“The following discussions in the Eastern Church from the seventh century and later all shed light on further interpretation of some of the texts presented in the previous chapter. Several, for example, witness to the belief in their day that, though deaconesses no longer functioned liturgically, they were once FULLY ORDAINED MEMBERS OF THE CLERGY and even entrusted with some kind of altar ministry” (Madigan and Osiek, “Ordained Women In The Early Church: A Documentary History. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005, page 133).
I promised you, my readership, that I would supply part five soon…and although it has taken me a while, I’m back to deliver as I promised. In this post, I will begin to tackle later documents that show the privileges women experienced in the church earlier in history—such as ordination.
The first document we will look at is the Trullan Synod, Canon 15. Madigan and Osiek tell us,
“The Trullan Council or Synod was held in 692 in the domed hall (trullus) of the imperial palace of Justinian II in Constantinople to complete the disciplinary work of two previous councils numbered fifth and sixth in 553 and 680-81, hence its secondary name of ‘Quinisext’ or ‘fifth-sixth.’ Its canons largely concerned questions of clerical life and were not accepted in the West” (134).
Let’s read what Canon 14 says:
“Let the canon of our holy God-bearing fathers be retained, namely, that a presbyter not be ordained before the age of thirty even though he be fully qualified, but let him be held back. For Our Lord Jesus Christ was baptized in the thirtieth year and began to preach. Likewise a deacon before the age of twenty-five, nor should a DEACONESS (diakonissa) BE ORDAINED (cheirotonein) before the age of forty” (134).
Notice that Canon 14 gives an age requirement for the ordination of women deacons. Notice too, that canon 14 does not “introduce” the idea of deaconess ordination, but instead, refines the position (with an age requirement). This means that the practice of ordaining women deacons had to have been a normal occurrence for quite some time prior to the publication of this canon.
The Council of Nicaea provides a reference to women’s diaconal ordination in Canon 19:
“This is what happens with deaconesses (diakonissai). Virgins were coming to the church and with encouragement from the bishop, they were maintained as dedicated to God, but in the dress of the laity. This is the way it was arranged. Having attained forty years of age, they were worthy of ORDINATION (cheirotonia) AS DEACONESSES, if they were found to be completely deserving. If any were found to be among the Paulinists, they would be dealt with the same as the men” (136).
There is an interesting point to bring out of Canon 19. In this case, unlike most, it is “virgins” who are being ordained. This is very much against the idea that a woman had to be a “wife” in order to become a deaconess. Perhaps this is why “Phoebe” is mentioned in Romans 16:1-2 as “just Phoebe”—because maybe she didn’t have a husband at all; maybe she was an unmarried woman.
Regarding Canon 19 of the Council of Nicaea, Madigan and Osiek write:
“Balsamon adds more than the Canon of Nicaea, for he goes on to specify age of ordination, bringing in this information from Canon 15 of Chalcedon. HE IMPLIES THAT THE OFFICE OF DEACONESS BEGAN WITH CONSECRATED VIRGINS AND AROSE FROM THIS GROUP. As we will see with his further comments, HE ALSO ASSUMES AN ORIGINAL SACRAMENTAL MINISTRY FOR THEM. The final comment here relates to the integration of the followers of Paul of Samosata into the catholic church: their ordinations done before reconciliation and (re) baptism in the church were not considered valid (see Canon 19 of Nicaea)” (136).
Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek mention “Canon 15 of Chalcedon” above in their comments on canon 19 of the Council of Nicaea. This canon will be dealt with next. For now, what is of note is that Balsamon assumes that the virgins have an actual “sacramental ministry.” In other words, these virgins are to perform services at the altar. This is something that church councils attempted to squelch at every turn.
Now, regarding Council 15 of the Council of Chalcedon:
“The issues concerning the present canon have received wide attention [or, are completely outdated; panteescholasan]. A deaconess (diakonissa) today is not ordained, EVEN IF SOME FEMALE ASCETICS ARE LOOSELY REFERRED TO AS DEACONESSES. For there is a canon that defines that women may not enter the sanctuary (bema). HOW COULD ONE WHO CANNOT APPROACH THE ALTAR (thysiasterion) PERFORM THE FUNCTION OF THE DEACONS? Read canons fourteen and fifteen of the Trullan Synod, which depose a DEACONESS ORDAINED before the age of forty. Doesn’t the present canon anathematize one who marries after ordination? It offends the grace of God” (136)
Madigan and Osiek write the most interesting note on this canon:
“Balsamon mixes two things here. The first comment CONFIRMS THAT ORDINATION OF DEACONESSES IS A THING OF THE PAST, though some monastic women may still bear the title in twelfth-century Constantinople, without ministerial function. The reason for women being excluded from the altar is given in his ‘Response to Mark’s Questions 35: ‘the monthly affliction.’ But the final comments refer to the Trullan Synod (692) and do presuppose the existence of deaconesses, remarking on the minimum age limit. The fifteenth canon in fact speaks only of subdeacons but then affirms that all the clergy mentioned above (presbyters, deacons, deaconesses, and subdeacons) should be deposed if ordained before the required age. Thus Balsamon witnesses to the interpretation that deaconesses were considered members of the clergy (see comment on the Trullan Synod)” (136).
