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Deaconess (and also deacon) comes from a Greek word diakonos (διακονος). This Greek word means a servant or helper and occurs frequently in the Christian New Testament of the Bible and is sometimes applied to Christ himself. Deaconesses trace their roots from the time of Jesus Christ through the 13th century. Evidence for the presence of ordained female deacons in the early Christian period in portions of the Eastern Church, is “clear and unambiguous" according to religious scholar Valerie Karras. Deaconesses existed from the early through the middle Byzantine periods in Constantinoplemarker and Jerusalemmarker; although the office may not have been in existence throughout the Europe churches. The female diaconate in the Byzantine Church of the early and middle Byzantine periods was recognized as one of the major orders of clergy. A modern resurgence of the office began in the early nineteenth century in both Europe and North America. Deaconesses are present in many countries of the world at the present time, but not in the Roman Catholic Church, in which it is held that ordained ministry is restricted to men.

Early Christian Period

Evidence from the early 2nd century, within a letter from Pliny of Bithynia to the emperor Trajan, attests to the role of the deaconesses. Pliny refers to “two maid-servants” as deaconesses whom he tortures to find out more about the Christians. This reinforces the existence the office of the deaconesses in parts of the eastern Roman Empire. In addition, within the Didascalia of the Apostles, further mention of the female deacons is found. Within the book, there are claims that Mary Magdalene was indeed a deaconess who also served Jesus Christ. The word diakonein translated as minister, is used in the New Testament to describe Mary Magdalene, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Susanna and others that provided for Jesus, as a service group . However, it is more commonly believed that the institution of the deaconesses began in the 3rd century around the time the Didascalia was actually written . It is the first document that specifically discusses the role of the deacons and the deaconesses in the 3rd century, in the region of Syria. In it the author asks the bishop to take the deacons and deaconesses as “workers for justice”, denoting their prominent place in the church hierarchy.

Later in the fourth century, the deaconesses were mentioned in the Council of Nicea in 325 which implies their hierarchal, consecrated status. Olympias, one of the closest friends and supporters of the archbishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, was known as a wealthy and influential deaconess during the 5th century. Even Justinian's legislation regarding clergy at the great imperial churches of Hagia Sophiamarker and Blachernaemarker in the mid-sixth century included female deacons. He also included female deacons among those whose numbers he regulated for service at the Great Church of Hagia Sophia, listing male and female deacons together, and later specifying one hundred male and forty female deacons. Furthermore, from the luminal period of the eighth century, the Barberini Codex, containing a liturgical manual, provides an consecration rite for a female deacon which is virtually identical to the ordination rite for male deacons. The deaconesses continued to exist after the middle Byzantine period predominantly in the capital city as well as many monastic communities. Evidence of continuing liturgical and pastoral roles is provided by Constantine Porphyrogenitus' 10th century manual of ceremonies (De Ceremoniis), which refers to a special area for deaconesses in the Hagia Sophia.

Pauline text

It is claimed by some that, through the Apostle Paul, some of the most prominent evidence of the leadership roles and importance of the deaconesses are found. The first clear mention is in the salutation of Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians. Later, Paul reveals the actual qualifications of these ordained females (I Tim 3:8-13).

Some see a tension between their reading of the above, in contrast to (I Tim 3:12):

It is through this verse the female leaders are reminded of their role in the diaconate and confirmed in their active participation in the offices of the church. Several deaconesses are specifically commended who took part in the Jesus movement alongside himself. Two of these women are Priscilla and Phoebe of the church in Cenchreae. He describes both of these women as ‘helpers of many’ and ‘servants of the church whose business in Rome warranted the support of all the saints’ (Rom 16:1-2). He continues to describe Phoebe, “our sister Phoebe a diakonos of the church of Cenchreae”. Then he adds “she has been a helper of many and of myself as well”. When Paul describes her role and his in the congregation, he uses the Greek verb meaning ‘to be at the head of, to rule, to direct’. In addition, Paul also speaks of other female deacons such as Mary, Tryphaena, Typhosa and Persis whom he writes ‘worked hard in the Lord’ and ‘workers in the Lord’ (v. 12). The contribution of these women is described by the same verb, χοπίάω, used to describe ‘toil’ and ‘labour’ (Matthew 11.28; John 4.6). Moreover, Paul uses this verb to describe his own work for the Lord and other apostolic labours. In addition, Mary’s labour described as ‘among you’ or ‘for your benefit’ (v. 6) suggest a recognized role of ministry within the church . The church at Philippimarker is another example of early female leadership where women both founded and controlled the church’s ministry. In Paul’s letter to the Philippian church, he addresses the three female leaders, Euodia, Syntyche and a third, for which he uses the affectionate term, syzugē to mean “mate” (Phil. 4:1-3). Through the Pauline epistles it is clear that deaconesses exercised important roles identified and recognized as central within the office of the church.

