On the Origins of the Deaconess

The ancient order of deaconesses seems to be making a comeback of sorts in the Reformed Episcopal Church. In his presiding episcopal report a few weeks ago, the Most. Rev. Ray Sutton mentioned the continued interest in this order by women of the subjurisdiction. Moreover, the Anglican Province of America and other bodies feature a similar office. It has enjoyed a major renewal starting around the 19th century and early 20th century. The existence of this order and its support from very traditional Anglican jurisdictions can be surprising to newcomers and outsiders. How could groups so committed to the traditional understanding of Holy Orders and so opposed to the ordination of women countenance a structured group of women ministering in the Church?

Any clergyman worth his salt will point out that the ancient order of deaconesses is a lay order. Deaconesses are not ordained; theirs is not a pastoral office. Therefore, traditional jurisdictions not only allow the order to exist, but they very often celebrate its growth and flourishing.

This is all well and good. Nevertheless, if deaconesses are not pastors, what are they? And where do they come from? Aren’t they just male deacons, and, therefore, shouldn’t they just be folded into the holy order of deacons? Does their order have biblical origins?

A most helpful resource for answering these questions is Aime G. Martimort’s Deaconesses: An Historical Study. Martimort was a priest and dean of the theological faculty of Toulouse who was active in the Second Vatican Council. What does a man with ties with the Roman Catholic Church have to do with Anglicanism and its own analysis of holy orders? First, Anglicans and Romans both share a loyalty to the three-fold order of ministry. There are a wide variety of denominational traditions with radically different conceptions of ordained ministry (some even eschewing the existence of ordination). Finding a common acceptance of bishops, priests, and deacons is invaluable for this debate. Second, Anglicans and Roman Catholics disagree little on the nature and scope of the diaconate. Generally speaking, the most offensive doctrines that divide the two groups reside in different understandings of the priesthood and episcopacy. These two “higher” offices bring about debate regarding the Eucharist and the papacy. Third, all truth is true. If Martimort’s conclusions are maintained by the historical evidence, they ought to be heeded for some guidance.

To answer the last question first, Martimort (correctly, I believe) surmises that deaconesses do not have a biblical origin, strictly speaking. Whereas the various duties and authority of the three-fold pastoral office are present in the text of Holy Writ (another article for another day), the same cannot be said for the ancient office of deaconesses.

However, there was a uniquely female order mentioned in the New Testament in 1 Timothy 5:9-10, in which Paul makes mention of an “order of widows.” Paul declares to the young bishop Timothy,

Let not a widow be taken into the number [καταλεγέσθω] under threescore years old, having been the wife of one man. Well reported of for good works; if she have brought up children, if she have lodged strangers, if she have washed the saints’ feet, if she have relieved the afflicted, if she have diligently followed every good work.

These “rolls” for widows indicate aid given by the church to women in need, but it is a more reciprocal relationship. To be enrolled into the ranks of widows, a woman had to meet prerequisites of age, marital status, and behavior, then she was expected to fulfill important ministerial duties. This clarity ought not to be glossed over in a dismissive or perfunctory attitude. “Here we are clearly dealing with a group of women who enjoyed official recognition in the Church. Entry into membership in this group was not merely the result of some spontaneous personal decision to join it; rather, one had to be designated, ‘enrolled’ in the group,” Martimort comments. “No doubt the decision for this enrollment emanated from the authority presiding over the community. A widow who was chosen to be enrolled thereby had conferred upon her a distinct honor.”[1] The order would prove quite active and influential as time went on, especially in the West.

Again, lacking in the biblical record is any recognized order of διακονίσσας. The word itself does not appear until the fourth century! Although Ignatius of Antioch clearly delineates the 3-fold holy orders and the order of widows, he makes no mention of women deacons. The same goes for Tertullian and St. Polycarp.[2] On the other hand, some could argue that women deacons would have been lumped in with regular deacons. The text of Ignatius’ letters do not reveal one way or the other. The Didache does require churches to appoint “deacons worthy of the Lord, men meek, and not lovers of money, and truthful and proved; for they also render to you the service of prophets and teachers” (διακόνους ἀξίους τοῦ κυρίου, ἄνδρας πραεῖς καὶ ἀφιλαργύρους καὶ ἀληθεῖς καὶ δεδοκιμασμένους· ὑμῖν γὰρ λειτουργοῦσι καὶ αὐτοὶ τὴν λειτουργίαν τῶν προφητῶν καὶ διδασκάλων).[3] The word ἄνδρας can refer only to the male sex. Even an advocate for female deacons, John Wijngaards admits, “The relationship between widows and women deacons is often blurred in early records. The Apostolic Tradition of St Hippolytus of Rome (AD 220) states that widows are not ordained, but deacons are. It does not indicate whether these deacons include women.”[4] Even more troublesome for advocates of women’s diaconal ordination is St. Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition, which states,

When a widow is installed [kathistanai] as a widow [xera] she is not ordained [xeirotonein]; rather she is designated by her title. If her husband has been dead for a long time, she may be installed. If her husband has not been dead long, then it is not possible to have confidence in her automatically; even if she is advanced in age, she should be tested [dokimazein] for a certain period of time. For often the passions continue into old age in those who have earlier allowed them to rule them. The widow should be installed by the recitation of words only, and she should then join the other widows. She should not receive the laying on of hands because she does not offer the sacrifice [prosphora] and she does not have a liturgical [leitourgia] function. Ordination [xeirotonia] is for clerics [kleros] destined for liturgical service. Widows, however, are installed for purpose of prayer, which is actually for everybody.[5]

In this sense, one sees liturgical function and altar service as a key component in clerical holy orders, which are reserved for males only.

