Should women be allowed to serve in the church as deaconesses? This article looks at the work and role of women in the church through church history. It also discusses the task of women in the ministry of mercy.

Source: Diakonia, 1991. 11 pages.

Women and the Ministry of Mercy

A worthy woman who can find? For her price is far above rubies ... She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.


They the royal-hearted women are Who nobly love the noblest, yet have grace For needy suffering lives in lowliest place, Carrying a choicer sunlight in their smile. The heavenliest ray that pitieth the vile.

George Eliot

Here, too, we are presented with another most useful indication — the employment of female agency, under the eye and with the sanction of an apostle, in the business of a church. It is well to have inspired authority for a practice too little known and too little proceeded on in modern times. Phoebe belonged to the order of deaconesses, in which capacity she had been a helper of many, including Paul himself. Like the women in the Gospels who waited on our Saviour, she may have ministered to them of her substance, though there can be little doubt that, as holder of an official status in the church, she ministered to them of her service also.

Thomas Chalmers

Until now we have limited ourselves directly to the work of the deacons in the church of Christ. There is, however, another closely-related subject which de­serves our attention. It concerns the position of women in the church and the tasks which have been assigned to and performed by them in former times. The question of the deaconesses has been one of the most fascinating and controversial to occupy stu­dents of church history in recent years. Basically, the issue has resolved itself into the question whether the New Testament gives any warrant to the view that women held an official ecclesiastical position which should be maintained today.

In order to do the material full justice, we should first of all consider the general position accorded to women in the Scriptures, thereafter review the prominent place which they occupied in the church throughout the centuries, and finally seek an answer to the question whether and in how far they can be of service in the ministry of mercy today.

The Position of Women According to Scripture🔗

Before we will be able to determine with some de­gree of accuracy the proper place of women in the churches, we should give an account of the general social position accorded them in Biblical times.

That there is a great difference between male and female has been recognized throughout history. In the creative plan man is not accounted complete until in His infinite wisdom God fashioned woman from his rib. She is his complement, essential to the proper development of his life and the fulfillment of his divinely-ordained mandate in the world. Thus she is assigned the position of being his "help" or "helper" (Gen. 2:18). This priority of man's creation implies clearly his headship but in no way his supe­riority over her physically, mentally or spiritually. Men and women are mutually interdependent, and the happiness and fulfillment of their lives demands proper cooperation between the sexes. Indeed, in the story of the Fall (Genesis 3) the supremacy of influence is ascribed to the woman; hence the penalty for her unwarranted and ill-fated leadership was that her husband should "rule over" her. By this act she forfeited the respect and confidence which entitled her to influence in human affairs.

Since that day the position of womanhood in the history of the nations has been far from enviable. Usually she has been treated as an inferior to man. In his ignorance and perversion he has often enslaved and degraded her. Among most of the nations where historical records have been preserved, she was held in subjection to the whims and caprices of men who made the laws and controlled social life. Thus women could not inherit property and possessions unless by way of exception. Neither could they freely choose their husbands. Among most peoples they had few if any legal rights. Very seldom were they allowed to occupy positions of authority in family, community and nation.

In marked contrast with most of the nations the Hebrews under the revealed will of God accorded woman a far more favourable position. Her liberties were greater; her social position more important and commanding. Here she was allowed greater free­dom, not only being permitted to appear unveiled in public and before kings but also allowed to take a full and active part in the sacred meals and annual feasts. Even in Greece and Rome at the time of their loftiest cultural achievements, there was far less considera­tion accorded to women than among the Israelites. The leading philosophers maintained that the life of the state would become disorganized, if wives were accorded equality with their husbands. Socrates and Demosthenes claimed that they were inferior to the males. Plato went so far as to advocate community of wives. And Aristotle assigned them a position inter­mediate between slaves and freedmen. In close connection with this inferior position was the cus­tom maintained quite universally among the heathen of recognizing temple prostitutes. Chastity and modesty, recognized as the noblest virtues and chief ornaments of Hebrew women, disappeared from the scene in many pagan lands, including even Greece and Rome. Here the courtesan was often shown greater deference than the wife.

