in character; what was being stressed was the women's suffrage and their right to study.

In the sixties a sexual emancipation was launched which has also been called a sexual revolution; chas­tity and virginity were no longer considered to be virtues; in the Dutch language it was said that women wanted to be "bosses of their own belly"; pill and abortion were applied in an increasing measure.

In the seventies we were witnesses of a structural emancipation; all structures of human society must be liberated from any male authority; total equality in everything, that was the slogan.4

Changing Views of Churches🔗

As far as the several churches are concerned, this was the time in which women gradually were ad­mitted to the respective offices of deacon, elder and minister.

In the Reformed churches of the Netherlands 5 one can listen to female ministers in several places, and female elders and deacons are present in many places. The same is true in different Lutheran and Presbyterian churches, although not in the Roman Catholic and Greek Catholic churches. A person who protests this course of affairs is often considered to be hopelessly old-fashioned; although he is in the company of the church of 19 centuries, he no longer seems to fit in that of the 20th century.

Arguments Cited for Ordaining Women🔗

  1. The great argument in favor of the holding of church-offices by women is that of natural equality; if anyone disagrees he is immediately accused of discrimination.

  2. The second argument is that of what is con­sidered to be the revolutionary character of the Christian faith; the central history of the Bible is the Exodus which was (according to this view) the great liberation of slaves from a reign of suppression; lib­eration of slaves, of poor and neglected people, also of women, should be preached from all pulpits.
    There are also some other arguments.

  3. It is said that during the Second World War so many pastors had to serve in the army, that at any rate in Germany it was a must for women to conduct worship services and to lead congregations; in the same way the decision of the Presbyterian Church in Canada to ordain women (1966) has been de­fended; "some of the observers felt that the many vacant pulpits in the home mission field tipped the scales in favor of the action." 6Many Dutchmen tell you a similar story: because men (for whatever reason) were no longer available, women had to take their places.

  4. Finally the argument is often repeated that in our time we understand Scripture in a new and bet­ter manner than in former days.

Already in 1877 the Dutch-Reformed minister Manssen declared in a study about "Christianity and the woman" that Paul had been preoccupied too much with Jewish ideas; in our century the honorable Miss G.M. Asch van Wijk wrote in her "Joined together by God" (1936) that this apostle contra­dicted himself in his opinions about women, and she added in another work on the same topic in 1950 that we are liberated from the rigid literalism of Scripture.

Prof. Kuitert declared in 1970:

We act today dif­ferently from the rules of the Bible, and in the Bible men acted differently from what we consider to be the rules of our time. 7

Here we meet the well-known notion of the "time-­boundness" of the Bible; Paul had got his first lessons from the rabbi's and he could never forget them; those rabbi's had told him their stories about the creation of man and the subordination of women; Paul echoed their viewpoint. In our own church Prof. Willis P. DeBoer approaches this point of view. 8

The Bible is Not Time-Bound🔗

Is the Bible indeed "time-bound"? Has our scien­tific knowledge so widely expanded, have our psychological insights so much deepened, have our soci­ological interests so much broadened, that we may say every now and then: we know better? — are we allowed to declare (as a Dutch theological professor did) that Paul indeed condemned homosexuality, but that we in our time know more than he did? — are we allowed to adapt the Bible to our 20th-century lifestyle and thinking?

The answer to these questions should be given without any hesitation: If we place only one step on this slippery road, we are prone to fall with the fol­lowing; in that case the one scholar comes today with his constructions and the other comes tomor­row with his brand new insights and the poor congregation travels through the mist.

The Bible is not time-bound; it speaks with author­ity for all times.

This does not mean, however, that the books of the Bible are not time-related; it would be foolish to deny this.

"Time-bound" means: as a human book the Bible has only a relative, limited authority.

"Time-related" means: as the inspired Word of God the Bible has absolute authority, expressed in the language and in the situation of the time of the author.

