Can women be deacons? This article looks at the history of deaconesses in the church and the scriptural perspective on the office of deacon.

Source: The Outlook, 1986. 15 pages.

Women Deacons

Church polity a hermeneutics🔗

  1. Introduction🔗

A recent article in The Banner, commenting on women in office, suggested that with this issue the Christian Reformed Church has entered a new stage of "tradition-forming" in Reformed church history, similar to that caused in earlier centuries by "the in­troduction of new forms of prayer or new words for the Trinity."1

The question was asked:

Does the movement to include women arise from the Holy Spirit, offering a renewed way to understand and live out the Scriptures — and is it therefore something that ought not and cannot in the end be blocked? Or does it arise merely from the spirit of our own historical age?2

Both positions are present in the CRC. On the one hand there are those who say that women are not given "full opportunity and equality" to use their gifts in the church and that the apostle Paul couldn't possibly have meant that "the consistory door and the pulpit be closed" to qualified women.3

On the other hand one reads of a speaker at the 1985 Synod whose "voice shaking with emotion" asks, "What about our convictions that are based on the Word of God? Where do we go? What do we do?"4This pain was caused by a narrow margin of votes which decided "that synod not accede" to the request of a moratorium on women deacons because "such a procedure is not in harmony with the Church Order or Rules for Synodi­cal Procedure", (Matters Legally Before Synod — Rules for Synodical Procedure, Church Order Arts. 28, 30, 31).5To salve the pain of those represented by the more than fifty overtures, protests and appeals received by synod, a pastoral letter was sent which noted "with deep regret that a divisive spirit" had arisen within the denomination and speaks of "our personal and communal pain."6

But more than a pastoral letter is involved in set­tling this issue which sets new precedents in the life and practice of a Reformed church. It is church poli­ty which determines the implementation of decisions taken by synod. To implement the 1984 decision which Synod 1985 confirmed, a study committee was appointed with a mandate to "define the work of elders and deacons in such a fashion that the local churches will be assisted in carrying out the decision of Synod 1984, that 'the work of women as deacons … be distinguished from that of elders'" (Church Order Supplement, Art. 3). This committee was also mandated to "recommend such changes in the Church Order as are necessary to implement the find­ings and recommendation of the study committee."7

It is our contention that an overview of the fifteen­-year-old history of women in ecclesiastical office in­dicates that the way this synodical decision will be implemented will not only affect Church Order, but could be a decisive turning point in the history of the CRC. For changes in church polity regarding women deacons and the future of Reformed hermeneutics are inextricably intertwined in the issue of women in office.

  1. History of women in ecclesiastical office in the Christian Reformed church🔗

Women's issues are not new at CRC synods and show that the social conditions of the age have a bear­ing on the church's task in this world. Synods of 1914 and 1916 considered women's suffrage in civic life. They made no ruling, deciding that this was not an ecclesiastical affair. Questions regarding women's voting rights at congregational meetings surfaced at the Synod of 1947. No agreement could be reached and women were refused voting rights until Synod of 1957, which left it up to local congregations whether to implement this decision. A protest led Synod 1958 to rule that women voting at congrega­tional meetings does not involve a ruling function, since the Church Order does not recognize the con­gregational meeting as an ecclesiastical assembly (C.O. Art. 26).8

Women's issues surfaced again when the "women's liberation" movement demanded equal opportunity for women in all areas of life. A stimulus was pro­vided by a 1968 study report of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod which recommended member churches "probe further into the question whether or not all ecclesiastical offices should be opened to women."

The report said that it "was not convinced of the unity of the offices or of such a concept of that unity which would preclude the entrance of the woman into the diaconal office which has been generally viewed among us as a non-ruling or service function..."9

Because the RES report showed a sharp disagreement with Christian Reformed Church Order Synod 1970 commissioned a study committee "to examine in the light of Scripture, the general Reformed practice of excluding women from the various ordained offices in the church."10

Realizing that church polity and hermeneutics are interrelated, Synod sent back an earlier commissioned report on "Ecclesiastical Office and Ordination", re­questing further clarification of the authority involved in ecclesiastical office.11An extended report "Ecclesiastical Office and Ordination" (Report 44) was presented to Synod 1973 and adopted with some modifications and Synod appointed a new commit­tee on "Guidelines for Understanding the Nature of Ecclesiastical Office and Ordination".12At this same synod the "Report on Women in Ecclesiastical Office" was presented. This study committee concluded that "the practice of excluding women from ecclesiastical office cannot conclusively be defended on biblical grounds."13It also stated "that some very im­portant hermeneutical problems (questions regarding the principles of the explanation of the Scriptures)"14were at stake. Synod decided that "the importance of this subject demands that we proceed with care (because) a long standing policy of this church is substantially affected by this report."15Thus a new study committee was appointed to further examine and evaluate the reaction of the church to the ordina­tion of women.

In 1975 this new study committee presented the report "Women in Ecclesiastical Office" and stated that there was "support for instituting the office of deaconess, although this office is not clearly defined."16

Also, "there is considerable concern that the church make all possible use of women in the work of the church outside existing offices."17

The report recommended, "That Synod declare that the Chris­tian Reformed Church is not ready or willing to open her offices to women", but that "Biblical teaching is not opposed in principle to the ordination of women to any office that men may hold in the church."18

Based on this report a majority and minority advisory committee made recommendations to Synod. The ma­jority report recommended that the practice of ex­cluding women from the ecclesiastical offices recognized in the Church Order "be maintained unless compelling biblical grounds are advanced for chang­ing that practice."19It became evident to the major­ity of the members of the advisory committee that there were "underlying hermeneutical and exegetical difficulties in interpreting the relevant biblical givens ... (and) also that various Reformed scholars do not accept the interpretations of the biblical givens advanced by those who wish to change the present practice."20Another committee, composed of Old Testament and New Testament scholars was appointed to "undertake a study of the hermeneutical principles which are involved in the proper interpretation of relevant Scripture passages."21Commit­tee reports increasingly made it clear that hermeneu­tics was a key factor in deciding the women in office issue.

