At the Doors of the Church: The Restoration of Deaconesses

After centuries of dormancy, the office of deaconess flourished again in the nineteenth century.[1] Beginning with the formation of a Lutheran community of deaconesses in 1836, the movement spread through the continent, to England, and then to America. Bishop Tait of London set apart Elizabeth Ferard in 1861 as the first deaconess to serve in the Church of England. In 1889, deaconesses were officially established in the Protestant Episcopal Church in the U.S.[2] In this revival of the office, the role focused on ministering to the poor and serving women in the church.[3] But just as the office of deaconess had died before in the history of the church, it faded once more. With the rise of women’s ordination to Holy Orders, the distinct role of deaconess was dissolved in the Episcopal Church in 1970 when all deaconesses became deacons. The Church of England similarly brought the order to an end in 1986 as men and women were admitted to a singular diaconate.

Advocates for admitting women to the diaconate correctly point to historical precedent in the early church. The precedent in the early church, however, reveals that female deaconesses were a distinct order from male deacons. Some Anglican jurisdictions in North America have maintained the historic practice of deaconesses.[4] The normative practice now in the Anglican Communion merges female and male deacons into the same office, without distinction. So, after a brief revival of the office of deaconesses, the office was subsumed under what had been a historically male diaconate. This innovation raises questions. What was the basis for dissolving the office of deaconess? Was the dissolution of deaconesses a sign of progress for the ministry of and to women in the church? Do male and female deacons essentially fulfill the same role in an androgynous office? What would a restoration of the office of deaconess once again look like? The restoration of a distinct office of deaconess in the church, I will argue, is not just supported by scattered proof-texts but by patterns of women’s ministry established in the Old Testament, attested to in the New Testament, and practiced in the first millennium of church history. After setting the scriptural framework for deaconesses, I will survey the role of deaconesses in the early church. Finally, I will consider the practical questions related to the restoration of deaconesses today.

Deaconesses in the Old Testament

When considering the question of women’s service in the church, the Old Testament often gets ignored. But a close examination of the Old Testament reveals the active role of women ministering in what we might consider diaconal roles. Perhaps the best place to begin is where Scripture begins with the story of man and woman, in the Garden of Eden. As many scholars recognize, the Garden was a prototypical sanctuary.[5] It was the place where heaven and earth met, where God walked with Adam and Eve. In the Garden, Adam is given a priestly duty to “serve and guard” the garden (Genesis 2:15–17).[6] The Lord entrusts Adam with his word regarding the sacramental trees. But it was not good for Adam to be alone in this garden sanctuary. He was given God’s word to speak and God’s food to eat. But who would hear the word and eat the food besides Adam? The Lord builds Adam a bride in this sanctuary (Genesis 2:22). The bride will join Adam in the garden. He will offer her God’s food and he will remind the bride of God’s good word. And she will respond. She is created to be a liturgical respondent. But she is also created as an assistant, a helper in this garden sanctuary. While the priestly duties are given to Adam alone, she is given a duty to assist. She is a helper for the husband in marriage, but she is also a helper for the priest in the ministry of gardening. A deacon is best understood as a commissioned assistant.[7] With such a definition, we may understand Eve as a proto-deaconess in the Bible. She has a critical task of assisting the priest in the context of the garden sanctuary.[8] Eve is the bride, deaconess, and liturgical respondent in the garden. She is the type of the church in the garden serving the bridegroom. On this reading, the entire church is not just a bride but a deaconess, a servant to the great high priest Jesus Christ.

It is not my contention that the garden tells us all we need to know about ecclesiastical office. But the garden does set up basic liturgical patterns—engendered in male and female—that we should expect to find in the garden-sanctuary of Christ’s church. The church is a new creation with an expanding Edenic worshipping community at its center. When Paul touches on matters of ecclesial office and its relationship to men and women, for example in 1 Timothy 2, he appeals to creation. That’s because the church is God’s new creation. Priestly, diaconal, kingly, and prophetic ministry in the new creation may all find their analogues in the prototypical pattern of the original creation.

The original sanctuary of the garden is replicated in the tabernacle. At the tabernacle there are priestly roles given to the sons of Aaron and diaconal roles to the Levites.[9] But we also find reference to women serving at the tabernacle. We read in Exodus 38:8, “He made the basin of bronze and its stand of bronze, from the mirrors of the ministering women who ministered in the entrance of the tent of meeting.” Interestingly, the Hebrew verb for “ministering” (צָבָא) is used of Levitical service at the Tabernacle in the sense of being “on duty”: “From thirty years old up to fifty years old, you shall list them, all who can come to do duty, to do service (צָבָא) in the tent of meeting” (Numbers 4:23; cf. Numbers 8:24). Granted, these female attendants at the entrance of the tent did not enter the sanctuary as the priests were permitted to, but they were still serving in this broader liturgical context.[10]

