Monday, August 20, 2007

Organization place of women in the Early Church

1. Introduction
History has always been a selective reading, which revolved around men. Women were not given deserving importance and were often neglected. At the same time, the fact that women have always been present in the history and played a major role in shaping the society can not be forgotten. The ministries of women were very prominent in the church from the beginning. Many were influential to such an extend even to influence the doctrines of the church and formulating them. “All Christian history – and particularly in the first century shows those women have played a considerable part in missionary work, in worship and in teaching. But, the difficulty in it is to know about women’s status in ministry of those days”.[1] Discussions about women in the holy orders and the admission of women to the priest hood are very lively nowadays. In order to understand the organizational participation of women in the church (especially early church) , a historical assessment is inevitable. Here is an attempt to analyse the organizational place for women in the early church from a historical point of view, paying special attention to Deaconesses and widows.
1.2. Widows and Deaconess
As the church became more established, more institutional and personal work for moral and social welfare was undertaken by the church to meet the changing needs of the poor, the deprived, the old and those away from home. In order to meet the needs of the people and the church, voluntary initiation was taken by the women. Thus in the early church, there were three recognized orders of women – widows, virgins and Deaconess. Of these three orders, the Deaconess order seems to have enjoyed a superior status. Widows and virgins were regarded as dedicated persons, called especially to the work of prayer[2]. In some of the non Biblical documents, it is not clear whether the distinction was mainly between widows, deaconess, and virgins. In the 2nd century literature except in the letter of Pliny, there is no reference to deaconesses, but widows are mentioned.

Among the widows, there were some ‘appointed ones, who formed the ‘order of widows’. Normally widows were accepted to the office at least after 50 years old in order to guarantee against remarriage. Widows were generally aged women, forming to a larger group. A widow had to be distinguished by her mildness and evenness of temper. She should be with out malice and anger, not talkative or quarrelsome. If she was questioned, she should refrain herself from answering unless the question was about faith and morals. They had at least two things in common to the nuns of the following century: The vow of continence and the duty of prayer. The essential task of the widow was prayer. Widows had to be obedient to the bishop and deacon, and they couldn’t take any initiative with out their permission. Didascalia make the point clear that it is forbidden for a widow to baptize. The reason for this rule might be the attempt by at least some of the widows to baptize.
2.1. Church fathers about widows
Ignatius of Antioch and The shepherd of Hermes refer to widows as objects not as subjects. Clement of Alexandria considered widows to be one among the offices of the church and writes- “Innumerable commands such as these are written in the holy Bible and directed to chosen persons, some to presbyters, some to Bishops, some to deacons, others to widows.”[3] Origen commented that - ‘apart from the fifth petition of the Lords prayer: forgive us our trespasses, there is the debt of the widow, who is provided for by the church; the debt of the deacon; that of the priest …and that of the bishop’. Origen again in his homily on Luke writes that second marriage shut off access to ecclesiastical dignities: neither bishop, nor presbyter, nor the deacon, nor the widow may be married twice. In Didascala apostolorum, duties of bishop, widows are mentioned more than once. All these evidences points towards the existence of an ecclesiastical office of widows in the early church. At the same time, Alexandrians were not interested in widows or in senior women for themselves. [4]
In the fourth century, the order of widows was abandoned while deaconesses remained[5].

The order of Deaconess facilitated women, a significant place in the church in its ecclesiastical affairs. Originally the chief work of Deaconesses was thought to be nursing, both in institutions and domiciliary.
Also the deaconesses intended to be the leader of women’s work in the congregation, inspiring and encouraging the women members of the churches to work with Christian concern and charity. diakonissa (diakonissa) was the word used for a deaconess.
The function of deaconess dates from the earliest period of the church, though the technical term in the female form deaconess 'diakonissa' evolved in the later period.
3.1. Biblical background
Majority of the New Testament scholars are of the opinion that the early church was predominantly strengthened by the worship, witness, fellowship and services of the deaconesses. History shows that in these, the deaconesses have succeeded in a very distinguished way. They therefore belong to the apostolic succession. In the biblical account, Phoebe was a deaconess in the church of Cencherea (Rom.16:1). She was a helper of Paul and therefore might have had an important social position. Deaconesses are referred to in Rom16:12 and I Timoty3:11. There are indications about Dorcas (Act9:36) as well. However the Biblical evidences are not sufficient enough to conclude how clearly the ecclesiastical office of the deaconess developed.
3.2. Historical Background 200 AD - 600 AD
The earliest non biblical reference to women functionaries in the church is found in a letter of Pliny, the younger governor in Bithynia, to the Roman emperor Trojan about 112 AD. The letter uses the term ministrae in Latin, which is the translation of the Greek word for Deaconess[6]. The council of Nicea (325) speaks only of deaconesses. The council of Orleans (533) speaks of widows who are called deaconesses.
Ignatius in his letter to Smyrna speaks of virgins who are called deaconess. Apart from the bit of information like that of the letter of Pliny the younger, the origin and early history of the office of the deaconesses are veiled in obscurity in the second century.
3.3. Eastern Church
It is quite certain that from the 3rd century onwards in the eastern church, Order of women known as ‘deaconess’ existed, who filled the position similar to the deacon. One doubt that prevails is whether there was an official diaconate for women or not. Church fathers like Clement and Origon discusses this matter by referring to the scriptural passages alone where deaconesses are thought to be mentioned. But they keep silent about the office of the deaconess as existent in their times[7].
The seclusion of women in the east made it necessary for them to be ministered to by members of the same sex. From the 4th Century onwards, Bishops in the Eastern Church ordained deaconesses by the laying on of hands.
The Syrian Didascalia of 3rd Century provides the selection and ordination of women by the imposition of hands and the use of a prayer which is widely for the consecration of deaconess.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, women were ordained deaconess during 3rd and 9th century. Many of the deaconesses taught in schools. They were reputed for their scholarship, piety and for their Christian witness in even martyrdom[8].