Women as Deaconesses

Two types of monastic women were typically ordained to the diaconate in the early and middle Byzantine period. Abbesses and nuns with liturgical functions, as well as the wives of men who were being raised to the episcopacy. There was a strong association of deaconess with abbess starting in the late fourth century or early fifth century in the East, and occurred in the medieval period in the Latin as well as the Byzantine Church. Principally, these women lived in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, where the office of deaconesses was most often found. There is literary evidence of a female diaconate particularly in Constantinoplemarker, and archaeological evidence of deaconesses in a number of other areas in the Empire, particularly Asia Minor. One example of a deaconess from Constantinoplemarker during the post-Constantine period was Olympias; a well educated woman who after being widowed devoted her life to the church and was ordained a deaconess. She supported the church with gifts of land, money and her wealth which was typical during this period. Macrina born in 330, the eldest sister of Basil and Gregory of Nussa, was also a well known deaconess who founded her own monastic community. Melania born in Rome in 383, also founded monastic communities and provided hospices for pilgrims. Deaconesses, like these wealthy women, were supporters of the church. In many cases they founded religious communities which welcomed all unmarried women, whether virgins or widows. Deaconesses are often mistaken as being only widows or wives of deacons; and it is sometimes described that they came out of an order of widows. Minor church offices developed about the same time as the diaconate in response to the needs of growing churches. Widows, however, were elderly women of the congregation in need of economic help and social support due to their situation. This concept is mentioned in the first Acts 6:1 and 9:39-41 and 1 Timothy 5. These widows had no specific duties compared to that of the deaconess. In the Apostolic Constitutions deaconesses were recognized as having power over the widows in the church. The widows were cautioned to obey “deaconesses with piety, reverence and fear.” In the first four centuries of the church, widows were recognized members of the church who shared some similar functions of a deaconess; yet did not share the same responsibilities or importance.


In the Byzantine church deaconesses had both liturgical and pastoral functions within the church. These women also ministered to other women in a variety of ways, including instructing catechumens, assisting with women’s baptisms and welcoming women into the church services. They also mediated between members of the church, and they cared for the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the imprisoned and the persecuted. They were sent to women who were housebound due to illness or childbirth. They performed the important sacramental duty of conducting the physical anointing and baptism of nude women. Ordination to the diaconate was also appropriate for those responsible for the women’s choir, a liturgical duty. Evidence in the Vita Sanctae Macrinae (or Life of St. Macrina) shows that Lampadia was responsible for the women's choir. Some believe that they were also presiders of the Eucharist, but this practice was always seen as aberrant and invalid.


Episcopa Theodora (Church of Santa Prassede)
examples of Christian art reflect the leadership roles of deaconesses including administering the Lord’s Supper, teaching, baptizing, caring for the physical needs of the congregation and leading the public in prayers. Women were illustrated in early Christian art in various ministerial roles; although traces of female leaders in some art was later covered up to depict men. The fresco in the Catacombs of Priscilla is one example of the conspiracy to deny women’s involvement in the Eucharist. Another example involves the chapel of St. Zeno in the Church of St. Praxidamarker in Rome. An inscription denoting a woman in the mosaic as, “Episcopa Theodora” was altered by dropping the feminine –ra ending, thereby transforming into a masculine name. Because episcopa is the feminine form of the Greek word for bishop or overseer, the inscription suggests that Theodora was a woman bishop; however these memorials to great holy women were hidden or destroyed to further glorify the role of Christian men.

