The Case of Female Deacons: Wisdom from the Past (Church History)

Having looked at the Scriptural evidence for female deacons, let’s explore this question: What has been the role of women throughout church history?

Although the practices and traditions of previous eras aren’t formally binding on present churches, we must remember that many Christians have preceded us and thought deeply about these issues. Church tradition is wisdom from the past that can help guide us in the present.

Early Church

The evidence for female deacons in the early church is complicated. Although some early church fathers like Clement of Alexandria and Origen believed Scripture allowed women deacons, it is hard to know to how widespread the practice was. In any event, women were often deeply involved with caring for the poor, and serving and catechizing other women. Often, those who were the  “widows” of 1 Timothy 5:9-10 were installed as deaconesses.

There is also evidence of women serving as deacons as early as the second century. As Alexander Strauch writes, “The first uncontested, concrete information on women deacons is found in the Didascalia Apostolorum (“Teaching of the Apostles”). The Disdacalia is a church order manual. It is dated around A.D. 230 and was composed in northern Syria by an unknown bishop” (pg. 178, note 6). These deaconesses often served the poor and instructed other women as baptismal candidates.

Even in the so-called “Western” Church (European Church) as the centuries passed on, the presence of deaconesses seemed to increase. The Council of Nicea (325 AD) seems to recognize the presence of deaconesses. The Council of Chalcedon deceased the age limit for a deaconess, from sixty to forty, seeming to make more women available in diaconal work.

We must not read back into history what we want to find, however. Yes, women played a significant role in the first few centuries, some even holding an office called “deaconess.” Their work, however, did not seem parallel to the work of male deacons. They were more involved in serving the poor and teaching other women than actually overseeing the ministry of the diaconate.

John Calvin

The Reformation brought some new-found freedom for women in the church. According to the Protestant doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers,” women too could help build up the church. John Calvin echoed the early church in approving of deaconesses, although their work was often seen as under the authority of the (male) diaconate.

Calvin saw the care of the poor being performed by the deacons. He also believed there were two kinds of deacons:

The care of the poor was committed to deacons, of whom two classes are mentioned by Paul in the Epistle to the Romans, “He that giveth, let him do it with simplicity”; “he that showeth mercy, with cheerfulness” (Rom 12:8). As it is certain that he is here speaking of public offices of the church, there must have been two distinct classes.

For Calvin, the “deacons” are those who oversee the church’s official mercy ministry. Then there are those who are “sub-deacons”: Those who actually do the work of caring for the poor. Calvin saw the widows of 1 Timothy 5:10 fulfilling this role of “sub-deacon,” who actually does the work of caring for the poor:

If I mistake note, he is in the former clause designates deacons, who administered alms; in the latter, those who devoted themselves to the care of the poor and sick. Such were the widows of whom he makes mention in the Epistle of Timothy (1 Tim 5:10). For there was no public office which women could discharge save that of devoting themselves to the service of the poor. (Institutes, 4.3.9).

So Calvin did not believe that women could “oversee” the mercy ministry of the church. But he did believe they could serve the poor and did not hesitate from calling them “deaconesses.”

For deaconesses were appointed, not to soothe God by chantings or unintelligible murmurs, and spend the rest of their time in idleness, but to perform a public ministry of the church toward the poor, and to labor with all zeal, assiduity, and diligences, in offices of charity. (Institutes, 4.13.19).

Contemporary Church

Many prominent conservative pastors and biblical commentators hold the view that women can be deacons:

Concluding Reflections on Church History

We must accept the past as is, not as we want it to be. I think a few reflections are in order from this brief survey of church history. First, women have always played a prominent in the service of the church. So prominent was their role that many were installed into an office called “deaconess.” Yes, it’s true that often they were seen as being on the same level as male deacons. Nevertheless, early churches gave attention and even installation prayers for these women.

Second, church history is wisdom from the past, not absolute truth. We can gain guidance from them, but also need to critically evaluate what earlier Christians taught. For example, I see no warrant in Calvin’s reading of Romans 12:8 to suggest that two “classes” of deacons are implied. The text isn’t even talking about offices in the church! It is talking about each believer using his or her giftedness to build up the church. Therefore, to make women as “sub-deacons” doesn’t seem to hold up. There is also no good reason to link the “widows” of 1 Timothy 5:10 as being “deaconesses.” The context is the care and support of unmarried women. Those who are older and have a reputation for good works should be supported by the church, if they don’t have any family (1 Timothy 5:9-10). Younger widows should not be supported by the church (1 Timothy 5:11-12). The text is not speaking of a woman’s role in the church.

Finally, it seems that again, there is no good reason to divide over this issue. Each local church should have the freedom to install women as deacons…or not to. The Scriptures provide enough definitive proof either way and church history shows us that the church has historically read the Scriptures that way too! In other words, the church throughout time has operated with freedom on this issue.

The Case for Female Deacons: part one, part two, part four.

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