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The History of Women Deacons/Deaconesses

The History of Women Deacons/Deaconesses

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.

  • ‘Phoebe, our sister, who is a servant (diakonos) of the Church at Cenchreae. She has often been a helper both to myself and to many others’ (Romans 16,1) The word diakonos applied to Phoebe, does not really carry with it the sense of a precise ministerial function which it will have later where women are concerned. It has here the general sense of ‘servant,’ which is normal in the New Testament (cf. Ephesians 6,22).
  • ‘Greet Prisca and Aquila my fellow workers in Christ Jesus’... ‘Greet Mary who has worked so much among you.’ In the same way ‘Tryphaena, Tryphosa and Persis labour in the Lord.’ (Romans 16,1-16) Paul certainly refers here to apostolic tasks.
  • ‘Euodia and Syntyche who have struggled together with me in the Gospel with Clement and the rest of my fellow-workers.’(Philippians 4,2) ‘In the Gospel’ surely implies participation in the work of evangelism.
  • Compare also: “The apostles, giving themselves without respite to the work of evangelism as befitted their ministry, took with them women, not as wives but as sisters, to share in their ministry to women living at home: by their agency the teaching of the Lord reached the women’s quarters without arousing suspicion’. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 3, 6, §53.
  • Pliny in a letter to the Emperor (111 AD) mentions that he arrested two Christian women, who held an official position. “All the more it seemed necessary to me to find out the truth from these two slave women, who were called ‘ancillae’ [=diakonous, deaconesses?], even by applying torture.”
  • And compare the story of Thecla, who by her confession before the judge at Antioch, converted Tryphaena and a group of women. ‘She went to Tryphaena’s house and stayed there for eight days, instructing her in the Word of God, so that most of her servants believed’ (Acts of Paul and Thecla, § 38-39).

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.

  • Philip the Evangelist had four daughters who ‘prophesied’ (Acts 21,9).
  • ‘Every man who prays or who prophesies with his head covered dishonours his head. Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonours her head’ (1 Corinthians 11,4-5). Prophesying by a woman is here on the same plane as prophesying by a man. The word bears the same sense for the one as for the other.
  • The prophet clearly had a function within the liturgical assembly. ‘Let the prophets give thanks as they will’ [=they could express themselves clearly during the Eucharist] .(Didache 10,7).

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.

  • Origen compares the Phoebe of the Epistle to the Romans with the widows of the Epistle to Titus (Commentary on Romans 10,17)
  • ‘Honour widows who are “widows indeed”.... A widow indeed is one who has put her trust in God and perseveres day and night in the intercessions and the prayers. Before she can be inscribed on the role, a widow must be sixty years old at least, once married, one who has practised hospitality, washed the feet of the saints and been given to all good works’ (1 Timothy 5,3-10. The interesting point is the enrolment on a register and the conditions it implies, for this makes it plain that we are concerned here not with all the widows, but with some of their number who constitute a special category of the community. This is the first indication we have of an order of widows, parallel to the clerical orders in the Church.
  • Ignatius of Antioch greets ‘the virgins and the order of widows’ (Philippians § 15).

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:

  • the fear of the ‘ritual uncleanness’ due to her monthly periods; so Balsamon and Blastares.
  • the decline in the baptism of adults. This decreased the need of help by women deacons, as mentioned in some ancient Syrian rituals.

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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