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Women Deacons (Deaconesses) - Didascalia

E-Mail: Did I understand that your church has women deacons? This question was asked and answered here. We have been asked about the answer and add to what has been said. Many churches use the same authority to appoint Deaconesses for presiding roles and even Elders.

Q: Sorry to bother you with questions, but my wife and I have a question for you. Did I understand that the church has women deacons? If so, do they serve only other women? I examined the constitution and by-laws...can you explain the basis for this? Scriptural references?

A: Yes, the church does have women deacons (or deaconesses, if you prefer). No, they do not serve only other women. Here is a list of the deacon responsibilities and the people who do them:

The Apostolic Didascalia, a document dated in the second half of the third or beginning of the fourth century, was probably written originally in Greek and has been preserved in a Syriac translation.  It gives us a picture of Church order of these early times, and contains a startling metaphor that reveals that the writer had a very high conception of the diaconate of women,  It also shows why deaconesses were needed, and how they were used. 

The Apostolic Constitutions tell of Church practices perhaps a century or so later than the Syriac Didascalia, both before and after Nicaea.  The deaconess is mentioned after the deacon and before the subdeacon

As authority for the Deaconess the pastor refers to the Syrian Didascalia which was probably written by an Arian:

4. In the Christian document called the Syrian Didascalia (from the late 3rd century) deaconesses are specifically mentioned as an office of the church. The functions of women deacons are summarized as:

"assisting at the baptism of women,

going into the houses of the heathen where there are believing women, and to visit those who are sick,

and to minister to them in the area of their need, and to bathe those who have begun to recover from sickness."

I think on this issue, as on all issues, we need to bind where the Scriptures bind and loose where the Scriptures loose, that is, be as closed or as open as the Scriptures are. Main points: (1) There is nothing in the nature of the office of deacon that precludes women from serving. And (2) there is evidence from the Scriptures and early church history that women actually did serve as deacons. Therefore, our church allows women to serve in the office of deacon.

Without too much comment we will quote from the Apostolic Constitutions which are an adaptation of the Didascalia. We have linked to the total document so that you may review my quotes in context. My notes will be in red.

The first six books are an adaptation of the Didascalia Apostolorum, written in Syria about AD 250. They deal with Christian ethics, the duties of the clergy, the Eucharistic liturgy, and various church problems and rituals.

In modern times it is generally accepted that the constitutions were actually written in Syria about AD 380 and that they were the work of one compiler, probably an Arian (one who believes that Christ, the Son of God, is not divine but rather a created being). While defining the role of the Deaconess, he also claim that the Deaconess fulfills the role of the Holy Spirit.

So, rather than translating the word for women servants it is transliterated into Deaconess. This has always led to a lot of confusion. It is a fact that neither the deacon or female servant were presiding roles among many. Today, however, the Deaconess is ordained and often fills roles reserved by Scripture to the elder.

This writer doesn't get involved in the turf battle between the "wings" of the bird called "playing church." However, truth is vitally important and by reading the ancient documents you will be "preacher proofed" as he quotes quotes which quotes quotes.

From The Apostolic Constitutions Adaptation of the Didascalia Book 1-VI We should note that none of these early writers used the word 'Deaconess.' First, because it didn't exist and secondly because these documents were translated into English by men already acquainted with the off and on appointment of the Deaconess in the Catholic church.


XXVI. The bishop, he is the minister of the word, the keeper of knowledge, the meditator between God and you in the several parts of your divine worship. He is the teacher of piety; and,

next after God, he is your father, who has begotten you again to the adoption of sons by water and the Spirit.

He is your ruler and governor; he is your king and potentate;

he is, next after God, your earthly god, who has a right to be honoured by you.

For concerning him, arid such as he, it is that God pronounces, "I have said, Ye are gods; and ye are all children of the Most High." (2) And, "Ye shall not speak evil of the gods."

(3) For let the bishop preside over you as one honoured with the authority of God,

which he is to exercise over the clergy, and by which he is to govern all the people.

But let the deacon minister to him, as Christ does to His Father; (4) and let him serve him unblameably in all things, as Christ does nothing of Himself, but does always those things that please His Father.

