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Deaconnesses


This Pandora's box has recently been opened as the feminist agenda tries to force itself into Orthodoxy. The call for the reinstitution of the ordination of women as deaconesses is making itself heard. Sadly, some clergy, even a few prominent bishops, are joining in favor of this "craze", perhaps because they are afraid of being labeled as misogynist by the vocal minority of women demanding "their place in the altar."

Throughout the history of the Church, monastics have always stood forward in warning of oncoming disaster and/or in defense of the purity of the faith; one only need to look at the iconoclastic controversy to see this clearly, for it was the monastics who were in the forefront in defense of icons. Although the circulation of The Veil is not as wide as publications by a number of modernist/"progressive"/radical/liberal Orthodox groups in this country, we still hope that this article will urge those who hold firm to the traditions of the Faith to come forward and join their voices to ours.

It has become very popular in recent years to look at the life of the "early Church." if we do that, certainly we will find those who were called "deaconesses." However, if we look at the early Church we also find political situations which oppressed Christianity even more than that of the tyrannical communist regimes of our own recent history. We find, in the early Church, Christians very willing to die for the faith, who stood by and encouraged their children to remain firm during their young martyrdom for Christ, who truly suffered as confessors before civil authorities; we see Christians who willingly sacrificed everything to follow Christ. Sadly, when many of those who like to cite the "early Church" raise their voice, they tend to be quite selective in which aspects of that "early Church" they would like to emulate. What we do not see in the early Church are people who are living very comfortably and making an "issue" as to what their place in the Church may be. The early Christians fell on their knees, thanking God to be in the Ark of Salvation; they were not clawing their way forward to direct it!

But, let us look at the early Church, the Church during the days of the Apostles. That is where we find the institution of the "deacons." Chapter six of the Acts of the Apostles shows clearly that the first deacons were chosen, had the laying on of hands by the Apostles, and were sent forth to serve the physical needs of the people, to distribute food and other offerings. The Biblical institution of "deacons" was to fulfill a need. Their functions relieved the Apostles (and later the priests) of certain "earthly" responsibilities so that they could give themselves "continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word," (Acts 6:4). The role of deacons serving at the altar developed later as time and need demanded, for example, the litanies during the divine services are almost always done by the deacon while the priest is saying certain "silent" prayers which are particular to the priest. However this function came in time and most certainly not at the demand of the deacons themselves wanting a more visible role in the liturgical life of the Church.

Were there "deaconesses" in the early Church? Yes. Most definitely. No one denies that. They fulfilled the female counterpart of the role filled by those very early "deacons", going into areas where men could not go to help the female Christians. Remember, in the early Church vast numbers of adults were becoming Christians and in need of baptism. Baptism was administered by full immersion of the unclothed body in water and the anointing of entire body with oil. Propriety obviously demanded that new Christians who were women could not be thus baptized by male clergy. The deaconesses therefore had this particular role of service to fulfill. In our own days, adult baptisms are done with the new Christian dressed in modest attire which can accommodate the immersion in water and the body is not entirely anointed. There is no need in our day for a "deaconess" to baptize or anoint a woman with oil for propriety sake.

Another specific function which the deaconess fulfilled in the early Church was that of visiting unmarried women who were either housebound, ill, or otherwise in need of spiritual counseling. Let us not forget that the early Church existed under Roman domination, in the milieu of Roman law. This law forbade any male from entering the home of an unmarried woman for whatever reason! To deal with this situation, the Church, in her wisdom set aside these pious, unmarried women to fulfill this obvious need which existed.

We also hear the claims that deaconesses carried the Sacrament of Holy Communion to many outside of the temple. Let us also remember that, in the early Church, all of the people took the Body and Blood of our Lord to their homes to commune during the week. The fact that records show deaconesses having a type of "ordination" was specifically to enable them to carry Holy Communion to women who were "shut-ins". Since, as we have made clear, it was forbidden for a male to go into a single woman's home, there was an obvious need for this holy service to be done by a woman, hence, the deaconess. The ordination, or blessing, was to allow her to carry Holy Communion to those women who could not attend the Liturgy.

Such circumstances and needs do not exist today.

Yet another function of the deaconesses in the early Church dealt with the matter of guarding the doors of the church and keeping non-Christian women from being present at the Divine Liturgy after the proclamation of "The doors, the doors..." Again, it would not have been considered as proper for a male to physically escort a woman out of the church at that time.

Does this situation or these proprietorial demands exist today?

The role of deaconesses in the early Church was, like the non- liturgical role of deacons, to assist the priest in areas where civil law and propriety prevented him from serving the faithful, specifically women.

The liturgical role which we see deacons fulfilling today never existed for deaconesses. There was never a need for that!

Were there deaconesses in the early Church? Yes. Were there "female deacons" serving as the male diaconate now serve? No!

Who, exactly were these deaconesses who served in the above stated ways? They were, first of all, at least over the age of forty and were either widowed or unmarried. There is no evidence anywhere that the deaconesses were married women or that they lived their own "other" worldly life outside of their duties in the Church. They did not wear "vestments" for liturgical celebration, but were clothed in a distinctive garb at all times. The celibate state of these women, their total life of commitment in the Church and their garb, together with the fact that no writings of the early Church mention "nuns" as such should bring us to a very obvious conclusion: The deaconesses of the early Church were "parochial nuns."

