Pope Francis plans to establish a commission which will examine whether the office of diaconal ministry can be opened to women.

The early church had the office of diaconal ministry. Orthodox churches have successively reintroduced it since 2004, currently stipulated by local bishops. Also other churches, which do not have the ordination of women to the offices of pastors or priests, nevertheless have reopened the office of diaconal ministry to women. As in the case of Catholic deacons today, deacons and deaconesses in the early church assisted in carrying out baptism and conducting the Lord’s Supper but did not did not perform or conduct the sacraments themselves.

Opening of the Reformation year of remembrance in Lund/Sweden (31.10.2017)

I would like to cover some supporting thoughts on the diaconate for women, whereby I will incorporate short, adapted remarks as well as new literature to statements from my work entitled Ethics (Ethik, 2011-5th ed.; Vol. 5, pp. 346-354).This is due to the fact that I have proceeded on the idea that deaconesses in the New Testament are reported upon as a matter of course and for that reason support each church’s return to this New Testament (and therefore also early church) practice.

There has been much discussion about whether the word “women” means the wives of deacons or female deacons in I Timothy. The better arguments1 appear to me to be on the side of those who see the conditions for the office of deaconess at this point. It appears significant to me that there is no list of qualifications for the wives of elders. Why should there be more required of deacons with respect to their wives than from the elders?2 The circumstances that there is a qualifications list for deaconesses in addition to that for deacons and yet no qualifications list for female bishops and overseers does not agree with the remaining findings in the New Testament. 

It is evident from Romans 16:1 that there are female deacons. Phoebe is mentioned here as “… sister Phoebe, a servant [diakonon] of the church in Cenchrea. The addendum, “of the church in Cenchrea,” is evidence for the fact that it has to do with an office in a specific local church and not with a general service.3 As if that is not enough, Phoebe is also called a “patroness,” which again underscores her official office (Romans 16:2). The Greek word  ‘prostatis’ means “protectoress,” “patroness.”4. The corresponding male form means patron, leading one, chairperson, superior, or legal counsel.5

The early church had the office of deaconesses.6 In the Byzantine church it was a matter of course up to the 12th century and very widespread.7 In Rome, throughout Italy, and in the West it was widespread up into the 5th/6th centuries,8 and it is verified to have existed into the 12th century9 before it completely disintegrated into convents. It has been demonstrated it that it existed in the ancient Eastern churches (wrongly called “Monophysite”) into the 13th century10. The Eastern church – above all in the train of John Chrysostom, who in his commentary on the letter to the Romans regarding Romans 16:2 vehemently advocated Phoebe’s office of deaconess – defended the office longer while the Western church gave it up earlier or hindered its introduction out of fear of a call for the ordination of women as priests – Ambrose or later Erasmus of Rotterdam, for instance11.

In the early church, deaconesses were in spiritual service and were active in a church office: “The documented evidence is weighty in the direction of indicating that a deaconess labeled her staff assignment … as ecclesiastical service and saw herself as categorized among church officials.“12 For that reason they share in “the special rights of ecclesiastical individuals,“ for example the right to receive support13, received consecration,14 and for that reason had to live a celibate life.15 Deaconesses are therefore named in Canon 19 of the Council of Nicea.16

In many churches, the diaconate became a station to pass through on the way to the presbytery. This development was substantially to blame for women’s not being able to become deaconesses because this would have practically meant that they would have also been able to become elders and pastors and priests.17 It certainly makes sense to see in the office of deacon a natural, if not also necessary, step prior to the office of presbytery, thus  in line with Calvin’s view of its being a “step on the way to the dignity of the presbytery.18 However, this does not require that the office of diaconate necessarily lead to the office of presbytery and that in taking on the office of the diaconate one obligates oneself to seek the office of presbytery in the foreseeable future. Instead, a ‘permanent’ diaconate for a term of life is thinkable. Even the Catholic Church, coming out of the Second Vatican Council in 1967, reinstated the permanent diaconate as an independent management level  which can be held for a longer period of time.19 This automatically comes about in the Catholic Church when the deacon is married – whereby after all he may only marry prior to his ordination. If there is a permanent diaconate for men, why should there not be the same for women? Or stated differently: The discussion which Pope Francis initiated is also intra-Catholic and is simply a logical consequence of the Second Vatican Council and a return to the New Testament and the early church.

