The Church Messenger / February 27, 2005
Published by the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese in the
U.S.A., Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople
The Office of the Deaconess
By Very Rev. Protopresbyter Lawrence Barriger
"I commend unto you Phoebe, our sister, who is a deacon of the Church
which is in Cenchrea: that you receive her in the Lord, as becomes
saints, and that you assist her in whatsoever business she has need of
you; for she has been a helper of many, and of myself also" (Romans
Recently, the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece voted to restore, at
least in limited circumstances, the ancient Office of Deaconess. For the
present the ordinations of deaconesses are to be confined to "remote
monasteries" where there is a shortage of clergy. But it is not unlikely
that the practice and the office may spread to other areas and churches.
The office of deaconess, like that of the deacon, is certainly of Apostolic
origin. The Greek noun "diakonos" from which our word "deacon" is
taken is a gender inclusive noun that includes men and women.
The origin of the "deaconess" like that of the deacon, was undoubtedly
bound up with the idea of service in the Church in the matter of
everyday affairs. The word "diakonos" originally meant a servant who
worked out of love and not out of compulsion. It is often rendered into
English as "minister." Jesus Himself used the term to desribe His work: I
am among you as one that serves, (Luke 22:27) literally, "I am among
you as a deacon."
The first deacons were ordained with prayer and the laying on of hands
by the Apostles out of a practical necessity: "So the Twelve gathered all
the disciples together and said, "It would not be right for us to neglect
the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers,
chose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit
and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give
our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word" (Acts 6:2-4).
There can be no doubt that as the Church grew the necessity also arose
specifically for women who were also set aside with the laying on hands
and prayer for ministry in the Church.
We must remember that in antiquity, especially those places influenced
by Hellenistic culture, women of a respectable sort did not move freely
about in society. Marriage were generally arranged for social or financial
gain and women were generally confined to the gyneceum -- the
women's quarters in the house where they were expected to live quiet
and secluded lives.
The need for women to minister to other women in situations where it
would have been improper for men to do so most likely arose very early
in the Church. We know from the Gospel stories that the Lord Himself
and the disciples were ministered to by women and that at the
Crucifixion "the women who had followed Him from Galilee were
standing at a distance looking on." One of these women, Mary
Magdalene, would be among the first witnesses of the Resurrection and
indeed tradition places her in the presence of the Roman Emperor,
greeting him with a red-dyed egg and the words, "Christ is risen!"
Although the Book of Acts only speaks about the ordination of the first
male deacons -- whose role was not primarily liturgical in the early
Church but administrative -- within a short amount of time we find
women who are referred to with the same term as in St. Paul's reference
to Phoebe in the passage above -- who apparently was undergoing a
journey from Ephesus (Cenchrea was a village near that city) to Rome
and most probably was the bearer of St. Paul's letter to the Roman
In any case there are references to the office of "deaconess" through the
Letters of the New Testament. The Apostle Paul in I Timothy 3:8-12
speaks of the qualifications for deacons and then apparently the
"deaconess." This is seen if the passages are placed side by side:
Likewise must the deacons Likewise must women
be grave, be grave,
not double-tongued not slanderers,
not given to much wine sober,
not greedy of filthy lucre, GÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Â¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Âª.
holding the mystery of full of faith in all things.
the faith in a pure conscience.
The word used in verse 11 here -- gynaikas -- is often rendered into
English as "their wives" but there is no possessive pronoun in the Greek
here -- it seems that the Apostle in giving the qualifications for the men
who are deacons then lists the qualifications for the women who serve as
"deacons" as well. At least this is how St. Clement of Alexandria (+220
A.D.) interpreted this passage.
The first reference to the office of deaconess outside of the New
Testament is found in the Letter of Pliny the Younger to the Roman
Emperor Trajan. Pliny describes how he put to torture two women who
were called by the Christians "ministrae" that is the Latin translation of
"deaconesses" in order to learn more about the Christian faith. The letter
was written in 112 A.D.
The office of the deaconess was well known in the ancient Church and
many famous deaconesses are revered as saints in the Church such as St.
Gorgonia, St. Macrina, St. Melania the Younger and St. Olympias to
name only a few.
The function of these women is witnessed to in surviving writings. A
Church "Typicon" or directory of Church Order from the worship from
about the year 300 A.D. instructs:
"Wherefore, O Bishop, you shall appoint unto you laborers of
righteousness, helpers with you unto life. Those that seem good to you
out of all the people you shall choose and appoint Deacons, a man for
the doing of many things that are needed, and a woman to minister to the
women. For there are houses where you cannot send the Deacon unto
women because of the unbelievers; but you shall send the Deaconess.
For also in many other things the Office of a woman [that is, a
Deaconess] is required" (Apostolic Teachings ch. 17).
