Deacons in the Biblical Record
In the gospels the concept of ministry personified by Jesus is diakonia, a ministry of service. Central to it is the self-emptying of power.[i] “Ministry transforms leadership from power over others to empowerment of others…The abdication of power over has nothing to do with servility. Rather ministry means exercising power in a new way as a means of liberation of one another.” [ii] This meaning of diakonia is important because it embodies the essence of Jesus’ teaching ministry. Integral to this ministry is a community of mutuality and equality, where “there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and free, between men and women, you are all one in union with Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) Footwashing, as enacted by Jesus, where the roles are reversed and the honoured guest acts as the servant is a demonstration of this equality. The jug, bowl and towel are now symbols of diaconal ministry.
New converts who gathered for worship in house churches were led by both women and men. “It was recognized that different members of the community would receive different gifts and exercise different leadership functions, but in principle all members of the community had access to spiritual power and communal leadership roles.”[iii] One role was that of deacon.
Acts of the Apostles (6) offers one record of the establishment of the early church diaconate. Faced with the competing demands of the responsibilities of supporting congregations and serving the needs of the outcasts and marginalized, the elders decided to divide the work into two streams. A group of deacons was established to do the latter work. Stephen, one of them, was soon killed for his political advocacy for the poor. Another of the deacons, Phillip, became a roaming evangelist; working on the edges of church development in new cultural settings.
In Romans (16) Paul’s naming of Phoebe as deacon makes it clear that women, as weIl as men, were acting as deacons in the early church. The choice of names for these co-workers in ministry reflected the intended humbleness of the role. “Diakonos”, from which the word deacon is derived usually referred to the table servant, though it also applied to menial workers and slaves. It is the word Jesus uses to describe his own ministry. Those who are named diakonos “appear to be not only itinerant missionaries, but leaders in local congregations, [they also] served in a recognized official capacity as teachers and preachers in the Christian community.”[iv]
See presentation by Lutheran Deaconess Louise Williams on these images.
Phoebe, a deacon at Cenchrae, was a leader to the whole community.
Deacons and Deaconesses in Early Church
When Phoebe is given the title diakonos it is the same word used by Paul to describe male leaders. However, the initial egalitarian respect for the different kinds of ministry gave way to stratification, elevating the priestly role and diminishing the work of deacons. In the 4th century the word ‘deaconess’ appeared for the first time as the ministry was given a rank below that of male deacon, which is ranked below bishop and priest.[v] As the church was becoming more institutionalized its organization reflected the patriarchy of society rather than the idealism of Jesus’ egalitarian gospel.
Restrictions were placed on women deacons that only allowed them to teach other women, prepare women for baptism, visit the sick, poor, imprisoned, widows and orphans, and serve communal meals to the women. They were consecrated by the bishop and functioned as the vital connecting link between the bishop and the women of the congregation and community.
By the fourth century, Constantinople had become the centre of diaconal work. It is recorded that John Chrysostom, bishop of that city, had forty deaconesses in his church. A most famous deaconess of that period was Olympias, (see icon below) a wealthy widow, who was known throughout Constantinople for her bravery and genius.
Sometime around 600, the early diaconate, with its emphasis on service in the church and the world, began to disappear for women.The monastic life instead, became popular for women. In Constantinople, the office still formally existed until 1200.
For men, the diaconate became transitional, enroute to priesthood. Men, not called to priesthood, also had the option of joining the monastic movement, which many did.
Monasticism for women meant being cloistered, largely shut away from the world and under the control of hierarchical, usually male, authority. This was also true for male monastic orders, but more often they were allowed freedoms not permitted the women, and, had ministries of service in the world.
[i] Some of this text is drawn from The History of Diaconal Ministry, pamphlet prepared by Ministry Personnel and Education, The United Church of Canada, 1987. Click here for the full text.
[ii] Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, in Women of Spirit, ed. Rosemary Ruether and Elaine McLaughlin, Simon and Shuster, 1979, p 32.
[iii] Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, Crossroads Publishing, New York, 1983, p 286.
[iv] Women of Spirit, p 36.
[v] Alvin J. Schmidt, Veiled and Silenced: How culture shaped sexist theology (Macon Georgia Mercer University Press, 1990) 216.
[vi] Grace Jantzen, Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism, 160.