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12. Of Deaconesses

Antiquities of the Christian Church
CHAPTER III. Of the Ministers of the Church

12. Of Deaconesses

The office of deaconess may be regarded as substantially the same with that of female presbyters. They were early known in the church by a great variety of names, all of which, with some circumstantial variations, denoted the same class of persons. They were helpers, assistants to perform various services in the church. The following are the most frequent names by which they are distinguished, episcopae, episcopissae, antistae*, viduae*, viduatas, ministrae, ancillae*, etc. Their most frequent appellation however is that of deaconess, diaconissa, a term which does not occur in the Scriptures, though reference is undoubtedly had to the office in Rom. 16:1. Profane writers use the term diaconay* to denote both the wife of a deacon, and an officer in the church; which has been a fruitful source of controversy. The principal points of dispute which have been raised on this subject are arranged under the following heads.

  1. The terms * in many passages distinctly indicate that they were appointed to perform the same offices towards the female sex, as the deacons discharged for their sex, Rom. 16:1, 2, 12, 1 Tim. 5:3, seq. Tit. 2:3, seq. 1 Tim. 3:11. No satisfactory explanation has yet been given of the origin of this office, some suppose it to have been derived from the Jews; others, that it was peculiar to the Christian church; Paul's commendation of Phebe, Rom. 16:1, 2, however, refutes the hypothesis that they were appointed to administer exclusively to their own sex.

    Hugo Grotius, in his commentary on that passage says, that "in Judea the deacons could administer freely to the female sex. The office of deaconess was accordingly unknown among the Jews; but in Greece no man was allowed to enter the apartment of that sex, which custom gave rise to two classes of female assistants, one called * or *, who devoted their attention to the department of the women; the other, Latin diaconissa*. whom Pliny in his epistle to Trajan calls ministrae, attended to the poor and the sick of their own sex, and provided for their wants." Others give a different explanation of this matter; and indeed it must be admitted, that from the second to the fourth century the office was known in many churches in various countries, though it was never universally adopted.

    One part of their office was to give religious instruction, which undoubtedly was merely catechetical; for the language of Paul, 1 Cor. 14:34, 1 Tim. 2:8–12, forbids the supposition that they ever usurped the place of public teachers; but the primitive church at least agreed in permitting them to impart catechetical instruction to their own sex. They were in this way private catechists to female catechumens.

  2. Satisfactory evidence of the reality of this office is derived, not only from the apostles and the ancient fathers, but from pagan writers, particularly from Pliny, (see page 25 – 27,) who mentions them in his account of the persecutions of the Christians as anillace quae ministrae dicehantur. They are also mentioned by Lucian of Samosata, and Libanius. 
  3. The requisite age for this office was usually sixty years and upward, 1 Tim. 5:9; but the usage of the church in this respect was not uniform. According to some councils they were eligible to this office at forty;. some were chosen even at the early age of twenty. Their age probably varied with the particular duties to which they were appointed; matrons, venerable for age and piety, being selected for religious teachers, and younger women for almsgiving, the care of the sick, assistants at baptism, etc. – Neither were widows alone invariably appointed to this office. Tertullian however directs that they should be the widow of one man, having children. But Ignatius in his epistle to the Smyrneans salutes the virgins that are called widows; and such were not unfrequently chosen to this office, though it must be admitted that widows of virtuous character were sometimes denominated virgins*. 
  4. The ordination of deaconesses has been the subject of much dispute; but there is satisfactory evidence that they were consecrated to their office by prayer, and the imposition of hands. This form of consecration was indeed prohibited by certain councils, but even the prohibition of it is evidence that it was practised. Their consecration, however, gave them no power to perform any of the duties of the sacred office; they were merely a religious order in the church. The views of the primitive church respecting them, are well expressed by Epiphanius.*
  5. Their duties were,
    1. To take the care of the poor and the sick; this in the apostolic age was their principal office. A service so commendable that, in imitation of it, even Julian the Apostate required the same. Under this head may also be classed the duty of ministering to martyrs, and confessors in prison,
    2. To instruct catechumens, and to assist at their baptism. They instructed female candidates in the symbols, and other things preparatory to their baptism. Their attendance at the baptism of candidates of their own sex, was requisite to assist in divesting them of their raiment, to administer the unction, and to make arrangements for the administration of the ordinance with all the decency becoming a rite so sacred. 
    3. To exercise a general oversight over the female members of the church. This oversight they continued, not only in all the exercises of religious worship, of the sacrament, and of penance, but in private life, imparting needful admonition, and making due reports of them to the presbyters and bishop. 
  6. This office ceased in the church at an early period, but the precise time cannot be determined. It was first abrogated in France, by the Council of Orange, A. D. 441. But it continued for some time after this, and gradually disappeared from the Western church. In the Greek church it became extinct in the twelfth century. 