In an attempt to fill in the gap before the glut of (unfavorable) evidence, advocates for women deacons cite Pliny the Younger’s infamous epistle to Trajan. In this letter, Pliny outlined his investigation, prosecution, and persecution of Christian believers in his realm. When describing some of his executions, he wrote, “I judged it so much the more necessary to extract the real truth, with the assistance of torture, from two female slaves, who were styled deaconesses [ministrae]: but I could discover nothing more than depraved and excessive superstition.”[6] Women’s ordination advocates judge this to be another sound piece of evidence for female deacons. To this notion, Martimort replies, “[W]e know absolutely nothing, from Pliny or any other witnesses, about what role or function might have been of these ministrae in the community of Bithynia.”[7] This may be a frustrating response, especially since this is Martimort’s recurring refrain, but the counterargument stands since it could mean these women were simply being called servants, they may have been a development of the widows, or some other manifestation. To impose upon the word ministrae all that entails the ordained diaconate is an irresponsible begging of the question and a forcing of one’s desired reality upon historical silence.

Martimort recognizes the first record of deaconesses proper in the sixteenth chapter of the Didascalia Apostolorum, a document relating to the Church in the East, and he handily labels the Didascalia “their birth certificate as an ecclesiastical institution.”[8] It is the first document that specifically mentions deaconesses by name. Intriguingly, the author of the Didascalia never mentions Phoebe or the “women” of 1 Timothy 3:11 as precedents or even examples for deaconesses. “Instead, he mentions as examples of deaconesses in the New Testament the women who followed after Jesus and the apostles and ‘served him’ (diakonousai auto) or ‘ministered to him,’ as we read in Matthew 27:55,” Martimort relays.[9]Also complicating some theories of the deaconess office’s origins, two chapters earlier, the Didascalia contains a long description of the order of widows as a separate group.[10]

Deaconesses were entrusted with several important tasks within the ancient Eastern Church, most involving the avoidance of scandal or abuse. They assisted bishops with the baptism of women during the Easter vigil.[11] Deaconesses were also to visit the homes of Christian women “who lived in pagan households and were immobilized by illness or could not otherwise go out.”[12] Again, it would be scandalous in ancient eastern society for the bishop or other clerics to visit the shut-ins in that context.

Other documents of the time period give other duties to deaconesses. The Testamentum Domini tasked deaconesses with keeping the doors while granting them the right to bring communion to a pregnant woman at home.[13] Other documents rearrange the service for setting deaconesses apart and arrange them in different precedence for liturgical procession (generally, they were amongst the lay orders or next to the deacons).

It must be remembered that all of these resources are of eastern provenance. This is because, in the West, the Church rejected the idea of an order of deaconesses. There is a near-universal consensus on this fact. “Deaconesses” tended to be the wives of deacons or else found only in a monastic context. Cecilia Robinson, a Church of England deaconess from the turn of the century, claimed,

The Church-Widows in the West were evidently an important body, and rendered valuable service, obeying the canon of the so-called fourth Council of Carthage, that “widows who are supported by the stipend of the Church are to be so assiduous in the work of God, that by their good deeds and prayers they may help the Church.” They seem indeed to have exercised many of the functions which in the East were assigned to Deaconesses.[14]

While it may be fashionable in some circles to surrender all liturgical propriety and mystical insight to the East, this habit of the West is no small matter. It indicates an important truth uncovered by Martimort: the lack of ecclesiastical consensus on the identity and stated goal of deaconesses, which were not a holy order in the Church catholic.

If there were any more doubt to be had, the Council of Nicaea pronounced in its nineteenth canon,

Concerning the Paulianists who have flown for refuge to the Catholic Church, it has been decreed that they must by all means be rebaptized; and if any of them who in past time have been numbered among their clergy should be found blameless and without reproach, let them be rebaptized and ordained by the Bishop of the Catholic Church; but if the examination should discover them to be unfit, they ought to be deposed. Likewise in the case of their deaconesses, and generally in the case of those who have been enrolled among their clergy, let the same form be observed. And we mean by deaconesses such as have assumed the habit, but who, since they have no imposition of hands, are to be numbered only among the laity.[15]

Although councils can err, it is most instructive to see that the First Ecumenical Council recorded that no imposition of hands were given to the deaconesses of the heretical Paulinist sect, and they were to be numbered among the laity.[16] One could try to argue that it may have been a custom of catholic Christians to lay hands on deaconesses as a regular matter of course, but one could just as easily argue that the representatives at the Council deemed all deaconesses as laity on the same grounds of silence.

