We have finished our coverage of women deacons in the west via tomb inscriptions and a letter between a Pope and Bishop. Now, we are gonna begin tracing women deacons in church texts. The first church document I will begin with is called the “Testamentum Domini Nostri Jesu Christi,” which is Latin for “the Testament of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek provide us with a fitting description of the document:
“The TD is an early Christian church order, depending literarily on some form of Hippolytus’ ‘Apostolic Tradition,’ as well as an apocalypse and other sources. IT PURPORTS TO INCLUDE THE INSTRUCTIONS CHRIST GAVE TO THE TWELVE AFTER THE RESURRECTION, on issues of ecclesiastical order, architecture, daily prayer, and other matters…probably written in Greek in the late fourth or (as Harnack suggested) the fifth century, it survives today in Syriac, Ethiopic, and Arabic” (“Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History,” page 150).
The texts of the TD have all been translated from Latin to English, so I will only provide the English translation here at the blog site. The parts of the Testamentum that I will address here will be those rules of the TD that mention women deacons. There are other documents regarding church order. To find those, just do a google search.
Now to begin with, let’s look at Testamentum Domini 1.23:
“On the Sabbath let [the bishop] offer three breads as a symbol of the Trinity; on Sunday, four breads as an image of the Gospel.
When he offers the sacrifice, let the VEIL OF THE SANCTUARY be drawn closed, as a sign of the wandering of the ancient people, and let him offer it WITHIN THE VEIL WITH the presbyters, deacons, canonical widows (viduis canonicis), subdeacons, DEACONESSES (diaconissi), readers, [and] THOSE HAVING SPIRITUAL GIFTS (charismata).
Let the bishop stand first in the middle, and the presbyters immediately behind him on both sides; the widows (viduae) behind the presbyters who are on the left side; the deacons behind the presbyters who are on the right side; and behind these the readers; and behind the readers the subdeacons; and behind the subdeacons, the DEACONESSES (diaconissae).”
Regarding the placement of deaconesses behind the veil, Madigan and Osiek write the following:
“The deaconess, WHO HAS ALMOST NO ROLE BEYOND THAT OF GREETING WOMEN AT THE DOOR OF THE CHURCH, is brought within the veil and, though mentioned last, she experiences an ‘upward’ shift, so to speak, and is explicitly brought into the penumbra of the clergy. All are clearly separated from the laity” (152).
I desire to point out some things in rule 1.23 that we just examined. First, notice that the deaconesses are placed BEHIND THE VEIL with the bishop and presbyters. Then, as Madigan and Osiek tell us, the deaconesses are clearly separated from the laity itself. This tells us that deaconesses were considered to be part of the ordained clergy in those days. The fact that women were ordained clergy in those days attests to how women have shifted “downward” in the centuries since; in many conservative theological circles, women no longer have a place as ordained clergy.
Remember what I’ve been saying at the blog? It’s funny how most theological conservatives believe that women have NEVER been ordained; yet and still, we have not only tomb inscriptions but also church documents that tell us otherwise. It doesn’t take much to see that the Church of Christ has disintegrated from what it was in the early centuries following the ascension of Christ.
But I found something else interesting about rule 1.23: not only does it allow women behind the curtain, but also “those having spiritual gifts.” THOSE HAVING SPIRITUAL GIFTS! Did you notice that?
I point out those with spiritual gifts because today, in most churches, since we believe that everyone has a spiritual gift, we tend to let those with spiritual gifts remain among the congregation and sit out in the pews with the rest of the congregation: we don’t allow them behind the pulpit or anywhere near it. Well, in the early centuries of the church, those who had spiritual gifts, such as those of the five-fold ministry in Ephesians 4 (evangelists, teachers, pastors, prophets, apostles) were allowed to go behind the veil as ordained clergy. Teachers would have been included behind the veil, which means that, they were considered to be part of the clergy. It’s funny that many churches consider them to be part of the church staff, but not necessarily part of the ordained clergy. But I think the early church was onto something when they allowed teachers behind the veil—because teachers are the ones feeding God’s people the Word, helping them to understand what God is saying. In other words, teachers are performing a PASTORAL DUTY when they instruct from one Sunday to the next, whether they are teaching youth, men, women, toddlers, etc.!
The fact that the teachers were ordained clergy also tells us something else: that today’s women, including those of Southern Baptist circles who teach only women and children, would have been considered ORDAINED CLERGY in the days of the early church! Actually, as teachers, in some cases, women would have had a greater role as ordained clergy than that of the deaconess!
The Testamentum Domini 1.23 shows us that women were considered to be ordained clergy. The question is, if women of the third and fourth centuries were considered to be ordained, then why has the rule changed today? Why is it that women today are considered in conservative theological circles to be NON-ORDAINED by nature? To presuppose women should never be ordained then, is to go against the views of the early church.
Since we have covered all the material on women deacons in the West, we will continue our discussion of women deacons by looking at tomb inscriptions of women deacons in the East. Keep reading, and feel free to comment or ask questions.