The case of Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11:29–40 is also worth considering. Jephthah makes a vow: “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering” (Judges 11:30–31). The most common interpretation of Jephthah’s rash vow is that he was bound by his vow to sacrifice his daughter by putting her death. Yet there is another way to read Jephthah’s vow.[11] Jephthah only had one child, and while the firstborn male son would be typically dedicated to the Lord, here the first and only child to come out of the womb is a daughter, who is dedicated to the Lord. To be offered up as an offering need not imply a physical death (though it certainly could as in the case of those under the ban during holy war), but a death to a former life and a consecration through sacrifice to a new life. The daughter mourns her virginity because she will not be able to have a family but will be a perpetual virgin. Her virginity and being consecrated to the Lord connect us with tabernacle service. Devoted things belong to the tabernacle, and now so does Jephthah’s daughter. Jephthah’s daughter, then, may be understood to be devoted to service at the tabernacle, like the women in Exodus 38:8. Hannah devotes her son Samuel to the Lord’s perpetual service at the tabernacle and she would visit him at the tabernacle (1 Samuel 1:27). Likewise, women of Israel would go up to visit Jephthah’s daughter at the temple every year (Judges 11:40). Thus, Jephthah’s daughter may very well be a dedicated servant at the tabernacle in the tradition of the serving women of Exodus 38. Jephthah’s daughter was the first to open the doors of the house, and such an action led to her being devoted to the doors of the tabernacle.

Though not perfectly clear what duties were involved, these serving women at the tabernacle had a role associated with the basins of water. James B. Jordan points out that women were allowed to bring sacrifices to the tabernacle, so it makes sense that these “ministering women” would assist other women in their sacrifices in some capacity.[12] We also find women serving at the tabernacle in the opening of First Samuel, though in the troubling context of Eli’s wicked sons sleeping with them (1 Samuel 1:22).[13] There were clear distinctions, of course; only priests could enter the tabernacle itself and lead the sacrificial rites. The women serving were neither priests nor Levites, but they were assisting at the entrance of the tabernacle in an official capacity; they were “on duty.” We may suppose they were commissioned assistants, authorized perhaps by the Levites or the Aaronic priests to serve in a distinct, if limited, capacity.

Deacons and the Levites

In the Old Covenant order, there was a high priest and an order of priests from the sons of Aaron. But alongside the sons of Aaron were the Levites:

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Bring the tribe of Levi near, and set them before Aaron the priest, that they may minister to him. They shall keep guard over him and over the whole congregation before the tent of meeting, as they minister at the tabernacle. They shall guard all the furnishings of the tent of meeting, and keep guard over the people of Israel as they minister at the tabernacle. And you shall give the Levites to Aaron and his sons” (Numbers 3:5–9).

Levites served as assistants to the priests. While only the priests could approach the altar, the Levites assisted in guarding the tabernacle while the priests ministered there. They had a particular duty to guard the liturgical furnishings and functions of the tabernacle. Only the priesthood has a ministry connected with the altar and inside the sanctuary (Numbers 18:3), but the Levites assisted the priesthood as custodians of the tabernacle (Numbers 18). If they were not allowed to approach the altar in time of liturgical service, they were at the very least an essential altar guild for the priesthood. Notably, the role of Levite seems to expand later in Israel’s history, with Levites tasked with musical leadership and teaching (1 Chronicles 6:31–32; 2 Chronicles 17:9).

We may associate Old Covenant offices with New Covenant offices: the high priest is the bishop, the Aaronic priests are the New Covenant priests, and the Levites are the deacons. In this scheme, New Covenant priests have a ministry within the sanctuary, leading the liturgy and the sacrificial and sacramental rite of Holy Communion. New Covenant Levites are deacons who assist the priest. The compiler of the Apostolic Constitutions asserts that Christian worship has replaced Old Covenant worship and that “male deacons, widows, virgins and orphans are your Levites.”[14] Pauliina Pylvänäinen notes that by the fourth century, “levite” and “deacon” became synonymous.[15]

While this typology is helpful in giving a more expansive understanding of a deacon as an assistant, a fuller typology may be developed—one that is already implicit in the Apostolic Constitutions. The reference to women “serving” at the tabernacle in Exodus 38:8 may develop a fourth category. They are neither high priest, nor priest, nor are they Levites. But we do know that they are women with a Levitical role serving a at the entrance of the sanctuary. Thus, we may tentatively develop the typology:

High Priest Bishops
Sons of Aaron (Priesthood) Presbyters
Levites (Male) Deacons
Female Assistants at the Tabernacle Doors Deaconesses

Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, and Huldah: Spirit-Filled Exemplars

It’s worth emphasizing that the ministry of deaconesses in the early church is often associated with Old Covenant examples and categories. In the ordination prayer for deaconesses in the Apostolic Constitutions, the Bishop intones a biblically rich prayer:

Eternal God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Creator of man and woman, who fulfilled with the Spirit Miriam, Deborah, Hannah and Huldah, who did not disdain Your only begotten Son to be born of a woman, who in the tent of testimony and the temple appointed a guardianship for Your holy gateway. You, the same, look now upon your servant whom we have appointed to service, and give her the Holy Spirit and purify her from all defilement of flesh and spirit in order to worthily perform her work to Your glory and Your Christ’s praise. Through Him glory and worship in the Holy Spirit eternally. Amen.[16]

Why does the compiler highlight these women from the Old Covenant? What do they have in common? Space does not permit a detailed character study of these women, but some connections may be made. Miriam, Hannah, and Deborah all break out in praise at works of the Lord (Exodus 15; Judges 4–5; 1 Samuel 1–2). Deborah and Huldah are prophetesses who speak the word of the Lord to Israel (Judges 4–5; 2 Kings 22:14). These women all share in the work of the Spirit. Singing and prophecy are inspired by the Spirit. The selection of these women as exemplars for deaconesses may suggest some idea that there was an overlap between deaconesses and prophetesses. In any case, these women are presented as models, and the bishop asks the Spirit who inspired these Old Covenant saints to do the same for the deaconesses.

