01 September 2001

women & the diaconate

What ever the ambiguities of the New Testament data may be, it is certain that by the early third century, the Church had deaconesses (or women deacons), with both liturgical and catechetical duties, and who were set apart by bishops through the laying on of hands.

How this historical evidence is interpreted and evaluated is another matter (e.g., were these women "ordained" to a clerical office like male deacons or simply "set apart" to a duty like lectors).

Two important contributions to the interpretation and evaluation of this evidence have been made in recent years. First, there is Aimé Georges Martimort's Deaconesses: An Historical Study (Ignatius 1986). A French Roman Catholic scholar, Martimort gives an extended and excellent apology for the historical credibility of the position of the Catholic church - that the deaconesses of the early Church formed a non-clerical order to assist and subordinate to male deacons, who were not permitted certain functions open to their male counterparts, and whose setting apart by the hands of the bishop did not constitute "ordination."

Second, there is Kyriaki Karidoyanes FitzGerald's Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church (Holy Cross 1999). An Eastern Orthodox theologian who has represented the Ecumenical Patriarch at conferences, FitzGerald winsomely argues that the deaconesses of the early Church were truly an ordained clerical order, coordinate with, even if subordinate to, their male counterparts, and who ministered as deacons teaching and giving pastoral care to women.

In my opinion, FitzGerald provides the stronger historical argument, even if Martimort shows that the ministry of deaconesses was more limited in some respects in comparison with male deacons. Of course, the biblical argument is primary, but these authors provide much insight into how the relevant Scriptural data was understood in the early post-apostolic Church.