    Morinus offers several reasons for the abrogating of this office in Syria, which were briefly – that the services of these women became less important after the cessation of the agapae of the primitive church, – that the care of the sick and the poor which had devolved upon the church, was in the time of Constantine assumed by the state, – that after the introduction of infant baptism, their attendance at this ordinance became of less importance – and finally, that they, in their turn, became troublesome aspirants after the prerogatives of office; just as the abbotesses and prioresses of later times assumed all the offices of the bishop, preaching, administering the communion, absolving, excommunicating, and ordaining at pleasure; abuses which it required all the authority of councils, and of the pope himself, to rectify; in a word, the order was abolished because it was no longer necessary. Cessante causa, cessat effectus.

[There were fanatical sects even in the ancient church, such as the Montanists and Collyridians, who authorized and encouraged women to speak, dispute, and teach in public. But the sentiment of the church has uniformly been opposed to such indecencies. What impudence, says Tertullian, in these heretical women to teach, to dispute, to exorcise, and even to baptize! De Bap. 17. Let no woman speak in public, nor teach, nor baptize, nor administer the sacrament, nor arrogate to herself any office of the ministry belonging to the other sex, De Virg. vel. c. 9. Let not a woman, however learned or holy, presume to teach men in public assembly – is the injunction of the council of Carthage, IV. 99. Let all the female sex, says Chrysostom, forbear from assuming the responsibility of the sacred office, and the prerogatives of men, De Sacerdotio, L. II. The Apostolic Constitutions declare it to be a heathenish custom. Lib. 3. c. 9; and Epiphanius has a particular dissertation in which he shows at large, that no woman, from the foundation of the world, was ever ordained to offer sacrifice, or perform any solemn service of the church. – TR.

Plinii Epist. lib. x. ep. 96, (al 97): Lucian. Samosat. de morte Peregrin. c. 12: Libanii. Orat. 16. p, 452.

Tertull. de veland. Virgin, c. 9: Constit, Apost. lib. iii. c. 1: Basil. M. c. 24: Sozom. h. e. lib. vii. c. 16. Codex. Theod. Jib. xvi. tit. ii. 1. 27.

Sozom. h. 6. Jib. viii. c. 9: Concil. Chalcedon c. 14. (al 15.)

Tertull. de veland. Virgin, c 9.

Constit. Apost. lib. vi. c. 18: Epiphanins. expos, fid. c. 21: Justin. Nov. vi. c. 6: Binterim. S. 435 – 7.

Clemens Alex. Strom. 7. 395.

Constit. Apost. lib. viii. c. 19: Concil. Cbalced. c. 15: Trullan. c. 14. c. 40.

Concil. Nic. c. 19: Laodic. c. 11.

Haer. xc. c. 3.
(No tag #9 appears in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)

The custom of the times was to baptize by immersion, and in a state of nudity. Constit. Apost. lib. iii. c. 15, 16: Epiph. exposit. fid. c. 21: Justin. Nov. vi. c. 6. etc.

Constit. Apost. lib. vii. c. 28. lib. ii. c. 26, 57, 58. c. 3. 7.

Balsamon Comment, in Concil Chalced. c. 15.

Jo Morin. de sacr. ordinat. P. 11. p. 502.

(* denotes Greek text in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)


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