The Septuagint and the Canon

Psalm 90 from the Septuagint

Psalm 90 from the Septuagint

The Septuagint is a version of the Hebrew Scriptures that was translated into Greek. At a minimum, the Pentateuch (also known as the five books of Moses), were translated sometime between 285-240 BC, and for sure the rest of the books were translated by 130 BC.  (Gentry 2009, 24) This translation was in widespread use among the Jewish diaspora, who for the most part no longer spoke Hebrew. Even in the Holy Land, most people spoke Greek and Aramaic instead of Hebrew, so the Septuagint was in use even in Jerusalem.

Many people find it curious that when the New Testament quotes from the Old Testament, the quotations often don’t match. The reason is that the Masoretic Text, which is the primary source material for English language translations, did not exist at the time of Christ. It is possible to trace the Masoretic Text back to some text contained within the Dead Sea Scrolls, but the Masoretic Text itself is an edited text, a fixation of a particular strain of Jewish interpretation.  (Clarke 1833, iii)

The Septuagint was the Bible for the earliest Christians. This presents all manner of difficulties for conservative Protestants, who have a marked preference for the Masoretic Text, and a formal, literal, word for word translation. The Septuagint, by contrast, represents a grab bag of translation techniques. Bruce Metzger informs us the translators “avoided literalistic renderings of phrases congenial to another age and another language.” (Metzger 2001, Kindle Locations 266-267) Peter J. Gentry, writing in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, describes the translation styles as follows.

Individual books [of the Septuagint] vary in character and quality of translation and exhibit a full spectrum from extreme formal correspondence and literal translation to dynamic and functional translation and even paraphrase. (Gentry 2009, 24)

We therefore have to deal with the fact that the early church, and indeed Christ Himself, used a bible that not only was based on different texts than ours, but was translated using a variety of methods that would not pass muster with most people today. And yet, the Septuagint was referred to by the New Testament writers as Scripture, and was the Bible for the early church.

When I was still a Lutheran, I raised the question of why we didn’t use the Septuagint instead of using the Masoretic text as the basis for our Bible — to which one pastor replied: “Which Septuagint?” Not a bad question, since the Septuagint is not a book in the modern sense, but instead an amorphous collection of scrolls. (In this way it is similar to the Hebrew Scriptures, which also consisted of a similar collection of scrolls.) In fact, given the rather fluid condition of Judaism at the time of Christ, it can be argued that until the destruction of Jerusalem, Judaism existed in multiple sects, using multiple and somewhat undefined canons. Instead of asking “Which Septuagint”, one might as well ask “Which Bible”, as even today there are multiple canons in use amongst the different Christian communities.


Clarke, Adam. The Holy Bible: containing the Old and New Testaments, with a commentary and critical notes. Royal Octavo Stereotype Edition. Vol. I. New York: B. Waugh and T. Maxon, 1833.

Gentry, Peter J. “The Text of the Old Testament.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological 52, no. 1 (2009): 19-45.

Metzger, Bruce M. The Bible in Translation. Kindle Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2001.



The Development of the NT Canon

The Supposed Timeline of the New Testament Canon

The Supposed Timeline of the New Testament Canon

The modern conception of canon as a list first began with the dispute between the Church of Rome and the Protestants, each of whom made the issue of the canon part of their dispute. But as there has never been a Reformation among the Orthodox, the issues of canon and canonicity are of no dogmatic importance in the East. Any splits among the Orthodox, including the Great Schism between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics, were about Christology, not the Canon; each collection of authoritative writings arose by common consent among the different groups, rather than as part of a formal dogmatic stance.

The Ecumenical Councils were generally uninterested in the issues of canon and canonicity. Dr. Constantinou writes:

By that time, certain books were unquestioned, while most apocryphal works were recognized as such and universally rejected. But individual churches and bishops exercised their own discretion among disputed works. Clearly the issue was not resolved at Nicea because no pressing need to create a definitive canon was perceived: the question of the canon was simply not a divisive issue. This lack of concern among the participants of the Nicene council with respect to the canon indicates that opinions about the canon were not essentially dogmatic. Two persons could disagree about the canon and both could be entirely orthodox in doctrine. (Constantinou 2008, 38)