3.4. Western Church
While deaconesses were found through out in the 4th century, in the western church they were very less in degree. Several documents of canonical legislation and other records reveal their existence in the western church. But western church gave less recognition for their services. Forms of their ordination are found in Italy and Gaul, but there are also canons of councils forbidding them to be ordained. The council of Orange (441), Epaone (517) and Orleans (535) are examples. This clearly shows that deaconesses were ordained in the early period.
The two major attitudes of the time were either to recognize the deaconess and give her definite parts in the administration of the sacraments and service of the church or to ignore her, her position and limiting her to the minimum share of a woman in the church service.
Order of deaconess is recognized in the council of Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451) and is frequently mentioned in the writings of Chrysostom, Epiphanius, Basil and majority of the fathers of 4th and 5th century. Epiphanius says that even though they were ordained by the laying of hands like the deacon, they were women elders and not priestess. Their mission was not to interfere in the functions of the priest, but simply to perform certain offices in connection with women[9].

3.5. Age and Marital Status
The age for receiving one into the office of the deaconess was fixed as sixty. But latter it was changed to twenty. No married women were eligible to the office. In case a deaconess gets marry, she and her husband were to be cursed. If she gets married or allows herself to be seduced, according to the Justinian Code, penalty is death and the man suffered death by sword.

3.6. Functions of Deaconesses:
In parish work: Sharing the leadership of non-sacramental worship, (They usually assisted the baptism of women, especially in connection with the anointing of the body which in the Eastern preceded baptism by immersion)
· Home and institutional visiting (Particularly women), counseling and pastoral care were also part of ministry. They even carried the reserved sacraments to the sick.
· They acted as door-keepers in the church. They received the women as they enter the church and accompanied them to their seats.
· They instructed the catechumens and helped in religious education in day and Sunday school, and in adult Christian education.
· They also initiated social welfare such as the work done in the relief of needy, family welfare, court and prison work; among deprived children, young people in trouble and the aged.
· In home mission work, among minority and immigrant groups, in remote or thinly populated areas; in change of small parishes.
· Carried out church extension work in new towns and newly developing areas.
· In overseas mission, in nursing, teaching, Christian education and evangelistic work and especially in developing women’s leadership.
· In chaplaincy work in school, colleges and universities; in industry and the armed forces, in prison and hospitals.
· In theological education, they opened deaconess and lay training colleges and institutes and in specialist religious instruction in schools and teacher training colleges.[10]
3.7. Decline
Gradually abuses became prevalent against Deaconess, which led to the suppression of their ministry. There was a general refusal towards the administering of communion by women (deaconesses). More over West did not accept the diaconate of women. Drastic decrease in the number of women candidates for adult baptism also contributed to the decrease of the necessity of their ministry. Another factor lead to the declaim is the growth of monasteries.
After 6th Century very few references to deaconesses are found. By AD 1200, deaconess’s work seems to have stopped. In the middle age the order fell into abeyance, both in Eastern and Western church. Gradually the nuns took over the place of deaconesses. The last reference known to a deaconess in early Christianity is an obscure one defined in the 12th Century.