Deaconesses and the New Testament

When we come to the New Testament, though all the disciples were male, the involvement of women in the ministry of Jesus and the early church is common in the Gospels, Acts, and the epistolary literature. In one important instance in Romans 16:1-2 we read:

Συνίστημι δὲ ὑμῖν Φοίβην τὴν ἀδελφὴν ἡμῶν, οὖσαν [καὶ] διάκονον τῆς ἐκκλησίας τῆς ἐν Κεγχρεαῖς, ἵνα αὐτὴν προσδέξησθε ἐν κυρίῳ ἀξίως τῶν ἁγίων καὶ παραστῆτε αὐτῇ ἐν ᾧ ἂν ὑμῶν χρῄζῃ πράγματι· καὶ γὰρ αὐτὴ προστάτις πολλῶν ἐγενήθη καὶ ἐμοῦ αὐτοῦ.

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well.

The word for servant is the Greek word διάκονος (diakonos), the same word used for the office of deacon in other places (cf. Philippians. 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:8).[17] The word in its most basic sense—and often in the New Testament—refers to a servant who assists a superior.[18] Paul, however, gives special attention to Phoebe. Paul “commends” her, and this language of commendation is the same Paul uses to refer to his own apostolic commission (2 Corinthians 3:1). He further highlights her role as a “patron” of Paul and others, indicating Phoebe was a wealthy woman who used her personal resources to support the church, not unlike Lydia in Philippi.[19] In context, Phoebe’s role as διάκονος at the very least refers to her exemplary ministry to the apostles through her generosity. She is presented as a model to be commended.

But can we say with confidence that Phoebe was indeed a deacon in the official sense? Trying to discern church polity in the New Testament is a difficult endeavor. Even the Pastoral Epistles, which represent a more developed form of the Early Church than is evidenced in Romans 16:1–2, do not answer all the questions we may have. Further, it is tempting to read back not only a particular polity into the New Testament but also our contemporary concerns and agendas, such as the role of women in church office. We should be careful that we are not forcing the text to answer questions they were not meant to answer. Aimé Georges Martimort, in his landmark study Deaconesses: A Historical Study, warns against forced anachronistic readings of diakonos in the case of Phoebe.[20] We know little about this port city of Cenchreae other than it was the place from which Paul set sail for Ephesus, where he took a Nazirite vow, and that it was the place of Phoebe’s service to that church. Martimort argues that the best understanding of Phoebe’s service to Cenchreae is found not in attempts to read official ecclesiastical offices back into the story, but in focusing on what we find in Romans 16. Phoebe’s service was one of a patron who supported Paul by showing him hospitality. Of course, this patronage was an important ministry to the church, if not an official office. Like Priscilla in nearby Corinth and Lydia in Philippi, Phoebe is another female patron of the church whose ministry was a personal blessing to Paul and example to the broader church. What is clear is that prominent women played an influential role in these missionary churches. What is less clear, particularly in the case of Phoebe, is whether there was a developed sense of ecclesial office in the diaconate.

Leaving the case of Phoebe aside for a moment, the other important text to consider is 1 Timothy 3:8-13.

Διακόνους ὡσαύτως σεμνούς, μὴ διλόγους, μὴ οἴνῳ πολλῷ προσέχοντας, μὴ αἰσχροκερδεῖς, 9 ἔχοντας τὸ μυστήριον τῆς πίστεως ἐν καθαρᾷ συνειδήσει. 10 καὶ οὗτοι δὲ δοκιμαζέσθωσαν πρῶτον, εἶτα διακονείτωσαν ἀνέγκλητοι ὄντες. 11 Γυναῖκας ὡσαύτως σεμνάς, μὴ διαβόλους, νηφαλίους, πιστὰς ἐν πᾶσιν. 12 διάκονοι ἔστωσαν μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρες, τέκνων καλῶς προϊστάμενοι καὶ τῶν ἰδίων οἴκων. 13 οἱ γὰρ καλῶς διακονήσαντες βαθμὸν ἑαυτοῖς καλὸν περιποιοῦνται καὶ πολλὴν παρρησίαν ἐν πίστει τῇ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ.

Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. [Their wives] likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus [ESV].