The 1975 synodical decision completed the man­date of the committee "Women in Ecclesiastical Of­fice". No major synodical reports or decisions regard­ing women in office were made until Synod of 1978, but the women's issue was hotly debated. Synod 1976 declared that female M.Div. students should be waived from field education since present Church Order Art. 22 does not allow for this.22A flurry of ac­tivities was begun by the committee on "The Use of Women's Gifts in the Church" which later changed to Volunteer Resource Bank, a committee which was discontinued by Synod 1985.23An overture to establish the work of evangelist as a fourth office generated some important studies on the offices. Noteworthy is a study report's statement that "the alleged relationship between the threefold office of Christ and the three offices known to us"24is called "a theological gloss of the New Testament, where support for this contention is lacking."25A minority report rejected the new office on the grounds that "proliferation of office in the church" would destroy the "three fold division of service that forms the foun­dation of the three offices of the Church Order, (which) may not be the only possible division one might legitimately have and be faithful to Scripture, (but) the fact is that this is the one we have."26

The landmark decision regarding women deacons came upon the findings of the "Report on Hermeneu­tical Principles Concerning Women in Church Of­fice." This lengthy report, besides finding grounds for equal worth and full participation of women in the gifts of the Spirit and work of the church, took a lot of space to explain hermeneutical and exegetical prin­ciples.27

Both a majority and a minority report recom­mended that the church permit women to be ordained as deacons. The minority report's recommendation,

"That consistories be allowed to ordain qualified women to the office of deacon, provided that their work is distinguished from that of elders" was adopted by Synod.

Article 3 of the Church Order was amended and ratification was requested from Synod 1979.28The same synod established the office of "evangelist" as a fourth office upon the grounds that "the Scriptures do not present a definitive, exhaustive description of the particular ministries of the church, and because these particular ministries as described in Scripture are functional in character, the Bible leaves room for the church to adopt or modify its par­ticular ministries in order to carry out effectively its service to Christ and for Christ in all circum­stances."29

The divisive nature of the women deacon decision became apparent at subsequent synods. Synod of 1979 saw a total of sixty-four printed appeals, overtures, personal appeals, and various communications.30Its response was to "review without prejudice the 1978 report on 'Hermeneutical Principles Concerning Women in Ecclesiastical Office' and the decision of 1978 regarding the ordination of women."31Synod instructed "consistories to defer implementation of the 1978 decision..."32

The period between 1981 to 1984, when the deci­sion to ordain women deacons was reaffirmed, was marked by a flurry of activities. An overture to delegate deacons to major assemblies is referred to present studies on women deacons.33Women deacons who have been ordained may serve out their term, but churches are not to ordain any more.34The 1981 study report, "Synodical Studies on Women in Office and Decisions Pertaining to the Office of Deacon" contains much that is valuable in regard to the office of deacons and the historical development of that office. But neither the majority report, the two minority reports, or the advisory committee's recommendations were approved, and a new committee, this time to study headship, was appointed.

It should be noted that the minority report of a 1981 study report by Henry Vander Kam recommends, "That the practice of excluding women from ec­clesiastical office be maintained."35Also the subsequent report of "Committee on Headship in the Bible" had a minority report in which Thea Van Halsema disagrees with women having "an ordained office," but urges the church "to acknowledge women's role as man's fitting helper in the church by establishing a position of "assistants in ministry."36Alongside these voices to exclude women from all offices, are those who want to open all offices to women, so that it is proposed that Church Order Article 3 read that

Confessing members of the church (meaning both male and female) who meet the biblical requirements for office-bearers are eligible for office.37

Between these two poles is Synod's decision that a study com­mittee "define the work of elders and deacons in such a fashion that the local churches will be assisted in carrying out the decision of Synod 1984, that 'the work of women as deacons ... be distinguished from that of elders'"38(Church Order Supplement, Art. 3).

  1. The diaconate in Scripture and history🔗

  1. Scripture🔗

When Synod 1984 reaffirmed its 1978 decision to open the office of deacon to women it did so on the grounds that "no study committee (1973, 1975, 1978, 1981, 1984) found biblical reasons to keep the office of deacon closed to qualified women."39Yet the recommendation is backed by very little Scriptural evidence. The grounds given in the 1978 decision are that,

There is some evidence in the Bible for open­ing the office of deacon to women. At least two passages in the New Testament (Romans 16:1 and 1 Timothy 3:11) indicate that women may serve as deacons (deaconesses).40

But when one checks Reformed Bible commentators there is no unanimity that these passages refer to women in the office of deacons. The word "diakonos" as used in the New Testament can be used in a general term for ministry, but is also used in a specialized or technical sense for deacons (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:8). If Romans 16:1 uses "diakonos" in the technical sense, Phoebe is a deaconess. The question is whether this was a position which was a special office, or whether it was a fixed position of service.41The only thing we can positively say is that "diakonos" implies that Phoebe was a servant of the church and as such "oc­cupied a stable position, performed a definite and im­portant function, in and for the church."42As for 1 Timothy 3:11, there is even more of an ambigu­ity. Calvin comments that Paul "refers here to wives of both bishops and deacons, for they must help their husbands in their office..."43Hendriksen believes that the women referred to here are not "the wives of the deacons," nor "all the adult female members of the church," but that "these women are here view­ed as rendering special service in the church, as do the elders and the deacons."44Because this verse is "wedged in between the stipulated requirements for deacons, with equal clarity indicates that these women are not to be regarded as constituting a third office in the church, the office of 'deaconesses,' on par with and endowed with authority equal to that of deacons."

Hendriksen refers to 1 Timothy 5:9 for support that there were women who were "deacons' assistants" and "women who render auxiliary ser­vice, for which women are better adapted" than men.45It seems, therefore, not at all certain that women occupied the office of deacon. The only cer­tainty we do have is that Scripture teaches that women had a function of helper in the diaconal ministry of the church.