While the Reformed teaching on offices goes back to Calvin, and Reformers thus often refer to Calvin, Calvin’s great estimation of the office of deacons and deaconesses has almost been completely forgotten by Reformed believers.20 Calvin adopted this estimation from Martin Bucer and learned about it in practice in Strasbourg.21 For Calvin Acts 6:1-6 was not simply a report. Rather, along with the ancient church it was instruction for all times.22 In the process, Calvin also consciously redeveloped the diaconate office,23 which he had substantiated with the three New Testament texts referring to female deacons24 and which had been mostly simply ignored in the Middle Ages up to the time of the Reformation.

The Duties of the Deacons and Deaconesses – Acts 6:1-7

In order to better capture the special duties of deacons and deaconesses, Acts 6:1-625 has been drawn upon from the time of the early church up until today.26 The task of the Apostles to “give [their] attention to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4) is distinguished from the task of “[waiting] on tables.” At the same time, “this responsibility [will be turned] over to them” (Acts 6:2-3). Certain qualifications were also specified, and a selection was made. It is perfectly acceptable to see the beginning of the diaconate office at this point, although the term ‘deacon’ does not appear in Acts 6:1-6. This is due to the fact that there are also other cases where duties are discussed without the appearance of the ‘correct’ office designation. What is decisive are the duties, not the – oft changing – designation.

A comparison27 of the requisite qualities of the elders and overseers (Titus 1:6-9; I Timothy 3:2-7) and deacons (I Timothy 3:8-12)28 shows that the sole quality which elders and overseers have to have in addition to deacons is the ability to teach is that of being “able to teach“ (1 Timothy 3:2-7). It has to be an individual who “must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:9). This is also reinforced by Acts 6:1-6 where the diaconate is established so that the Apostles and the elders do not neglect “prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).

The social duties of the diaconate surely stand in the foreground. However, this does not exclude the diaconate’s having the responsibility of performing additional duties. The only deacons from Acts 6:1-6 or any of those in the New Testament about whom we learn more detailed information are Stephen (Acts 6:8-7,60,) and Philip (Acts 8:4-40; 21:8). According to these passages, both were active as evangelists.29 As a deacon, Philip conducted baptisms (Acts 8:12+16+36-39). Apparently, Philip was not able to perform the laying on of hands (comp., e.g., Hebrews 6:2) subsequent to baptism. Rather, the Apostles Peter and John came expressly to Samaria as representatives of all the Apostles (Acts 8:14-17). Additionally, it was not Philip but rather these two Apostles who carried out Simon the sorcerer’s expulsion from the community (Acts 8:18-24).

The definition of duties on the part of the deacons also becomes clear when one – with all due caution – draws upon the Old Testament Levites as illustrative – and not legislative – parallels.30 The Levites were also subject to the actual spiritual leaders of God’s people, the priests, and assisted them in worship and in the teaching of the people. They also arranged the distribution of the tithe and the care of the poor, produced contributions of music, and performed additional duties.

 


  1. See the arguments in Gerhard Lohfink. “Weibliche Diakone im Neuen Testament.“ Diakonia 11 (1980) 1: 385-400; in Gleason L. Archer. Ency­clopedia of Bible Difficulties. Zonder­van: Grand Rapids (MI), 1982, p. 414; Jennifer H.Stiefel. “Women Deacons in 1 Timothy: A Linguistic and Literary Look at ‘Women Likewise …’ (1 Timothy 3:11).” New Testament Studies 41 (1995): 442-457 and in Hermann Cremer, Julius Kögel. Biblisch-Theologisches Wörterbuch des neutestamentlichen Griechisch. F. A. Perthes: Stuttgart, 1923, p. 290. Thomas R. Schreiner. “The Valuable Ministries of Women in the Context of Male Leadership: A Survey of Old and New Testament Exam­ples and Teaching.” p. 209-224 in: John Piper, Wayne Grudem (eds.). Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Crossway Books: Wheaton (IL), 1991 names the arguments for a New Testament office for deaconesses on pp. 213-214 but follows the opposing arguments cited on pp. 219-221. 

