A woman in charge of the sick and the poor of her own sex. In the early church, deaconesses were recognized as a distinct order of women who were vowed to perpetual chastity. They were, nevertheless, allowed to perform only certain duties in the care of women, and no sacerdotal services in the church.
In the New Testament, we have names of various women who dedicated their lives to the service of God during and following Christ’s ministry on earth and His Resurrection, but they cannot be considered deaconesses in the strict sense of the term. The only woman whose name is mentioned explicitly in this capacity is Phoebe, on whose behalf Saint Paul writes: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cenchreae” (Rom. 16:1). The author of 1 Timothy speaks implicitly of deaconesses where, after listing the qualities required in candidates for the male diaconate, he speaks of women who must be “serious, no slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things” (1 Tm. 3:11).
Most commentators are of the opinion that these words refer to deaconesses in particular. Hence Saint JOHN CHRYSOSTOM affirms: “Some have thought that this is said of women generally, but it is not so, for why should he introduce anything about women to interfere with his subject? He is speaking of those who held the rank of Deaconesses” (Homilies on . . . Timothy 11, 1956, p. 441).
According to the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, “a deaconess must be a chaste virgin or else a widow who has been but once married, faithful, and well-esteemed” (Constitutions 6.17, 1951, p. 457). Canon 12 of the Fourth Council of Carthage (398) lays down the duties of widows and dedicated women (sanctimoniales) who are chosen to assist at the baptism of women: “They should be so well instructed in their office as to be able to teach aptly and properly unskilled and rustic women how to answer at the time of their baptism to the questions put to them, and also how to live godly after they have been baptized.”
Women were not admitted to this office in the early church unless they were over sixty years of age, in accordance with the testimonies of Tertullian (On the Veiling of Virgins 9, 1951), BASIL THE GREAT (The Canons of Basil 24, 1956), and others. Sozomen also informs us that the emperor Theodosius (379-395) “who was always zealous in promoting the glory of the church, issued a law, enacting that women should not be admitted to the diaconate, unless they were upwards of sixty years of age, according to the precept of the Apostle Paul” (1978, p. 387). Two centuries later devout women of forty were admitted by the Council of CHALCEDON (451). The female diaconate did not continue for long, and in the Western church had virtually disappeared by the tenth century, though in the Eastern church it lingered on until the end of the twelfth in the convents of Constantinople (Thomassin, 1679-1681, bk. 3).
That deaconesses were not to perform any of the duties ascribed to deacons was stipulated by the church in various apostolic constitutions, and in particular their duties during the administration of the sacrament of BAPTISM: “as to women’s baptizing, we let you know that there is no small peril to those that undertake it . . . . For if the man be the head of the woman, and he be originally ordained for the priesthood, it is not just to abrogate the order of the creation, and leave the principal to come to the extreme part of the body . . . . For if baptism were to be administered by women, certainly our Lord would have been baptized by His own mother, and not by John; or when He sent us to baptize, He would have sent along with us women also for this purpose. But now He has nowhere, either by a constitution or by writing, delivered to us any such thing. . . .” (Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 3.9, 1951, p. 429; see also Apostolic Constitution 2.26, p. 410, and 3.6, p. 427).
- Percival, H. R. “Excursus on the Deaconess of the Early Church.” In A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, 2nd Ser., Vol. 14, ed. P. Schaff and H. Wace, pp. 41-42. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1971.
- Robinson, C. The Ministry of Deaconess. London, 1898.
- Thomassin, L. Ancienne et nouvelle discipline de l’église. Paris, 1679-1681.
- Turner, C. H. “Ministries of Women in the Primitive Church: Widow, Deaconess and Virgin in the First Four Christian Centuries.” Constructive Quarterly 7 (1919).