So how were the limits of our current canon determined? Initially, while Christian writings were shared between the churches, the title of Scripture was reserved only for the Old Testament, while the boundaries of the Old Testament were somewhat undefined. (McDonald 2007, 22) Dr. Eugenia Constantinou writes:

Until the end of the second century, the term “Scriptures,” referred exclusively to the Jewish scriptures. Just as they had been the sole Scriptures for Christ and the apostles they remained the only Holy Scripture of the Church for many decades. Christ himself had quoted them, appealed to them, interpreted them and, most of all, fulfilled them. The Law and the Prophets had been normative for so long that it was difficult to conceive of any other writings achieving such high status. Although it appears that Christian documents were read within the context of Christian worship services by the early second century, another hundred years passed before they were recognized as possessing a level of authority that placed them on par with the Old Testament. (Constantinou 2008, 32)

Over time, certain writings from the New Testament period were considered to be Scripture by various churches, but sometimes that status was granted and then taken away. Lee McDonald writes:

When a particular writing was acknowledged by a religious community to be divinely inspired and authoritative, it was elevated to the status of Scripture, even if the writing was not yet called “Scripture” and even if that status was only temporary. For example, the noncanonical writings Eldad and Modad, Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, 1 Clement, and the letters of Ignatius were initially given this status in the church, but in time that practice ceased. There was limited discussion or agreement in the early church on such matters, and in the first two centuries only selective agreement on books acknowledged as Scripture took place. (McDonald 2007, 23-24)

Even the four Gospels were not considered to be Scripture, on par with the Old Testament, until the end of the 2nd Century. Evidence for this is shown by the heretic Marcion, who rejected the gospels with the exception of Luke, and who produced a redacted version of Luke. Then there was Tatian the Assyrian, whose Diatesseron harmonized the four gospels into a single book, a book which replaced the four Gospels in the Syriac churches until the 5th century. Eusebious reports that Tatian also attempted to rewrite the gospels, which itself is a testament to their not being considered on par with Scripture. (Constantinou 2008, 32-35)

The canon of Scripture gradually coalesced around a common core of books, but a number of books remained in dispute, with different bishops and regional councils weighing in on the issue. Constantinou writes:

It can only be said that by the end of the fourth century a consensus existed in both the East and West for the core of the canon: our present fourfold gospel corpus, Acts of the Apostles, thirteen Epistles of PauL, 1 John and 1 Peter. However, Hebrews, James, 2 and 3 John, Jude, 2 Peter, and Revelation remained disputed at least to the extent that they were not universally accepted. (Constantinou 2008, 39)

The Book of Revelation is unique among the New Testament books, both for its claim to divine inspiration, and to its strange canonical history. In the 2nd century, Revelation was widely accepted as authoritative on the basis of its authorship and apostolicity; however, by the 4th century it had fallen out of favor — primarily because of the influence of the Montanist heresy. Constantinou writes:

Montanist prophecy was primarily eschatological in orientation. The message contained chiliastic and apocalyptic expectations which were associated with the Revelation of John, such the promise of a New Jerusalem. The three prophets proclaimed the imminent coming of the end of the world and professed to be the divinely appointed agents sent to warn Christians that the second coming of Christ was at hand. (Constantinou 2008, 65)

The Montanist heresy was so pervasive as to have drawn away the founder of Latin Christianity, Tertullian. The response to the Montanists was an attempt to discredit the writings that had been used by the Montanists — in particular, the Book of Revelation. (Constantinou 2008, 68-71)

Another reason why Revelation lost its canonical appeal was that the symbolism was mysterious and no longer understood. Revelation was written to the seven churches of Asia Minor, who presumably understood its cryptic imagery due to their familiarity with the author. But later generations did not have that intimate connection with the author’s meaning, and it was easily misinterpreted. In addition, the apocalyptic imagery of the Revelation arose from a Jewish apocalyptic tradition, a tradition which was foreign to the increasingly gentile Church. (Constantinou 2008, 72-73)

Around 332 A.D., the Roman emperor Constantine the Great commissioned Eusebius to provide fifty copies of the scriptures for the churches in Constantinople. Unfortunately, none of these copies exist today, and Eusebius does not tell us which books were included. Some authorities contend they only contained the gospels; others think they would have contained only the books Eusebius considered canonical, which would have excluded the book of Revelation. (Constantinou 2008, 92) F. F. Bruce believes it would have contained our current 27 book canon, including Revelation. (Bruce, The Canon of Scripture 2010, 204) However, Bruce fails to mention that the canonicity of Hebrews was disputed in the west (due to its unknown author) for at least another hundred years. (Constantinou 2008, 92) Moreover, Bruce fails to provide convincing evidence for the inclusion of the Revelation, supposing that it would have been included because emperor Constantine the Great used its imagery as “imperial propaganda.” (Bruce, The Canon of Scripture 2010, 204) However, since the Byzantine lectionary (or cycle of bible readings) dates to the 4th century and did not include the book of Revelation, an argument can be made for its not being part of the bibles produced by Eusebius.