We have only to think of the ox and the ass of the tenth commandment in order to find out what is meant by the term "time-related"; we can also con­sider the fact that the Bible contains a history of salvation, that e.g. all the sacrifices of the Old Testa­ment pointed to the great sacrifice of Calvary, which they foreshadowed and by which they were abol­ished; in the same way the Holy Supper took the place of Passover and Baptism came in the place of circumcision.

Time-related! — Also the way in which one dresses himself (herself) or expresses his/her feel­ings already depends in the Bible itself on times and places.

What the Christians in Paul's time expressed by the "holy kiss" (Romans 16:16, 1 Thessalonians 5:26) is con­veyed by us by a firm handshake 9 ; and the same principle applies to the much-discussed question of the veiling of the women (1 Corinthians 11:4-10).

Evidently in the church of Corinth some women appeared in the meetings of the congregations who "abused their liberty in their desire to put man and woman on the same level." They did this when in ec­stasy by laying aside their veils. In that time im­moral women acted in the same way.

Probably prostitutes used to or we compelled to cut their hair and to keep it very short. Paul's argument may be summed up as follows: if immoral women were shaven and if they behaved like men, then honorable women should cover their heads and distinguish themselves in all things from men or else they placed themselves on a level with immoral women.10

The point in question is not the veil, no more than the point in question in the tenth com­mandment is the ox and the ass; the point in ques­tion is that of women behaving like men in the wor­ship services; and this is the point which calls for our obedient attention in the context of the whole Bible.

The Bible on the Role of Women🔗

How does the Word of God speak on women in general and on the office of women in particular?

Women in the Old Testament🔗

Let us first take a brief look at the teaching of the Old Testament. The first woman was created by God out of Adam, after Adam had been created as a help for Adam; she got two names: Isha ("spouse"11) and Eve ("mother").

By these two names she was characterized: a help for her husband and a mother for her children; and in that way she is honored throughout the Old Tes­tament, in which we read the beautiful hymn of the virtuous housewife in Proverbs 31; in which we also find the repeated expression concerning the kings of Judah; "the name of his mother was so and so"; evi­dently those mothers meant much to their children.

On the other hand we find in the first pages of the Bible the story of the fall; the devil knocked first at the door of Eve's heart and Eve led Adam astray. We can try to explain this course of events on psy­chological grounds — the devil is a great psycholo­gist — at any rate we don't find an excuse here for Adam's sin. However, the result was pronounced in the word of God: "I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing ... yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you" (Genesis 3:16).

In many ways the shadows of these words accom­pany the life of women in the Old Testament; in most cases they had to stay at the background; polygamy and divorce, caused by hardness of heart, were allowed. There was a well-known synagogical prayer: "Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast not made me a woman."12

We should also notice the fact that we don't find female priests or Levites in the Old Testament; among other peoples there were priestesses and female temple-servants a plenty; this was not the case in Israel.

Women in the New Testament🔗

Turning to the New Testament we discover that the time of female humiliation is over; rightly it has been said that the woman has been made free by the Son of Man.

Jesus honored marriage by His presence at the wedding in Cana; He prohibited adultery as well as arbitrary divorce, He required monogamy; the high place of a marriage in the Lord is evidenced by the comparison with the relation between Christ and His church.

With great honor many individual women are mentioned; in the first place the mother of the Lord, Mary; then Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and many others who provided for the disciples out of their means (Luke 8:3); also the women who on Easter morning went to the tomb with their spices. They all served the Lord, and the same is true of Dorcas who made coats and garments, of Lydia who received Paul and his companions in her house, of Priscilla who with her husband hosted a congrega­tion in her house, and of many others whose names we find in the letters of Paul.

We may conclude that by Christ the woman has been completely restored in the office of all believers; believing in Him, she is a prophetess, a priestess and a queen.

She confesses the name of her Lord and she can do so in a special manner in the education of her chil­dren, in the general work of education, in evange­lism and in missions.

