A Brief Look at the Deaconess in the Early Church

"There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."- Galatians 3:28

Radical feminists in the various churches will point to this verse as a proof text for the ordination of women as presbyters or consecration as bishops. Of course, to do so they must do violence to the verse by removing it from its context, which simply states there is no discrimination with regard to salvation. God has not somehow removed gender or gender roles. Husbands are still commanded to love their wives, and wives commanded to submit to their husbands. (Ephesians 5:22-33) Does this mean women can serve no role in the church? Not at all. The church has always recognized the role of women in the ministry of the Deaconess.

The first mention of the Deaconess is in Paul's epistle to the Romans:

"I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church in Cenchreae."- Romans 16:1

We should also note that the qualifications of a deacon listed in I Timothy 3:8-13 apply equally to women called to this ministry.

"In the same way, deacons are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.
In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.
A deacon must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well. Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus."
The Apostolic Constitutions adds the following requirement.
"Let the deacon be a pure virgin. Or, at the minimum, let her be a widow who has been married only once and who is faithful and well esteemed."- Apostolic Constitutions
These particular specifications are not witnessed to in the writings of the Church Fathers, and may simply be a reflection of a local tradition. At any rate, it is not to be viewed as an Apostolic Tradition or general rule. Married women may serve as a Deaconess, as Paul seems to indicate in I Timothy.
The writings of the Church Fathers do shed some light on the role of the Deaconess.
Women of the congregation  were not to seek private meetings with clergy without a deaconess being present:
"Let not any woman address herself to the deacon or bishop without the deaconess".- Apostolic Constitutions
Obviously the role of the deaconess was to assist in ministry to the women of the church.
"Ordain also a deaconess who is faithful and holy for the ministrations towards women. For sometimes the bishop cannot send a deacon (who is a man) to the women, on account of unbelievers. You should therefore send a woman, a deaconess, for  many necessities. For example, in the baptism of women, the deacon will anoint only their forehead with the holy oil. And after him, the deaconess will anoint them. For there is no necessity that the women should be seen by the men."- Apostolic Constitutions
There are clearly defined limits to the role of the Deaconess. She is not a teacher of men, does not exercise authority over them, nor officiate the sacraments.
"A deaconess does not bless, noe does she perform anything belonging to the office of presbyters or deacons. Rather, she is only to keep the doors and to minister to the presbyters in the baptizing of women, for the sake of decency."- Apostolic Constitutions
Like the Deacon, the Deaconess is a service ministry to the congregation in its efforts to meet the special needs of Christian women.


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