Let also the deaconess be honoured by you
in the place of the Holy Ghost,

and not do or say anything without the deacon;

as neither does the Comforter say or do anything of Himself,
but gives glory to Christ by waiting for His pleasure.
And as we cannot believe on Christ without the teaching of the Spirit,
so let not any woman address herself to the deacon or bishop
without the deaconess.

Let the presbyters be esteemed by you to represent us the apostles, and let them be the teachers of divine knowledge; since our Lord, when He sent us, said, "Go ye, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you."

(5) Let the widows and orphans be esteemed as representing the altar of burnt-offering;

and let the virgins be honoured as representing the altar of incense, and the incense itself.



VII. But be thou, O bishop, holy, unblameable, no striker, not soon angry, not cruel; but a builder up, a converter, apt to teach, forbearing of evil, of a gentle mind, meek, long-suffering, ready to exhort, ready to comfort, as a man of God.

When thou callest an assembly of the Church as one that is the commander of a great ship,

appoint the assemblies to be made with all possible skill, charging the deacons as mariners to prepare places for the brethren as for passengers, with all due care and decency.

And first, let the building be long, with its head to the east, with its vestries on both sides at the east end, and so it will be like a ship.

In the middle let the bishop's throne be placed,

and on each side of him let the presbytery sit down; and let the deacons stand near at hand, in close and small girt garments, for they are like the mariners and managers of the ship: with regard to these,

let the laity sit on the other side, with all quietness and good order.

And let the women sit by themselves, they also keeping silence.

In the middle, let the reader stand upon some high place: let him read the books of Moses, of Joshua the son of Nun, of the Judges, and of the Kings and of the Chronicles, and those written after the return from the captivity; and besides these, the books of Job and of Solomon, and of the sixteen prophets.

But when there have been two lessons severally read, let some other person sing the hymns of David, and let the people join at the conclusions of the verses. Afterwards let our Acts be read, and the Epistles of Paul our fellow-worker, which he sent to the churches under the conduct of the Holy Spirit; and afterwards let a deacon or a presbyter read the Gospels, both those which I Matthew and John have delivered to you, and those which the fellow-workers of Paul received and left to you, Luke and Mark. And while the Gospel is read, let all the presbyters and deacons, and all the people, stand up in great silence; for it is written: "Be silent, and hear, O lsrael." (2) And again: "But do thou stand there, and hear."

(3) In the next place, let the presbyters one by one, not all together, exhort the people, and the bishop in the last place, as being the commander.

Let the porters stand at the entries of the men, and observe them.

Let the deaconesses also stand at those of the women, like shipmen.

For the same description and pattern was both in the tabernacle of the testimony and in the temple of God.

(4) But if any one be found sitting out of his place, let him be rebuked by the deacon, as a manager of the foreship, and be removed into the place proper for him; for the Church is not only like a ship, but also like a sheepfold.

For as the shepherds place all the brute creatures distinctly, I mean goats and sheep, according to their kind and age, and still every one runs together, like to his like;

so is it to be in the Church.

Let the young persons sit by themselves, if there be a place for them; if not, let them stand upright. But let those that are already stricken in years sit in order. For the children which stand, let their fathers and mothers take them to them.

Let the younger women also sit by themselves, if there be a place for them; but if there be not, let them stand behind the women. Let those women which are married, and have children, be placed by themselves; but let the virgins,

and the widows, and the elder women, stand or sit before all the rest; and

let the deacon be the disposer of the places, that every one of those that comes in may go to his proper place, and may not sit at the entrance.

In like manner, let the deacon oversee the people, that nobody may whisper, nor slumber, nor laugh, nor nod;


XI. Nay, further, we do not permit to the rest of the clergy to baptize,--as, for instance, neither to readers, nor singers, nor porters, nor ministers,--but to the bishops and presbyters alone, yet so that the deacons are to minister to them therein.

But those who venture upon it shall undergo the punishment of the companions of Corah. (1) We do not permit presbyters to ordain deacons, or deaconesses, or readers, or ministers, or singers, or porters, but only bishops; for this is the ecclesiastical order and harmony.