First, we should ask ourselves, “Why would Canon 15 of Chalcedon even have to be produced IF women were not being ordained as deaconesses?" Notice that Balsamon then quotes the canon that forbids women at the altar, and then says, “How could one who cannot approach the altar perform the function of the deacons?” In other words, the function of the deacons, INCLUDING women, involved work at the altar. Women according to this canon cannot be deacons because they have been forbidden at the altar. The canon Balsamon quotes regarding women at the altar should make us ask the question, “If women have to be forbidden at the altar, then doesn’t this mean there was a time when they were ALLOWED at the altar?” Thus, we see that women were allowed at the altar and had sacramental ministries, something that is considered to never have even existed by many of today’s church leaders. I guess they’ve never read their history. And this is why I’m providing this information for my viewers: because they need to know that not everyone in the early church interpreted 1 Timothy 2 to mean what complementarians claim it does today.
What exactly does Balsamon’s “Response to Mark’s Questions” say? Let’s read Balsamon’s next work here:
“Question 35: the divine canons mention deaconesses (diakonissai). So we want to learn what were their liturgical roles (leitourgema).
Response: IN TIMES PAST, ORDERS (tagmata) OF DEACONESSES WERE RECOGNIZED, and THEY HAD ACCESS TO THE SANCTUARY (bema). BUT THE MONTHLY AFFLICTION BANISHED THEM FROM THE DIVINE AND HOLY SANCTUARY, In the holy church of the see of Constantinople, deaconesses were appointed to office, without any participation in the sanctuary, but attending to many church functions and directing the women’s assembly according to church procedures” (137).
According to Madigan and Osiek, “Again Balsamon implies that ORDINATION OF DEACONESSES WAS ONCE FULLY PRACTIED and that at one time THEY EXERCISED SOME KIND OF SACRAMENTAL MINISTRY, THE MEANING OF ACCESS TO THE SANCTUARY. He thinks, however, that once the liturgy was established in Constantinople in the fourth century this practice already had been terminated…Balsamon attributes the restriction of women from the sanctuary NOT TO ANY INHERENT INFERIORITY but to CULTIC PURITY CONCERNS” (137).
What kept women from performing work at the altar? It wasn’t their “inferiority” to men, or their need to “submit” or “not have authority”; instead, it was because of their monthly menstruation. However, if this becomes the reason to ban women, then there is a reason to ban certain men as well: for the Old Testament Mosaic Law is full of people who could not be serve as the priests, or in the tabernacle. Anyone who was unclean, or had any type of impurity (such as leprosy or a birth defect) could not serve in the tabernacle:
16 And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 17 “Speak to Aaron, saying: ‘No man of your descendants in succeeding generations, who has any defect, may approach to offer the bread of his God. 18 For any man who has a defect shall not approach: a man blind or lame, who has a marred face or any limb too long, 19 a man who has a broken foot or broken hand, 20 or is a hunchback or a dwarf, or a man who has a defect in his eye, or eczema or scab, or is a eunuch. 21 No man of the descendants of Aaron the priest, who has a defect, shall come near to offer the offerings made by fire to the LORD. He has a defect; he shall not come near to offer the bread of his God. 22 He may eat the bread of his God, both the most holy and the holy; 23 only he shall not go near the veil or approach the altar, because he has a defect, lest he profane My sanctuaries; for I the LORD sanctify them.’” (Leviticus 21:16-23, New King James Version)
So, if women were not allowed to serve, then men who had the above defects (such as skin diseases or broken bones, or unequal limbs) should not have been able to serve as well. If women are not to serve today, then the Levitical law should be in effect and all men with physical problems on the above list in Leviticus should be forbidden from serving at the altar. And yet, we all know that no church today will stop men with defects from teaching, preaching, pastoring, and serving Holy Communion. If you ask me, I smell a “discrimination” rat...
I have one more document to quote from, that being Matthew Blastares’s “Alphabetical Collection 11”:
“Women deacons then fulfilled a certain service AMONG THE CLERGY (kleroi), which is nearly unknown to everyone now. There are some who say that they baptized women because it was not proper for men to see undressed those being baptized who were of a certain age. Others say that THEY WERE ALLOWED TO APPROACH THE HOLY ALTAR AND PERFORM NEARLY ALL THE FUNCTIONS DONE BY MALE DEACONS. THEY WERE FORBIDDEN ACCESS AND PERFORMANCE OF THESE SERVICES BY LATER FATHERS BECAUSE OF THEIR MONTHLY FLOW THAT CANNOT BE CONTROLLED” (138).
Notice that women were allowed to work at the altar at a certain point in time, and that the only reason they were forbidden to do so involved their monthly menstruation. This should tell us, once again, that 1 Timothy 2 was not an excuse to prohibit women from serving. Even Blastares seemed puzzled that the churches disconnected women serving at the altar and 1 Timothy 2:
“But for a woman to be deacon of the holy and unbloody sacrifice does not seem plausible to me. It is not a safe policy [literally: a saving word] that those to whom it is not conceded to teach publicly should be allowed the rank of deacon, whose work is to cleanse by their teaching the unbelievers who approach for baptism” (138).
Notice that he links “teach publicly” with “rank of deacon, whose work is to cleanse by their teaching the unbelievers who approach for baptism.” Blastares didn’t understand how women couldn’t teach but yet, could baptize publicly. Evidently, the church itself didn’t make this connection. So, contrary to today’s thought about women and 1 Timothy 2 (and contra Blastares), women were still allowed to serve at the altar—even if they weren’t allowed to teach.
These later texts confirm what has already been stated—that, at one point in time, women were ordained and allowed to serve at the altar. In future posts, I will cover “women presbyters” in both the East and the West. Stay tuned…