EDITOR’S NOTE: PART ONE OF A TWO-PART SERIES EXAMINES THE ROLE OF THE DEACONESS IN THE NEW TESTAMENT AND EARLY CHURCH. PART TWO, TO APPEAR IN THE NEXT ISSUE, WILL EXAMINE THE ROLE OF THE DEACONESS IN THE ADVENTIST CHURCH.1
What was the role of the deaconesses in the New Testament and in
the church through history? To understand this issue fully, we
shall first turn to the New Testament for a study of the word deaconess and review
the life and work of some of the deaconesses mentioned there. Then we shall
briefly explore the role of the deaconesses in the early church from available historical
THE WORD IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
The word deaconess is the feminine counterpart of the male deacon. Both
words come from the Greek verb diakone (to serve, to assist, to minister).
In Matthew 8:15, Luke 10:40, and Acts 6:2, the authors used the verb diakone
in connection with serving food and other aspects of ministry. For example, Jesus coming to minister or serve (Matt. 20:28); Paul’s trip “to Jerusalem
to minister to the saints” with the offerings he collected
in Europe (Rom. 15:25, NKJV); and the commendation of believers
“ministering” to the saints (Heb. 6:10).
The noun diakonia also describes: the table ministry the
apostles entrusted to the seven (Acts 6:1, 2); Paul’s God-given
ministry of the gospel (Acts 20:24); and the spiritual gifts
given to the saints to prepare them for ministry (Eph. 4:12).
The noun diakonos is used in several ways. It denotes
one who waits on tables, as at the wedding feast at Cana
(John 2:5). Jesus told that “‘whoever desires to become great
among you shall be your servant [diakonos]’ ” (Mark 10:43,
NKJV). With Paul, the word takes on a specifically Christian
sense. Paul is a diakonos of the new covenant (2 Cor. 3:6), of
God (2 Cor. 6:4), and of the church (Col. 1:25). In these texts,
the meaning comes much closer to minister than to servant.
In Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8-13, diakonos identifies
specific church officers. Theirs was evidently a spiritual
occupation, for the requirements were spiritual, personal integrity,
The Greek, which usually distinguishes carefully between
masculine and feminine forms of a noun, does not do so
with diakonos. The same word is used for male and female
religious servers, both in pagan religions and in Christianity.
When the article is used, the gender is visible: ho diakonos
(masculine) and h diakonos (feminine). The feminine diakonissa
appeared only in the early fourth century.
WOMEN DEACONS IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
Phoebe. Paul, in Romans 16:1, 2, called Phoebe a diakonos
of the church of Cenchraea. Besides this brief statement,
we know nothing about Phoebe, except that she was a benefactor
of Paul and others, and that Paul commended her to the
church in Rome.
That she was a benefactor or patroness (prostatis) suggests
a woman of wealth and position. In the first-century
Mediterranean world, a patron or benefactor funded the construction
of monuments or buildings, financed festivals or
celebrations, and supported artists and writers. Of interest to
this study, Paul recognized Phoebe as a diakonos, or minister,
of the church at Cenchraea. Only here is diakonos used in
relation to a specific church, implying some kind of position
in the church. Translation of the term diakonos in this passage
has more to do with the translator than the meaning of the
Greek word. The KJV has “servant”; the NIV has “servant,”
with “deaconess” in the note; the NRSV says “deacon,” with
“minister” in the note.
Early church writers give their own interpretation of this
passage. Origen (185–254) interprets Paul’s statement to
teach “that there were women ordained in the church’s ministry.”2
About Phoebe and the other women of Romans 16,
John Chrysostom (c. 347–407) wrote: “You see that these
were noble women, hindered in no way by their sex in the
course of virtue; and this is as might be expected for in Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female.”3
460) noted Phoebe as “a woman deacon, prominent and
noble. She was so rich in good works performed as to have
merited the praise of Paul.”4
“The women likewise.” In 1 Timothy 3:2-7, Paul lists the
characteristics of bishops or overseers. Verses 8-10 describe
the spiritual traits required of diakonoi. Verse 11 seems something
of a digression: who are these “women”? The Greek
word, which can be translated “women” or “wives,” has been
variously translated as “women,” “women deacons,” or “their
The suggestion that the term refers to wives of deacons
presents difficulties, for in the Greek there is no possessive.
Whose wives were they? On the other hand, if one takes the
context seriously, these women serve the church as do their
male counterparts. Quite probably, these women were female
deacons, as was Phoebe.
In the late second century, Clement of Alexandria (155- 220) indicated that this text presented evidence for the existence of diakonon gunaik n (“women deacons”). John Chrysostom and Theodoret, writing in the fourth and fifth centuries respectively, also understood these women to be female deacons.5
WOMEN DEACONS IN THE EARLY CHURCH
During the early centuries, women deacons and widows
were recognized church leaders. We will examine evidence
for the existence, tasks, and ordination of women in the diaconate6
and then point to reasons for the demise of the female
The existence of deaconesses. Somewhere between A.D.
