Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin. Previous article in this series: October 1, 2009, p. 18.
That God in His Word both forbids women to hold the office of deacon, and at the same time permits the deacons to use women as assistants in their work of mercy, we have seen in our last article.
In this article we begin to survey the history of the church permitting women to assist the deacons. Noting the teachings of the church fathers, the statements of church councils, and the opinions of scholars, we will draw some general conclusions about this history. The particular point we desire to emphasize is that the Christian church has historically understood that women have a role in the ministry of the church.
That the early New Testament church actually had an order of women who served the church in some capacity, I Timothy 5:9-10 indicates. In this passage, Paul refers to an already existing body of women, and gives their qualifications. As we indicated in our last article, these women most likely served the deacons by assisting in their work of mercy.
After Bible times, the first known reference to women as deaconesses appears in a letter from Pliny, governor of Bithynia (in northern Asia Minor), to the emperor Trajan, written about AD 113, in which Pliny mentions that he tortured some deaconesses.¹ On the basis of this letter, some argue that already at this time women served, not merely as assistants to the deacons, but in the office of deacon itself. We must be careful, though, in assessing Pliny’s use of the term. He was, after all, not a Christian himself, but an unbeliever; how well did he understand the role of women in the early church? And Brian Schwertley is correct when he writes that from this brief reference “we are given no information as to the role or the function these women had in the church.”²
Without a doubt, however, an official position known as “deaconess” was found in the early Christian church. By the middle of the second century, if not earlier, the term appears in the writings of the church fathers. Even official church declarations, such as the canons of the Council of Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451), refer to such, as we shall see presently. However, the term “deaconess” did not refer to women who held the office of deacon; it referred rather to women who held an official position of helpers to deacons, the scriptural basis for which was found in the words of the apostle in I Timothy 5:9-10.
That the position of deaconess evolved out of the order of widows and virgins (I Corinthians 7:25ff.) is the conviction of many scholars who are not bent on proving that women have always held church office from the earliest times. Jeannine Olson writes: “Scholars who feel that deaconesses originated in the third century suggest that they might have come out of the order of widows….”³ And Schwertley, whose book is meant to demonstrate that “having deaconesses in the church is biblical as long as the church defines deaconesses biblically” (that is, as Paul speaks of them in I Timothy 5, and not as holding the office of deacon), also says:
The most plausible explanation of the appearance of the office of deaconess in the early church is that the office developed out of the order of widows. This view explains why in every instance where deaconesses are discussed in the Ante-Nicene Fathers and councils, they always have the exact same qualifications as Paul’s servant-widows (
Whether or not these women were formally ordained seems to have varied by time and place, but usually they were admitted in some formal way to their work. Paul’s words in I Timothy 5:9, referring to widows being “taken into the number,” implies some formal admission to this work. In the Apostolic Constitutions, probably written in the second century, Bartholomew is said to have required bishops to lay their hands on the deaconess being ordained, “in the presence of the presbytery, and of the deacons and deaconesses,” and to pray a prayer beseeching God to give her His Holy Spirit.5 Yet in its nineteenth canon, the Council of Nicea (325) referred to deaconesses as “such as have assumed the habit, but who, since they have no imposition of hands, are to be numbered only among the laity.”6 They are not clergy; they do not hold office in the church in the same sense in which men do; yet they do hold a distinct position among the laity.
