|This article forms part of the series|
|Bishop - Priest - Deacon|
|Subdeacon - Reader|
Cantor - Acolyte
|Chorepiscopos - Exorcist|
Doorkeeper - Deaconess
|Pope - Patriarch - Cardinal - Catholicos|
Archbishop - Metropolitan
Auxiliary bishop -
|Archimandrite - Protopresbyter|
Archpriest - Protosyngellos
|Archdeacon - Protodeacon - Hierodeacon|
|Abbot - Igumen|
|Ordination - Vestments|
Presbeia - Honorifics
Clergy awards - Exarch
Proistamenos - Vicar
Deaconess (and also deacon) comes from a Greek word diakonos (διακονος). This Greek word means a servant or helper and occurs frequently in the Christian New Testament of the Bible and is sometimes applied to Christ himself. Deaconesses trace their roots from the time of Jesus Christ through the 13th century. Evidence for the presence of ordained female deacons in the early Christian period in portions of the Eastern Church, is “clear and unambiguous" according to religious scholar Valerie Karras. Deaconesses existed from the early through the middle Byzantine periods in Constantinople and Jerusalem; although the office may not have been in existence throughout the Europe churches. The female diaconate in the Byzantine Church of the early and middle Byzantine periods was recognized as one of the major orders of clergy.[dubious ] A modern resurgence of the office began in the early nineteenth century in both Europe and North America. Deaconesses are present in many countries of the world at the present time, but not in the Roman Catholic Church, in which it is held that ordained ministry is restricted to men.
Early Christian Period
Evidence from the early 2nd century, within a letter from Pliny of Bithynia to the emperor Trajan, attests to the role of the deaconesses. Pliny refers to “two maid-servants” as deaconesses whom he tortures to find out more about the Christians. This reinforces the existence the office of the deaconesses in parts of the eastern Roman Empire. In addition, within the Didascalia of the Apostles, further mention of the female deacons is found. Within the book, there are claims that Mary Magdalene was indeed a deaconess who also served Jesus Christ. The word diakonein translated as minister, is used in the New Testament to describe Mary Magdalene, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Susanna and others that provided for Jesus, as a service group . However, it is more commonly believed that the institution of the deaconesses began in the 3rd century around the time the Didascalia was actually written . It is the first document that specifically discusses the role of the deacons and the deaconesses in the 3rd century, in the region of Syria. In it the author asks the bishop to take the deacons and deaconesses as “workers for justice”, denoting their prominent place in the church hierarchy. The office gradually developed, and was recognized by the Church and during this time period, the church ordained women deacons along with male deacons whom both acted in various leadership roles, including bishop, elder and deacon.
Later in the fourth century, the deaconesses were mentioned in the Council of Nicea in 325 which implies their clerical, ordained status. Olympias, one of the closest friends and supporters of the archbishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, was known as a wealthy and influential deaconess during the 5th century. Even Justinian's legislation regarding clergy at the great imperial churches of Hagia Sophia and Blachernae in the mid-sixth century included female deacons. He also included female deacons among the clergy whose numbers he regulated for the Great Church of Hagia Sophia, listing male and female deacons together, and later specifying one hundred male and forty female deacons. Furthermore, from the luminal period of the eighth century, the Barberini Codex, containing a liturgical manual, provides an ordination rite for a female deacon which is virtually identical to the male deacons' rite. The deaconesses continued to exist after the middle Byzantine period predominantly in the capital city as well as many monastic communities. Evidence of continuing liturgical and pastoral roles is provided by Constantine Porphyrogenitus' 10th century manual of ceremonies (De Ceremoniis), which refers to a special area for deaconesses in the Hagia Sophia.
The Apostle Paul is sometimes described as an early misogynist by some modern commentators. On the other hand, it is claimed by some that through him that some of the most prominent evidence of the leadership roles and importance of the deaconesses are found. The first clear mention is in the salutation of Paul's Epistle to the Philippians. Later, Paul reveals the actual qualifications of these ordained females (I Tim 3:8-13).
How does this square against the later passage of (I Tim 3:12):
Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. King James Version
It is through this verse the female leaders are reminded of their role in the diaconate and confirmed in their active participation in the offices of the church. Several deaconesses are specifically commended who took part in the Jesus movement alongside himself. Two of these women are Priscilla and Phoebe of the church in Cenchreae. He describes both of these women as ‘helpers of many’ and ‘servants of the church whose business in Rome warranted the support of all the saints’ (Rom 16:1-2). He continues to describe Phoebe, “our sister Phoebe a diakonos of the church of Cenchreae”. Then he adds “she has been a helper of many and of myself as well”. When Paul describes her role and his in the congregation, he uses the Greek verb meaning ‘to be at the head of, to rule, to direct’. In addition, Paul also speaks of other female deacons such as Mary, Tryphaena, Typhosa and Persis whom he writes ‘worked hard in the Lord’ and ‘workers in the Lord’ (v. 12). The contribution of these women is described by the same verb, χοπίάω, used to describe ‘toil’ and ‘labour’ (Matthew 11.28; John 4.6). Moreover, Paul uses this verb to describe his own work for the Lord and other apostolic labours. In addition, Mary's labour described as ‘among you’ or ‘for your benefit’ (v. 6) suggest a recognized role of ministry within the church . The church at Philippi is another example of early female leadership where women both founded and controlled the church's ministry. In Paul's letter to the Philippian church, he addresses the three female leaders, Euodia, Syntyche and a third, for which he uses the affectionate term, syzugē to mean “mate” (Phil. 4:1-3). Through the Pauline epistles it is clear that deaconesses exercised important roles identified and recognized as central within the office of the church. It appears in Paul's writings that there is no gender-specific working in the churches, as well. Paul identified women who labor in spreading the gospel as equal in rank to himself and was familiar with submitting to women. Paul made clear in his letters that women had governing functions in the churches.