Against this dark and degrading background the regulations imposed by God upon His people safeguarded the glory of womanhood. Divorce was intended chiefly to protect the sanctity of marriage by outlawing the offender and penalizing his of­fence. Jesus rebuked its free extension to include any marital infelicity in His day by pointing out that the occasional dissolution which was permitted was a concession to human weakness and hardness of heart and should be countenanced only in the case of infidelity. According to the Mosaic law daughters might claim inheritance rights, if there were no sons (Numbers 27:1-8). Among the Hebrews the wife and mother took charge of the affairs of the home with a liberty and leadership seldom recognized among other peoples. She was never regarded as the slave or menial of her husband, and her influence on the lives of the children was correspondingly great. Yet all the social and political leadership outside of the home was accorded to the man.

Among the several noteworthy exceptions to this rule in Hebrew history which deserve mention, are Miriam, Deborah, Jael, Abigail and Esther. Their stories immediately focus our attention on heroic examples of womanly fortitude, sagacity and wis­dom. Yet in all these cases their prominence was due in large measure to the failure of men to rise to the need of the hour. It would therefore be doing injus­tice to the Biblical record to conclude that female rulers were permitted among the Israelites. The unusual position of these women was largely the result of the exigencies which the people were forced to meet.

Throughout the New Testament an even higher position was accorded women. From the very first we read of women who were responsive to the teachings of the Saviour, who followed Him during the years of His public teaching and who ministered to Him of their goods. Thus the home of Mary and Martha was for Him a place of refuge and rest. Even those who were ostracized by society because of moral lapse were accorded His genuine interest and restored to a new life. Besides the unique place in His life occupied by His mother, the record of Jesus' earthly ministry speaks of close fellowship enjoyed by such women as Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and others. They were present at His crucifixion, were the first witnesses to His resurrection and gathered with the disciples after His ascension.

Surprising and unusual is also the place occu­pied by women in the first Christian churches. Peter in his Pentecost sermon, quoting from the prophet Joel, depicted the new day as one in which the Spirit was poured out upon women as well as upon men, so that the former as well as the latter were able to prophesy (Acts 2:16-18). Some were preeminent in the works of charity and mercy, as Dorcas (Acts 9:36). Others were prominent in supplying the needs of the church, as Mary the mother of John Mark who gathered the disciples in her home to pray for the deliverance of Peter (Acts 12:12). Priscilla is men­tioned together with her husband as an "expounder" of "the way of God" and an instructor of Apollos (Acts 18:26). Later Paul refers to her as a "fellow-worker in Christ" (Romans 16:3). The daughters of Philip were prophetesses (Acts 21:8, 9). The first convert in Europe was a woman, Lydia the seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who opened her home to Paul and his helpers (Acts 16:14). In many of the apostolic epistles they were accorded places of high honour. So richly was the church at Rome endowed with exceptionally gifted and devout women, that Paul mentions no less than eight of them in his greetings. He also felt himself greatly indebted to Lois and Eunice who had nurtured Timothy in the faith of the Scriptures.

Still more unique is their direct and regular ministry in the early churches. In writing to the Christians at Rome Paul commends to them Phoebe "our sister, who is a servant of the church that is at Cenchreae" (Romans 16:1). Since the word "serv­ant" can also be translated "deaconess," many have sought to find support in this passage for the view that the early church recognized deaconesses as a regular order. To the Philippians the same apostle speaks of the women "who laboured with me in the gospel" (Phil. 4:3), thus inferring that in those days women were active in a type of teaching.

Of far greater significance for this subject is the material found in Paul's letter to Timothy. There we read first of all of the necessary qualifications of the women associated with the deacons, either as their wives or their co-workers in the ministry. These "in like manner must be grave, not slanderers, temper­ate, faithful in all things" (1 Tim. 3:11). Later in the same epistle he enjoins Timothy to enroll the widows who were over sixty years of age and had been married but once.

Among their qualifications he adds that they must be;

 well reported of for good works; if she hath brought up children, if she hath used hospitality to strangers, if she hath washed the saints' feet, if she hath relieved the afflicted, if she hath diligently followed every good work.1 Tim. 5:10

Much reference to this class of women was made in the primitive Christian church. In the epistle to Titus specific mention is made of "aged women," a term which can be understood to mean female presbyters or elders (Titus 2:3).

In spite of all this Paul insists with equal candor on the subordination of women to men in teaching and ruling. In the church at Corinth, which had gained much notoriety because of dissension and disturbance found there, the women were specifi­cally prohibited from speaking in the public assem­blies of the church.