  2. Also according to Gerhard Lohfink. “Weibliche Diakone im Neuen Testament,“ op. cit., 396. 

  3. Comp. Thomas Schirrmacher. Der Römerbrief. Bd. 2. Hänssler: Neuhausen, 1993, pp. 310-311; also according to Gerhard Lohfink. “Weibliche Diakone im Neuen Testament,“ op. cit., 390; Alfons Weiser. “Die Rolle der Frau in der urchristlichen Mission.“ pp. 158-181 in: Gerhard Dautzenberg, Helmut Merklein, Karlheinz Müller (eds.). Die Frau im Urchristentum. Quaestiones Disputatae 95. Herder: Freiburg, 1983, pp. 175-176; Gleason L. Archer. Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. op. cit., p. 414 and Hermann Cremer, Julius Kögel. Biblisch-Theologisches Wörterbuch des neutestamentlichen Griechisch, op. cit., p. 290. 

  4. Walter Bauer, Kurt und Barbara Aland. Griechisch-deutsches Wörterbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments … W. de Gruyter: Berlin, 19886, col. 1439. 

  5. G. E. Benseler, Adolf Kaegi. Benselers Griechisch-Deutsches Schulwörterbuch. B. G. Teubner: Leipzig, 192614, p. 794. 

  6. Adolf Kalsbach. Die altkirchliche Einrichtung der Diakonissen bis zu ihrem Erlöschen. Römische Quartalsschrift. Supplementheft 22. Herder: Freiburg, 1926, in its entirety, in particular pp. 63-71, Dorothea Reininger. Diakonat der Frau in der einen Kirche. Schwabenverlag: Ostfildern, 1999, pp. 76-122, whereby both authors thoroughly discuss the entire problematic issue of the relationships between widowhood, virginity, and the office of deaconesses in the early church. 

  7. Adolf Kalsbach. Die altkirchliche Einrichtung der Diakonissen, op. cit., p. 65 and often. 

  8. Comp. L. Duchesne. Christian Worship: Its Origin and Evolution: A Study of the Latin Liturgy up to the Time of Charlema­gne. Society for Promo­ting Christian Knowledge: New York, 1931, p. 342-and often. 

  9. Adolf Kalsbach. Die altkirchliche Einrichtung der Diakonissen. op. cit., pp. 79-94 in detail. 

  10. Ibid., pp. 59-60. 

  11. All according to Elsie Anne McKee. John Calvin on the Diaconate and Liturgical Almsgi­ving. Travaux d’Humanisme et Renaissance 197. Librairie Droz: Genf, 1984, p. 161-163. 

  12. Ibid., p. 65. 

  13. Ibid., p. 66. 

  14. Ibid. 

  15. Deaconesses had to remain unmarried, just as priests did. Protestants advocated this only as a possibility and not, however, as a law. This is unmistakable evidence that the office of deaconess was understood as a spiritual office. This finding, however, is not universal and stable but rather was regional and was breached at certain times. See Dorothea Reininger. Diakonat der Frau in der einen Kirche, op. cit., pp. 78-90. 

  16. Elsie Anne McKee. John Calvin on the Diaconate and Liturgical Almsgi­ving, op. cit., ibid., pp. 46-49. 

  17. Also according to Leon Morris. “Church Government,“ pp. 238-241 in: Walter Elwell (ed.). Evangelical Dictionary of Theo logy. Baker Book House: Grand Rapids (MI), 1986 (reprint of 1984 edition). 

  18. Johannes Calvin. Unterricht in der christlichen Religion. Institutio Christianae Religionis. Neukirchener Verlag: Neukirchen, 19885, p. 745 (Book, Chapters 4, 5, Section 15), comp. p. 720 (Book 4. Chapter 3, Section . Kap., Abschnitt 9). 