  1. The diaconate in the history of the church🔗

1. Deacons in the early church🔗

The diaconate as such is explicated in the earliest Christian sources outside the New Testament in The First Letter of Clement (pre 96-A.D), The Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, and in Clement's Epistle to the Corinthians, where the diaconate is considered to be an office and the deacon is listed among the leaders of the church. To them was entrusted the care of the poor, orphans, widows and the visitation of the sick and they also acted as assistants to the bishops. In the Western church they were permitted to baptize and preach. Though subordinate to the presbyters, "the deacons frequently stood in close relations with the bishop, and exerted a greater influence. Hence they not rarely looked upon ordination to the presbyterate as a degradation."46There is evidence that sometimes they were allowed to vote in their own name at provincial and consistorial synods.47

A synodical study report says, "we see that the deacons played a vibrant and many-faceted role in the life of the early church. They are regarded in the earliest sources as belong­ing to the major offices of ministries of the church, even though it is apparent that their role very soon evolved into being the bishop's assistant."48

2. Deaconesses🔗

The earliest extra-canonical literature referring to deaconesses is by Pliny who wrote: "I have judged it necessary to obtain information by torture from two serving women (ancillae) called by them 'deaconesses' (ministrae)."49

Deaconesses or servants of the church are mentioned first in the Didascalia Apostalorum. They were charged with a ministry to women because of social conven­tions and acted as a sort of liaison between the bishop and women seeking his counsel. Deaconesses were by no means a universal entity, since if no deaconesses were present, any woman could serve to assist women in the anointing which preceded baptism. The Didascalia states they could not baptize, nor teach, "except for advice she was invited to give a neophyte leaving the baptismal waters.''50

A special form for consecration of deaconesses has come down to us from the Apostolic Constitution which has this beautiful prayer: "Eternal God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Creator of man and woman, who didst fill Miriam and Deborah and Hannah and Huldah with the Spirit, and didst not disdain to suffer thine only-begotten Son to be born of a woman; who also in the tabernacle and the temple didst appoint women keepers of thine holy gate: look down now upon this thine handmaid, who is designated to the office of deacon, and grant her the Holy Ghost… "51Although deaconesses were consecrated to office, there has always been a dispute whether the deaconesses belonged to the laity or clergy, since their tasks were separated from deacons.

In the West they were shorn of their clerical character by a prohibition of ordination passed by the Gallic councils in the fifth and sixth centuries. With the rise of monasticism during the Middle Ages women found an avenue of service through monastic orders. "The adoption of the care of the poor and sick by the state, and the cessation of adult baptisms and of the custom of immersion . . . made female assistance less helpful."52

4. The Middle Ages🔗

In the Western church the diaconate steadily declined in importance, until during the Middle Ages it simply became a stepping-stone to the priesthood.53At the Council of Trent (1563) the Roman Catholic church advocated a diaconate which included a ministry of material and spiritual assistance to the needy and allowed deacons to act as assistants to bishops. With the sharp demarcation between clergy and laity the diaconate simply became a rung on the ladder to priesthood in a hierarchical clergy system. Vatican II reacti­vated the importance of this office in its original intention.54

4. Non-Reformed churches🔗

In the Anglican system deacons usually assisted priests in worship by assisting and administering the sacraments, teaching and even preaching. Administering alms was part of their official duties.

Lutheranism down played the diaconate until the nineteenth century, since the administration of diaconal services was carried out by the civil government. Pietism revived the diaconate, and was very influential in the development of the diaconate as a para-church, professional service organization, so that both deacons and deaconesses functioned as employees of the church, a christian organization, or the state. The Kaisersworth movement, associated with its founder Theodor Fliedner, spurred the deaconess movement and contributed to a similar nineteenth century movement in major American Lutheran bodies, Mennonites, Episcopalians and Methodists.55Early Baptist confessions recognized only two offices. The office of pastor, bishop, elder or teacher was considered one and open only to males. The office of deacon was open to both men and women, but had little status. They served tables, assisted at liturgical functions and carried out some benevolent tasks. Today in Baptist churches there is usually one elder-minister, assisted by a board of deacons, who act mainly as church administrators. Where deaconesses still exist, they are usually organized into separate boards, engaged in practical service.56

The history of non-Reformed churches shows a diversity in the way the diaconate has been viewed. The conclusion that we can draw is that until the twentieth century, usually where men occupied the office of deacon they were con­sidered part of the ruling body. Where women functioned as deacons or deaconesses they either were separate from that of male deacons or their work was distinguished as that of deaconess, a separate ministry, apart from the offices of the church.

5. Reformation churches🔗

The views of the Reformers must be seen against the background of the social and political developments of the age, where the state played an influential role in church life. Luther let the state keep this role. Calvin affirmed early Christian church practice by restoring the dimensions of mercy as an integral part of the office of deacon. In Geneva the diaconate was recognized as an office but deacons were kept outside the church council which consisted of elders and pastors. Calvin recognized two kinds of deacons: deacons who distribute the alms and those "who had devoted them­selves to the care of the poor and sick. Of this sort were the widows whom Paul mentions to Timothy (1 Timothy 5:9-10). Women could fill no other public office than to devote themselves to the care of the poor."57A recent study, based on original documents, gives evidence of a large-scale welfare fund for poor Protestant refugees from Roman Catholic France founded during the era of John Calvin and "run by the deacons of the Reformed Church of Geneva."58The records show that "this was an office of the Church, mentioned in the Bible, and the injunctions about deacons in the early Church were applied to their sixteenth-century counterparts."59Women, often the wives of the deacons, played a large part in the operation of this ministry, called "the Bourse francaise." "So, although the diaconate was a man's role in Reformation Geneva, there were a goodly number of women involved in the 'Bourse'."60

6. Dutch Reformed churches🔗

Church historians generally agree that the Dutch Reformed tradition was shaped by several lines of the Reformation. On the one hand there was the influence of the French and Walloon Reformed churches which has entered into the Belgic Confession, Articles 30-32. Here deacons are put on par with elders as part of the government of the Church. "We believe that this true Church must be governed by that spiritual policy 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..."61The French and Walloon churches did not enjoy civil approval and support. There was only one kind of deacon; they were elected like the elders and formed part of the consistory, and as such were delegated to the broader assemblies. Their main task was to care for the needy, but they also catechized, conducted worship services, and performed weddings. Alongside this diaconate, appar­ently without consistorial representation, were deaconesses who lived communally.