As in all the churches of the saints, let the women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but let them be in subjection, as also says the law. And if they would learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home: for it is shameful for a woman to speak in the church.1 Cor. 14:34, 35

Still stronger is the prohibition recorded in his letter to Timothy,

Let a woman learn in quietness with all subjection. But I permit not a woman to teach, nor to have dominion over a man, but to be in quietness. For Adam was first formed, then Eve; and Adam was not beguiled, but the woman being beguiled hath fallen into transgression: but she shall be saved through her childbearing, if they continue in faith and love and sanctification with sobriety.1 Tim. 2:11-15

Here, then, it is evident that also in the first churches women were under greater restraints than men in the use of the spiritual gifts. Very specifically the exercise of authority by them over men was forbid­den. On the basis of woman's leading part in the Fall and the teachings of the Law, Paul maintains that they are in respect of leadership in the church to be in subjection. Only against this background of both Old and New Testament teaching can we fairly assess the positions which they came to enjoy in the Christian church.

The Work of Women in the Christian Church🔗

Since the charismatic gifts which accompanied the rich manifestation of the Holy Spirit's presence in the life of the early church were not limited to men, it was to be expected that in many respects the women would occupy places of prominence.

This is evident from the earliest records of post-apostolic Christianity. One of the first and most interesting is a letter addressed by the heathen go­vernor Pliny to emperor Trajan on the status of the new religion in Asia Minor. He makes mention of an order of deaconesses in the churches, who exercised in relation to the members of their own sex functions similar to those of the deacons.1 They were perse­cuted by the governor in an attempt to discover their supposedly abominable practices which had occa­sioned the fear and hatred of the heathen against the disciples of Christ.

The Apostolic Constitutions, written about the middle of the second century, makes a careful distinction among the several classes of female workers in the churches — deaconesses, widows and virgins. Included in this writing are both a list of their duties and a form for ordination in which the bishop was to offer the following prayer:

Eternal God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Creator of man and of woman; thou who didst fill with thy Spirit Miriam, Deborah, Hannah and Huldah; thou who didst vouchsafe to a woman the birth of thy only-begotten Son; thou who didst in the tabernacle and in the Temple, place female keepers of thy holy gates — look down now also upon this thy handmaid, and bestow on her thy Holy Ghost that she may worthily perform the work committed to her, to thy honour, and the glory of Christ.2

It is remarkable that in the Eastern churches the reference to the deaconesses is comparatively scant. Yet Origen does speak of the ministry of women as necessary and profitable for the churches. In the Western churches the notices are fuller. Tertullian speaks of them frequently and lists their qualifica­tions.3 In his day the church seems to have made much use of their services, especially those of the widows. As a general rule they had borne children. This harmonized with the Pauline teaching and was rooted in the conviction that such women could better understand and sympathize with the poor in their distress. Though second marriages were con­sidered legal, the church was strict in prohibiting the widows who had contracted these from assuming office. Tertullian also adds that these women were not permitted to teach in the churches. "Let no woman speak in the church, nor teach, nor baptize, nor offer, nor arrogate to herself any manly function, lest two should claim the lot of the priestly office."4 They were charged to care for the poor, comfort the martyrs and confessors in prison, to whom they had easier access than the deacons, assist at the baptism of women, and exercise a general oversight both in public and private over the female members of the congregation. Of their labours they were to render regular reports to the bishops and elders.

The fourth century marked the zenith of such female activity in the churches. By that time the life of the congregations was well organized. The impor­tance of the service rendered by women was recog­nized by such men as Crysostom, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Theodoret and others. The erection of hospitals and hospices for travelers opened for them a new field of service. Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, built one of the first of these institutions for pilgrims and strangers. The first hos­pital in Rome was founded by Fabiola, whom Jerome called "the praise of Christians, the wonder of the Gentiles, the mourning of the poor, and the conso­lation of the monks."5 However, the spread of heresy, the growing power of the hierarchy and the rise of monasticism checked the development of female influence and labour in the church.

Just how long the several offices were continued cannot be accurately determined. The office of widows was abrogated in the French churches al­ready in 441 by the Council of Orange. In the Roman church it continued for some time, and in the Greek churches it did not finally become extinct until the twelfth century.6 It should be noted, however, that the office was far from universal. In certain quarters it assumed greater prominence; in others it was all but unknown. Undoubtedly the growing prosperity of the churches as well as the increased interest in externals contributed significantly to its decline. With the rise of the monastic orders and the appeal of the ascetic ideal the care of the poor was removed from the life of the congregation. Nor could the ministry of deaconesses flourish in a church which had dis­torted the office of the deacons, so that instead of caring for the distressed they became assistants to the high clergy.