Other similar documents portray the task of the deaconess to assist in the
anointing at Baptsim and to receive the newly baptized women after they
left the baptismal font. They carried the Eucharist to private homes,
especially to other women. They instructed other women in the faith and
oversaw order in the women's side of the Church. (many of our older
readers will still recall when the Church was divided into the "men's
side and the "women's side.")
In short the deaconess was to assist the Bishop in making the mystery of
the Church present to other women as necessity and propriety dictated.
The service for the ordination of a deaconess, still found in the Orthodox
Euchologion is a true ordination and not simply a "setting apart" as is
the case with a reader or subdeacon. The deaconess is vested in the
sticharion and orarion and receives Holy Communion at the altar.
However, it must be pointed out that unlike the deacon the deaconess
did not have a liturgical function in the Church beyond assisting at
Baptism and the taking of Holy Communion to other women.
The rise of infant baptism in the Early Middle Ages was most likely one
of the contributing reasons that the office of deaconess fell into disuse.
There were no issues of propriety with the Baptism of infants. Women's
monasteries, which became widespread in the early Middle Ages,
seemingly absorbed the other functions of the deaconess, provided
places of refuge and spiritual instruction for the female members of the
Church even if they were not residents.
From time to time though women were ordained to the office but it
seems that it was often conferred as an honor or mark of respect rather
than out of any perceived necessity.
In the nineteenth century there were attempts to revive the order of
deaconess in Russia on a large scale for social work among society at
large bu they never really were able to gain support.
In modern times St. Nectarios of Aegina ordained a nun to the order of
deaconess to assist in the monastery. His actions disturbed many people
and he felt constrained to make a report to the Archbishop of Athens. He
explained that this ordination was more the setting apart of a subdeacon
to assist in the sanctuary at the Liturgy and other services due to a lack
of male clergy.
Some other hierarchs in the Greek Church followed the example of St.
Nectarious and set aside "monastic deaconesses" to serve essentially as
altar serers in monasteries where there were few male clergy. They were
also given the ministry of taking Holy Communion to sick nuns.
The decision of the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece is limited for
the time being to ordaining women to be "altar servers" in women's
monasteries. But some of the bishops present echoed the call of several
Pan-Orthodox conferences and voiced their opinions that the office of
deaconess should be restored as an office of service and ministry to the
Church in society.
It is perhaps tragic that such calls are often greeted with fear and
misunderstanding. This is most likely because the office of deacon itself
has come to be seen as a step to the priesthood and the deacon as some
sort of inferior priest. its orginal purpose as being an office of ministry to
others having been forgotten. Because of this the mere mention of the
word "deaconess" often fills people with visions of women in Byzantine
diaconal garb intoning the Great Litany, swinging censers and clamoring
for ordination to the priesthood.
Often the greatest concern of those studying for the diaconate in the
Church is the correct manner of serving liturgical services rather than
understanding the Gospel and sharing it with the members of the
Church. (In spite of the common perception that they are simply
"liturgical mechanics" it must be stated that in our diocese in particular
and in the Church in general we have been blessed with many deacons
who have undertaken the office as a serious ministry to the Church, and
we pray their numbers increase.)
In the early Church the liturgical ministry was the least important task of
the deacon. Th deacons were the servants of the bishop's ministry that
pertained to society and those in need in the Church. They were often
referred to as the Bishop's "eyes and ears" because it was they who saw
the needs to be filled and listened with compassion to those who were
It was the deacons of the Church who were especially charged with
administering charity to the poor and comforting those in persecution or
in any suffering. They did this through the administration of both money
collected by the Church and the Eucharist taken from the Liturgy.
During times of persecution the authorities often targeted deacons since
those knew them as the ministers of funds of the Church for those in
need. St. Lawrence of Rome, martyred on August 10, 256 A.D. was
brought before the magistrates and ordered to turn over the treasure of
the Roman Church. He pleaded for three days to gather it together. On
the third day be brought with him a large crowd of poor people and
informed the magistrate: "Here is the treasure of the Roman Church." St.
Lawrence was summarily sentenced to death. The magistrates feared the
love and respect that the common people had for him as their "deacon."
Imagine how the magistrates would have reacted if St. Lawrence would
have answered the question of "Show us the treasure of the Roman
Church" by putting on a demonstration of the property way to swing a
censer; the correct intonation of petitions and gave an explanation of
how the orarion is to be arranged at different points of the Liturgy. They
would most likely have laughed him out of their presence.
If the office of deacon itself was to undergo renewal as an office
primarily of ministry to others; if deacons were trained to be ministers of
the Gospel and not just liturgical functionaries, then the restoration of
the office of deaconess would be viewed not as an attempt to the
backdoor ordination of women but as a vital and needed office in the life
of the Church.
* * *