Let not therefore either a bishop, or a presbyter, or a deacon, or any one else of the sacerdotal catalogue, defile his tongue with calumny, lest he inherit a curse instead of a blessing; and let it also be the bishop's business and care that no lay person utter any curse: for he ought to take care of all,--of the clergy, of the virgins, of the widows, of the laity. For which reason, O bishop, do thou ordain thy fellow-workers, the labourers for life and for righteousness, such deacons as are pleasing to God, such whom thou provest to be worthy among all the people, and such as shall be ready for the necessities of their ministration.

The Widow in deed was the foundation of the deaconess:

Let not a widow be taken into the number under threescore years old, having been the wife of one man, 1 Tim 5:9

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.

[This would include women "ruling over men" which would also repel the unbelievers]

Thou shalt therefore send a woman, a deaconess, on account of the imaginations of the bad.

[Our further notes below specifically prohibit women deacons to minister to a man]

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:

(5) for there is no necessity that the women should be seen by the men; but only in the laying on of hands the bishop shall anoint her head.


XVI. Thou therefore, O bishop, according to that type, shalt anoint the head of those that are to be baptized, whether they be men or women, with the holy oil, for a type of the spiritual baptism. After that, either thou, O bishop, or a presbyter that is under thee,

shall in the solemn form name over them the Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit,

and shall dip them in the water;
and let a deacon receive the man,
and a deaconess the woman,

that so the conferring of this inviolable seal may take place with a becoming decency. And after that, let the bishop anoint those that are baptized with ointment.

Noting that female clergy flowed from Gosticism, Mary Ann Rossi notes that:

According to Martimort, the Didaskalia alone presented the institution of deaconesses to us as a ministry with both a pastoral and liturgical function, responding to a need that existed only in the Eastern regions (Mesopotamia, Chaldea, Persia), and it rapidly became obsolete. Everywhere else the blessing or ordination of deaconesses had a radically different significance.

From the end of the fourth century on, there is evidence in the Greek-language churches of "deaconess" as an honorific title for the wife of a deacon or priest, a widow of distinction, or the superior of a convent.

242; cf. chap. 6, 3A. Aimé Georges Martimort, Les Diaconesses. Essai Historique (Rome, 1982), now in English, Deaconesses: An Historical Study, trans. K. D. Whitehead (San Francisco, 1985).

Ken Ball added the following note:

This would certainly be seeker friendly these days. Baptisms would draw more people than any musical concerts.

The main function of the woman deacon was the pastoral care of women and here she held a parallel ministry to the male deacon, though usually under her colleague's supervision. The woman deacon instructed women catechumens for baptism, either in the church or at home. During the baptismal ceremony itself she would anoint the bodies of women with the oil of the catechumenate, as the male deacon did for the men. In those days catechumens stripped naked and oil was rubbed over the hole body, front and back, on all the limbs, even between the fingers and toes, 'leaving no part unanointed', to quote an ancient rubric. Propriety demanded that a woman deacon performed this rite for a woman catechumen, after which she would lead her, still naked, into the font and submerge her three times, while the bishop spoke the baptismal form. Later texts suggest that the bishop himself may also have descended to the font and submerged the catechumen. In any case, it was the bishop who imposed the chrism after the catechumen had been dried by the woman deacon and vested in a white robe.

XIIb. Blessed be He that cometh in the name of the Lord," being the Lord God who appeared to us, "Hosanna in the highest." (6) And after that, let the bishop partake, then the presbyters, and deacons, and (7) sub-deacons, and the readers, and the singers, and the ascetics; and then of the women, the deaconesses, and the virgins, and the widows; then the children; and then all the people in order, with reverence and godly fear, without tumult. And let the bishop give the oblation, saying, The body of Christ; and let him that receiveth say, Amen.

And let the deacon take the cup; and when he gives it, say, The blood of Christ, the cup of life; and let him that drinketh say, Amen. (1) And let the thirty-third psalm be said, while the rest are partaking; and when all, (2) both men and women, have partaken, let the deacons carry what remains into the vestry. And when the singer has done, let the deacon say:- THE BIDDING PRAYER AFTER THE PARTICIPATION.