Though following the pattern Paul prescribed in I Timothy 5, the church did at times revise some of the qualifications for such women. Not revised was the requirement that these women be unmarried. The Council of Chalcedon required that, should such an one “despise the grace of God and give herself in marriage, she shall be anathematized and the man united to her.”7 But the church did permit unmarried women of two sorts to serve—widows, and virgins. And the church revised the minimum age requirement for such. Although Paul by inspiration had prescribed 60 as a minimum, one church document stated that “a woman could be enrolled as a widow at the age of 50 rather than 60,”8 and the Council of Chalcedon said that “A woman shall not receive the laying on of hands as a deaconess under forty years of age, and then only after searching examination.”9
Regarding their work, Tertullian (living in North Africa in the late second and early third century) wrote:
They were charged to care for the poor, comfort the martyrs and confessors in prison, to whom they had easier access than the deacons, assist at the baptism of women, and exercise a general oversight both in public and private over the female members of the congregation. Of their labors they were to render regular reports to the bishops and elders.10
The document Apostolic Constituitions speaks of their work in baptizing:
Ordain also a deaconess who is faithful and holy, for the ministrations towards women. For sometimes he cannot send a deacon, who is a man, to the women, on account of unbelievers. Thou shalt therefore send a woman, a deaconess, on account of the imaginations of the bad. For we stand in need of a woman, a deaconess, for many necessities; and first in the baptism of women, the deacon shall anoint only their forehead with the holy oil, and after him the deaconess shall anoint them: for there is no necessity that the women should be seen by the men.11
John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople, and considered by many the greatest preacher in the eastern church in the late 300s and early 400s, explained I Timothy 5:10 not so much as setting forth the qualification for the rank of widow, but setting forth the work they were called to do—bring up children (orphans, probably), lodge strangers, wash the saints feet, relieve the afflicted: “He exhorts them to contribute bodily service, for women are peculiarly fitted for such attendance, for making the bed of the sick, and composing them to rest.”12
In addition, the “deaconesses were charged with instructing women” and with guarding the women’s door during the Eucharist.13
The role of women in the Christian church in the Middle Ages
It is generally agreed that the role of women in the church was most prominent during the first four centuries after Christ. “The fourth century marked the zenith of such female activity in the churches,” writes P.Y. DeJong.14 After this period, the role of women diminished considerably.
Olson suggests that during or soon after the fourth century, the office of widows essentially died out, and the position of deaconess became more of an official position in the church. As the church’s hierarchy developed, “in the fourth and fifth centuries, deacons became subordinate to presbyters, deaconesses to deacons, and widows to deaconesses…. Eventually the deaconesses and widows were absorbed into the monastic movement.”15At the same time, it must not be overlooked that the decrees of various church councils were influential in diminishing the role of women. The Council of Orange (441) declared in Canon 26: “Let no one proceed to the ordination of Deaconesses anymore.” In 517, the Council of Epaon declared in Canon 21, “We abrogate completely in the entire Kingdom the consecration of widows who are named Deaconesses.” And the Council of Orleans (533) said: “No longer shall the blessing of women deaconesses be given, because of the weakness of their sex.”16 These councils particularly affected the churches in France and western Europe, but gradually the official role of women in the church died out—almost, with one exception.
Olson already pointed us to that exception—the role women played in the monastic movement. It is well known that not only did monasteries for men arise during these times, but also communities of women, which were devoted to works of mercy such as care of the sick and poor. Especially the abbess, the female head of the female cloisters, carried out activities that resembled those that God assigned officebearers in His church.
General conclusions to this point
From this brief survey of history, we can draw some general conclusions.
First, it appears that at times the church permitted women to have a role and perform duties in the church that Scripture clearly does not allow. That women were at times ordained into office by the laying on of hands—a ceremony reserved in Scripture for men who are called by God to special office in the church—is unscriptural; so is the fact that women at times instructed, apparently officially, and assisted in baptisms. If the church claimed to be adhering to I Timothy 5 and I Corinthians 7 by allowing such, she certainly misapplied these texts.
Second, despite what we just said, one cannot justifiably appeal to the church’s practice as evidence that the church from her early history permitted women to hold church office. Never did the early church let women hold the offices of pastor, elder, or deacon; even the office of deaconess was distinct from that of deacon. Always the deaconesses were subordinate to deacons. More importantly, church councils opposed the practice of letting women have too much authority, and the practice eventually died out.
Third, the church in her early history sets a positive example of striving to implement the teaching of the apostle in I Timothy 3:11; I Timothy 5:9-10; and I Corinthians 7. That the church allowed women to do some work under the supervision of the deacons, and particularly work that would be immodest or inappropriate for a man to do, is this positive example.
While this positive example seems to have died out during the Middle Ages, it was resurrected at the time of the Reformation. Continuing our historical survey, we will note this in our next article, God willing.