The influence of Johannes a Lasco's form of church government among refugees in London can be seen upon the Dutch Reformed churches in the practice of excluding deacons from the church council. There was a restricted consistory, consisting of elders and ministers, and a general consistory which included also deacons.62Deacons were basically helpers of the poor and were not part of the consistory.

This separation of the deacon's office from that of the others is present in the Convent of Wesel of 1568. Chaired by Datheen, one of the nineteen statements follows Calvin by instituting two sorts of deacons in larger localities: one for gathering and distribution of alms and one to "care for the sick, the wounded." Such persons must be endowed "with the gift of comforting and a better than average knowledge of the word."63Older women of proven ability and reputation could be appointed to be deacons. It should be noted that although women were admitted to the diaconate, they were excluded, together with all male deacons, from the consistory. Furthermore, Wesel had no binding authority on the Dutch churches and had an advisory character only.

A later Synod, that of Emden in 1571, included the deacons in the consistory. Clarification was asked about this decision at the Synod of Dordrecht in 1574, which provided for sepa­rate meetings and made a provision for places where there were few elders so deacons might be admitted to the con­sistory. This qualification was adopted by several more Dutch synods and finally became part of the Church Order adopted by the Synod of Dort (1618-19) in Articles 37 and 40.64

It should be remembered that the Dutch Reformed Church was a national church and was always involved with the state. At the Synod of Dort (1574) there were complaints that the church could not take care of the poor both within and without the church because the civil government did not give the church its share of the income of property held in common by church and state. Says Bouwman: "From the beginning the Reformed did not keep the diaconate pure, and because of financial entanglements, occupied a dependent position regarding the state."65Its position as state church kept the Reformed Church from properly exercising the diaconate. In contrast with the Lutherans, however, it always struggled to maintain a Biblical practice of the diaconate.66

Deaconesses functioned as part of the ministry of the Reformed Church in Amsterdam, where in 1556 they operated a home for the aged and orphans and did house visitation, reporting to the deacons; they were under the supervision of the consistory. Voetius, often named in connection with the Synod of Dort (1618-19), discussed the work of women in his Politica Ecclesiastica and encouraged a type of women's ministry as an auxiliary to deacons, either chosen by the consistory or by the deacons. Their work should consist in ministering to the poor, sick, needy and children, and work which could not be carried out with propriety by the deacons. "He advised that they be charged by a committee which should then avoid any appearance of seeming to ordain them."67

7. Presbyterian churches🔗

Churches standing in the Presbyterian tradition have never mixed the eldership with the diaconate. Deacons do not take part in the administration or governing functions of the church. Therefore, to admit women to the diaconate never presented the complication that Dutch Reformed churches faced. "There have been deaconesses for a long time but women deacons (with the same functions as men deacons) are a more recent phenomenon in the Church."68

8. Women deacons today🔗

The grounds given for opening the office of deacon in the CRC in 1978 is "the historical precedent (Synod of Wezel, 1568)."69Synod 1978 declared "there is historical prece­dent for this in the Reformed tradition (see Calvin's Institutes, Book IV, Chapter 3, Section 9, and the Synod of Wezel, 1568)"70

As we have seen, women who functioned in the diaconate never functioned in an office in the same way as men, or if there is some evidence they did, their work was distinguished from that of male deacons and they were never part of the governing council of the church.

In fact, the overwhelming evidence points to the fact that women were excluded from any ecclesiastical office which involved ordination. When a commission appointed by the Anglican Church in 1962 examined the question of women's ordination, one of its arguments for excluding women from "Holy Orders" was that "it would be contrary to the tradi­tion of the Church from the time of the apostles." 71An authoritative commentary on the CRC New Revised Church Order of 1965 taught that "the induction of women into the ministry and the other ecclesiastical offices is an innovation of more recent date."72Yet, Monsma did recommend that women be involved in church work and "occupy a place of Christian leadership."73

If there is anything that we can learn from the diaconate as it functioned in Scripture and the history of the Christian church it is that women were actively involved in the diacon­ate, howbeit not in an ordained office. This Scriptural and Reformational principle needs to be reapplied to today's social conditions.

  1. The nature of office, in the Reformed tradition🔗

That Reformed churches have stressed the unity and equality of offices is reflected in its Church Orders. Article 1 of the CRC Church Order reads that "the offices of the minister of the Word, elder, deacon, and evangelist ... differ from each other only in mandate and task, not in dignity and honor."74Moreover, "no office-bearer shall lord it over another office bearer."75The churches of the Reformation wanted no part of the hierarchical clergy system of the Roman Catholic church and the history of the diaconate in the Reformed churches reflects this struggle to maintain unity and equality of office. Even though a diversity of functions was recognized, the fact that deacons were considered part of the general consistory reflects the struggle for unity.

A high view of the diaconate together with a concern for the unity of offices led to a theology which saw Christ's offices of prophet, priest and king reflected in the offices whereby Christ ruled His church. Prof. Heyns wrote: "The Reformed churches have distinguished themselves favorably in this respect, since they were the only ones that have restored this office (diaconate) in its original biblical sense. But even in these Churches the diaconate office has not been valued as it should be, nor have they brought it to its rightful development."76The thinking was that the three offices of minister, elder and deacon "root in the triple office of Christ Himself, Who is our prophet, priest and king."77This view was championed by Van Dellen and Monsma who became responsible for embedding it as an accepted principle of Reformed church polity.78

This principle was further refined by the Dutch theologian, Dr. K. Dijk, who pleaded for unity of of-fices because office bearers are servants of Christ, caring for His sheep in His name. Dr. Dijk argues for a Church Order which should conform to the Belgic Confession which shows the unity of the offices. He believes that the Confession (Articles 30-32) is normative for Reformed church polity in that it puts the unity of office in the council of the church as a governing body.79He claims that it is impossible to separate the work of deacons from the pastoral and ruling functions of elders and ministers of the Word, because this unity of function has its roots in the apostolic office. The diaconate as a separate office arose as an extension of Christ's work performed through the apostolic office.