  19. Rudolf Weigand. “Der ständige Diakon,“ pp. 229-238 in: Joseph Listl, Hubert Müller, Heribert Schmitz (eds.). Handbuch des katholischen Kirchenrechts, F. Pustet: Regensburg, 1983, here p. 229; Kongregation für das katholische Bildungswesen, Kongregation für den Klerus. Grundnormen für die Ausbildung der Ständigen Diakone, Direktorium für den Dienst und das Leben der Ständigen Diakone: February 22, 1998. Verlautbarungen des Apostolischen Stuhls 132. Sekretariat der Deutschen Bischofskonfe­renz: Bonn, 1998. in particular pp. 7+14; comp. on the ancient church pp. 12-16. 

  20. Also according to Elsie Anne McKee in particular. John Calvin on the Diaconate and Liturgical Almsgiving. op. cit., p. 13; comp. for instance Jean Calvin. Calvin-Studienausgabe. Bd. 2: Gestalt und Ordnung der Kirche. Neukirchener Verlag: Neukirchen-Vluyn, 1997, pp. 257-259 (from Ordonnances ecclésiastiqes [1541/1561] pp. 227-279). 

  21. Elsie Anne McKee. John Calvin on the Diaconate and Liturgical Almsgiving. op. cit., pp. 129+153; comp. the reference to Bucer’s document on p. 179‚ Von der Waren Seelsorge from 1538. In addition to Bucer, McKee, ibid. p. 153, mentions John Chrysostom as the most influential stimulus for Calvin’s thinking on the deaconate. According to ibid., pp. 185-204, in the train of Bucer, Romans 12:8 was taken as the most important text regarding the office of the deaconate; however, hardly any exegete refers to it any more nowadays. 

  22. Elsie Anne McKee. John Calvin on the Diaconate and Liturgical Almsgiving, op. cit., p. 156. 

  23. According to, in particular,ibid., pp. 213-217. 

  24. Ibid., pp. 205-210. 

  25. Comp. Elsie Anne McKee on the history of exegesis of Acts 6:1-6. John Calvin on the Diaconate and Liturgical Almsgiving. op. cit., pp 139-158 (up to the 17th centurty) and Heinz-Werner Neudorfer. Der Stephanuskreis in der Forschungsgeschichte seit F. C. Baur. Brunnen: Gießen, 1983 (for more modern times). 

  26. Ibid., Neudorfer, pp. 108-126 + 242-249 + 340-341 summarizes well just how Acts 6 has been understood by exegetes and which functions were associated with the office then (pay attention to the neatly arranged table, ibid., pp. 124-125). 

  27. Comp. the tables in William Hendriksen. I & II Timothy & Titus. New Testament Commentary. Banner of Truth Trust: Edinburgh 1976 (reprint of 1960/1957), pp. 347-349. 

  28. Comp. Elsie Anne McKee on the history of exegesis of the text. John Calvin on the Diaconate and Liturgical Almsgiving. op. cit., p. 149-184. 

  29. This is emphasized by Hermann Cremer, Julius Kögel. Biblisch-Theologisches Wörterbuch des neutestamentlichen Griechisch. op. cit., p. 289-290. 

  30. On adopting the three levels of deacon, presbyter, bishop from the Old Testament levels of Levites, priests, and high priestly comp. Elsie Anne McKee. John Calvin on the Diaconate and Liturgical Almsgiving, op. cit., p. 168 (generally) and p. 142 (in the case of Isidore of Seville and Gratian) and p. 183-304 in: Kenneth E. Kirk. The Apostolic Ministry: Essays on the History and the Doctrine of Episcopacy. Hodder & Stoughton: London, 1957 (expanded reprint of 1946 edition), p. 246, according to which Clement of Alexandria (1. Klemensbrief xl-xli) describes the Lord’s Supper with Old Testament terms: The high priest was given the liturgy, the priests their proper place, and the Levites their special ministrations. 

 

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