Decline of the female Diaconate

After the 4th century the role of the deaconesses changed drastically. It appeared that the amount of involvement with the community and the focus on individual spirituality did not allow the deaconess to define her own office. Social attitudes promoted during the 4th and 5th centuries councils which structured the organization and defined roles within the Roman Church resulted in a patriarchal church. With Christianity's allowance as a legally valid religion by Constantine, leadership roles for women within the church diminished. During the rule of Constantine, as Christianity became more institutionalized; leadership roles for women decreased as they became subordinate to males within the church organization. It was during the fifth and sixth centuries in the western part of the Roman Empire that the role of deaconess became less favorable. The Councils of Orange in 441 and Orléans in 533 directly targeted the role of the deaconesses in the church by the male-dominated hierarchy which forbade their ordination. By at least the ninth or tenth century only nuns were ordained as female deacons. Evidence of female diaconal ordination itself is less conclusive for the ninth through early twelfth centuries than for previous eras. There is enough of a historical record to indicate that the female diaconate continued to exist as an ordained order in Constantinople and Jerusalem for most if not all of this period. In the Byzantine Church, the female diaconate decline began sometime during the iconoclastic period with the vanishing of the ordained order for women in the twelfth century. It is probable the decline started in the late seventh century with the introduction into the Byzantine Church of severe liturgical restrictions on menstruating women. By the eleventh century, the Byzantine Church had developed a theology of ritual impurity associated with menstruation and childbirth. The dichotomy between Alexandrian and Antiochian attitudes about menstruation and other bodily functions was a method of restricting leadership roles of women in the church. Dionysius and his later successor, Timothy, had similar restriction on women receiving the Eucharist or entering the church during menses. Thus, “the impurity of their menstrual periods dictated their separation from the divine and holy sanctuary." By the end of the medieval period the role of the deacons decreased into mere preparation for priesthood, with only liturgical roles. In the 12th and 13th century deaconesses have completely disappeared in the European Christian church. By the eleventh century they have ceased to exist in the eastern Mediterraneanmarker Christian churches.

Modern history

The modern deaconess movement began in Germany in 1836 when Theodor Fliedner and his wife Friedericke Munster opened the first deaconess motherhouse in Kaiserswerth on the Rhine. Fifty years later, there were over 5000 deaconesses in Europe. Dr. William Passavant, D.D is credited with bringing the first deaconesses to the United States. During a trip to Germany he came in contact with Pastor Theodore Fliedner, who had opened a hospital and training school for deaconesses in Kaiserswerth. At Passavant's request, in 1849 Fliedner brought four German deaconesses to Pittsburghmarker to work in the Pittsburgh Infirmary (now Passavant Hospital).

In 1884, John Lankenau, a business owner, brought seven sisters from Germany to run the German hospital in Philadelphia. Other deaconesses soon followed and began ministries in several United States cities with large Lutheran populations. By the 1963 formation of the Lutheran Church in America, there were three main centers for deaconess work: Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Omaha. These three sisterhoods combined and form what became the Deaconess Community of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America or ELCA. The history of the office of Deaconess in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) is thoroughly documented in the 2009 book 'In The Footsteps Of Phoebe'. LCMS Deaconesses affectionately trace their roots back to Phoebe, a women mentioned by the Apostle Paul in Romans 16.1 as a member of the church of Cenchrea (a Greek city near Corinth).

The spiritual revival in the Americas and Europe of the nineteenth century brought rapid social change. Women who began to seek new roles for themselves turned to deaconess service. In 1887, Isabella Gilmore oversaw the revival of the Deaconess Order in the Anglican Communion. In the Victorian era, for women with a calling to serve God, the role of Deaconess was socially acceptable at the time. Allowed to function as ministers or servants, women filled the traditional societal role of caregivers and teachers.



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  • Salmond, James David. By love serve: the story of the Order of Deaconesses of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand, 1962. Presbyterian Bookroom
  • Späth, A. Phöbe, die Diakonissin: vortrag, 1885. Zu beziehen durch .
  • Webber, Brenda, Beatrice Fernande. The Joy of service: life stories of racial and ethnic minority deaconesses and home missionaries, 1992. General Board of Global Ministries

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