Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Deacons? Deaconesses? Presbyters?

Tonight I’m back to discuss the titles that women held in the early church. Once again, just to inform the readership: this is part of the “introductory matters” I informed you about earlier today. This post will cover the titles of women, and the following post will get to work on Scriptures used to support women in church leadership.

Madigan and Osiek have this to say about the titles of “deacon” and “deaconess”:

“The earlier title is ‘DIAKONOS’ with feminine article, already used in Rom. 16:1-2 of Phoebe…the later term DIAKONISSA appears in a datable Greek text for the first time in Canon nineteen of Nicaea. It is used in the Latin translation of the Didascalia, but neither the date of the translation nor the term used in the original Greek is known. It also appears in the Apostolic Constitutions, usually thought to date to the late fourth century (AC 3.11.3, a passage independent of the Didascalia)…from then on, both terms are used in both literature and inscriptions, with no perceivable difference of time or place, and in Latin another version, DIACONA, comes into use…apart from the small samples from any particular region there is also the difficulty that a number of inscriptions abbreviate the title of office to ‘DI,’ ‘DIAK,’ or something similar, which could be either DIAKONOS or DIAKONISSA” (Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek, “Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History,” page 8).

The term for Phoebe used in Romans 16:1-2 is “diakonos.” The term in the actual Greek text is “diakonon,” but this is the accusative form of the noun “diakonos.” The accusative case “on” in the Greek shows the reader the direct object of the sentence.

Let’s read Romans 16:1-2 together:

“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant (diakonon) of the church which is at Cenchrea; that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you; for she herself has also been a helper of man, and of myself as well” (Rom. 16:1-2, NASB).

The word “diakonon” there is the direct object of the sentence. The accusative case of the word (“on”) matches the ending of her name (“Phoiben” in the Greek, ending in an “n,” called a “nun” as the Greek alphabet). Paul is commending or introducing Phoebe to the church at Rome. It is as if Paul is standing before them when this epistle is being read, and he is literally HANDING OFF PHOEBE, or bringing her up before the congregation.

Phoebe here is labeled as a “diakonos,” which matches the term used in 1 Timothy 3 to refer to the office of “deacon.” A number of other terms are used throughout early church history, such as “diakonissa,” which was a term often used in the churches of the East to refer to female deacons. Although these terms became interchangeable, I praise God that Phoebe was given the original title. It seems as if the alternative term “diakonissa” was invented to separate women and their diaconate from that of the men.

“In the literature, the same person can be called by different titles by different persons. John Chrysostom calls his aunt Sabiniana a ‘DIAKONOS,’ while Palladius calls her a ‘DIAKONISSA.’ John’s friend Olympias is consistently a ‘DIAKONOS.’ Even in some of the latest canonical texts, both terms are in use in both the West and East (e.g. the Councils of Orange, 441 CE, and of Epaon, 517 CE and the Life of Saint Radegunda, ca. 600 CE; DIACONA; epitaph of Theodora of Ticini, 539 CE; DIACONISSA; Justinian’s regulations use both terms, once switching between them in the same article, ‘Novellae 6.6). We can only conclude on the basis of present evidence that THE TERMS WERE INTERCHANGEABLE. English translations tend to be inexact about this, assuming that ‘deaconess’ is the appropriate for a woman (even sometimes for Phoebe in Rom. 16:1!). In the translations in this book, we have tried to keep the difference straight by rendering ‘deacon’ for DIAKONOS or DIACONA, ‘deaconess’ for DIAKONISSA—and noting the uncertainty for the abbreviation DIAK-“ (8).

As Madigan and Osiek report, they clearly designate the different uses of the titles and do not mingle them together. So as we go through their research, we will see times when “diakonos” is used, and times when “diakonissa” is used (as well as the abbreviations). Only the tomb inscriptions at times will be of benefit for us.

Well, what about presbyters? What I am about to write, I imagine, will shock you as much as it shocked me to read it:

“Heresiologists like Tertullian, Ephiphanius, and Augustine want to give the impression that only in these ‘deviant’ groups (such as the Montanists and Priscillianists movements) are such practices (as presbyters) done. YET THE EXISTING EVIDENCE CANNOT BE CONFINED TO MEMBERS OF THESE MOVEMENTS. Documents like the SYNOD OF DIMES and the LETTER OF GELASIUS are addressed to their own people and BISHOPS...what can be said with certainty is that THE CLAIM THAT WOMEN HAVE NEVER FUNCTIONED AS PRESBYTERS IN THE ‘ORTHODOX’ CHURCH IS SIMPLY UNTRUE” (9).

That’s right: women served as presbyters in ORTHODOX CHURCHES! It seems as if today’s church is so far removed from the churches of the second and third centuries AD; yet and still, the practice of the early church was more non-discriminatory than the Church of Christ is today! If you ask me, I think we need to go back to ancient practice! They should dictate for us what church polity is, not the other way around…
For those who want to read more information on deaconesses, I suggest the following site:

In addition, you can view some of the work in Madigan and Osiek’s book at googlebooks. Here’s the site to go to:

It should put you right up to Madigan and Osiek’s chapter on “Women Presbyters.” We will study more on women in the days to come. For now, happy reading!

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