Women in the Church

Two Views on the Female Diaconate

Published on: November 22, 2017
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Editors’ Note: In collaboration with the St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess, we begin a short series of posts on the diaconate in the Orthodox Church derived from a Conference in Irvine, CA in October 2017The following is a double post offering two very different views of the historicity and validity of the female diaconate.

The Danger of Deaconesses

Rev. Protodeacon Brian Patrick Mitchell

For all of the research done on Orthodox deaconesses in recent decades, we still know very little about them. There are two main reasons for this: One is that their role was always very limited, so there’s just not much said about them in ancient texts, compared to what’s said about bishops, priests, or deacons.

Another reason is that their presence was also always very limited: There weren’t many of them anywhere except in some of the larger cities of the eastern empire like Constantinople. In many places, there weren’t any at all, and for a long time, there weren’t any anywhere in the Orthodox Church.

That’s something to keep in mind when we think about the place of deaconesses in Orthodox tradition: The whole Church has never had a tradition of having deaconesses, but the whole Church has had a tradition of not having them—even after having had them, in some places.

The question is, why? There are two main reasons. One is infant baptism, which eliminated the main duty of deaconesses—helping to baptize adult women. This explains why churches that had deaconesses stopped having them, but it doesn’t explain why other churches never had them. The answer to that question is that the office of deaconess was inherently problematic because it appeared to elevate women over men in the hierarchy of the Church, contrary to Christian conceptions about both the natural order and the divine economy.

Many Christians today base their thinking about gender on the words “neither male nor female” from Galatians 3:28, but until the twentieth century Christians were more likely to think of 1 Corinthians 11:3: “The head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God.”

The word for “head” in this verse is kephalē, which the Greeks also used to mean “source” or “origin.” In English, we have a similar usage in the word headwater, meaning the source of a river. That’s how St. John Chrysostom, St. Cyril of Alexander, and Theodoret of Cyrus understood the verse, as expressing sourceness (so to speak) rather than subjection (St. John’s Homily 26 on 1 Cor., St. Cyril’s Commentary on 1 Cor., and Theodoret’s Commentary on 1 Cor.). Theodoret even used the verse against the Arians and Eunomians to argue that the Son is equal to the Father because the Father is the source of the Son (Commentary on 1 Cor.).

This kind of headship is therefore a relationship of equality based on self-giving by the source and thanksgiving by the other. We see this in the Gospels, in which, between the Father and the Son, all the giving is done by the Father and all the thanking is done by the Son. We see it also in Ephesians 5, where the Apostle Paul writes of the husband giving his life for his wife and the wife submitting to her husband “as unto the Lord.”

Between the Father and the Son, this reciprocal self-giving and thanksgiving involves no subjection because of the one divine will. But among fallen men there is no such unity of will, and the only way men can stay together is for one to submit to another. Submission is thus decreed by God for our own good, as St. John Chrysostom says in his Homily 34 on 1 Corinthians:

And from the beginning He made one sovereignty only, setting the man over the woman. But after our race ran headlong into extreme disorder, He appointed other sovereignties also, those of Masters, and those of Governors, and this too for love’s sake.

The subjection of man to man and of the woman to the man was unquestioned among Christians until rather recently. It is the reason given by the Fathers for both excluding women from the priesthood and severely limiting the duties of deaconesses. It is also the reason why deaconesses weren’t found everywhere in the early Church.

In the fourth century, Western Christians were surprised to learn that there were deaconesses in the East, and four Western councils banned them (Nîmes, 396; Orange, 441; Epaone, 517; Orleans, 533). Even in the East, deaconesses remained rather rare. Already in the sixth century, we hear it said by Severus of Antioch that the order was largely honorary, there being little real need for them (Letter 62).

At some point, a rite of ordination was composed resembling that of deacons. This may actually have contributed to the order’s demise by bringing women too close to the altar for the clergy’s comfort. If ordaining a deaconess meant giving her an orar and handing her the Chalice, more and more bishops may have opted against ordaining them. They couldn’t easily argue against the order of deaconesses because of the presumption in the East (now disputed) that the order was apostolic, but they weren’t required to ordain any, and fewer and fewer did.

We can only wonder whether the order of deaconess would have evolved differently and lasted longer if it had not shared the name of “deacon.” The name was both a blessing and a curse for the order, adding to the prestige of being a deaconess but also raising questions about the standing of deaconesses vis-à-vis other clergy. Treating deaconesses like deacons exalted them above subdeacons, readers, chanters, and all laymen, which brought them into conflict with apostolic principles concerning the man and the woman. This accounts for both the outright resistance to deaconesses in the West and the waning enthusiasm for deaconesses in the East.

This also explains the current controversy over applying the name once again to women. One side covets the title of “deacon,” preferring it over “deaconess,” because it no longer believes in the subjection of women and wants to see women treated equally with men, in the Church as in the world. The other side hasn’t given up on the natural order or the divine economy and knows that if it gives up on women deacons it will be hard pressed to invent a reason not to also give up on women priests and women bishops.

We’ve seen where the push for deaconesses led in other communions, which now have female priests and female bishops. We have no reason to believe assurances that deaconesses won’t have the same effect on the Orthodox. Just as people who grow up in parishes with female readers and chanters are more likely to believe women should be deacons, so people who grow up in parishes with deaconesses will be more likely to believe women should be bishops and priests.

The Female Diaconate: The Historical Record and Modern Needs

Valerie A. Karras

This essay will combine some reflections on the potential characteristics of a restored and reimagined female diaconate, in terms of both qualifications and ministries, and the benefits that such an ordained female order would offer the Orthodox Church. It will also respond to some of the arguments being raised either against the clear historical record of an ordained female diaconate or against a modern reinstitution of that order.