During the Middle Ages the only sphere in which women served the church was through their affiliation with the religious orders. Nursing the sick and caring for the poor, as well as teaching especially among the Benedictines, were some of the outstand­ing services which they rendered. Until the tenth century many of the "double" monasteries (those including both men and women), were under the rule of abbesses. The need of physical protection made the presence of men quite necessary in many countries. Although these institutions were found in Rome, Gaul, Britain, Belgium and Germany, they were the most popular in Ireland. As an example of the influence of women in such orders may be cited the case of the Benedictine settlement at Fontevrault, which often numbered as many as 3,000 monks and nuns and was ruled for six hundred years by no less that thirty-two abbesses of remarkable administra­tive ability.7 Many of these women-ruled institutions became centers not only of philanthropy but also of education, training sons and daughters of kings and nobles for public life.

Throughout the succeeding centuries these reli­gious houses fell into disorder and disrepute, largely because of the increase of luxury. By the twelfth century the nuns were cloistered, and the conventual costume became obligatory. Several new religious orders were founded and the older ones reformed. Much interest was taken in the care of the sick, especially the lepers. Although such orders were controlled by the bishops and other higher clergy, they were not the direct expression of the interest of church members in the work of Christian mercy.

Not until the days of the Reformation was the matter of deaconesses in the churches again consid­ered. In many respects this movement destroyed in large areas of Western Europe the influence of the monasteries. An entirely new conception of the place of women became dominant in the churches. Woman was restored to her family, since the Reformation insisted on the inherent propriety and dignity of the marital state. Furthermore it maintained, especially in its Reformed branch, that the ministry of mercy was an official obligation of the whole body of be­lievers.

Among the Bohemian Brethren and the strict Anabaptists the idea of deaconesses was revived for a season. But it soon died out entirely in both groups.8 Much more significant was the effort to reestablish a sort of female ministry of mercy in the Reformed churches. In connection with the restora­tion of the diaconate, they did not hesitate to make use of the help of pious women in the congregation by instituting the office of "widows" in harmony with 1 Timothy 5:9, 10. These women were called "deaconesses." The first mention of them 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 the sick.

The most important efforts were put forth in some of the Reformed churches in northern Ger­many. At the Convent of Wesel the leaders defined the duties of the diaconate and urged that for prac­tical reasons women be employed as assistants. Later on the office was definitely introduced in the congre­gation at Wesel. The Church Order of 1575 specified that four deaconesses were to be chosen by the consistory. These did not necessarily have to be widows of sixty or older, since there was not a sufficient number of them. This led to difficulties, and an appeal was made to later synods. The Classis of Wesel decided in 1580 that "if this office, which had fallen into disuse and decay in the Church of God, is again to be restored, then it shall be estab­lished in the same form, and with the same character belonging to it, as described by the apostle Paul; namely, widows, and not married women, should be chosen for that purpose."9 Thus the Classis ex­pressed itself in favour of such an office but referred the matter for final disposal the Synod of Middelburg which met the following year. That body decided against the reintroduction of the office "on the account of various inconveniences which might arise out of it; but in times of pestilence, and other sickness, when any service is required among sick women which would be indelicate for the dea­cons, they ought to attend to it through their wives, or others whose services it may be proper to en­gage."10 The fathers definitely feared the influence of popish notions and ascetic ideals and thus on practical grounds discouraged its reintroduction in the Reformed churches.

With the exception of a few congregations, no­tably the church at Amsterdam, the Dutch Reformed Churches upheld and followed this decision. But in the church of that city as early as 1566 certain "aged virtuous sisters" were elected to assist the deacons. Shortly thereafter the congregation was dispersed by the furious persecution of the Spaniards. When the congregation was reorganized in 1578, this office was again desired. In spite of the decision of the Synod of Middelburg (1581), three deaconesses were chosen in 1582. This number was gradually enlarged until there were twenty-eight: ten for the orphanage, ten for the home for aged women, and eight for diaconal visitation of the families. These were aged women, either widows or married, and continued to live in their own homes. Usually a sufficient number in the congregation were able and willing to undertake such service, so that the consistory had no difficulty in filling the vacancies which occurred from time to time. The office was continued until the days of the French Revolution in the Amsterdam congregation.11 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.