In 1 Timothy, we find specific instructions and qualifications for the offices of bishop or overseer (3:1–7) and deacons (3:8–10). But in verse 11, Paul addresses another group, the “women” (γυναῖκαs), which could refer to women in general or wives. The two major interpretive options have been to see these women as wives of male deacons, as the ESV glosses, or to understand these women as deaconesses. That these may be wives of deacons has strong contextual support. The same word γυναῖκας is used to refer to deacon’s wives in verse 12 where Paul says “let the deacons be husbands of one wife” (διάκονοι ἔστωσαν μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρες). So, Paul could be saying deacons’ wives must have certain qualities (v. 11) and, speaking of deacon’s wives, deacons should only have one wife (v. 12). On this reading, Paul never really stops talking about (male) deacons in vv. 8–13 but includes deacons’ wives in the discussion. This reading perhaps provides the simplest explanation and should not be easily dismissed.[21]

Yet the interpretation that these are wives of deacons faces a couple of challenges from the context. Earlier in the passage, Paul does not address bishops’ wives separately. So then, why would Paul address the wives of deacons separately? And why does Paul use very similar language for male deacons and these women? Notably, Paul uses ὡσαύτως σεμνούs for both the deacons and women (3:8, 11), drawing a strong correlation between the two groups. This connection and similarity of language has led many interpreters to conclude these are deaconesses.[22] Though there is a connection between the requirements of the men and women, there are some differences. The male deacons must be “tested first” (v. 10), but no such requirement is placed on the women. Why would female deacons not need to be tested also? Another distinction might be detected in the qualification for deacons to “hold the mystery of faith with a clear conscience” and the women to be “faithful in all things.” Perhaps the requirement of the deacon holding the mystery of the faith, an apparent reference to maintaining true doctrine, is part of what must be tested in the deacon while the requirements for the deaconess emphasize a general faithfulness. Such differences in qualifications at the very least show that Paul understands the male deacons and these women to be fulfilling two overlapping but separate vocations.

The interpretation of “the women” in 1 Timothy 3:11 is by no means straightforward.[23] However we understand these women in verse 11, they are closely linked to deacons, their male counterparts. If they are wives, as the lexical and contextual evidence could support, then they are at the very least partners in the ministry alongside their husband deacons, similarly called to an exemplary life. That a husband-and-wife pair might be in view here also reflects a reality we see in the New Testament, the most notable example being Priscilla and Aquila. Given the overlapping yet distinct qualifications for the deacons and the women, if we look to 1 Timothy 3:11 to support a separate female diaconate then we should consider not just how the qualifications are like that of their male counterparts, but why they are distinct. The textual support of the New Testament simply will not allow a genderless diaconate in which men and women serve the same roles and must meet the same qualifications.

Deaconesses in the Early Church

How does early church history illuminate our study? Martimort’s thorough historical study unpacks the emerging presence and role of deaconesses in the Eastern and Western church in the early Christian centuries. What follows in this section relies on his historical work. In the Western church, there were no deaconesses until the sixth century. In the Eastern Church, however, deaconesses appeared in the early third century and there is quite a bit of evidence for their presence and function. We will limit our survey to the Eastern Church since it provides the best and earliest evidence for deaconesses.

The historical evidence in the Eastern church shows an official role of deaconess for the ministry of women beginning in the third century. The third century Didascalia is the first document that mentions deaconesses. In a section labeled “On the Institution of Deacons and Deaconesses,” we read:

Those among the people who most please you in this respect should be chosen and instituted as deacons: on the one hand, a man for the administration of the necessary tasks; on the other hand, a woman for ministry among the women. For there are houses where you may not send deacons, on account of the pagans, but to which you may send deaconesses. And also because the service of a deaconess is required in many other domains.[24]

The theme of deaconesses having a “ministry among the women” is consistent in the early church testimony. Matters of propriety and common sense dictated that women could serve women better in certain contexts, especially in places where there were many unbelievers. The Didascalia reveals another recurring role for deaconesses: assisting in the baptism of women. Adult baptismal candidates would strip off all clothes and be anointed with oil before going into the water and being re-clothed again. Having a female minister makes sense in this context for reasons of propriety, since the whole unclothed body would be anointed with oil. Therefore the driving reason for the emergence of deaconesses was the need for a uniquely feminine ministry for women being baptized and ministry among women in places men should not or could not go. Such a distinction between deacons and deaconesses is so clear that Fr. Cipriano Vagaggini writes, “The diaconal ministry of the church had two branches: a masculine ministry and a feminine one for ministering to women specifically.”[25]

The Ordo and the Canons Concerning Ordination in the Holy Church is a document traced to the fifth century, originating in the far boundaries of the Eastern church. It is significant because it addresses the ordination of women as deaconesses. From Canon 18 of the Ordo:

The deaconess is brought into the diaconicon, or place set apart for deaconesses, and the bishop prays over her; when he has placed her before the altar and she has bowed her head, the bishop then lays his hand upon her head and prays using a prayer that is known that in no way resembles the prayer used in the ordination of deacon. The deaconess should not approach the altar; her tasks lie principally in assisting with the anointing at baptisms…. Deaconesses, for their part, were instituted in order to anoint the women coming to receive the seal of baptism…”[26]

Here again, the deaconess’ ministry is tied to the ministry of women. We also note limitations on the deaconesses’ liturgical service; they were forbidden from the altar. But the Ordo does detail the ordination of deaconesses, though with an ordination prayer distinct from the one for male deacons.