111 and 113, Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia, wrote to
the Emperor Trajan asking how he should deal with Christians.
In the letter, he tells of questioning two women, who were
called ministrae, the Latin equivalent of diakonos.
Of the ministry of women, Clement of Alexandria wrote: “But the apostles in conformity with their ministry concentrated on undistracted preaching, and took their wives around as Christian sisters rather than spouses, to be their fellow-ministers [“fellow deacons”] in relation to housewives, through whom the Lord’s teaching penetrated into the women’s quarters without scandal.”8
The Didascalia Apostolorum [Teaching of the Apostles], undoubtedly from the eastern part of the empire and composed in the third century, gives specific instructions about the role of men and women church workers: “Therefore, O bishop, appoint yourself workers of righteousness, helpers who cooperate with you unto life. Those that please you out of all the people you shall choose and appoint as deacons: on the one hand, a man for the administration of the many things that are required, on the other hand a woman for the ministry of women.”9
Tomb inscriptions also provide evidence that female deacons
served the church. Among others, an inscription found in the vicinity of the Mount of Olives tells of “Sophia the Deacon.”
Dated to the second half of the fourth century, the tombstone
reads: “Here lies the slave and bride of Christ, Sophia,
the deacon (h diakonos), the second Phoebe.”10 As a “bride
of Christ,” Sophia would have been celibate.
A sixth-century inscription from Cappadocia in Asia Minor
gives not only the title, but shows what this female diakonos
did: “Here lies the deacon Maria of pious and blessed
memory, who according to the words of the apostle raised
children, sheltered guests, washed the feet of the saints, and
shared her bread with the needy. Remember her, Lord, when
she comes into your kingdom.”11
In the East, deaconesses appear as late as the twelfth or thirteenth century. The Liber Patrum states: “As for deaconesses, they must be wise. Those who have provided a clear witness of purity and fear of God are the ones who should be chosen. They should be chaste and modest and sixty years or older in age. They carry out the sacrament of baptism for women because it is not fitting that the priest should view the nudity of women.”12
The ordination of deaconesses. The Apostolic Constitutions
(late fourth century) give instruction to the bishop on
the ordination of church leaders, male and female. The bishop
is to lay hands upon the woman and pray: “O Eternal God,
the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Creator of man and
woman, who didst replenish with the Spirit Miriam, and Deborah,
and Anna, and Hulda, who didst not disdain that Thy
only begotten Son should be born of a woman; who also in
the tabernacle of the testimony and in the temple didst appoint
women to be keepers of Thy holy gates,—Do Thou now
also look down on this Thy servant who is to be ordained to
the office of a deaconess, and grant her Thy Holy Spirit, and
cleanse her from all filthiness of flesh and spirit, that she may
worthily discharge the work committed to her to Thy glory
and the praise of Thy Christ.”13
At the Council of Chalcedon (451), the ordination of deaconesses
is expressly called ordination by the imposition of
hands. Members of the Council agreed that “a woman shall
not receive the laying on of hands as a deaconess under forty
years of age, and then only after searching examination.”14
Emperor Justinian directed a novella (March 16, 535) to the archbishop of Constantinople, indicating that the church there should have 40 women deacons. In subsequent instructions, he stated that the same rules should apply to women deacons as to priests and deacons. As virgins or widows of one husband, they merited sacred ordination.15
The Barberini Greek Euchology, an eighth-century Byzantine
ritual for the ordination of male and female deacons,
calls for the laying-on of hands in ordination. The first of two
prayers was said by a deacon, and noted that God sanctified
the female sex through the birth of Jesus and has given the
Holy Spirit to both men and women. The second prayer, said
by the archbishop, stated: “Lord, Master, you do not reject
women who dedicate themselves to you and who are willing, in a becoming way, to serve your Holy House, but admit them
to the order of your ministers. Grant the gift of your Holy Spirit
also to this your maid servant who wants to dedicate herself
to you, and fulfill in her the grace of the ministry of the diaconate,
as you have granted to Phoebe the grace of your diaconate,
whom you had called to the work of the ministry.”16
Tasks of deaconesses. From ancient documents, we learn
of the functions performed by early deaconesses. The Apostolic
Constitutions command the bishop to “ordain also a deaconess
who is faithful and holy, for the ministrations towards
women. . . . For we stand in need of a woman, a deaconess,
for many necessities.”17 Female deacons had a special ministry
for women, especially in pagan homes, where male deacons
were not welcome. They took the eucharist to women
who could not attend church. In addition, they ministered to
the sick, the poor, and those in prison.18 The most important
ministry of the female deacons was to assist at the baptism
by immersion of women. The deaconess anointed the baptismal
candidate with oil, apparently over the whole body. In
some cases, she held up a veil so that the clergy could not
see the naked woman being baptized. She may have accompanied
the woman into the water.
