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The History of Women Deacons

The involvement of women in the apostolate of the early Church is indisputable. We can only give a brief summary which shows how women deacons fitted within the wider picture.

The women who assisted Paul

On account of sociological circumstances the early Church could not immediately draw the consequences from the revolutionary new priesthood of Christ. Paul knew that Christ’s baptism had in principle abrogated the distinction between slaves and free people (Galatians 3, 38) and in one text he draws the logical conclusion that slaves should be liberated (1 Corinthians 7, 21-23). Yet the prevailing social system brought him to accept the institution of slavery as a necessary evil. In the same way the prevailing world of thought made it impossible for him to realize to its full extent the equality in Christ between men and women he so firmly believed in (Galatians 3, 28). In this light it is all the more significant that already in Paul’s time women were involved in the ministry of the Church.

As women had joined Christ in his ministry (Luke 8,1-4), so also women participated in the building up of the earliest Christian communities. Did they have precise tasks?

Women's role as ‘prophets’

The prophet, in the New Testament sense, was not simply someone inspired; he or she was someone who filled an office within the community. S. Paul placed the prophet between the apostle and the teacher: “God has appointed in the Church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles . . . Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? . . . (1 Corinthians 12,28-29). The Didache (11-13) puts the prophet in close connection with the missionary apostle.

The ministry of women as ‘widows’

In the New Testament the word ‘widow’ can denote different but not unrelated entities. The Acts of the Apostles (6,1-2; 9,39) inform us that the ‘aged widows’ were cared for by the community. Here it is simply a question of widows in the ordinary sense of the word. But as early as in the Epistle to Titus we see these widows playing a particular role in the community: ‘The aged women must conduct themselves as befits a holy calling; they must not be given to slander or drunken habits; they must teach what is good and train the young women to love their husbands and children’ (Titus 2,3-4). Here the widowed state seems to imply a demand for perfection and some kind of a mission directed to the young women of the community. This was later to grow into organised apostolate.

Although the ‘diaconate’ in a wider sense existed from the beginning, it is clear that during the second century AD it was the ‘order of widows’ who exercised their function, in a rather undefined sense.

Women Deacons

Right from the Apostolic Age, the Church has known deaconnesses. The classical passage from 1 Timothy expresses this clearly:

“Deacons must be men of grave behaviour; they must be examined and if found blameless may afterwards serve as deacons.
The women must be of grave behaviour, not slanderers, temperate, in every respect faithful.
Deacons must be married only once’ 1 Timothy 3,8-12.

“The word ‘deacon’ is here used in its technical sense. It also seems clear that by ‘the women’ in question, who are clearly distinguished from the wives of the deacons while the description of them is parallel to that of the deacons, we must understand deaconesses. It indicates a ministry which forms part of the ordained ministry itself. ” Jean Daniélou, The Ministry of Women in the Early Church, Faith Press, Leighton Buzzard 1974, p. 14.

During the first centuries, however, confusion in terminology and practice remained. In 517 AD the Synod of Epaon speaks of ‘widows whom they call deaconesses’. Deaconesses are sometimes referred to as ‘widow and deaconess’. It is likely, however, that the two roles have always been somewhat distinct.

It is only in the third century that the Church clarified the position of deaconesses with more precision, possibly because of problems with the less organised widows. In the Didascalia (3rd cent.) and the Apostolic Constitutions (4th cent.) the distinct roles of ‘widows’ and ‘deaconesses’ are spelled out. Councils laid down conditions for their sacramental ordination. The ordination rituals were laid down.

In the Byzantine part of the Church diaconesses flourished until well into the 8th and 9th centuries. Many women deacon saints are venerated in the calendar of the Orthodox Church.

The ultimate decline of the diaconate of women has been attributed to two main causes:

There has always been much opposition to women deacons in the Latin speaking regions of the Church: Italy, North Africa, Gaul and Brittany. The main reasons were (a) the influence of Roman Law according to which no position of authority could be given to women, and (b) the fear of ritual uncleanness.

Read on this: Deaconesses in Late Antique Gaul.

By the time of the Middle Ages few people knew what the diaconate of women had meant to the Early Church.

John Wijngaards

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Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

Visit also our websites:Women Deacons, The Body is Sacred and Mystery and Beyond.

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