She offers her life to Him and can do so in a special sense in the care for sick and weak persons, for widows and orphans, for persons in social misery.

She fights against sin and the devil, and can do so by pleading for purity and chastity, for "all that is pure and lovely and gracious" (Philippians 4:8), by "her reverent and chaste behavior" (1 Peter 3:2).

This is all very wonderful, but in view of all this we are struck the more by the fact that we find no female office-bearers in the New Testament, no female ministers, elders or deacons.

Women were not Called to the Church Offices🔗

It has become customary to point to Phoebe, who is called in the R.S.V. "a deaconess of the church at Cenchreae" (Romans 16:1). But according to both Prof. H. Ridderbos and Prof. J. Murray it is very dubious whether Phoebe was really a deaconess in the tech­nical sense of the word. Writes Murray: "If Phoebe ministered to the saints, as is evident from verse 2, then she would be a servant of the church and there is neither need nor warrant to suppose that she occupied or exercised what amounted to an ecclesias­tical office comparable to that of the diaconate."13

The same is true concerning the women men­tioned in 1 Timothy 3:11; in the Dutch translation of the Bible we find inserted the word (their) women, the translators have thought of a reference to the wives of the deacons; and Dr. C. Bouma finds here information about a special assistance rendered by women to the deacons.

The point is that we find in the church of Christ, as pictured in the New Testament, only male office-bearers.

The Lord's Call to Special Offices🔗

Only male office-bearers in the New Testament!

The twelve apostles called by Jesus were men, and also the seventy sent out through Israel (Luke 10); seven men were chosen to serve the tables (Acts 6), the elders who were appointed in every church (Acts 14:23) were men and Paul unquestionably speaks about men when he writes: "His gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the equipment of the saints, for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ" (Ephesians 4:11).

The Bible is very clear in this matter, and anyone who tries to escape from these sober facts by saying that Jesus and His apostles accommodated them­selves to the customs of their time parades an old warhorse which was once used by the 18th century rationalists but since lost all its power; Jesus who came "for judgment into this world" (John 9:39) cer­tainly did not accommodate Himself, and the apos­tles were constantly accused of changing the Jewish and Roman customs (Acts 6:14; 16:21).

The real issue here is that of the character of the office in the church of Jesus Christ, by which we mean that office which is defined in art. 30 of the Belgic Confession:

We believe that the true Church must be governed by that spiritual polity which our Lord has taught us in His Word; namely, that there must be ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God and to administer the sacraments; also elders and deacons who, together with the pastors, form the council of the Church.14

Originally these three offices were entrusted by Christ, the Anointed of the Lord, to His apostles; from this inclusive office of the apostles developed the special offices mentioned in our confession, but we should never forget that the office-bearers are always representing Christ as Prophet, Priest and King of His Church.

The Officers' Service Includes Ruling🔗

Therefore, speaking about the character of the special office, we want to stress in the first place that it is an office of service, "even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve" (Matthew 20:28); all the office-bearers are servants and they are each other's fellow-servants; haughty eyes, also of office-bearers, are an abomination to the Lord (Proverbs 6:17). But we should stress no less the ruling character of the office; the office-bearers speak and act with authority (Acts 20:28; 1 Timothy 5:17; Titus 1:5; Hebrew 13:17), in the name of the King of the Church; this becomes most evident in the use of the keys of the kingdom of heaven, consisting in the preaching of the holy gospel and the maintaining of church disci­pline, by which the kingdom of heaven is opened to believers and 'shut against unbelievers (Heid. Cat. Lord's Day 31).

This Rule is Not Assigned to Women🔗

The administration of these keys is not in keeping with real womanhood; that is the reason why the apostle straightforwardly forbids them to admin­ister them. He orders that "the women should keep silence in the churches" (1 Corinthians 14:34) and he permits "no woman to teach or to have authority over men" (1 Timothy 2:12). It is clear from the context that Paul refers in these places to the behavior of women in the public worship services of the congregation, not only in that particular time and not only in a special church, but "as a command of the Lord," and "in all the churches of the saints," and he adds: "if any one does not recognize this, he is not recognized." Why do we find this apostolic teaching in the Bible?