The Apostolic Constitutions (A.D. 380), which includes a version of the Didascalia, takes for granted the presence of deaconesses, who at that time were required to be unmarried or widows. The ordination prayer for the deaconess (quoted above) would indicate the practice of the ordination of deaconesses by the laying on of hands of the bishop.[27] There is some question as to whether this prayer is a patchwork of sources or truly authentic, but it likely represents a practice of the day and its scriptural justification. Notably, great women of the Old Testament are evoked along with the women serving at the Temple complex in this ordination prayer. The Didascalia and Apostolic Constitutions point to a specific ordination liturgy for deaconesses. Canon 15 of the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) likewise directs deaconesses to be ordained: “A woman shall not receive the laying on of hands as a deaconess under forty years of age, and then only after searching examination.”[28] That there were deaconesses in the early church was taken for granted, and the evidence for their receiving the laying on of hands by a bishop with a distinct ordination liturgy is consistent.[29]

Patristic exegesis of key biblical texts also indicates a flourishing ministry of deaconesses.[30] St. Epiphianus, declaring that the Church has never permitted “priestesses,” nevertheless states that She has admitted deaconesses for the care of women. Theodoret, in his exposition to the Epistle to Romans, acknowledges Phoebe as a “female deacon,” by which he seems to mean a gendered order distinct from that of male deacons. Further, Theodore of Mopsuestia, John Chrysostom, and Theodoret all interpret 1 Timothy 3:11 as referring not to wives of deacons but to deaconesses.[31] That early exegetes identified a New Testament precedent for this distinct order of deaconesses should cast a strong vote in favor of interpreting the 1 Timothy 3 as referring to deaconesses.

Such a cursory overview of key sources from the early church cannot fully represent all the ecclesiological and political complexities involved. Yet for our purposes we can draw a few conclusions regarding the early church use of a separate order of deaconesses.

    1. Deaconesses were increasingly present in the Eastern church from as early as the third century onward.
    2. Deaconesses served an analogous but distinct office from male deacons.[32]
    3. Deaconesses eventually received the laying on of hands by a bishop, though with a distinct liturgy and ordination prayer from that of male deacons.
    4. Deaconesses’ primary ministry was to women.
    5. Deaconesses were not permitted to serve at the altar or preach in the liturgy.[33]
    6. Patristic exegetes taught the New Testament practice of deaconesses.

Deaconesses Today

What would a recovery of an order of deaconesses look like today? Dealing with such questions, we must be able to make fine distinctions. To say, on the one hand, that women are prohibited from any public ministry role, or, on the other hand, that women can do anything a man can do in ordained ministry, is to ignore the way Scripture and the tradition make careful distinctions. We should also acknowledge the enormous cultural pressure to conform our ecclesial practices to progressive sensibilities, which view any attempt at making distinctions along gender lines as a form of oppression. But in engaging this question today, we should care most about bringing our practices into alignment with the Bible, the tradition, and catholic order. On the latter point, it’s worth taking seriously the ways that the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches have engaged the question of women in ministry.[34] Given that these are the two largest and most historically rooted churches, careful consideration of their practices and approaches to this issue are in order for Anglicans, who too often have been more guided by theological liberalism than faithfulness to the tradition. Ultimately, however, we must be in submission to the authority of Scripture, and the biblical testimony runs against a non-gendered diaconate.

The emergence of deaconesses in the early church was associated with the baptism of women, at the “doors of the church.” This ministry at the doors of the church is in continuity with the Old Testament deaconesses who also served at the entrance of the tabernacle. The serving women in the Old Covenant are associated with the entrance of the temple and basins of water; the serving women in the early church are associated with baptismal water and the doors of the church. When the baptismal ritual required undressing, deaconesses in the early church assisted with the baptism of women. Of course, baptismal practices today do not require a full undressing that was normative in the third through fifth centuries. Yet the pastoral and practical needs of women in the church remain. So how might a restored office of deaconess be in continuity with the tradition but directed to the pastoral needs of women today? A revived ministry of deaconesses would be a ministry of hospitality, evangelism, and catechesis—at the “doors” of the church—for women. Deaconesses would take seriously the ministry of women in a local parish, implementing, for example, the vision of Titus 2:3–5.[35] Deaconesses would be mature, godly women who foster a culture of care and discipleship for mothers, singles, young women, widows, single moms, and women on the margins. Deaconesses may also be those faithful women devoted to a life of singleness or who are widows. Deaconesses would be theologically trained by the church, especially in contemporary challenges to a biblical and historic Christian understanding of sexuality and gender. Deaconesses would be icons of robust, Godly femininity in a culture that lacks such examples. A strong feminine ministry in the form of a revived female diaconate would reconnect us with Scripture and tradition and benefit the women in our parishes. By pushing women into the historically male diaconate, we lose something important for the ministry of women and for women. Of course, if the main concern is one of gender equality in positions of leadership, as often seems to be the case, the focus is then directed to leaders and public perception. The rise of deaconesses in the early church was focused on ministry to women, not on questions of equality, justice, or representation. Its revival in the nineteenth century was similarly responding to the needs of women. Such should be the case today.

