Ordination of Women to the Office of Deacon: Right or Wrong?

Should the CRC now decide to make the office of deacon available to women?

This is not merely a theoretical or abstract question, but rather it is practical and very urgent right now.

Why? Because the 1978 CRC Synod is faced with a recommendation from a study committee that this now be done.

The committee on Women in Ecclesiastical Office comes with a majority report and a minority report. Both reports arc in favor of making the office of deacon available to women.

Bear in mind that the question is not whether the services of qualified women should or should not be employed for special work of Christian mercy. There is no difference of opinion about that. But this is the issue—are these women to be or not to be ordained to the office of deacon?

1be majority report recommends that: “Consistories be allowed to ordain women to the office of deacon as delineated in the Church Order, Article 25.” Note especially their first ground for this recommendation.”Women functioning in the office of deacon has biblical (Rom. 16:1; I Tim. 3:11) and historical precedent (Synod of Wezel, 1568).”

The minority report recommends that Synod declare: 1. “There is some evidence in the Bible for opening the office of deacon to women. At least two passages in the New Testament (Rom. 16:1 and I Tim. 3:11) indicate that women may serve as deacons (deaconesses).” 2. “That consistories be allowed to ordain qualified women to the office of deacon provided that their work is distinguished from that of elders.” As a ground for this the minority report states: “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).”

The grounds then for this recommendation to ordain women to the office of deacon are twofold: historical precedent and· two passages adduced from Scripture. We now must give these our attention.

1. Historical precedent may be considered first.

a. With all due respect for the venerable John Calvin we are not necessarily to be faulted if we ask for more convincing evidence than his mention of women having served in the office of deacon in the Institutes passage adduced.

b. In regard to the Wezel precedent found in both the majority and minority reports, the following from The Revised Church Order Commentary by Van Dellen and Monsma (p. 104) should be noted:

The Wezelian Convention (1568) judged that it might be well to appoint worthy women to the office under discussion. Evidently. the Convention did not mean that women should be ordained as deaconesses, but that they should be appointed to assist the deacons. For in 1581, the Classis of Wezel asked the Synod of Middelburg (1581) whether it would not be ‘advisable to re-institute the office of deaconesses.’ But this synod answered in the negative ‘because of various inconveniences which might follow.’ It did however declare that in times of widespread epidemics or much sickness, which called for nursing duties which the deacons could not perform with propriety, the deacons should call in the assistance of their wives, or other suitable women. . . . And thus the Reformed churches never ordained deaconesses . . .”

2. The two Scriptural passages adduced in the reports must also be considered.

a. Romans 16:1 – “I commend unto you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant (or deaconess) of the church that is at Cenchreae. . . .” On this passage attention may be called to the comment by that scholarly exegete, John Murray, in his commentary on Romans: “It is common to give to Phoebe the title of ‘deaconness’ and regard her as having performed an office in the church corresponding to that which belonged to men who exercised the office of deacon (cf. Phil. 1:1; I Tim. 3:8–13). Though the word for ‘servant’ is the same as is used for deacon in the instances cited, yet the word is also used to denote the person performing any type of ministry. If Phoebe ministered to the saints, as is evident from verse 2, then she would be a servant of the church and there is neither need nor warrant to suppose that she occupied or exercised what amounted to an ecclesiastical office comparable to that of the diaconate. . . there is no more warrant to posit an office than in the case of the widows who, prior to their becoming the charge of the church, must have borne the features mentioned in I Timothy 5: 9, 10.”

b. I Timothy 3:11 – “Women in like manner must be grave, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things.” Dr. Wm. Hendriksen, who is accorded wide respect as a New Testament scholar and author, in his Commentary on 1–11 Timothy and Titus makes a comment that may well be placed over against the idea that we find evidence here for women in the office of deacon. He writes: The simplest explanation of the manner in which Paul, not yet finished with the requirements for the office of deacon, interjects a few remarks about women, is that he regards these women as the deaconsassistants in helping the poor and needy, etc. These are women who render auxiliary service, performing ministries for which women are better adapted.”

Additional observations:

1. Make no mistake about it, if the 1978 CRC Synod decides to approve of the ordination of women to the office of deacon the first step will be taken to ordain women to the offices of elder and minister also. Bear in mind that in 1973 the CRC Synod adopted as one of the Guidelines for understanding the nature of Ecclesiastical Office and Ordination the following: “The general term for ‘office’ in the Greek New Testament is DIAKONIA, meaning ‘service’ or ‘ministry.’ In this basic sense ecclesiastical office is one and indivisible, for it embraces the total ministry of the church, a ministry that is rooted in Christ.” If ecclesiastical office is basically one, why stop then with the office of deacon in ordaining women?

2. In the eRC the deacons in practice as “officebearers” are part of the “consistory . . . responsible for the general government of the church” (Church Order, Article 35), a “ruling” function to which women are not entitled. Think of the situation that will develop if women 1l0W come to occupy the office of deacon. 3. If women are ordained to ecclesiastical offices how long will it be in the CRC before the men step aside and leave it to the women altogether? History affords many valuable lessons for those who are willing to learn.