"Deacons are servants of Christ who in His Name and upon His command exercise care ... through the service of the church."80"A duality has arisen," which in his opinion, "has not been solved in any diaconal manual,"81and which has constantly caused problems in the ecclesiastical life of Reformed churches.

Applying Dijk's theory, he would no doubt view the synodical decision of 1984 to ordain women deacons, provided their work "be distinguished from that of elders" as such an example of duality of office. Also the repeated rejection of CRC synods to have deacons delegated to major assemblies82would fall into this category. It is significant that in the discussion to have deacons delegated to major assemblies, the following grounds have been proposed: "(1) biblical recognition of the authority of all ecclesiastical office, (2) the importance of the priestly aspect of the church's ministry, (3) the large number of matters at major assemblies that concern deacons, and (4) the recognized principle of the equality and unity of office."83As has been pointed out by a study report on the offices, the work of office bearers overlap, so that ministers and elders have part in promoting the work of mercy, and deacons engage in pastoral, teaching and governing functions.84

More recent studies on the offices have focused on the service character of the offices, so that one study committee concluded: "The special ministries are primarily characterized by service, rather than by status, dominance or privilege."85Good order dictates the function of special ministries. For there is "no essential distinction but only a functional one between ministers, elders, deacons, and all other members of the church ... All are commissioned to serve."86The advisory committee tried to maintain a balance between authority and service, and among other recommendations proposed the statement which was adopted: "Nowhere in the New Testament is there a conflict between authority and service, or between ruling and love. Christian authority involves service in the name of the authoritative Christ."87A 1972 study committee was of the opinion that the Reformers "regarded special office as being 'functional' or 'instrumental' in character,"88that Calvin's "functionalism allowed him to be somewhat pragmatic and flexible, sensitive to the immediate situation, to the exigencies of the times."89

The report states that the offices of prophet, priest and king of the Old Testament have found their fulfilment in Christ and does "not offer us a normative pattern for ecclesiastical office and ordination in the church today."90Moreover, the New Testament gives examples of a variety of functionaries in the church: disciples, the seventy, apostles, the seven, prophets, evangelists, teachers, elders and bishops, and deacons (cf. Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:4-19; 1 Corinthians 12:28-30; Ephesians 4:11). It is stated that New Testament materials "contain guiding principles significant for the church of every age. But they do not present a definitive church-organizational structure to which the church must remain bound for all time."91

As Goodykoontz points out, however, the New Testament passages which deal with the various ministries performed by Christians, "refer either to offices (titles) or functions (tasks), or more likely to the two in a unity that cannot be divided."92Furthermore, Scripture gives definite qualifications for special offices which are similar and overlap.93It is true, Calvin did allow for the "exigencies of the times" and was flexible, as is evident from the fact that he included Doctors of Theology as a fourth office and recognized two kinds of deacons — one as office bearer and one as assistant. But he was concerned with the norms and principles of Scripture and he did recognize specific offices. Says Calvin:

But even though the term 'diakonia' itself has a wider application, Scripture specifically designates as deacon those whom the church has appointed to distribute alms and take care of the poor, and serve as stewards of the common chest of the poor. Their origin, institution, and office are described by Luke in The Acts (Acts 6:3).94

When one consults Reformed commentators on church polity one will invariably find that they point to Acts 6 for the origin of the diaconal office.95It is true, Scripture doesn't give us all the details and leaves room for development and application or norms and principles to specific situations and circumstances. There is a certain fluidity and diversity in that one can speak of focus of office, so that "even though a deacon brings the Word, engages in and promotes the work of evangelist, nevertheless he is ordained to the office of deacon because the ministry of mercy is primary in his work."96The principle is clear. There is a basic unity of office in diversity, which "embraces the total ministry of the church, a ministry that is rooted in Christ."97

  1. Hermeneutics used in synodical reports🔗

The 1973 report on "Women in Ecclesiastical Office" examines "in the light of Scripture the general Reformed practice of excluding women from ecclesiastical office, ... a practice generally accepted as biblical."98The report speaks of the difficulty of their task in overcoming "ages of accepted interpretations and exegesis."99They ask "to what extent has the Reformed practice of excluding women from office been determined by social conditions and traditions by the status that society has assigned to women?"100

Key passages which have always been regarded as normative in determining the place of women in the Old and New Testament, such as Genesis 1-3, Galatians 3:28, 1 Corinthians 7, 11:22-16, 14:33b-36 and 1 Timothy 2:8-15 are examined. It is concluded that these passages must be explained in terms of Paul's socio-cultural view of his times. It is stated that Paul was not a social-revolutionary and therefore he stressed that the equality of men and women in Christ as a position of "new freedom contrary to the existing social conditions could in effect be a hindrance to missionary work; charges of objectional conduct could be levied at the new church." 101Therefore, "we maintain that many of Paul's specific regulations are not intended to be timeless applications of certain lasting and foundational principles."102

The conclusion is that "the practice of excluding women from ecclesiastical office cannot conclusively be defended on biblical grounds."103Admittedly, this Report was recognized as a one-sided approach and incomplete, and another study committee was appointed to examine the method of interpreting biblical data, equality, creation order, headship and roles and functions of women in the church.