Might deaconesses have an expanded role beyond ministry to women? The example of deaconess Olympias in the fourth century provides an extraordinary example. Olympias used her personal wealth, in line with New Testament women who were patrons of the church, for the sake of the poor, and served Chrysostom to the end of his life.[36] Like that of Phoebe, whom Chrysostom identified as a deaconess of the church, Olympia’s example was praiseworthy and her ministry seems to have not been limited to care for women. She was a faithful servant of her bishop and the church they both served. Phoebe, even if she was not a deaconess in an official way, does provide a model of one who served the entire church faithfully. Olympias’ example notwithstanding, the primary, though perhaps not exclusive, role of deaconess is focused on ministry to women. A restoration of deaconesses might include other tasks delegated by a bishop or rector but would have ministry to women at its core. A revived order of deaconess would be ordained by the bishop, rigorously trained in theology and practical ministry. Every parish small and large might aspire to have at least one deaconess who may be on staff or non-stipendiary—a recognized servant of the church who serves the rector and the parish, one who is identified by distinctive clericals and honored as a servant of the church.

Important questions remain. What sort of liturgical role should a deaconess have? More specifically, should deaconesses preach in the Eucharistic service of the church? In his commentary on Romans 16, Chrysostom refers to Paul’s injunction against women teaching in the church in 1 Timothy 2:12: “In what sense does he say, ‘I suffer not a woman to teach’? He means to hinder her from publicly coming forward, and from the seat on the bema, not from the word of teaching.”[37] Chrysostom understands this prohibition to apply only to the public gathered assembly of the church, but he goes on to say that such gifted and called women should teach in other contexts.[38] Once again, the ability to make fine distinctions on this point is critical. Otherwise, the New Testament directives that woman are not permitted to teach may be pitted against other places in Scripture where women do teach or prophesy. That some women are gifted and called to teach is without question and connects us with the ministry of prophetesses in the Old and New Testaments.

With this understanding, deaconesses should be able to teach, for example, in Sunday school, Bible studies, seminaries and perhaps even at other non-Eucharistic gatherings of the church. Deaconesses who have teaching gifts should certainly exercise them. But for Chrysostom and the entire history of the church until the mid-twentieth century the official teaching of the church (“on the bema”) is prohibited for women. This prohibition is in line with what we find in St. Paul. If we understand 1 Timothy 2:11–12 as addressing the official gathering of the church, which we might translate in our context as the weekly Eucharistic gathering, then the prohibition of women teaching is limited to this context where male headship, represented in the presbyter’s authoritative teaching, is required.[39] Male deacons, we should note, are also forbidden certain roles that are reserved for the priest, and priests are forbidden from roles reserved for the bishop. The Apostolic Constitutions speaks to the division of labor among the offices:

A bishop blesses but does not receive the blessing. He lays on hands, ordains, offers, receives the blessing from bishops…. A presbyter blesses, but does not receive the blessing…. A deacon does not bless…. A deaconess does not bless, nor perform anything belonging to the office of presbyters and deacons, but only is to keep the doors, and to minister to the presbyters in the baptizing of women, on account of decency.[40]

On the question of other liturgical roles, such as the traditional male diaconal roles of reading the Gospel, setting the table, and saying the dismissal, such roles within the liturgical service lack historical precedent before the 20th century. Deaconesses in the early church were not permitted at the altar, while male deacons did serve sacramentally within the liturgy. If we are to recover the role of deaconess in its historic form, then the emphasis should be on ministry to women outside of the Eucharistic context.

Deaconesses are a distinct order from deacons, and each office has unique responsibilities and boundaries. The office of deaconess, far from diminishing the ministry of women, is a way to highlight it. It should be received and given its full due as a valuable, biblical, historic office of the church. Women called to diaconal ministry should not have to conform to a singular androgynous diaconate but be allowed to flourish in a feminine order. Deaconesses should be honored along with their male counterparts. They should be given the honor of being set apart with their own distinct ordination liturgy, as was the case in the early church. They should have their own order, perhaps with an arch-deaconess who serves the bishop in caring for the deaconesses in the diocese.

The modern singular diaconate that includes male and female is an invention of the mid-twentieth century along with women’s ordination to the priesthood. Both ordination practices assume an androgynous character of ordained office and have arisen in a milieu of theological liberalism and sexual revolution, in which gender differences are blurred and flattened. But while some have reacted against the ordination of women to any office, there is clear historical precedent for deaconesses and a biblical basis for the office. Ecclesial bodies that limit the presbyterate to men while opening the diaconate to men and women, however, assume a gendered priesthood but a genderless diaconate. A consistent approach will take seriously the gendered character of ecclesial office in the priesthood, which is essentially masculine, and the diaconate, which has masculine and feminine forms. Recovering the office of deaconesses will not satisfy contemporary demands for equality, but it will meet more important pastoral and missional needs. Recovery of a feminine diaconate not only brings us in line with historic precedent and the pattern of Scripture, but it also serves women in ways that are desperately needed in this cultural moment.