Book VII:XXVIII. Concerning (12) the canons I the same make a constitution. A bishop blesses, but does not receive the blessing. He lays on hands, ordains, offers, receives the blessing from bishops, but by no means from presbyters. A bishop deprives any clergyman who deserves deprivation, excepting a bishop; for of himself he has not power to do that. A presbyter blesses, but does not receive the blessing; yet does he receive the blessing from the bishop or a fellow-presbyter. In like manner does he give it to a fellow-presbyter. He lays on hands, but does not ordain; he does not deprive, yet does he separate those that are under him, if they be liable to such a punishment.

A deacon does not bless, does not give the blessing, but receives it from the bishop and presbyter: he does not baptize, he does not offer; but when a bishop or presbyter has offered,

he distributes to the people, not as a priest, but as one that ministers to the priests.

But it is not lawful for any one of the other clergy to do the work of a deacon.

A deaconess does not bless, nor perform anything belonging to the office of presbyters or deacons,

but only is to keep the doors, and to minister to the presbyters in the baptizing of women, on account of decency.

A deaconess could not usher, pass the communion, make announcements or certainly could not sing which was always "preaching with a tune." She could not perform in a musical worship team or do most of those things for which modern Deaconesses are chosen. This would be consistent with Paul's demand for silence and assuming a sedentary position. If a Deaconess could not perform the singing then surely a lesser dignitary could not.

A deacon separates a sub-deacon, a reader, a singer, and a deaconess, if there be any occasion, in the absence of a presbyter. It is not lawful for a sub-deacon to separate either one of the clergy or laity; nor for a reader, nor for a singer, nor for a deaconess, for they are the ministers to the deacons.

Those who appeal to the Didascalia for authority to translate Paul's instructions about elders and deacons in order to insert the word "deaconess" will assuredly not want to obey what the Apostolic Constitutions added in Book VIII:

From The Apostolic Constitutions Book VIII

XXXII. If any one be a maintainer of harlots, let him either leave off to prostitute women, or else let him be rejected. If a harlot come, let her leave off whoredom, or else let her be rejected. If a maker of idols come, let him either leave off his employment, or let him be rejected.

If one belonging to the theatre

(1) come, whether it be man or woman, or charioteer, or dueller, or racer, or player of prizes, or Olympic gamester, or one that plays on the pipe, on the lute, or on the harp at those games, or a dancing-master or an huckster,

(2) either let them leave off their employments, or let them be rejected. If a soldier come, let him be taught to "do no injustice, to accuse no man falsely, and to be content with his allotted wages:"

(3) if he submit to those rules, let him be received; but if he refuse them, let him be rejected. He that is guilty of sins not to be named, a sodomite, an effeminate person, a magician, an enchanter, an astrologer, a diviner, an user of magic verses, a juggler, a mountebank, one that makes amulets, a charmer, a soothsayer, a fortune-teller, an observer of palmistry; he that, when he meets you, observes defects in the eyes or feet of the birds or cats, or noises, or symbolical sounds:

let these be proved for some time, for this sort of wickedness is hard to be washed away; and if they leave off those practices, let them be received; but if they will not agree to that, let them be rejected. Let a concubine, who is slave to an unbeliever, and confines herself to her master alone, be received;

(4) but if she be incontinent with others, let her be rejected. If one of the faithful hath a concubine, if she be a bond-servant, let him leave off that way, and marry in a legal manner: if she be a free woman, let him marry her in a lawful manner; if he does not, let him be rejected. Let him that follows the Gentile customs, or Jewish fables, either reform, or let him be rejected. If any one follows the sports of the theatre, their huntings, or horse-races, or combats, either let him leave them off, or let him be rejected.

Richland Hills Church of Christ and the Deaconess

The Deaconess - Rubel Shelly is

Huldah - Prophetess - Librarian?
Ezekiel 13 - Women in Ministry - Rubel Shelly
1 Timothy 3:11 - Deaconesses
Deacon in The Catholic Encyclopedia
Deaconess in the Catholic Encyclopedia
Deaconesses in the Council of Nicea A.D. 325
Women Deacons (Deaconesses) - Didascalia
Women Deacons (Deaconesses) - Tertullian
Women in Worship - Deaconesses - Lifting Holy Hands

Kenneth Sublett

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