Silence and lack of consensus are at the heart of Martimort’s argument, and he does not suffer historical fantasy gladly. He summarizes his analysis with this result:

The Christians of antiquity did not have a single, fixed idea of what deaconesses were supposed to be. In the enumeration of the various groups distinct from the Christian people as a whole, they listed them in different places: sometimes they were listed after deacons; sometimes they were listed after all other ministers; sometimes they appeared in the middle of a listing of consecrated states of life.[17]

More progressive voices may detract from Martimort’s posture. After all, is not Martimort’s entire opinion simply one tremendous argument from silence? Perhaps it is, but, unfortunately for revisionist voices, all that exists as verifiable, clearly-defined history is just that: silence. The fundamental error in this debate, especially in Anglican circles, is reading back into the historical record what one desires to be there. And that is a conception of truth that cannot stand.

More important, Martimort’s historical spadework not only reveals what deaconesses are not but also reveals what they are. While it is easy to lapse into agonistics over ordination concerns, it is most helpful to see the positive affirmations of the important ministry deaconesses have provided and continue to provide throughout the Church. Throughout history, we find midwives, other medical professionals, ministers to imprisoned women, catechists of children, helpful administrators, and more in the ranks of deaconesses. Every Christian is called to ministry, and it is a fine thing to be intentional about one’s life of ministry, voluntarily submitting to various disciplines and rules. The office of deaconess is just such an avenue unique and exclusive to women, and it is to commended on these benefits alone.

Nevertheless, the most important gift deaconesses can bestow upon the Church is a concern that was apparent at their initial founding. Crucially, deaconesses have a role in reducing, preventing, and otherwise addressing scandal. This was one of their first responsibilities and duties. They are witnesses—a third party in the room to assure that sin is avoided, false accusations silenced, and the vulnerable protected. It is exceptionally important that any and all abuse be staved off in Christ’s Church. Horrific scandals of the most detestable sort—both high- and low-profile—have done much in recent times to besmirch the holy name of Christ. Deaconesses can help alleviate (although, unfortunately, not completely prevent) such evils. Surely every pastor and all members of the laity can see the great blessing this ministry is. May the tribe of the deaconesses increase as more and more women heed the call to serve the Church in this manner.

  1. Aime Georges Martimort, Deaconesses: An Historical Study. Translated by K. D. Whitehead, San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1986, 23.
  2. Martimort, 27-8.
  3. Didache, 15.1.
  4. John. Wijngaards, No Women in Holy Orders?: The Women Deacons of the Early Church.Norwich: The Canterbury Press Norwich, 2002., 17.
  5. Ibid., 31.
  6. Pliny the Younger, Epistulae X.96.
  7. Martimort, 26.
  8. Ibid., 35.
  9. Ibid., 41.
  10. Martimort, 41.
  11. Baptisms, one must remember, were done in the nude. In addition, the entire body was chrismated with oil. In the case of women, the bishop would give unction to the head while letting the deaconess take care of the rest. Unseemly rumor could spread since the sacrament was celebrated in the darkness of the vigil and away from the sight of the congregation.
  12. Ibid., 42.
  13. Ibid., 46-50.
  14. Cecilia Robinson, The Ministry of Deaconesses (London: Methuen & Co., 1898), 55.
  15. Council of Nicaea, Canon 19.
  16. Wijngaards enjoys pointing out some liturgies—namely, the Barberini Greek euchology—which features a laying on of hands for deaconesses, but Martimort showed that, in that particular liturgy, admissions into clerical and lay orders are both called “ordination,” with specific liturgical acts and prayers that make clear that deacons are involved in altar service while deaconesses most certainly were not. Martimort, 148-56.
  17. Martimort, 241.

 



Barton Gingerich

The Rev. Barton J. Gingerich is the rector of St. Jude's Anglican Church (REC) in Richmond, VA. He holds a B. A. in History from Patrick Henry College and an M.Div. with a concentration in historical theology from Reformed Episcopal Seminary.


'On the Origins of the Deaconess' have 2 comments

  1. July 22, 2021 @ 10:49 am Daniel Logan+

    Amen! An excellent article, Father – thank you.

    Reply

  2. July 26, 2021 @ 10:33 am Joel West

    A more recent history of deaconesses can be found in the ACNA\’s 2017 Holy Orders Task Force Final Report. On pp. 247-255, task force member Katherine Atwood of the Diocese of Ft. Worth describes the history of the office of deaconess in ECUSA from 1889 until (with the help of the beloved Bp. James Pike) the office was abolished in 1970. At that time, the existing deaconesses (without consultation) were all converted to deacons.

    Reply


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