  1. See “Deaconesses” in F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
  4. For example, this is the practice of the Reformed Episcopal Church.
  5. See especially G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, New Studies in Biblical Theology 17 (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004); Peter J. Leithart, A House for My Name: A Survey of the Old Testament (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2000).
  6. The language of “guarding” and “serving” the sanctuary is repeated for priestly duties, for example, in Numbers 8:15.
  7. John N. Collins has challenged the view that “deacon” refers primarily to humble service and works of charity. The lexical range of diakonos is broader, referring to one who carries out a task for a superior. See the discussion in Paula Gooder, “Diakonia in the New Testament: A Dialogue with John N. Collins,” Ecclesiology 3, no. 1 (2006): 33–56.
  8. Of course, this description of the garden is what should have happened. Adam fails in his priestly calling and Eve in her “diaconal” calling. But this failure is one in which the roles are subverted. Rather than reminding Eve with the priestly word not to eat of the Tree, Adam abdicates his priestly calling. Rather than receiving the right sacramental food of the Tree of Life, Eve distributes the unauthorized sacramental food of the Tree of Knowledge.
  9. The Levites play an assisting role to the Priests in the ministry of the Tabernacle. John Swann writes, “The Levite’s role is almost wholly custodial and related to the place of worship.” John T. Swann, “Levites,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
  10. Later, as we will see in our survey of the early church below, deaconesses were also associated with water, as they assisted women who were baptized.
  11. See the exposition on Jephthah in James B. Jordan, Judges: God’s War on Humanism (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1999), 127–133. Keil and Delitzsch argue that this must a be a “spiritual sacrifice” and not a literal one. Further they connect this with tabernacle service: “[I]t is evident, from the perfectly casual reference to the women who ministered at the tabernacle (Ex. 38:8; 1 Sam. 2:22), that there were persons in Israel who dedicated their lives to the Lord at the sanctuary, by altogether renouncing the world. And there can be no doubt that Jephthah had such a dedication as this in his mind when he uttered his vow.” Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 2 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), 284.
  12. Jordan suggests, for example, that if there was a need for an inspection for leprosy on the thigh as required in Leviticus 13, it is most plausible this would be done by a serving woman. This point also connects with the role of deaconesses in participating in the baptism of women in the early church.
  13. The same verb צָבָא is also used here for the “ministering women” as in Exodus 38:8.
  14. Apostolic Constitutions 2, 26, 3 as cited in Pauliina Pylvänäinen, Agents in Liturgy, Charity and Communication: The Tasks of Female Deacons in the Apostolic Constitutions (Belgium: Brepols, 2020), 192.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid., 145–146.
  17. In the first century, διάκονος as a head noun only exists in the masculine form. It may occur with a feminine article, though in Romans 16 the use is indefinite. The word deaconess (Διακόνισσα) comes into use by the Council of Nicea (325). See G. W. H. Lampe, ed., “Διακόνισσα,” A Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford: At The Clarendon Press, 1961), 352.
  18. BDAG s.v. διάκονος.
  19. Acts 16:14.
  20. Deaconesses: A Historical Study (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982), 20.
  21. For this view, see George W. Knight, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1992), 171.
  22. Marshall and Towner list six reasons in favor of reading this as referring to female deacons. I. Howard Marshall and Philip Towner, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, International Critical Commentary (London; New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), 493.
  23. “The question whether the reference here is to deaconesses or to the wives of deacons can hardly be answered with certainty.” Martin Dibelius and Hans Conzelmann, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), 58.
  24. Martimort, Deaconesses, 38.
  25. As cited in Martimort, Deaconesses, 43.
  26. Martimort, Deaconesses, 53.
  27. Ibid., 70.
  28. Robert Gryson, The Ministry of Women in the Early Church, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1976) 63.
  29. Canon 19 of the Council of Nicea addresses deaconesses indirectly. At issue is the reinstatement of the Paulinist faction who repented of their error. The Paulinist deaconesses seeking to be reinstated, the Canon states, “have no imposition of hands” and are to be “numbered among the laity.” These deaconesses were evidently not ordained to begin with and thus when they were reinstated continued to be part of the laity.
  30. For a good summary of patristic teaching on the issue, see Martimort, Deaconesses, 112–119.
  31. Robert Gryson, The Ministry of Women in the Early Church, 77–91.
  32. Ibid., 42.
  33. More on this below.
  34. The restoration of deaconesses continues to be discussed in Orthodoxy (see “Introductory Parameters for the Ministry of Ordained Deaconesses in the Orthodox Church,”Greek Orthodox Theological Review 62 (2017), 163-201) and the Roman Catholic Church (
  35. Titus 2:2–5 is sometimes dismissed as a quaint or stereotypical trope for women’s ministry. Yet this is one clear place in the Bible that directly addresses women’s ministry in the church: older women, particularly, should be instructing younger women. Women’s ministry may certainly entail other things, but at the very least should aspire to the sort of culture Titus 2:2–5 imagines.
  36. Gryson, The Ministry of Women in the Early Church, 88–89.
  37. Ibid., 83.
  38. Gryson, The Ministry of Women in the Early Church, 83. While “coming forward to the bema” (i.e., taking the pulpit) is forbidden, teaching in other contexts is not prohibited.
  39. What is often missed in 1 Timothy 2:9–15 is the importance of Paul’s appeal to the created order. As we have seen above, the garden in creation is a sanctuary setting with sacramental food. Thus Paul’s appeal to creation in his prohibition of women teaching connects us not to every context, but to the sacramental and liturgical context in particular.
  40. Apostolic Constitutions 8.2.28,


The Rev Blake Johnson

Blake Johnson is the Rector of Church of the Holy Cross in Crozet, VA.

'At the Doors of the Church: The Restoration of Deaconesses' have 5 comments

  1. August 10, 2021 @ 2:10 pm Isaac

    Almost all of the conclusions here run contrary to the clear teachings of Scripture and the history of Christianity.

