On the Office of the Deaconess
The question of deaconesses is one that continues to haunt the church, long after the institution itself was abolished. What were the functions of deaconesses? Were they ordained? Did they have an liturgical function? And should the ancient order of deaconesses be revived?
None of these questions have easy answers, in part because the ancient fathers of the church wrote so little about the institution. There are those who assume that deaconesses were ordained, and had the same liturgical role as deacons. There are others who claim that the office of the deaconess did not exist. Between these two extremes, we have a range of opinions.
In this all too short description of the subject, I will demonstrate that deaconesses were an order in the early church, and were blessed to perform certain functions for women on behalf of the bishop and the presbyters. This order was not sacerdotal in nature; moreover, entrance into the order was not accomplished through ordination, as symbolized by the laying on of hands.
The Order of the Deaconess
One of the most interesting bits of historical detail is found in Canon XIX of the First Council of Nicaea.
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 the 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.
The Paulianists were followers of Paul of Samosata, an anti-Trinitarian. Since their baptisms would not have been in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (in accordance with an Orthodox understanding of the Trinity), they were required to be rebaptized. For our purposes we will focus on the council’s description of deaconesses. It is clear on the one hand that they were “enrolled among the clergy”, but since they were not ordained (lacking the “imposition of hands”), they were to be numbered among the laity. The Dictionary of Christian Antiquities assumes that women were ordained as deaconesses, and ascribes the description of deaconesses in Canon XIX to peculiarities among the Paulianists, where women “assumed the habit or office of deaconess without imposition of hands, and who therefore could not be reordained but simply reckoned among the laity.”
Henry R. Percival (in his book “The Seven Ecumenical Councils”) quotes St. Epiphanius of Salamis (from his book “Against Heresies”), as follows:
This whole matter is treated clearly by St. Epiphanius who, while indeed speaking of deaconesses as an order (τάγμα), asserts that “they were only women-elders, not priestesses in any sense, that their mission was not to interfere in any way with Sacerdotal functions, but simply to perform certain offices in the care of women” (Hær. lxxix., cap. iij). From all this it is evident that they are entirely in error who suppose that “the laying on of hands” which the deaconesses received corresponded to that by which persons were ordained to the diaconate, presbyterate, and episcopate at that period of the church’s history. It was merely a solemn dedication and blessing and was not looked upon as “an outward sign of an inward grace given.”
The plain reading of Canon XIX indicates that deaconesses occupied some sort of middle ground. They were not part of the ordained clergy, yet they clearly had entered into a formal office and received a blessing to perform certain functions within and on behalf of the church. As members of the order of deaconesses, they were identified by a particular style of dress (the meaning of the phrase “assumed the habit”). As the wearing of the habit suggests, there was a monastic element to office of deaconess. This is clear from the requirement that deaconesses be chaste and unmarried. Henry R. Percival, in his book “The Seven Ecumenical Councils”, writes:
The one great characteristic of the deaconess was that she was vowed to perpetual chastity. The Apostolical Constitutions (vi. 17) say that she must be a chaste virgin (parthenos hagne) or else a widow. The writer of the article “Deaconess” in the Dictionary of Christian Antiquities says: It is evident that the ordination of deaconesses included a vow of celibacy.”
Chastity was required of all those taking holy orders. A priest could be the husband of only one wife and, should his wife die, was forbidden to marry again. The deaconess was likewise chaste, living a pure and unmarried life of service to women on behalf of the church.
The Role of the Deaconess
The Dictionary of Christian Antiquities describes the general role of the Deaconess as performing for women the same functions deacons performed for men. This was necessary due to the cultural requirement for women to be kept in seclusion.
An order of women in the Primitive Church who appear to have undertaken duties in reference to their own sex analogous to those performed by the deacons among men. Their office was probably rendered more necessary by the strict seclusion which was observed by the female sex in Greece, and in many Oriental countries.
So what comprised the responsibilities of the deaconess? Again, we turn to the Dictionary of Christian Antiquities, which describes a set of duties, but which implied no sacerdotal (priestly) function.
The duties of the deaconesses were various. The most important related to the administration of baptism to women. Thus the 4th council of Carthage (c. 12) speaks of them as widows or virgins selected for the purpose of assisting in the baptism of women, and who therefore must be qualified to assist the unlearned candidates how to answer the interrogatories in the baptismal office, and how to live after baptism. … No woman was to have any inter course with the bishop or deacon except through the deaconess (Ibid. ii. c. 26). … In the Apostolic Constitutions (iii. 15, 16) it is said that the deaconess (τήν διάκονον) was to be chosen tor ministering to women, because it was impossible to send a deacon into many houses on account of the unbelievers. … They were to attend to the women who were sick or in affliction as the deacon did to the men (Constitut. Apost. iii. 19), and in time of persecution to minister to the confessors in prison (Cotel. Aunot. in Const it. Apost. iii. 15, quoting from Lucian and Libanius). They were to exercise some supervision over the general body of widows, who were to be obedient to the bishops, priests, and deacons, and further to the deaconesses (Constitut. Apost. iii. c. 7).