Some point to the works such as the Synod of Laodicea (363 A.D.), the festal letter of Athanasius (367 A.D.), or the Third Council of Carthage (397 A.D.) as evidence that the canon of the New Testament was closed, when in fact what this shows is the matter was in some dispute, leading various bishops and regional councils to weigh in on the issue. The Council of Trullo (692 A.D.), known as the Quinisext Ecumenical Council, ratified the conflicting canons of the previous councils and apostolic fathers, yet failed to settle the issue. Eugenia Constantinou writes:

With regard to the canon of Scripture, rather than creating clarification, the Council of Trullo only compounded the confusion. The question of the New Testament canon of the East remained hopelessly muddled and even contradictory because the Quinisext synod did not compose its own list of canonical Scripture but only ratified earlier decisions, ignoring the fact that the canons of Scripture enumerated by earlier councils and various Fathers were not in agreement, especially with respect to Revelation. For example, Athanasius, Basil the Great and the Synod of Carthage accepted Revelation, while the Council at Laodicea and the 85 Apostolic Canons rejected it. They ratified Aniphilochios’ canon, but it is unclear whether he accepted or rejected Revelation or the catholic epistles. On the other hand, the   85 Apostolic Canons accepted 1 and 2 Clement as Scripture, something which earlier synods and the ratified Fathers did not. All of these synodal decisions and patristic canons of Scripture were ratified at Trullo. (Constantinou 2008, 107)

Unlike what many of us were taught, and what seemed reasonable (given the Protestant understanding of the canon), the development of the list of New Testament books occurred over some time, in fits and starts. The early church had the regula fidei, the rule of faith, as their guide. This rule of faith led them to gradually accept certain books as scripture, and reject others as either not consistent with the rule of faith, or not rising to the level of scripture. I was taught that the New Testament canon was closed with the death of the apostle John, who before his death was able to grant his apostolic seal of approval to all the New Testament books. But the historical evidence does not support this idea. Instead, what we see is the process of the Church gradually coming to a consensus on the limits of the New Testament canon, a process guided by the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit, working in and through the Church, the Bride of Christ.


Bruce, F. F. The Canon of Scripture. Kindle Edition. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010.

Constantinou, Eugenia Scarvelis. Andrew of Caesarea And The Apocalypse in the Ancient Church of the East: Studies and Translation. Translated by Eugenia Scarvelis Contantinou. Laval: Faculté des études supérieures de l’Université Laval, 2008.

McDonald, Lee Martin. The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority. 3rd. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.



Merrill F. Unger and the Protestant Canon

Unger's Bible Dictionary

Unger’s Bible Dictionary

The late Merrill F. Unger, former professor of Old Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, provides a series of arguments for the Protestant’s shorter canon. Although I once accepted these arguments without question, they now seem quite odd.

They abound in historical and geographical inaccuracies and anachronisms. (Unger 1966, 70)

This is a most curious argument, given that the Sacred Scriptures are full of seeming inconsistencies, contradictions, pre-scientific descriptions, anthropomorphisms, and even what some might call actual errors of fact. If the arguments for inerrancy apply to the Protestant canon, why would they not apply to the Apocrypha? But as we shall see in Part II, the existence of supposed errors is not an argument against inspiration, for the Bible never claims to be inerrant.

They teach doctrines which are false and foster practices which are at variance with inspired Scripture. (Unger 1966, 70)

The argument here seems to be that of Martin Luther, who desired to exclude from the canon any books that disagreed with his interpretation of Scripture. The reasoning is that as we do not hold to certain doctrines, we cannot accept as canonical those books which teach doctrines contrary to ours. It is circular reasoning at best.