    1. Presbyters/elders and bishops/overseers are never referred to as kohenim/Aaronic priests in Scripture, in fact this is plainly contrary to everything Scripture has to say about these offices and the history of how they were developed in the ancient churches. Examples of female prophets and Levites in the scriptures hardly point to the suggestion that there is a separate female-only order of “doorkeepers”, instead they reinforce the obvious conclusion that only the Aaronic order was specifically limited by gender.

    2. Phoebe is explicitly referred to as a diakonos (masculine). To suggest that the word is being used in a generic sense is absurd, why would a woman be referred to as a “manservant” or “male slave” in a church context? This is special pleading at its best. Even ancient Christian writers recognized her as an ordained deacon.

    3. Genesis does indeed use liturgical language to describe the role of both Adam and Eve. Completely contrary to this article, it does not distinguish them as two different roles, in fact the text plainly emphasizes that both the male and the female are needed for the *humans* to accomplish the singular *human* role and ministry of imaging God and ruling over creation. (Incidentally, this point is also emphasized in early Christian sources, see for example Chrysostom or Gregory of Nyssa in their expositions on these texts).

    4. In the history of the Christian churches from the 2nd through the 8th centuries there is plenty of evidence of both historical development and a diversity of viewpoints regarding women and the diaconate. As many scholars have documented, there is a transition from a single ordained diaconate which included both men and women to separate diaconal orders. These differences develop over time and differ from place to place, and there were a wide range of opinions in the ancient church (as today) before even the more restricted versions of the deaconate disappear entirely.

    5. It is a flat (and obvious) falsehood that both the singular diaconate and the ordination of women to the presbyterate, diaconate, and episcopate is “an invention of the mid-twentieth century.” Even a cursory survey of Christian history (or for that matter the Bible) can furnish numerous counterexamples and a two-thousand-year controversy with a range of different opinions among Christian authors. Women have been serving in ordained ministry for centuries, whether or not Rev. Johnson wishes to acknowledge their ministry. He can certainly take the point of view that they should not have been ordained, but to pretend they do not exist at all is absurd.


    • August 10, 2021 @ 3:07 pm Isaac

      I find it especially ironic that Rev. Johnson (incorrectly) refers to women in ordained ministry as “an invention of the mid-twentieth century” when the entire article is attempting to revive an institution (lay deaconesses) which were a distinct invention of the mid-nineteenth century.


      • August 11, 2021 @ 3:28 pm Ben Jefferies

        Isaac, this seems to be a malicious mis-reading. It is reasonable historiography, assumed by all monographs on the subject from 1890 to 1970 that Deaconesses were a lay-order in the Church from the mid-2nd century until the 7th or 8th century. Then the office dissembled, being functionally replaced shortly after by ThirdOrder women, then sister of mercy in the counter-reformation, etc. Then, in the magisterial protestant churches (Lutheran, Anglican) was revived in the late 19th century, self-consciously bringing back the ancient office they knew to have existed in those early centuries.


    • August 11, 2021 @ 3:22 pm Ben Jefferies

      Dear Isaac — I think the facts of the past do not support your strong claims, and that Fr. Blake’s essay still stands on solid ground. Namely:

      1. Sed contra: In Rom 15:16 St. Paul describes his ministry as leitorugia — the LXX word for all sacrificial service in the Temple. Also, Episkopoi in the Church began to be referred to as hieroi as early as the time of Tertullian, and then spread like wildfire.

      2. Even the highest churchman grants that the words ‘diakonos’ , ‘presbyteros’ and ‘episkopos’ function more as adjectives in the NT than as reified nouns. These lexemes don’t become codified titles for the three-fold Order of ministry until after the death of the Apostles (e.g. the letters of Ignatius). It is anachronism to read in the Order of “Deacon” to the lexeme diakonos in the early 60s when St. Paul wrote to Rome. Phoebe was certainly a servant of the Church — no question — but the use of the word doesn’t establish her “Order” any more than St. Peter’s self-reference as a “presbyter” in 1 Peter means he was less than an Apostolic-overseer.

      3. All Ancients, every one until the commodified, adrogynized 20th century, understood humankind to be Man. Aner is the root of Anthropos. To argue that Chyrosostom gave an egalitarian reading of Genesis is to fail to read him in light of his other writings on men and women, and also to fail to locate him in his historical context.

      4. It must be granted as a matter of honesty that prior to the 20th century, there was not in existence an account of Church history that narrated “there were women in various of the three-fold Orders.” This history-telling is new. It is the case that there are some ambiguities and points of question in the texts from the past, but these can just as easily be accounted for by the historiography that would recognize that there has never been a woman in one of the three Holy Orders in the Church. It is to assume the argument is already won to claim that there is plain prima facie data (let alone “plenty” of it) that asserts otherwise.

      5. 5. Ditto #4 — It is noteworthy that you don’t name-drop any of the “numerous example”, because as a point of fact, there is not one that can be incontrovertably demonstrated to be a woman in Holy Orders in the catholic, Apostolic church (i.e. not one of the heretical groups listed by Epiphanius, etc) prior to the 20th century


  2. August 12, 2021 @ 7:59 pm Padre Miguel

    Ben Jefferies has succiently demonstrated the obvious fact that while Isaac’s counter to Rev. Johnson is”fiery,” it is ultimately without merit.


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