Among the Puritans in England there was some agitation favouring the restoration of this ministry in the churches. In the Conclusions drawn up for the churches by Cartwright and Travers mention is made of both male and female deacons. These were to be chosen for their faith and piety and then publicly installed in their office by the general prayers of the congregation.

Not until comparatively recent times has the subject of deaconesses received widespread attention. In 1835 pastor Fliedner of Kaiserswerth in Ger­many instituted the office of deaconesses to serve in the infirmary which he founded. He insisted that the women interested in this ministry of mercy had to be widows or unmarried, ready to serve Christ exclu­sively and eager to express their gratitude to Him in their ministry. The movement first spread through­out Germany and from there to England, France, Switzerland and the United States. Its influence has been great, and in many respects the work which it performed signally blessed and was fruitful for the life of the churches. Yet this attempt was not a restoration of the New Testament position of the deaconesses and widows. Fliedner was too deeply impressed by the Roman Catholic religious orders to escape their influence on his theory. Instead of ap­pointing women who were aged widows, he gen­erally insisted on young women. They were to remain unmarried and could not become full-fledged dea­conesses, until they had served a period of proba­tion. Nor was the local congregation recognized in their appointment to this work. Among others the Methodist, the Reformed (German) now Evangeli­cal and Reformed, and the Lutheran churches have assigned a large place to these women in the life and work of their respective denominations. Until very recently little was done in the way of making use of women in the ministry of mercy among the Re­formed churches of Dutch origin.

Today the situation in the churches with respect to the use of female officers, including deaconesses, is very divergent.

First of all, there are many denominations, in­cluding the Congregational, Methodist and Baptist churches, which have ordained women to the min­istry of the Word. Here we must recognize a definite departure from the principles of Scripture which explicitly forbid women in the preaching ministry.

Among the Roman Catholic and Episcopalian churches the care of the poor is left largely to the monastic and semi-monastic orders. These various sisterhoods answer in some degree to the ancient position and function of the deaconesses. But they are elected neither by consistories nor by congrega­tions under the supervision of consistories. Hence they are not the expression of the official concern of the churches with this aspect of the spiritual work which Christ has laid upon His people.

In the Lutheran churches the deaconesses oc­cupy a significant place and do a noble work. They are banded together in a semi-monastic organiza­tion under a set of rules. Yet they are quite easily released from their vows, especially if they desire to marry. Their work is chiefly that of ministering to the poor and the sick.

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. In some congre­gations one or more women are assigned to help the deacons in their work, organize relief in the parish and do some of the tasks generally assigned to social workers in this land. This work is carried on in the Reformed conviction that the ministry of mercy is part of the official program of the church of Jesus Christ.

The Controversy Concerning Women Officers🔗

During the past fifty or sixty years a heated debate has been conducted throughout the Christian churches in Europe and America on the actual posi­tion which women occupied in the apostolic churches. Several reasons can be assigned for the length and vigour of this controversy. First of all, it should not be overlooked that the New Testament passages are quite fragmentary and brief on the particular issue involved. Very plainly they speak of certain functions which female members of the churches carried out. However, comparatively little detail is recorded. With the rise and development of the deaconesses in Germany the problem again became actual. Many arguments were presented in favour of the position adopted and prosecuted with zeal by pastor Fliedner. Other arguments were adduced in opposition to his position and practice. In addition, the question loomed large when certain denominations, especially in America, proceeded to ordain women to the ministry of the Word. Among those who still believed in the authority of the Scriptures, there were many who opposed this practice. Finally, as has been noted earlier, during the past decades the whole matter of the ecclesiastical organization of the apostolic churches was raised by leading scholars in Germany and Great Britain. The fruits of their studies have contributed to a much clearer understanding of the position which women occupied in the churches at that time.

Although it is impossible to enter into a full discussion of all the details of the controversy, cer­tain theories which have been advocated ought to be noted.

The subject of debate was not whether women in those days held influential positions in the church. To this all are agreed. Instead, the problem has resolved itself into the question whether these women held any ecclesiastical office akin to that of elders and deacons.

