The Dordrecht Confession & the Ordination of Women

Some time ago I was perusing the Dordrecht Confession of 1632 for no particular reason other than I like its clear wording on “Repentence & Reformation of Life” and came across the startling observation (considering that the Dordrecht Confession is what Amish and other Old Order churches use) that it appears to take as not controversial that women would be ordained as deaconesses. This seems to indicate that early Mennonites were apparently not opposed to the ordination of women per se.

This is found in Article IX which is titled:

IX. Of the Election, and Offices of Teachers, Deacons, and Deaconesses, in the Church

The article then goes on to explicitly discuss the ordination of deaconesses:

And that also honorable aged widows should be chosen and ordained deaconesses, that they with the deacons may visit, comfort, and care for, the poor, feeble, sick, sorrowing and needy, as also the widows and orphans, and assist in attending to other wants and necessities of the church to the best of their ability. 1 Timothy 5:9; Romans 16:1; James 1:27. (translation by Joseph Sohm in 1886 from the Dutch to English: source)

Recently my dad gave me a copy of the Dordrecht Confession from his boyhood. It was published 1939 and S. F. Coffman is listed as the editor. (NOTE: This is apparently a translation by S. F. Coffman around 1930, if I’m reading Gameo correctly)

What is interesting is that the article on deaconesses is a translated differently and the Article IX title goes from “Of the Election, and Offices of … Deaconesses” to “The Office of Teacher and Ministers – Males and Female” and “ordained deaconesses” becomes “chosen as servants”:

Article IX. The Office of Teacher and Ministers – Males and Female – In the Church

Also that honorable old widows should should be chosen as servants, who, besides the almoners, are to visit, comfort, and take care of the poor, the weak, afflicted, and the needy, as also to visit, comfort, and take care of widows and orphans; and further to assist in taking care of any matters in the church that properly come within their sphere, according to their best ability. 1 Timothy 5:9; Romans 16:1,2. (p37,38)

The “almoners” are what the 1886 translation calls “deacons”. Noticeably the “almoners” are “ordained” according to my 1939 (1930 translation) copy:

And as it further regards the almoners, that they (particularly if they are fit persons, and chosen and ordained thereto by the church), may also in aid and relief of the bishops, exhort the church (being, as already remarked, chosen thereto), and thus assist in word and doctrine… (p38)

The 1886 translation reads:

Furthermore, concerning deacons, that they, especially when they are fit, and chosen and ordained thereto by the church, for the assistance and relief of the elders, may exhort the church (since they, as has been said, are chosen thereto), and labor also in the Word and in teaching;

I’m not sure which translation is more accurate, but in any case we seem to have a situation where earlier Mennonites seem to be less opposed to using the English word “ordination” in relation to women or to using a term like “deaconess” that could imply an ordained church position. It would also almost seem that early Mennonites were not opposed to the ordination of women or women being called deaconesses which is associated with an ordained office in the church. From deduction it would appear instead that 17th century Mennonites approved of using women as deaconesses but not in the preaching and teaching offices.

If you have anything more to add to the difference between the 1886 Sohm translation and the circa 1930 Coffman translation, I would be glad to hear from you.

3 Comments

  1. I just checked my printed copy of the Dordrecht confession and discovered that it used almoners and [woman] servants instead of deacons and deaconesses. My copy is published by Rod and Staff in 1964 and is titled “Mennonite Confession of Faith”. Perhaps we should look for records of deaconess ordination in the 17th century. For myself, I do not see a problem with our churches ordaining deaconesses to the job description in the Dordrecht confession. I can name some sisters in my church that already fill the role of deaconesses (anointed, but unordained as it were). I see it as an acknowledgement and blessing on an existing ministry of service.

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  2. While this isn’t particularly relevant to that time period, I was once a member of a Mennonite church with both deacons and a deaconess. The deaconess was the wife of one of the deacons and unlike the deacons she didn’t have a leadership role. It was interesting that while they had basically the name name, the expectations for deacons and deaconesses were different.

    We recently started an online Mennonite blog directory (https://themennonitegame.com) which is intentionally simple –just a list to help bloggers and readers connect. Would you be interested in adding your blog to the list? If so, you can fill out this form (http://goo.gl/forms/UnTbNnVaKaUKd4VN2) which asks for an affirmation of the ’63 Mennonite Confession of Faith, a square photo, and a blog description (50 words or less).

    You might also be interested in the facebook group (www.facebook.com/groups/mennogame) where anyone can share their blog posts.

    Thanks for considering it! Tabitha

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