Jim Denison on What Should be the Role of Women in the Church, Part 2?

Read Part 1 here.

Historical considerations [35]

Before we come to personal and practical conclusions, we should note the way Christians across our faith history have addressed the subject of women as deacons.

Women deacons in early Christianity

Deaconesses were common in early Christianity: “Certainly in the early Church there were deaconesses. They had the duty of instructing female converts and in particular of presiding and attending at their baptism, which was by total immersion.” [36] They “performed for the women of the early Church the same sort of ministrations that the deacons did for the men,” [37] since “the strict separation of the sexes made something like deaconesses necessary for baptism, visiting the women, etc.” [38]

This office was “opened to pious women and virgins, and chiefly to widows, a most suitable field for the regular official exercise of their peculiar gifts of self-denying charity and devotion to the welfare of the church.” Schaff maintains that Phoebe was a deacon, and considers it “more than probable” that Priscilla, Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis (Romans 16) were deacons as well.[39]

Several early documents attest to the fact that women served commonly as deacons:

  • Pliny the Younger, in correspondence with the emperor Trajan (A.D. 112) describes one means by which he sought to extract information about Christianity: “I thought it therefore the more necessary to try and find the truth of the matter by torture as well, (and that) from two female slaves who were called Deaconesses. I discovered nothing more than a perverse and contumacious superstition.” [40]
  • Origen (died A.D. 254) describes deaconesses as those who have given “assistance to many, and, by their good works, have deserved the praise of the apostles.” [41]
  • Clement of Alexandria (died A.D. 215) likewise speaks of women who accompanied the apostles and shared their ministry “so that the Lord’s teaching could penetrate women’s quarters without giving scandal.” [42]
  • The third-century Didascalia Apostolorum describes the office of deaconess as fully intact, and gives the impression that deaconesses have been recognized for many years. It restricts their duties, however, to serving the needs of the women in the church, including baptism and anointing, teaching new converts, and visiting sick women. [43]
  • The fourth-century Apostolic Constitutions adds that deaconesses are to be “a pure virgin; or, at the least, a widow who has been but once married, faithful, and well esteemed.” [44]

Robinson’s study of the subject concludes, “The office of Deaconess . . . is legislated for in two of the general Councils, and is mentioned by all the leading Greek Fathers and historians of the fourth and fifth centuries. Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Epiphanius, Chrysostom, Theodoret and Sozomen all bear testimony to the flourishing condition of the Order. They have preserved to us the personal history of several of its members, and have shown how important was the position they occupied and the service they rendered to the Church.” [45]

However, as this role evolved (primarily in the Eastern or Byzantine Church), a strong separation emerged between deacons and deaconesses. The liturgical tasks of the latter were much more restricted than the former: they could only baptize under the supervision of the priest; and they were never allowed to teach or preach in public. [46]

Roman Catholic theologian Aime Georges Martimort concludes,

The ancient institution of deaconesses, even in its own time, was encumbered with not a few ambiguities, as we have seen. In my opinion, if the restoration of the institution of deaconesses were indeed to be sought after so many centuries, such a restoration itself could only be fraught with ambiguity. The real importance and efficaciousness of the role of women in the Church has always been vividly perceived in the consciousness of the hierarchy and of the faithful as much more broad than the historical role that deaconesses in fact played. And perhaps a proposal based on an ‘archaeological’ institution might even obscure the fact that the call to serve the Church is urgently addressed today to all women, especially in the area of the transmission of Faith and works of charity. [47]

Thus Martimort argues that women should be given important places of ministry in the Church today, regardless of their limited role as “deaconesses” in history.

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SOURCE: Christian Post, Jim Denison