3.8. Reviving Attempts
In the Reformation Period nunnery got prominence. Luther vehemently opposed nunneries and saw nunnery as an escape from the responsibilities of earthly vocation. Thus deaconess as an office was not received in the day of reformation.
19th Century
Attempts to revive the order of deaconess have occurred in the 19th century. It resulted in three types of order of deaconess. 1. German deaconesses were primarily trained to be nurses. They belong to the great mother houses, stemming from the revival works of deaconess in early 19th Century. 2. Anglican Deaconesses were mainly trained theological and their ministry was mainly in teaching ministry, usually in the parishes. 3. Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian deaconess worked with in the parish mainly in the teaching of women and children under the direction of the ministry.
3.9. Deaconesses in India
It was in 1896 Church of England sent deaconesses to India. Sisters from Germany and Sweden came to work in Tamil Lutheran Church in south India. In the Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Church Deaconesses work was started by Rt. Rev. Johnes Sandegam. Though there were German and Swedesh deaconess, he looked for Indian women. First Indian deaconess was Lydia-Vedanayakam, a high-school headmistress from Tajaore. In May 1939 a small home was opened in Tanjaore. Lydia was consecrated as first Indian deaconess on January 11 - 1945, in the New Jerusalem Church Tranquebar. Between 1945- 1965, eleven more were trained and consecrated[11].
Sister Carol and sister Bertha became the first elder sisters in the CSI along with 27 in 1947. In 1958 there were 63, and in 1975 there were 81 deaconesses in the CSI from all the 17 dioceses, who engaged in pastoral, educational, medical and social work[12]
4. Conclusion
Revolutionary changes in the socio-political life of women in India naturally raise the question of the place of women in the church and in the religious spheres. Right from the beginning of Christianity, women were in the fore front of the ecclesiastical affairs. One thing that is to be noticed is that, even though there are some evidences of women participation in the early church such as widows and deaconess, they were strictly under the patriarchal-hierarchical structures that never bestowed autonomy or freedom in sacraments or governance. They were always controlled and subdued by the male Episcopal order. Even though the widows were given responsibilities or the deaconesses were ordained, they were not welcomed to preside any sacraments. Epiphanius makes it clear that eventhough a woman is ordained by the laying of the hands, she is never a priestess, rather be a woman elder. It is to be noted that Widows were forbidden form baptizing by law.
Viewing the ongoing debates on women’s ordination in the majority of the traditional churches from the historical point of view, which have been passed on through the generation, we may not wonder. Organizational participation of women is to be taken seriously. As the primary step for the same, people should be concentized, providing edification in gender relationships.



· Ady,CeciliaM. The Role of Women in the Church. New York: Fortress press, 1948.
· Bettenson, Henry ed., Documents of the Christian Church .London and New York, 1947.
· Bliss, Kathleen. The service and Status of Women in Churches.1952.
· Danielou, Jean. The Ministry of Women in the Early Church. New York: Faith Press, 1961.
· Foot, Light. The Apostolic Fathers –Clement of Alexandria, Ignatius, Polycarp .London: Macmillian & Co, 1890.
· Graham, Carol. T. The church of South India- A further stage in development .Brighton: southern Publishing Co, 1956.
· Gryson, Roger. The Ministry of women in the Early Church. Translated by jean Laporte and Mary Louise Hall. Collegeville: The Liturgical press, 1976.
· Robinson, Cecilla. The Ministry of Deaconess .London: 1878.
· Wang, Lily Kuo, “Ecclesiology and Women: A View from Taiwan” in We Dare to Dream: Doing Theology as Asian Women, ed., Virginia Fabella M.M. and Sun Ai Lee Park .Hong kong: Asian Women’s Resource Center for Culture and Theology, 1989.
· Weiser, FS. Love’s Response, A Story of Lutheran Deaconess in America. Philadelphia: The Board of Publication of the United Lutheran Church in America, 1962.

o The Deaconess-A service of Women in the World of Today .Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1966.
o TELC Deaconess board- Short report of the time of the consultation with the mission, 1976.

[1] Jean Danielou, The Ministry of Women in the Early Church. (New York: Faith Press, 1961), 7.
[2] CeciliaM Ady, The Role of Women in the Church(New York: Fortress press,1948),12-13.
[3] Roger Gryson , The Ministry of women in the Early Church. Translated by jean Laporte and Mary Louise Hall (Collegeville: The Liturgical press, 1976), 25.
[4] Ibid., 29.
[5] Light foot, The Apostolic Fathers –Clement of Alexandria, Ignatius, Polycarp (London: Macmillian & Co,1890),12-13.
[6] Henry Bettenson ed., Documents of the Christian Church (London and New York, 1947),5-7.
[7] FS Weiser, Love’s Response, A Story of Lutheran Deaconess in America (Philadelphia: The Board of Publication of the United Lutheran Church in America, 1962),
[8] Kathleen Bliss, The service and Status of Women in Churches(1952),14-15.
[9] Cecilla Robinson, The Ministry of Deaconess (London: 1878),197.
[10] The Deaconess-A service of Women in the World of Today (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1966), 45, 50-52.
[11] TELC Deaconess board- Short report of the time of the consultation with the mission 17.9.1976
[12] Carol T Graham, The church of South India- A further stage in development (Brighton: southern Publishing Co, 1956

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