Women as Deaconesses
Two types of monastic women were typically ordained to the diaconate in the early and middle Byzantine period. Abbesses and nuns with liturgical functions, as well as the wives of men who were being raised to the episcopacy. There was a strong association of deaconess with abbess starting in the late fourth century or early fifth century in the East, and occurred in the medieval period in the Latin as well as the Byzantine Church. Principally, these women lived in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, where the office of deaconesses was most often found. There is literary evidence of a female diaconate particularly in Constantinople, and archaeological evidence of deaconesses in a number of other areas in the Empire, particularly Asia Minor. One example of a deaconess from Constantinople during the post-Constantine period was Olympias; a well educated woman who after being widowed devoted her life to the church and was ordained a deaconess. She supported the church with gifts of land, money and her wealth which was typical during this period. Macrina born in 330, the eldest sister of Basil and Gregory of Nussa, was also a well known deaconess who founded her own monastic community. Melania born in Rome in 383, also founded monastic communities and provided hospices for pilgrims. Deaconesses, like these wealthy women, were supporters of the church. In many cases they founded religious communities which welcomed all unmarried women, whether virgins or widows. Deaconesses are often mistaken as being only widows or wives of deacons; and it is sometimes described that they came out of an order of widows. Minor church offices developed about the same time as the diaconate in response to the needs of growing churches. Widows, however, were elderly women of the congregation in need of economic help and social support due to their situation. This concept is mentioned in the first Acts 6:1 and 9:39-41 and 1 Timothy 5. These widows had no specific duties compared to that of the deaconess. In the Apostolic Constitutions deaconesses were recognized as having power over the widows in the church. The widows were cautioned to obey “deaconesses with piety, reverence and fear.”  In the first four centuries of the church, widows were recognized members of the church who shared some similar functions of a deaconess; yet did not share the same responsibilities or importance.
In the Byzantine church deaconesses had both liturgical and pastoral functions within the church. These women also ministered to other women in a variety of ways, including instructing catechumens, assisting with women's baptisms and welcoming women into the church services. They also mediated between members of the church, and they cared for the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the imprisoned and the persecuted. They were sent to women who were housebound due to illness or childbirth. They performed the important sacramental duty of conducting the physical anointing and baptism of nude women. Ordination to the diaconate was also appropriate for those responsible for the women's choir, a liturgical duty. Evidence in the Vita Sanctae Macrinae (or Life of St. Macrina) shows that Lampadia was responsible for the women's choir. Some believe that they were also presiders of the Eucharist, but this practice was always seen as aberrant and invalid.
Some examples of Christian art reflect the leadership roles of deaconesses including administering the Lord's Supper, teaching, baptizing, caring for the physical needs of the congregation and leading the public in prayers. Women were illustrated in early Christian art in various ministerial roles; although traces of female leaders in some art was later covered up to depict men. The fresco in the Catacombs of Priscilla is one example of the conspiracy to deny women's involvement in the Eucharist. Another example involves the chapel of St. Zeno in the Church of St. Praxida in Rome. An inscription denoting a woman in the mosaic as, “Episcopa Theodora” was altered by dropping the feminine –ra ending, thereby transforming into a masculine name. Because episcopa is the feminine form of the Greek word for bishop or overseer, the inscription suggests that Theodora was a woman bishop; however these memorials to great holy women were hidden or destroyed to further glorify the role of Christian men.