They resort to literary types and display an artificiality of subject matter and styling out of keeping with inspired Scripture. (Unger 1966, 70)

This is a curious statement, given that the bulk of the New Testament consists of letters, Gospels, an apocalypse (Revelation), and a theological treatise (Hebrews), literature not found in the Old Testament Scriptures. The only historical book is Acts; the only wisdom literature is the book of James. The Old Testament does not contain an apocalypse, a style of writing that was in fashion from the time of the Maccabees until the destruction of Jerusalem, but absent from the Old Testament.[i] So basically, nearly all of the New Testament is made up of “literary types” and contains “subject matter and styling out of keeping with inspired Scripture” — at least depending on your point of view.

They lack the distinctive elements which give genuine Scripture their divine character, such as prophetic power and poetic and religious feeling. (Unger 1966, 70)

I’m sorry, professor Unger, but this is not only completely subjective, but utter nonsense as well.[ii] First, let us examine Unger’s critique that the Apocrypha lack prophetic power. In his book “The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah”, Alfred Edersheim points to the almost hypostatic conception of the Logos in the Apocrypha, “especially the Book of Wisdom — following up the Old Testament typical truth concerning ‘Wisdom’ (as specially set forth in the Book of Proverbs) almost arrived so far as to present ‘Wisdom’ as a special ‘Subsistence’ (hypostatising it).” (Edersheim 1993, 32) The book of Barach takes this even further, going so far as to hint at the Incarnation of the Logos (something we will mention again in Part IV).

Hear, Israel, the commandments of life: give ear to understand wisdom. …Thou hast forsaken the fountain of wisdom. For if thou hadst walked in the way of God, thou shouldest have dwelled in peace for ever. …O Israel, how great is the house of God! and how large is the place of his possession! Great, and hath none end; high, and unmeasurable. …Who hath gone up into heaven, and taken her, and brought her down from the clouds? …This is our God, and there shall none other be accounted of in comparison of him. He hath found out all the way of knowledge, and hath given it unto Jacob his servant, and to Israel his beloved. Afterward did he show himself upon earth, and conversed with men [emphasis added](Baruch 3:9, 12-13, 24-25, 29, 35-37).

As for “poetic and religious feeling,” let us read the supplicatory prayer of Judith, which will hold up to anything in the Hebrew Scriptures.

For, behold, the Assyrians are multiplied in their power; they are exalted with horse and man; they glory in the strength of their footmen; they trust in shield, and spear, and bow, and sling; and know not that thou art the Lord that breakest the battles: the Lord is thy name. Throw down their strength in thy power, and bring down their force in thy wrath: for they have purposed to defile thy sanctuary, and to pollute the tabernacle where thy glorious name resteth, and to cast down with sword the horn of thy altar (Judith 9:7-8).

And again this, from Judith’s song of rejoicing:

I will sing unto the Lord a new song: O Lord, thou art great and glorious, wonderful in strength, and invincible. Let all creatures serve thee: for thou spakest, and they were made, thou didst send forth thy spirit, and it created them, and there is none that can resist thy voice. For the mountains shall be moved from their foundations with the waters, the rocks shall melt as wax at thy presence: yet thou art merciful to them that fear thee. For all sacrifice is too little for a sweet savor unto thee, and all the fat is not sufficient for thy burnt offering: but he that feareth the Lord is great at all times (Judith 16:13-16).

As we can see, none of Merrill F. Unger’s reasonings stand up to scrutiny. Therefore, it would appear that his opposition to the Apocrypha being in the canon is ultimately subjective, based on unstated and perhaps unwarranted assumptions.


Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah: New Updated Edition. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1993.

Unger, Merrill F. Unger’s Bible Dictionary. Third Edition. Chicago: Moody Press, 1966.



[i] Even though the New Testament contains an apocalypse, many in the ancient church rejected the Revelation of St. John precisely because of its mysterious symbolism and apocalyptic character — something the heretics were able to twist to their advantage.

[ii] I do not wish to be too hard on Mr. Unger, whose book was written before the implications of the Dead Sea Scrolls were widely known. Still, he lived until 1980 and never updated this portion of his Bible Dictionary.

On the Office of the Deaconess

St. Apollonia, an elderly virgin, deaconess, and martyr of Alexandria

St. Apollonia, an elderly virgin, deaconess, and martyr of Alexandria

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.

Canon XIX

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,[1] 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.


[1] 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.