This has been definitely maintained by some commentators and students of church history. G. A. Jacobs in his work The Ecclesiastical Polity of the New Testament taught that the ancient diaconate embraced women as well as men.12 His argument is that if the church at Cenchreae, which was comparatively un­important and unknown, had a deaconess recog­nized by the church at Rome, surely larger and more influential congregations must have maintained the office as well. Meyer, the well-known German com­mentator, speaks in this connection of Phoebe's "of­ficial position" but does not explicate further.13 Barnes also held that it is clear from the New Testa­ment that there was a recognized order of deacon­esses. These were to teach female members and catechumens. He appealed for support largely to the later development of the office in the post-apostolic congregations.14 Harrenstein in his discussion of the subject mentions several outstanding German scholars such as Luthardt, Disselhoff, Schaefer, B. Weiss and Th. Zahn, who advocated the same posi­tion.15 Contrariwise there are many others who are equally insistent that there never was in the early church an office of deaconesses on a par with that of the deacons. W. L. Alexander held that Romans 16:1 does not imply in any way that Phoebe had an official position in the church.16 She may simply have been of service as a doorkeeper or cleaner of the place of worship. Lonsdale Ragg, an Anglican, held that Phoebe may have been on an official mission to Rome, but that Paul's view of the place of women in the church assemblies rules out the possibility of her holding a full-fledged office.17 She may merely have been of great service in extending hospitality to strangers. Likewise, he is of the opinion that 1 Timo­thy speaks of diaconal assistants. The widows were then "treated as a separate and quasi-official class," and the church must have followed the policy in vogue in the synagogues of supporting them in time of need. This in the main is also the position adopted by Sillevis Smitt, who argues that they were regis­tered, in order that when anyone was in need of female assistance, all such widows might take their turn in providing help.18 In the case of Phoebe he holds that the terms "deaconess" and "patroness of many" do not imply any official position. Rather since Cenchreae was the port-city of Corinth, all visitors from the East passed through the town. Among these were many Christians and since Phoebe proffered some of them much-needed hospitality and valuable assistance, her name is mentioned by Paul with honour.

Voetius, the outstanding Reformed canonist of the seventeenth century and whose views are still highly respected by the Reformed churches today, discussed the position of women in the early churches in his Politica Ecclesiastica.19 He maintained that there is every reason to continue a type of female ministry in the churches on a level with the auxiliary services rendered by collectors, readers, visitors of the sick, catechists, and others. Their work should be that of ministering to the poor, the strangers, the sick and especially the women and children of the congrega­tion. Many of the tasks which they can perform would be impossible or indelicate for the deacons. Thus following the example of the apostles (and here he refers to Romans 16:1 and 1 Timothy 5:10), the churches may employ their services today. Although he recognized the difference between the social situations of his own day and those which obtained in the times of the apostles, Voetius was convinced that there remains a fruitful field for female service in the care of sick women and children. 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.

Such female auxiliaries were to be chosen by the consistories or by the deacons with the approval of the consistory. The latter method he deemed more advisable. Naturally, there was to be no formal installation into office, even as there was none in the Reformed churches for catechists, visitors of the sick and other assistants. He advised that they be charged by a committee which should then avoid any ap­pearance of seeming to ordain them. This position, in the main, has been championed by several Re­formed writers on the subject.

Harrenstein in his valuable supplement to the work Het Arbeidsterrein der Kerk in the Groote Steden presents much material on the matter. His conclu­sions are worthy of note.20 On the basis of careful exegetical and historical study he maintains:

  1. According to Scriptures there is no evidence of fe­male teachers or preachers in the apostolic churches. Although some women were endowed with the gifts of prophecy and prayer (1 Cor. 11:5; 14:34), these were charismatic and died out towards the close of the apostolic age.
  2. The Scriptures also do not speak of the office of deaconesses in the sense in which the Reformed churches recognize ecclesiastical offices. The "widows" of 1 Timothy 5:9, 10 were very likely assistants.
  3. In the early Christian church there were at first "widows" and later "deaconesses" who were reckoned among the clergy. But again these served in auxiliary capacities.
  4. During the Middle Ages no trace can be found of women directly engaged in the work of the church.
  5. During the Reformation women were once more employed as assistants in the ministry of mercy.
  6. The work undertaken by deaconesses under the leadership of pastor Fliedner, though worthy of appreciation by us, must not be considered as part of the official business of the church. In so far as some of them do labour in and for the several congregations, they may be recognized as assistants rather than as officers.