Decline of the female Diaconate
After the 4th century the role of the deaconesses changed drastically. It appeared that the amount of involvement with the community and the focus on individual spirituality did not allow the deaconess to define her own office. Social attitudes promoted during the 4th and 5th centuries councils which structured the organization and defined roles within the Roman Church resulted in a patriarchal church. With Christianity allowance as a legally valid religion by Constantine, leadership roles for women within the church diminished. During the rule of Constantine, as Christianity became more institutionalized; leadership roles for women decreased as they became subordinate to males within the church organization. It was during the fifth and sixth centuries in the western part of the Roman Empire that the role of deaconess became less favorable. The Councils of Orange in 441 and Orléans in 533 directly targeted the role of the deaconesses in the church by the male-dominated hierarchy which forbade their ordination. By at least the ninth or tenth century only nuns were ordained as female deacons. Evidence of female diaconal ordination itself is less conclusive for the ninth through early twelfth centuries than for previous eras. There is enough of a historical record to indicate that the female diaconate continued to exist as an ordained order in Constantinople and Jerusalem for most if not all of this period. In the Byzantine Church, the female diaconate decline began sometime during the iconoclastic period with the vanishing of the ordained order for women in the twelfth century. It is probable the decline started in the late seventh century with the introduction into the Byzantine Church of severe liturgical restrictions on menstruating women. By the eleventh century, the Byzantine Church had developed a theology of ritual impurity associated with menstruation and childbirth. The dichotomy between Alexandrian and Antiochian attitudes about menstruation and other bodily functions was a method of restricting leadership roles of women in the church. Dionysius and his later successor, Timothy, had similar restriction on women receiving the Eucharist or entering the church during menses. Thus, “the impurity of their menstrual periods dictated their separation from the divine and holy sanctuary". By the end of the medieval period the role of the deacons decreased into mere preparation for priesthood, with only liturgical roles. In the 12th and 13th century deaconesses have completely disappeared in the Europe Christian church. By the eleventh century they have ceased to exist in the eastern Mediterranean Christian churches.
The modern deaconess movement began in Germany in 1836 when Theodor Fliedner and his wife Friedericke Munster opened the first deaconess motherhouse in Kaiserswerth on the Rhine. Fifty years later, there were over 5000 deaconesses in Europe. In 1884, John Lankenau, a business owner, brought seven sisters from Germany to run the German hospital in Philadelphia. Other deaconesses soon followed and began ministries in several United States cities with large Lutheran populations. By the 1963 formation of the Lutheran Church in America, there were three main centers for deaconess work: Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Omaha. These three sisterhoods combined and form what became the Deaconess Community of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America or ELCA. The history of the office of Deaconess in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) is thoroughly documented in the 2009 book 'In The Footsteps Of Phoebe'. LCMS Deaconesses affectionately trace their roots back to Phoebe, a women mentioned by the Apostle Paul in Romans 16.1 as a member of the church of Cenchrea (a Greek city near Corinth).
The spiritual revival in the Americas and Europe of the nineteenth century brought rapid social change. Women who began to seek new roles for themselves turned to deaconess service. In 1887, Isabella Gilmore oversaw the revival of the Deaconess Order in the Anglican Communion. In the Victorian era, for women with a calling to serve God, the role of Deaconess was socially acceptable at the time. Allowed to function as ministers or servants, women filled the traditional societal role of caregivers and teachers.
- Church of Christ (Holiness) U.S.A.
- Eastern Catholic Church
- Eastern Orthodox Church
- Methodist Church of Great Britain
- Oriental Orthodox Church
- Reformed Episcopal Church
- United Church of Christ
- United Methodist Church
- Greek Orthodox Church - The Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church recently voted in Athens on Oct 8, 2004 to explore the revival of deaconesses.
- Karras, Valerie A. (June 2004). "Female Deacons in the Byzantine Church". Church History 73 (2): 272–316. ISSN 0009-6407.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Edition. Doubelday. 2003. pp. aragraph 1577. ISBN 0385508190. "Only a baptized man (vir) validly receives sacred ordination." The Lord Jesus chose men (viri) to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry. The college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood, makes the college of the twelve an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ's return. The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself. For this reason the ordination of women is not possible."
- Olsen, Jeannine E. (1992). One ministry many roles: deacons and deaconesses through the centuries. Concordia scholarship today. St Louis: Concordia Publishing House. pp. 22, 25, 27, 29, 41, 53, 58, 60, 70. ISBN 0570045967.
- Grenz, Stanley J.; Kjesbo, Denise Muir (1995). Women in the church : a biblical theology of women in ministry. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press. pp. 39. ISBN 0830818626.
- Jewette, Paul King (1980). The Ordination of Women: An Essay on the Office of Christian Ministry. Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 70, 72. ISBN 0802818501.
- France, R.T. (1997). Women in the Church’s Ministry. Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 25, 85, 88. ISBN 0802841724.
- Torjesen, Karen Jo (1993). When women were priests : women's leadership in the early church and the scandal of their subordination in the rise of Christianity. San Francisco: Harper. pp. 10, 16. ISBN 0060686618.
- Schottroff, Luise (1993). Let The Oppressed Go Free: Feminist Perspectives on the New Testament. Gender and the biblical tradition. Louisville, Ky: Westminster/John Knox Press. pp. 35, 36. ISBN 0664254268.
- Swan, Laura (2001). The forgotten desert mothers : sayings, lives, and stories of early Christian women. New York: Paulist Press. pp. 106. ISBN 0809140160.
- Naumann, C.D. (2009), In The Footsteps Of Phoebe, Concordia Publishing House