Because also in the church a woman should be a woman and a man a man; Jesus did not deliver us from our creation-position but from sin; He did not reverse the creation-order, He did restore it.

That creation-order is as a mirror of the Divine Being itself. Paul tells us that God the Father is the Head of Christ; that Christ is the Head of every man; and that so the husband is the head of the woman (1 Corinthians 11:3).

These words are not only related to marriage, but in 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 and in 1 Timothy 2 they are applied to the worship services of the assembled congregation in which even the angels are present (1 Corinthians 11:10), and also among the angels are rulers and ruled ones.

Paul makes it very clear that this being ruled, this subordination, has nothing to do with inferiority; Christ obeys the Father because He wants to do His will joyfully; and the congregation obeys Jesus in love. Men and women should both be liberated from sin, but they should be liberated to be real men and women; their conduct in the congregation should not be in conflict with this basic position.

Women's Important Role🔗

Must we conclude now that a woman should not be allowed to do any church-work, or that she should be excluded from all ruling functions in society? Not at all!

Many women in the New Testament have func­tioned in the church, providing for the needs of the saints, and as helpers in the work of the spread of the gospel. That work was not identical with the government of the church, yet it was very important and as long and as soon as the term "deaconess" has no other meaning than "helper of the deacons," let us have deaconesses; it should be applauded that in our days Christian women help more than before in evangelism and missionary work, in education and in all kinds of social activities; in many milieus they can reach out better than men can and in many re­spects their gifts are unique.

The same is true of all social life. If it is true that God has entrusted special talents to women (and it is true), they should use them; this goes without saying as far as nurses are concerned, but also female doc­tors can function in a meaningful way; it goes with­out saying as far as teachers are concerned but also female counselors can be a great help. With respect we mention the names of Florence Nightingale and of Golda Meier, of the Dutch queens Wilhelmina and Juliana.

We conclude with a word of John Calvin; he was accused of having opposed the reigning of Queen Elisabeth I, because a woman should not be invested with such a governing office; he answered in a letter to the English secretary of state Robert Cecil, in which he wrote on "the natural order of things," which made the male heirs to the throne the natural successors. "But," he added, "here and there ap­peared such gifted and excellent women that it seemed to be so that they were brought by God on the scene of the world by a special blessing, either in order to put to shame the cowardice of men, or to give a sign of His power which is made perfect in weakness."


  1. ^ About prowlers and quack-preachers.
  2. ^ P. Brunner. The Ministry and the Ministry of Women. 1971, p. 9.
  3. ^ Inst. IV, 15, 22.
  4. ^ J. van Bruggen, Emancipatie en de bijbel. 1974, blz. 7.
  5. ^ Both the Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk en de Gereformeerde) Kerken.
  6. ^ Christianity Today, July 8, 1966.
  7. ^ H. Kuitert. Anders Gezegd. 1970, pp. 68, 69.
  8. ^ W.P. De Boer. "The Role of Women." (In: The Heritage of Calvin. 1976, pp. 236-272.)
  9. ^ Prof. John Murray deplored this situation writing: "It betrays an unnecessary reserve, if not a loss of the ardour of the church's first love, when the holy kiss is conspicuous by its absence in the Western Church." (Comm. Romans II, p. 232.)
  10. ^ F.W. Grosheide, Comm. 1 Corinthians, p. 254.
  11. ^  "Because she was taken out of man"; the Dutch translation is "mannin."
  12. ^ Quoted by C.C. Ryrie. The Place of Women in the Church, 1968, p. 8.
  13. ^ J. Murray. Comm. Romans II, p. 226.
  14. ^ If in our churches female office-bearers would be chosen, not only the Church-Order, but also this article of the confession must be changed, speaking of the "choosing of faithful men."

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