The Relation of Women to the Diaconate Today🔗

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.

Several arguments may be adduced as favour­ing a more systematic use of these talents in the congregation.

In spite of the fact that our social and economic structure differs widely from that of the world of the apostles, today we face virtually the same problems as they did. Although the rising standard of living has markedly reduced the number of poor and dis­tressed, the problem of poverty remains. In recent years throughout the land the number of social workers has multiplied. Much of their work is with women and children. Since so many of them are devoid of basic understanding of the principles of Scripture governing family relationships, it is to the shame of the church that Christian people must appeal to them for guidance and help. Disciplinary problems, of course, are properly within the province of the ruling elders, and for introducing female assistants here we have no warrant in the Bible. However, the problems which arise in families be­cause of economic distress are to be dealt with by the deacons. In so far as the women of families — wives and sisters and mothers — are involved, female as­sistants to the deaconries can render valuable serv­ice. They understand much better than men ever will the needs of families with children. They are usually far more qualified to counsel such women whose loved ones are in need. And since there are in every congregation women with time on their hands and possessed of the Christian graces of wisdom, tact and love, the diaconates ought to consider seriously the possibility of making their services available to all who need them.

In the second place, women are eminently en­dowed as a sex with those qualities which are essential to the proper spiritual demonstration of the power of the love of Christ. To the woman belongs the ability to deal tenderly and perseveringly with those in distress. While the man usually excels in logic and leadership, woman has been created to warm the life of the race with her love, sympathetic understand­ing and self-denying service. Not for herself was woman created, but for the help and happiness of man and therein for the glory of her God. Those women have not been inscribed with honour upon the pages of history who sought to sway the scepter over nations and dominate the life of man, but rather those who realized that their crowning glory was to be found in serving others with their time and talents. Because she has been ordained chiefly to fill her place in the home and family, it cannot be expected that God would assign woman a position of active leadership in the church. Also here her work is that of assisting man and supplementing what he cannot provide. Especially, therefore, in the ministry of mercy a rich and fruitful field for the exercise of her talents is offered under the guidance and direction of the diaconate.

And finally, a place should be provided for her in this field, because Scripture plainly gives warrant for using her in this unique capacity. How different would be the story of Christianity, if the Bible did not speak of Mary the mother of Jesus, of Mary Magdalene and the other women who followed Jesus from Galilee, of Mary the mother of John Mark, of Dorcas whose loving heart and noble works com­forted the poor, of Lydia who opened her home to Paul and of Phoebe who helped many in their distress. If the Holy Spirit who guided the early church in the mind and spirit of the Saviour led the apostles to use women as helpers in the thrilling work of mercy, the church today may not willfully close her eyes to those examples and refuse to follow the path which He has plainly marked out. Also with respect to this matter we must believe that these things were written for our instruction, in order that the life of the church throughout the centuries may be more closely pat­terned after that of the first decades when the Christian gospel by the grace of God gained such signal victories in this world of sin.

All this brings up the question how this work of women is to be regulated in and for the churches. That the matter must be taken in hand by the diaconates is self-evident. To them has been entrusted the official ministry of mercy by the Head of the church. Let them carefully study the need of the congregation committed to their care, not waiting cautiously until occasions for Christian service are thrust upon them but looking about diligently where they, either directly or indirectly, may be of help to those who belong to the Saviour.

When it is apparent that there is a fruitful field of service for one or more women in the congregation, they should decide to ask their assistance after this matter has received the full approval of the consistory under whose supervision they labour. It should be remembered that no diaconate ought to embark on such a program without the knowledge and consent of the elders.

In looking around for suitable help, they must remember the qualifications enumerated by Paul for such assistants. Account will have to be taken of the noticeable differences between conditions today and those which obtained in New Testament times. Perhaps then it will not be necessary to limit themselves to widows who have married but once and attained the age of at least sixty. No doubt, peculiar social conditions found then made this rule imperative in the church which Timothy served. However, the women selected for this service may never neglect the care of their own families. Furthermore, they must "be grave, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things." Likewise, they should be "well reported of for good works." Usually those who have been married and have brought up children will be far more capable to render the necessary assistance to the poor and sick than those who have never faced the problems of a home and a family.