One of the earliest indications of "monasteries" for nuns that we can find are in the life of Saint Anthony in the third century. We see that Saint Anthony sold all his belongings and, as he went to live a life of solitude, he gave his younger sister into a house of Christian virgins. Christian widows and virgins existed since the very earliest days of the Church, long before even Saint Anthony went off into the desert. As a precursor to the monasteries for nuns which we see today throughout all Orthodox lands, the widows and virgins of the early Church served the needs which existed within the Church, often as deaconesses. As monasticism grew we find less and less mention of the term "deaconess" in the writings of the Church. Advocates for the reinstitution of deaconesses will surely cite the deaconess Olympia who so selflessly served Saint John Chrysostom. No one denies this. The need for the services of a deacones/1parochial nun still existed at that time! It is in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom that we see the words "The doors! The doors!" thus showing us that the non-baptized were ushered out of the church at that time, hence a need for deaconesses to escort the women. Adult female baptisms were still performed, hence a need for deaconesses. In the great church of Constantinople surely there was a need to visit women ill in the hospital and in other circumstances which were not considered proper for a priest to enter; hence, a need for deaconesses.

The Orthodox Church is constantly accused of holding on to customs which are antiquated, purely ornamental and of no particular function. Yet, in our own times "modernist" voices are screaming to re-institute a practice on the basis that it existed centuries ago, that it would be "pretty," and that would no longer have a function to serve.

To serve means to give of oneself. What "service" would deaconesses have today? They would be serving only their own egos, their own pride, their own selves! Priests do not need a woman to assist him in baptisms, take Communion to the sick, or guard the doors of the Church. Women already have a myriad of "functions" in the present day Orthodox Church which far surpass the 95% of men who are not ordained clergy. Those women (and men) who wish to serve God completely, under discipline, in a life of celibacy, in distinctive clothing can enter a monastery where they may live by the rules which have existed for centuries, not by their own newly fabricated ones. We cannot talk about "reinstituting the order of deaconesses," because it never became extinct; it is simply known by another name: female monastic.

This writer has not seen the women who are clamoring to be deaconesses knocking at the door of a monastery for admittance. They are not seeking a "reinstitution" of deaconesses, but rather a rewriting of the definition. This definition would include being married, serving in the altar, having a "worldly" life and job. Vestment makers would certainly profit, for they would not only be making "deaconess" vestments, but also "maternity deaconess" vestments!

The Church is one body and each part has its own function. The role of bishop, priest and deacon are male roles, not in order to subject women, but because Christ, in taking flesh, became man, thus putting the male nature in service to the Church in His image. While there is no subjection, there is order and distinctiveness in the Church just as there is in nature and in all creation: night gives way today, the sea is bound by the land. There is order and distinction in the Trinity Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Son does not seek to be the Father, nor does the Holy Spirit seek to be the Son, but they are unity in Trinity.

So also in the Church there is unity in the one body. The laity do not fulfill the distinctive role of the ordained clergy; the deacons do not seek to fulfill the role of the priest; the priest does not seek to function as a bishop. This is not subordination, but mere distinction so that each part of the body may fulfill its role for the good and well-being of the whole Body.

Those who raise a voice in favor of women being "ordained" as deaconesses are trying to disrupt the order and distinction in the Church. The resistance to allowing "female deacons" is a resistance to allowing disorder into the Church. Women are not "second class citizens" as some would define them in the Church. The Church distinguishes between clergy and laity, not between men and women. Men and women receive Holy Communion together and in the same manner, and all of the sacraments with the exception of Holy Orders are conferred on men and women alike with no distinction. Women have always occupied prime teaching positions in church communities as well as being the principal teacher and upholder of the faith in the home.

The principles of feminism have joined some Orthodox women stronger to their Roman Catholic, Protestant and Jewish counterparts than to the body of the Church. Their slogans are what has wrought such ruin in certain Protestant denominations and especially within the Episcopalian Church. Members of those denominations, waking up to see that modernism is not what guided the early Church have found the true Faith in Orthodoxy. Let us listen to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and not to the loud, discordant and sometimes very convincing voices of those who wish to destroy the order of the Body of Christ.

When we hear the cries for the "reinstitution of ordination of deaconesses," rising we must be careful not to be taken in by sentimental pleas. There is no need in the Church for such an "order," one which, as defined by those who wish to see it instituted, would be a far cry from the original role of those selfless servants of Christ. Satan fell from Heaven because he refused the order which existed; he wanted to play the role of God Himself now he has found new disciples in women who want to serve their pride and vainglory by being ordained as deacon(esses) to parade in and out of the altar and stand together with the deacons, priests and bishops.

* Much of the data and information cited in the above article are from a college paper written by Reader Joseph Hirsch IV. We thank him for sharing the result of his extensive research with us.

From The Veil, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Pascha, 1998). The Veil is a publication of the Protection of the Holy Virgin Orthodox Monastery. Free subscriptions to The Veil are available by writing or calling the convent: 2343 County Road 403, Lake George, CO 80827; 719-748-3999. Posted on 10/11/2007 with the permission of the convent.