The 1975 study report, "Women in Ecclesiastical Office," by way of a questionnaire, found that more church councils favored the traditional way of interpreting the relevant Scripture passages, but there is some support for instituting the office of deaconess, and considerable support for "using women in the work of the church outside the existing offices."104Their examination of the headship principle in Scripture caused them to conclude that "Biblical teaching is not opposed in principle to the ordination of women to any office that men hold in the church."105The reason is that "headship is expressed at the time of creation but dominion or rule is not expressed until the curse is pronounced as a result of sin (Genesis 3:16). In the New Testament headship is once again emphasized but from the perspective of the wife being submissive to her husband as set forth in the example of Christ's love and headship of the church."106The 1984 majority study report on "Headship in the Bible" came to a similar conclusion (Acts of Synod 1984, pp. 282-336).

The 1978 report, "Hermeneutical Principles Governing Women in Ecclesiastical Office," consisting of Old and New Testament scholars, tries to come to grips with the problem of hermeneutics involved in the women in office issue. It says much which has generally been accepted in Reformed circles, such as "the Bible's message need not be mediated to the ordinary believer by means of some officially authorized body of interpreters. The Bible's message, according to the Reformers, can be grasped by all who prayerfully seek to understand it."107It is noted that the interpreter's task is not finished until he has discovered the meaning of the passage for today. "The Bible is God's complete and final revelation to man and in its light all disputes ought to be settled."108The Report goes on to say that "nevertheless, the question may be considered whether a given word the canon speaks on the subject, is possibly open to the future for further development in connection with the coming of God's kingdom."109Joel's prophecy (2:28, 29; cf. Acts 2:17-21) is seen as an example that "there may be fulfillments of these words reaching beyond the New Testament period itself into the history of the Christian church."110Not only must the historical and cultural situation of the Bible be considered, but also the "present historical cultural situation must be understood to make sound contemporary applications."111

The same relevant Bible passages of the previous report are examined and it is concluded that because Paul's statement concerning the woman's role in the church are made within the context of specific historical situations, it "raises the question whether Paul's teaching on this matter is complete." The conclusions are more carefully formulated than that of the 1973 report and it is stated that the principle of headship "involves an element of authority, ... men and women have equality of worth since both are image-bearers of God."112Nevertheless, some new hermeneutical questions were raised in regard to the relevant Scripture passage regarding women in office.

The 1981 report, "Synodical Studies on Women in Office and Decisions Pertaining to the Office of Deacon," reviewed the 1978 report and added some new viewpoints on the Scriptural grounds for the office of deacon. It downplays the importance of Acts 6 in establishing the office of deacon. It lists all the discrepancies that exist between deacons as we know them today and declares that "the link between Acts 6 and the office of deacon as we know it is, to say the least, based on very superficial 'ground'."113The same is said about 1 Timothy 3. "Our conclusion is that (it) does not bring us very close at all to a definition of the office and tasks of the deacon."114

It is evident that there are new elements of hermeneutics involved in the conclusions reached by the various study reports. The most specific Scripture passage pertaining to women's position, 1 Timothy 2:11, where Paul states, "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man" (NW translation) is questioned. No unanimity could be reached by the 1978 study committee as to whether "Paul's injunction is binding for all times and places."115So synod 1984 concluded that "no study committee (1973, 1975, 1978, 1981, 1984) found biblical reasons to keep the office of deacon closed to qualified women."116This means that "no biblical message speaks directly to the question of women in ecclesiastical office as presently understood ... (and) there is a question whether Paul's teaching on this matter is complete."117

After reading the reams of study reports dealing with women in office, the ordinary Bible student who supposedly is able to interpret Scripture for him or herself, is left bewildered. What then do the relevant Bible passages pertaining to women's position mean for today?

  1. Changing the Church Order🔗

In its mandate to define how to implement "the decision of Synod 1984" the study committee faces a difficult task. This task involves defining "the work of elders and deacons in such fashion that the local churches will be assisted in carrying out the decision of Synod 1984, that 'the work of women as deacons ... be distinguished from that of elders'." (Church Order Supplement, Art. 3).[1] 118Reference is made to Report 32, Acts of Synod 1984, which gave some suggestions. The options consisted of the following:

  1. Women as deacons and as members of the consistory.
  2. Women as deacons but not as members of the consistory.
  3. Women in an ordained office of their own but not as members of the consistory.
  4. Woman not in ordained office but commissioned to assist in the work of all the offices.119

In the light of the fifteen-year-old history of women deacons, questions as to the nature of office and Biblical hermeneutics will arise again. Church Order changes will have to be made, depending on which of the above positions are adopted. Although it may be so that "a vital part of the Reformed heritage is found in the principle that the polity of the church must always respond to the times in which the church serves its generation,"120too many and too rapid changes usually tend to confusion and conflict. It is significant that whereas "between the years 1912 and 1965 only two significant changes were made in the Church Order, from 1965 to 1978 twenty-three articles have been revised!"121

The history of Reformed churches shows that church polity has often led to deep conflicts and even schism, witness the Secession movement in which the CRC had its roots. Although the conflict regarding church polity focused on the role of the government in church affairs, church polity nevertheless played a big part in the Secession movement. Doctrine and church polity were intimately related. "To the leaders of the Secession (Afscheiding) these two matters were inextricably intertwined and could not be separated. When efforts to restore the church to loyalty to its heritage were rebuffed at every turn, secession and re-formation of the church appeared to be the only viable alternative."122Complaints with respect to departure from the Church Order of Dort were among the grounds cited by those who seceded in 1857 from the Reformed Church in America to form the CRC.123Other schisms which centered in the application of church polity occurred in 1924 in the CRC and in 1944 in the Netherlands.