Whether the diaconate should pay for such service may occasion debate. Indeed, if women who themselves are in need are asked to help, it may be considered perfectly proper to remunerate them. But as a general rule the church should not expect to pay for the work of mercy performed in her name. The only exceptions here should be those who serve fulltime. Think of all the time which the elders and deacons devote to the spiritual care and consolation of the children of God. Surely it is not too much to expect that women who have sufficient time and are endowed with the necessary qualifications devote some of their time and talent freely to the welfare of those in distress. What Christ said to His disciples applies here also, "Freely ye received, freely give" (Matt. 10:8). We firmly believe that in many of our congregations there are pious and capable women who would most cheerfully and willingly render help to others in time of need without looking for earthly recompense.

In casting about for help the diaconates may well enlist the cooperation of the women's auxilia­ries in the church. Many of these have been organ­ized with the definite aim of in some way helping the needy and distressed. Here, then, is an opportunity not only to sew for the needy and bring donations of food and clothing, as Dorcas of blessed memory did centuries ago, but also to give valuable assistance in days of illness which no man can adequately render. Surely if there are several such capable and willing women, eager and ready to undertake this work in the name and for the sake of the sympathetic Highpriest of our profession, none will have to be over­burdened or neglect the duties in her own home.

All this work should be regulated by the diaco­nate in consultation with those women who have offered their services and have been approved by the consistory. Their period of service and duties should be clearly delineated, so that all possible misunder­standings and friction may be avoided. Especially the older women whose family duties have been reduced to a minimum ought to be considered for such service. On their work and findings they should report to the deacons at stated times. This will greatly assist the diaconate in determining to what extent financial aid or physical assistance is needed in those families.

Finally, the diaconate should make clear both to those who serve in this capacity and to the congregation that also these labours of love are a manifestation of the continued interest and sympathetic so­licitude of the Saviour for those whom He has redeemed with the sacrifice of Himself on the tree of the cross. Unto those who render this assistance in His name and by His Spirit the King shall say publicly in the day of His full glory,

Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry, and ye gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; naked and ye clothed me; I was sick and ye visited me; I was in prison and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee hun­gry, and fed thee? or at thirst, and gave thee drink? And when saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? And when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me.Matt. 25:34-40


  1. ^ For Pliny's letter cf. Ayer: A Sourcebook for Ancient Church History, p. 21. Plinius Jr.: Epistolae X, 96.
  2. ^ Apostolic Constitutions, VIII, 19, 20, quoted in McClintock and Strong: Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Cyclopedia, vol. II, p. 708.
  3. ^ John, Bishop of Bristol: The Ecclesiastical History of the Sec­ond and Third Centuries Illustrated from the Writings of Tertullian, p. 120 f.
  4. ^ Tertullian: De Praescript, 41.
  5. ^ New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, vol. XII, p. 415.
  6. ^ Harrenstein: Het Arbeidsterrein der Kerk in the Groote Steden, Bijlage J.
  7. ^ New Schaff-HerzogEncyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, vol. XII, p. 415.
  8. ^ McClintock and Strong, op. cit., vol. II, p. 708.
  9. ^ McClintock and Strong, op. cit., vol. II, p. 708-709.
  10. ^ Biesterveld and H. H. Kuyper, Kerkelijk Handboekje, p.175.
  11. ^ G. J. Vos, Amstels Kerkelijk Leven van de eerste zestig jaren der Vrijheid, p. 46; Harrenstein, op. cit., BijlageJ,xxxi, where mention is made of deaconesses in the church at Hoorn on Texel and among the Dutch Mennonites and the English Pilgrims in Amsterdam.
  12. ^ G. A, Jacobs, op. cit., p. 64-65.
  13. ^ Meyer, Commentary on the New Testament Corinthians, p. 565.
  14. ^ Barnes, Notes on the New Testament, vol. V, p. 326-327.
  15. ^ Harrenstein, op. cit., Bijlage J, xvii, xviii.
  16. ^ McClintock and Strong, op. cit., vol. II, p. 708.
  17. ^ Lonsdale Ragg, The Church of the Apostles, p. 56, 57.
  18. ^ Sillevis Smitt, De Organisatie van de Christelijke Kerk in den Apostolischen Tijd, p. 156.
  19. ^ On the position of Voetius, cf. Bouwman, Het ambt der diakenen, p. 156.
  20. ^ Harrenstein, op. cit., Bijiage J, xii, x.

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