First, let us review the historical qualifications and functions of female deacons. (In the canonical, hagiographical, and other literature the Greek word διάκονος – deacon – with the feminine article tends to be used more commonly than the word διακόνισσα – deaconess – for women who were actually ordained to the diaconate.) In the early and Byzantine church, women who were deacons had to be unmarried (they could be widowed, but could only have been married once) and they had to be of advanced age in order to be ordained: originally, the minimum age was 60, later lowered to 40. Even then, however, wealthy and well-connected women could be exempted, e.g., St. Olympias, who was ordained at the age of 29 by St. Gregory the Theologian and later was a close confidante and supporter of St. John Chrysostom. By contrast, married men could be ordained to the diaconate, and the canonical minimum age for male deacons was (and still is) 25.

The inclusion of female deacons in the clerical ranks of what we today call “major orders” – deacon, presbyter (priest), and bishop (or ἱεροσύνη/“priesthood” in its broad sense) – is also evidenced by substantial civil and ecclesiastical legislation over many centuries and, most significantly, by the ordination rite for the female deacon, which is preserved in a number of Byzantine-era euchologia (service books). While the distinction between major and minor orders (e.g., subdeacon and reader) was not clearly delineated in the terms used for “ordination,” it was abundantly clear in the universal distinction from early church times to the present between ordinations which occur during the eucharistic liturgy and in the sanctuary for major orders, and outside of the liturgy and outside of the sanctuary for minor orders. Female deacons were ordained in the sanctuary during the eucharistic liturgy in a rite virtually identical to the male deacon’s rite, with prayers tailored to the female diaconate, but with the use of the phrase “divine grace” (θεια χάρις) common to all three major orders, but not used for the minor orders.

Differences in diaconal functions in the past clearly mirrored the differences in social functions of women versus men in ancient societies: women operated in the private sphere of the home and were segregated and secluded from men outside their families, while men operated in the public sphere. Hence, female deacons helped baptize female but not male converts and distributed the Eucharist to women in their homes but not to men or women during the Divine Liturgy, nor did they chant petitions, read the Gospel, or preach the sermon (although women did preach – “prophesy” – in the apostolic church).

Those who claim that these differences in ministries between male and female deacons’ public functions thereby prove that female deacons were not truly ordained are making an unfounded leap of logic based on a pre-determined belief rather than an intellectually honest assessment of the historical record. The ordination rites, canonical and civil legislation of the early and Byzantine eras, and even hagiographic and epigraphical evidence manifestly demonstrate the falsity of this interpretation.

Despite the historical validity of the ordination rites, some still argue that a woman deacon should not be ordained because she would have authority over unordained men, contrary to scripture stating that women are subject to men. The virtually universal interpretation of this scripture by the Church Fathers, however, understands the domination of men over women to be a condition of the Fall—not a condition basic to our humanity as God originally intended it. St. John Chrysostom is perhaps most explicit regarding the primordial, ontological equality of the sexes, discussing the creation of man and woman in his homilies on 1 Corinthians:

Wherefore you see, she was not subjected as soon as she was made; nor, when He brought her to the man, did either she hear any such thing from God, nor did the man say any such word to her: he said indeed that she was “bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh:” (Gen. 2:23) but of rule or subjection he nowhere made mention to her (Homily on I Corinthians).

Domination and subordination, therefore, are negative consequences of the Fall which should no more be theologically enshrined as normative for male-female relationships than death or disease (other biblical consequences of the Fall) should be theologically normative for the human body.

Second, the question for us today then should not be whether we should reinstitute the female diaconate but, rather, what should the qualifications and functions of modern female deacons be? Unlike the social mores of late antiquity and the Byzantine era, in our contemporary church and society, men and women are no longer rigidly divided between the public and private spheres. Therefore, a renewed female diaconate should have both qualifications and functions that are identical to those of the male diaconate.

Ideally, both would be full-time, paid ministers in the areas of administration, education, liturgy, and pastoral care, while recognizing that female deacons can provide particular ministry to women, with the charisma of ordination. Those opposing the revival of the female diaconate today sometimes argue that, historically, female deacons were ordained only to serve at the nude baptism of adult female converts, and that they therefore are not needed today since we no longer baptize adults in the nude. In fact, however, various church manuals and other documents from early Christianity describe multiple functions for female deacons that are still needed today. Taking the Eucharist to the sick, e.g., was and is still an important part of pastoral care. Many women, whether physically ill or dealing with any of a host of emotional or spiritual issues, would feel more comfortable talking about those issues with another woman as opposed to a man, no matter how caring and responsive a priest or male deacon might be. Serving as a chaperone for female parishioners who needed to meet with a male clergyman was yet another historical function of female deacons, and is still a needed function today in certain cases.

We can do so much more as a Christian community if we do not shackle the talents of fully half of our body, if we do not ignore the spiritual gifts which the Holy Spirit bestows on women as well as men. Why should the church exist as someone paralyzed on one side when simply accessing and renewing a ministry within our own tradition could give us complete use of our full body?

For a more in-depth look at this debate, see Karras’s article “Female Deacons in the Byzantine Church”  and Mitchell’s M.Th. thesis “The Disappearing Deaconess.”

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

About authors

  • Valerie Karras

    Valerie Karras

    Scholar and former professor of church history and patristics

    Dr. Valerie Karras has earned doctorates in patristic theology from the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki and in church history from The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, and a Master of Theological Studies degree from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. In more than ...

    Read author's full bio and see articles by this author
  • Brian Patrick Mitchell

    Brian Patrick Mitchell

    Deacon of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia

    Reverend Protodeacon Brian Patrick Mitchell received his M.Th. in Orthodox Studies at the University of Winchester. He is a deacon of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.

    Read author's full bio and see articles by this author

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.


Public Orthodoxy is a publication of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University