The Disdascalia points to the role of women deacons in
the teaching ministry: “And when she who is being baptized
has come up from the water, let the deaconess receive her,
and teach and educate her in order that the unbreakable seal
of baptism shall be (kept) in chastity and holiness. On this
account, we say that the ministry of a woman deacon is especially
required and urgent.”19
James of Edessa (683–708) noted that deaconesses in
the Eastern Church “had no authority regarding the altar.” They
could “sweep the sanctuary and light the sanctuary lamp.” In
a community of nuns, they could take “the holy sacrament
from the tabernacle and distribute this” to her fellow nuns.20
DEMISE OF THE FEMALE DIACONATE
While deaconesses appear in the Eastern Church until the
twelfth or thirteenth century, in the West their end came much
earlier. British monk Pelagius (c. 420) wrote that the female
diaconate was an institution fallen into disuse in the West,
though remaining in the East.21
The Synod of Nimes (396) pointed out that the problem with deaconesses was that women had “assumed for themselves the ministry of the Levites,” which was “against apostolic discipline and has been unheard of until this time.” Further, “any such ordination that has taken place is against all reason and is to be destroyed.”22
A series of church councils made pronouncements
against the ordination of deaconesses. The First Council of
Orange (441) ordered: “In no way whatsoever should deaconesses
ever be ordained. If there already are deaconesses,
they should bow their heads beneath the blessing which is
given to all the people.”23 The Burgundian Council of Epaon
(517) ruled: “We abrogate totally within the entire kingdom the consecration of widows who are named deaconesses.”24
The Second Synod of Orleans (533) followed up on this prohibition.
Its Canon 18 states: “To no woman must henceforth
the benedictio diaconalis be given, because of the weakness
of the sex.”25
The ordination of deaconesses, rather than their work,
seems to have become an issue, perhaps because of their
monthly “impurity.” Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis (315-405),
who held that women “are a feeble race, untrustworthy and
of mediocre intelligence,” pointed out that deaconesses were
not clergy, but served the “bishops and priests on grounds
of propriety.”26 In a letter to John, Bishop of Jerusalem, he
insisted he had never “ordained deaconesses . . . nor done
anything to split the church.”27 By 1070, Theodore Balsamon,
Patriarch of Antioch, could affirm that “deaconesses in any
proper sense had ceased to exist in the Church though the
title was borne by certain nuns.”28 One of the reasons he gave
was the “impurity of their menstrual periods” and the fact that
law “prohibits women from entering the sanctuary.”29
Jacobite author Jahya ibn Jarir, writing from Persia in the
third quarter of the eleventh century, wrote: “In antiquity deaconesses
were ordained; their function was to be concerned
with adult women and prevent their being uncovered in the
presence of the bishop. However, as the practice of religion
became more extensive and the decision was made to begin
administering baptism to infants, this function of deaconesses
Michael the Great, patriarch from 1166 to 1199, seemed
to agree: “In ancient times there was a need for deaconesses,
principally to assist with the baptism of women. When converts
from Judaism or paganism became disciples of Christianity
and thereby became candidates for holy baptism, it was
by the hands of the deaconesses that the priests and bishops
anointed the women candidates at the time of their baptism.
. . . But we can plainly see that this practice has long since
ceased in the Church. . . . There is no longer any need for
deaconesses because there are no longer any grown women
who are baptized.”31
The existence and ordination of deaconesses in the early
church is evident. Their tasks—assisting at the baptism of
women, teaching, and caring for people—are also clear. Yet,
Three factors seem to have contributed to the demise of
the female diaconate. First, infant baptism replaced adult baptism,
making the assistance of a female at the baptism of
adult women unnecessary. Second, the sacrifice of the Mass,
which gave to the priest the power of converting bread and
wine into the very body and blood of Jesus, shaped the understanding
of clergy and laity and removed lay people—male
and female—from ministry.32 Further, the rise of monasticism,
with the institution of nunneries and the insistence on celibacy,
changed the focus of church work for women.
1 A fuller version of this article appeared in Andrews University Seminary Studies 43 (2005): 133–158.
2 Origen, Epistola ad Romanos 10.17.2; commentary on Romans 16.
3 John Chrysostom, Homily 30, on Romans 15:25–27; taken from Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.), 11:1002.