The Need for the Female Diaconate
Due to the social strictures of the time — where women were secluded and were not to be in the company of men unrelated to them — there was a real need for women who could perform certain functions on behalf of the church. In the apostolic era, and perhaps into the 2nd century, things were not so formal, and both charismatic and hierarchical ministries appear to have existed side by side. But in the New Testament epistles we see excesses in those with charismatic ministries, excesses which necessitated a more formal approach. Take the example of Diotrephes, who had to be brought to heel by the Apostle John.
I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not. Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church. (3 Jo 9-11)
The Didache gives specific instructions on the management of itinerant Teachers, Apostles, and Prophets:
Chapter 11. Concerning Teachers, Apostles, and Prophets. Whosoever, therefore, comes and teaches you all these things that have been said before, receive him. But if the teacher himself turns and teaches another doctrine to the destruction of this, hear him not. But if he teaches so as to increase righteousness and the knowledge of the Lord, receive him as the Lord. But concerning the apostles and prophets, act according to the decree of the Gospel. Let every apostle who comes to you be received as the Lord. But he shall not remain more than one day; or two days, if there’s a need. But if he remains three days, he is a false prophet. And when the apostle goes away, let him take nothing but bread until he lodges. If he asks for money, he is a false prophet. And every prophet who speaks in the Spirit you shall neither try nor judge; for every sin shall be forgiven, but this sin shall not be forgiven. But not every one who speaks in the Spirit is a prophet; but only if he holds the ways of the Lord. Therefore from their ways shall the false prophet and the prophet be known. And every prophet who orders a meal in the Spirit does not eat it, unless he is indeed a false prophet. And every prophet who teaches the truth, but does not do what he teaches, is a false prophet. And every prophet, proved true, working unto the mystery of the Church in the world, yet not teaching others to do what he himself does, shall not be judged among you, for with God he has his judgment; for so did also the ancient prophets. But whoever says in the Spirit, Give me money, or something else, you shall not listen to him. But if he tells you to give for others’ sake who are in need, let no one judge him.
Because the charismatic ministries sometimes came in conflict with the formal ministries of the church, various means were devised to deal with them, and various orders were established — including the formal office of deaconess (which perhaps incorporated the more charismatic office of the widows) (1 Tim 5:3-12). In time, the ecumenical councils established canons which regulated the office of the deaconess. And, as the social structure changed, the need for the office diminished. It was done away with first in the Christian West, and gradually withered away in the East, where its functions seem to have been taken up in part by the women’s monasteries, and in part by a reversion to charismatic ministries within the church. So, for example, in our church the women tend to minister to each other’s needs, with guidance from the priest as necessary. The deaconess is no longer necessary for the instruction and catechesis of women, as most societies no longer frown upon a male priest teaching women he is not related to.
However, in some societies there could well be a need for women to perform the function of the female diaconate. In these situations, one could well imagine the bishop giving a special blessing to a woman to perform certain functions on behalf of the church, functions which would include those formerly performed by deaconesses. And if a female monastery were nearby, perhaps these functions could be performed by their members.
Modernity and the Diaconate
In the ancient world, it was quite rare for women to receive an education. Thus, while we have a great many writings of the church fathers, we have very little writings done by or on behalf of women. We do have examples of female saints and martyrs, and the sayings of the desert mothers are as instructive as the desert fathers. In the modern era, women have just as many educational opportunities as men, and it is not uncommon for women to receive theological training. So how does the church put these educated women to good use?
In most Christian communions, there is some pressure to ordain women. Some have succumbed to modernity, ordaining women as priests and even bishops. Some resist with great vigor, to the point of seeming hostility towards and subjugation of women. And some have devised ways of dealing with the legitimate aspirations of women. The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LC-MS) formally restored the office of the Deaconess, complete with theological undergraduate and post-graduate education. This, despite not having a formal male diaconate. (On the other hand, the LC-MS would not allow theologically educated women to teach theology in their universities or seminaries.) In the Roman Catholic Church, women are allowed to teach theology in the universities. Among the Eastern Orthodox (at least in some jurisdictions) women with the appropriate level of education are allowed to teach in the seminaries (I know of one woman who was a professor at Hellenic College Holy Cross in Brookline, MA).
So granted the increasing number of educated women and their legitimate desire to use their skills and talents within the church, the question is whether the female diaconate is the correct vehicle. One thing that should be noted is that to be a member of the female diaconate, the canons are quite clear: one must be at least forty years old, one must be either a virgin or a widow, and one must remain unmarried or risk excommunication. And the office of the female diaconate is not sacerdotal, meaning the deaconess has no function in the priestly and liturgical life of the church. The question, then, is whether the female deaconess would have anything to do, given that the functions of the deaconess are performed within the church now, absent the formal office. Moreover, given that many churches have a hard enough time paying their priest, let alone a deacon, how many churches could afford to hire a deaconess?
Practically speaking, there would be too few openings for female deaconesses, especially as their functions are currently performed by unpaid volunteers. And since the canons do not permit women to fill the office of deaconess until the age of forty, what would educated young women do in the meantime? Clearly, the office of the deaconess would not be an avenue for the legitimate aspirations of educated young women.
 The canons of the church were established to resolve problems. So when we see a canon requiring one thing and prescribing another, we can be sure that this was an issue that was either widespread or serious enough to have been raised to the level of an ecumenical council.