Another factor will be the Belgic Confession which specifies a particular kind of church government. Although the synod of 1985 adopted "persons" rather than "men" as the best translation to describe office bearer,124it still has to deal with the fact that it states "such persons" are "chosen according to the rule that Paul gave to Timothy."125The fact is that at the time the Church Order was adopted (1618-19) this was interpreted to mean that men were to occupy the office of deacons as part of the church council. By changing the Church Order to permit women to function as deacons, the historic understanding of the Confession of the Church is affected. Since Reformed churches are confessional churches, which require the signing of the Form of Subscription for all office bearers, this may cause further problems and pain.126

  1. Conclusion🔗

It is clear that the way the women deacon issue will be implemented will determine the direction of hermeneutics in the CRC. It can be decided by making some adaptations and modifications in the functions of the diaconate which will be in harmony with traditionally accepted norms and principles of Scripture, so that women deacons will assist male deacons or function as deaconesses as they previously did in the history of the Reformed churches. This would erode the unity and equality of office as understood by many in the Reformed tradition. Or, if it is judged that the historic unity of offices needs to be preserved, women deacons may be given full status in the general consistory. If this latter way is chosen there is no reason why women could not also occupy the other offices. By allowing women deacons to function on the same basis as male deacons now do in the general consistory, women will be given ruling and governing functions, which would void the headship principle which now excludes them from the offices of minister and elder.

Evidently both sides cannot be satisfied. If the first way is chosen, those who seek "full opportunity and equality for women" will not be satisfied, even if women deacons are given equal status with male deacons in the general consistory, for presently deacons do not fully participate at all levels of the major assemblies of the church. If the last way is chosen, it will mean increased pain because of the departure from the historic Reformed interpretation of office in Scripture.

The decision which Synod will make in regard to the implementation of women deacons will decide the future of Reformed hermeneutics in the CRC. The real issue which is at stake is whether the Spirit is opening new ways of understanding the Scriptures, or whether these changes arise primarily from the spirit of the age. One thing is clear, the women in office issue shows that church polity and hermeneutics are inextricably intertwined.