4 Theodoret, Interpret. Epist ad Rom. 16:1, PG 82, Cols. 217D, 220A.
5 Clement Stromata 3.6.53; John Chrysostom, In Epistola 1 ad Timotheus 3, Homily 11.1.
6 For further information on the history of female deacons, see “The History of Women Deacons,” at http://www.womenpriests.org/traditio/deac_ovr.htm" class="redactor-linkify-object">http://www.womenpriests.org/traditio/deac_ovr.htm (May 21, 2007). See also, John Wijngaards, No Women in Holy Orders? The Ancient Women Deacons (Norwich, UK: Canterbury, 2002). While Wijngaards interprets the evidence as including women deacons in the clergy, Aimé Georges Martimort, whose careful analysis, Deaconesses: An Historical Study (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1986) is considered a classic on the topic, admits the existence of women deacons but denies that they were ever considered clergy.
7 Pliny, Letters 10.96.
8 Clement, Stromata 3.6.53; English translation from Clement of Alexandria, The Fathers of the Church, vol. 85 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America, 1991), 289.
9 “Concerning deacons and deaconesses,” The Didascalia Apostolorum in Syriac, ed. Arthur Vööbus, Corpus scriptorum christianorum orientalium, 407 (Louvain: Sécretariat du Cor.pus SCO, 1979), 2:156.
10 Ute E. Eisen, Women Officeholders in Early Christianity: Epigraphical and Literary Studies (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), 159.
11 Ibid., 164–167.
12 Liber Patrum, ser. 2, fasc. 16, in S. Congregatio pro Ecclesia Orientali, Codifi caziones canonica orientale, Fonti (Rome: Tipografi a Poliglotta Vaticana, 1930), 34, quoted in Martimort, 158.
13 Apostolic Constitutions 8.3.20, ANF 7:1008.
14 Canon 15, Conciliorum Oecumenicorum Decreta, 94.
15 Justinian, Novellae 3.1; 6.6; Corpus Iuris Civilis, vol. 3, Novellae (Zurich: Weidmann, 1968), 20, 21, 43–45.
16 Barberini Greek Euchology 336; for the original Greek, English translation, and the history of the manuscript see http://www.womenpriests.org/traditio/deac_gr1.asp" class="redactor-linkify-object">http://www.womenpriests.org/traditio/deac_gr1.asp (May 15, 2007).
17 Apostolic Constitutions 3.2.16 (ANF 7:884).
18 Mary P. Truesdell, “The Office of Deaconess,” in The Diaconate Today, ed. Richard T. Nolan (Washington, DC: Corpus, 1968), 150. Truesdell, an Episcopalian deaconess, based much of her writing on secondary sources, such as The Ministry of Women: A Report by a Committee Appointed by His Grace the Lord Arcbishop of Canterbury (London: SPCK, 1919).
19 Didascalia 16, Vööbus, 2:157.
20 Syrian Synodicon, in “James of Edessa.”
21 Pelagius, Commentary on Romans 16:1, Theodore de Bruyn, Pelagius’s Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993), 150, 151.
22 Charles Joseph Hefele, A History of the Councils of the Church from the Original Documents (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1871), 2:404.
23 Canon 26, Council of Orange, in Charles Joseph Hefele, Histoire des conciles d’après les documents originaux (Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1908), 2:1:446, 447. In a long note, Hefele outlines the history of the female diaconate and maintains that the council had to take strict measures with deaconesses because they were attempting to “extend their attributions” (447).
24 Council of Epaon, Canon 21, in Edward H. Landon, A Manual of the Councils of the Holy Catholic Church (Edinburgh: John Grant, 1909), 1:253.
25 Hefele, A History of the Councils, 4:187.
26 Against Heresies 79.1, 3, 4.
27 Epiphanius, Letter to John Bishop of Jerusalem, ‘2 http://www.womenpriests.org/ traditio/epiphan .asp ( May 15, 2007).
28 Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “Deaconesses.”
29 Replies to the Questions of Mark, reply 35, http://www.womenpriests .org/traditio/ balsamon.asp (May 15, 2007).
30 Jahya ibn Jarir, Book of Guidance of Jahya ibn Jarir, G. Khori-Sarkis, Le livre du guide de Yahya ibn Jarir, Orient Syrien 12 (1967): 461, quoted in Martimort, 166.
31 Syriac Pontifi cal, Vatican Syriac MS 51, quoted in Martimort, 167.
32 Daniel Augsburger, “Clerical Authority and Ordination in the Early Christian Church,”
in Women in Ministry (Berrien Springs: Andrews University Press, 1998), 77–100.
This article first appeared in the July 2008 issue of Ministry,® International
Journal for Pastors, www.MinistryMagazine.org and it is
reprinted by permission.
Nancy Vyhmeister, PhD, is professor emeritus of missions at the
Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs,
Michigan, United States.