Sunday, January 10, 2016

In Which Women Deacons Were Approved by the Westminster Assembly

Let me tell you about the time that the Westminster Assembly passed a proposition authorizing in their Presbyterian church order that women be included in the office of deacon. The story is fascinating, especially of how it ends, and, well, maybe better told by Dr. Wayne Spear in his "Covenanted Uniformity in Religion: The Influence of the Scottish Commissioners on the Ecclesiology of the Westminster Assembly," pp. 119-121.
The Assembly still had before it another proposition from the Second Committee, 'That widows, which we read of, I Tim. v. 3, and elsewhere, are included under the name deacons.'[211] This came up for discussion on December 28 and 29, 1643.
The Independents, especially [Sidrach] Simpson and [William] Bridge, argued most strongly in the Assembly for the inclusion of deaconesses in the church. Simpson, for example, drew from 1 Timothy 5 the points that qualifications for the widow are given, some of them the same as are required for bishops and deacons; that she is to be enrolled, i.e., elected; and that she is not to depart from her employment.[212] Significantly, he related the passage in 1 Timothy to the text that was so central in the Independents' ecclesiology, Romans 12:6-8, understanding 'he that sheweth mercy' (with a curious change in gender) to refer explicitly to the widow, or deaconess. The position taken by the Independents was supported by other leading men of the Assembly only by Lazarus Seaman and George Gillespie. 
The notion that the widow in 1 Timothy 5 was a deaconess went back at least to [John] Calvin, who also appealed to Romans 12:8. In the Institutes, Calvin held that there are two grades of deacons: those who distribute alms, and those who devote themselves to the care of the poor and sick. 'Of this sort were the widows whom Paul mentions to Timothy [1 Tim. 5:9-10]. Women could fill no other public office than to devote themselves to the care of the poor.'[213] Calvin's teaching on this point was taken up by the English Separatists; Henry Barrow's A True Description out of the Word of God, of the Visible Church (1589) made a distinction between the 'most diligent and trusty deacons' and 'most loving and sober relievers' in the church.[214] The latter, who are designated as officers,
'must be women of sixty years of age at the least, for avoiding of inconveniences: they must be well reported of for good works, such as have nourished their children, such as have been harbourers to strangers: diligent and serviceable to the saints, compassionate and helpful to them in adversity, given to every good work, continuing in supplications and prayer night and day.'[215]
Some of the strongest leaders in the Assembly argued against including widows or deaconesses as officers, holding that they were, in the Timothy passage, the recipients rather than the bestowers of the alms of the church: [Charles] Herle, [Stephen] Marshall, [Herbert] Palmer, [Thomas] Temple, and [Cornelius] Burgess all took the negative side.[216]
When it came to a vote, the Assembly was evenly divided: the proposition passed by just one vote. Had [John] Lightfoot been present, the outcome would have been different, for he strongly opposed the proposition; but, as he said, 'It was my unfortunacy to be called into the city before it came to a vote.'[217] In the next session, there was a long debate on Romans 16:1-2 as a proof text, which ended in a negative vote, and the Assembly went on to other matters.[218]
In the process of editing, the only significant change  that was made in the section was that this reference to widows was quietly dropped. Although technically this amounted to changing a previous vote of the Assembly, it was not objected to, undoubtedly because of the divided opinion in the Assembly when the proposition was originally passed. As far as can be determined, the existence of deaconesses in the church was no more than a matter of theory, even for the advocates of their inclusion. 
[211] Lightfoot, Journal, 43.
[212] Lightfoot, Journal, 94-25.
[213] Calvin, Institutes, 4.3.9.
[214] In The Reformation of the Church, ed. Iain Murray (London: Banner of Truth, 1965), 197.
[215] Murray, Reformation, 99.
[216] Lightfoot, Journal, 94-96.
[217] Lightfoot, Journal, 96; Gillespie, Notes, 5. 
[218] Lightfoot, Journal, 97-98.
HT: Steve Bradley

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