Endnotes🔗

  1. ^  Dr. Van Engen. "Christian Reformed Tradition," The Banner, October 28, 1985, p. 9.
  2. ^ Ibid.
  3. ^ Quoted from Lillian V. Grissen and others at the October 22, 1985 meeting of The Committee for Women in the Christian Reform­ed Church.
  4. ^ MM. "Women: Office Yes, Headship No," The Banner, July 1, 1985, p. 6.
  5. ^ Acts of Synod of the Christian Reformed Church 1985, p. 774.
  6. ^ Acts of Synod 1985, p. 775.
  7. ^ Ibid., p. 781.
  8. ^ Gordon J. Spykman and Lillian V. Grissen. Men and Women/Partners in Service (2850 Kalamazoo SE, Grand Rapids, MI 49506: Board of Publications of the Christian Reformed Church, 1981), pp. 113-15.
  9. ^ Acts and Reports of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod (Amster­dam 1968), p. 34.
  10. ^ Quoted by Spykman and Grissen, Men & Women/Partners in Service, p. 116; cf. Acts of Synod 1972, pp. 37, 401.
  11. ^  Acts of Synod 1972, p. 95.
  12. ^ Acts of Synod 1973, pp. 61-64.
  13. ^ Ibid., p. 587.
  14. ^ Ibid., p. 585.
  15. ^ Ibid., p. 86.
  16. ^ Acts of Synod 1975, p. 572.
  17. ^ Ibid.
  18. ^ Ibid., p. 593.
  19. ^  Ibid., p. 78.
  20. ^  Ibid., p. 77.
  21. ^ Ibid., p. 79. 
  22. ^ Acts of Synod 1976, p. 54.
  23. ^ Acts of Synod 1985 pp. 612-13.
  24. ^ Acts of Synod 1976, p. 523
  25. ^ Ibid., p. 522.
  26. ^ Ibid., p. 544.
  27. ^ Acts of Synod 1978, pp. 487-502.
  28. ^ Ibid., pp. 532-33; cf. p. 104.
  29. ^ Ibid., p. 77.
  30. ^ Acts of Synod 1979, p. 119; cf. pp. 6-7.
  31. ^ Ibid., pp. 121-22.
  32. ^ Acts of Synod 1979, p. 122.
  33. ^ Acts of Synod 1980, pp. 105-6. 
  34. ^ Ibid., p. 56.
  35. ^ Acts of Synod 1981, p. 531
  36. ^ Acts of Synod 1984, p. 341
  37. ^ Ibid., p. 376.
  38. ^ Acts of Synod 1985, p. 781.
  39. ^  Acts of Synod 1984, p. 654.
  40. ^ Acts of Synod 1978, p. 104
  41. ^ Colin Brown, Gen. Ed. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 3, s.v. "Serve" by K. Hess (Grand Rapids, Michigan 49506: Zondervan Publishing House, 1971), pp. 544-548.
  42. ^ William Hendriksen. Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1981), p. 500.
  43. ^ Calvin's Commentaries, 2 Corinthians, Timothy, Titus, Philemon (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964), p. 229.
  44. ^ William Hendriksen. New Testament Commentary, 1-2 Timothy-Titus (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Book House 1965), p. 132.
  45. ^ Ibid., p. 133. Mrs. Pronk, the wife of the pastor of the Free Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, Michigan, is a student at Calvin Theological Seminary.
  46. ^ Philip Schaff. History of the Christian Church, Vol. III (Grand Rapids, Michigan, May 1977), p. 259.
  47. ^ Quoted in "Synodical Studies on Women in Office and Decisions Per­taining to the Office of Deacon" in Acts of Synod 1981, from The Indian Journal of Theology, Vol. 9) 1960, 59-66. p. 63), p. 501.
  48. ^ Acts of Synod 1981, p. 502.
  49. ^ Ibid., p. 501. 
  50. ^ Roger Gryson. The Ministry of Women in the Early Church (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1976), p. 43.
  51. ^ Schaff. History of the Christian Church, p. 260.
  52. ^  Ibid., p. 262.
  53. ^  J.D. Douglas, Gen. Ed. The New International Dictionary of the Chris­tian Church, s. v. "Deacon" by J. W. Charley (Grand Rapids, Michigan 49506: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978), p. 285.
  54. ^ Acts of Synod 1981, p. 503.
  55. ^ The Deaconess, World Council of Churches Studies No. 4 (World Council of Churches, Geneva, Switzerland, 1966), pp. 58-63.
  56. ^ Acts of Synod 1981, pp. 503-4.
  57. ^ Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 2; John T. McNeill, Ed., Ford Lewis Battles, Transl. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), IV, iii, 9, p. 1061.
  58. ^ Jeannine Evelyn Olson. The Bourse Francaise: Deacons and Social Welfare in Calvin's Geneva (Ph. D. Thesis: Stanford Unive., 1980), p. 1.
  59. ^  Ibid., p. 97.
  60. ^  Ibid., p. 101.
  61. ^ Ecumenical Creeds & Reformed Confessions (Board of Publications of the Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1979), p. 78
  62. ^ Prof. P. Biesterveld et al. Het Diaconaat (Hilversum: J. H. Witzel, 1907), pp. 138-39.
  63. ^  P. Biesterveld, Dr. H.H. Kuyper. Ecclesiastical Manual, Richard DeRid­der, transl. (Grand Rapids, Michigan 49506: Calvin Theological Seminary, 1982), p. 33.
  64. ^  The Psalter (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. P. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1927), Church Order, Articles 37, 40, pp. 91-2.
  65. ^ Dr. H. Bouwman. Het Ambt Der Diakenen (Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1907), pp. 40-41; translation F.P.
  66. ^ Biesterveld et al, Het Diaconaat, p. 167.
  67. ^ Peter Y. De Jong. The Ministry of Mercy Today (Grand Rapids, Michigan 49506; Baker Book House, 1952), p. 248.
  68. ^ Acts and Reports of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod, 1968, pp. 156-57
  69. ^ Acts of Synod 1984, p. 654. 
  70. ^ Acts of Synod 1978, p. 104.
  71. ^ The Deaconess, p. 157.
  72. ^ Martin Monsma. The New Revised Church Order Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1967), p. 26.
  73. ^ Martin Monsma. The New Revised Church Order Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1967), p. 26.
  74. ^ William P. Brink and Richard R. De Ridder. Manual of Christian Reformed Church Government (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Board of Publications of the Christian Reformed Church, 1980), p. 7.
  75. ^ Ibid., Article 95, p. 26.
  76. ^ Prof. Wm. Heyns, Handbook for Elders and Deacons (234 Pearl Street, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1928), p. 77.
  77. ^ De Jong. The Ministry of Mercy Today, p. 161.
  78. ^ Monsma, The New Revised Church Order Commentary, pp. 23-25.
  79. ^ 80. Prof. Dr. K. Dijk. De Eenheid Der Ambten (Balijelaan 79b, Utrecht: Uitgave Centraal Bureau van de Diaconieen der Geref. Kerken, 1949), p. 25.
  80. ^ Ibid., p. 21; transl. F.P.
  81. ^ Dijk, De Eenheid Der Ambten, p. 24.
  82. ^ Acts of Synod 1980, pp. 584-90 gives an overview.
  83. ^  Acts of Synod 1966, p. 22.
  84. ^ Acts of Synod 1978, pp. 549-50.
  85. ^ Acts of Synod 1973, p. 713. 
  86. ^ Ibid., p. 715. 
  87. ^ Ibid., p. 62.
  88. ^ Acts of Synod 1972, p. 465.
  89. ^  Ibid., p. 467. 
  90. ^ Ibid., p. 436.
  91. ^ Ibid., p. 456.
  92. ^ Harry G. Goodykoontz. The Minister in the Reformed Tradition (Richmond, Virginia, 1963), p. 29.
  93. ^ A comparison of 1 Timothy 3:8-12 which lists qualifications for deacons, with 1 Timothy 3:2-7 and Titus 1:6-9 which list qualifications for elders, shows that there are at least five qualifications which are similar.
  94. ^ Calvin's Institutes, Vol. 2, IV, iii, 9, p. 1061.
  95. ^ This is also recognized by Goodykoontz who says in The Minister in the Reformed Tradition that "Acts 6:1-6 is held by most Reformed scholars to be an account of the origin of the diaconate" (P. 39).
  96. ^ Acts of Synod 1978, p. 525.
  97. ^  Ibid., p. 540.
  98. ^ Acts of Synod 1973, p. 514.
  99. ^  Ibid., p. 515.
  100. ^ Ibid., p. 517.
  101. ^ Ibid., p. 542.
  102. ^ Ibid., p. 554.
  103. ^ Ibid., p. 587.
  104. ^ Acts of Synod 1975, p. 572.
  105. ^  Ibid., p. 593.
  106. ^ Ibid., p. 590. 
  107. ^ Acts of Synod 1978.
  108. ^ Ibid., p. 488.
  109. ^  Ibid.
  110. ^ Ibid., p. 508.
  111. ^ Ibid., p. 502.
  112. ^ Ibid., p. 530.
  113. ^  Acts of Synod 1981, p. 499.
  114. ^ Ibid., p. 498.
  115. ^ Acts of Synod 1981, p. 527.
  116. ^  Acts of Synod 1984, p. 627. 
  117. ^ Acts of Synod 1978, p. 529.
  118. ^ Acts of Synod 1985, p. 781.
  119. ^ Acts of Synod 1984, p. 331.
  120. ^ Brink and De Ridder, Manual of Christian Reformed Church Government, p. 2.
  121. ^ Ibid., p. 3.
  122. ^ Richard R. De Ridder. A Survey of the Sources of Reformed Church Polity and the Form of Government of the Christian Reformed Church in America. (Calvin Theological Seminary, 1983), pp. 89, 90.
  123. ^ Brink and De Ridder, Manual of Christian Reformed Church Government, p. 2.
  124. ^ Acts of Synod 1985, p. 78.
  125. ^  Ibid.
  126. ^ C.O. Art. 5; cf. Supplement, Manual of Christian Reformed Church Government, pp. 45-47.

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