I am told that during a very interesting and well-run radio show about deaconesses, it was agreed (or at least widely thought) that Phoebe, mentioned famously in Romans 16:1, was a deaconess. But was she?
By “deaconess” I mean the office as it was known to St. John Chrysostom in the late fourth century and mentioned in the canons of Chalcedon in 451. The office and the Greek term “deaconess” are known to have existed in Syria in the third century, but the office was entirely invisible in the Church before that. Indeed, in the first two hundred years of the Church’s history no surviving text unambiguously mentioned deaconesses or female deacons. Given that offices such as that of “widows” are early mentioned (e.g. St. Ignatius’ Epistle to the Smyrneans, 13:1, and in Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition, along with readers, subdeacons, and virgins), the complete absence of deaconesses during this time needs to be accounted for. Let us examine the question a little more closely.
St. Paul in Romans 16:1 calls Phoebe “a διάκονος/ diakonos of the church in Cenchrea”. The term διάκονος is a very general and elastic one. St. Paul used it to describe himself and Apollos (e.g. 1 Corinthians 3:5, Colossians 1:7), Paul’s helper Tychicus (Ephesians 6:21, Colossians 4:7), government officials (e.g. Romans 13:4), and even Christ Himself (Romans 15:8). The word is also used to describe waiters at a feast (John 2:9), and all Christians (John 12:26). Given such a generous use of the word, it is exegetically precarious and unsound to render it “deacon” in the absence of any evidence that the word is being used of a specific office, such as it is in Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8f, where the term is paired with that of ἐπισκοπος/ episkopos (i.e. bishop).
In the Jewish culture of Paul’s day it was not unknown for groups to bestow upon women titles of authority which were strictly honourary (such as “Mistress of the Synagogue” and “Ruler of the Synagogue”). As Charles Ryrie wrote in his book The Role of Women in the Church, “Although honorary titles of the synagogue were bestowed on women for outstanding service (usually charity), these titles had no official significance”—i.e. they did not indicate an actual office. It is quite possible that Paul’s description of Phoebe as a διάκονος and (along with his description of her as a προστάτις/ prostatis, i.e. a helper, patron, protector, ruler) was such an honourary description, designed to secure her a welcome when she visited Rome.
This becomes exegetically clearer when we examine 1 Timothy 3:1f, where Paul describes the office-bearers of the Church.
In this passage Paul describes the characteristics which must accompany office-bearers such as ἐπισκοποι and διάκονοι (i.e. bishops and deacons). The ἐπισκοπος must be above reproach and “the husband of one γυνή”—i.e. “one wife” (thus verse 2 NASB). The bishop must rule his household well, having his children in submission with all respect, “but if anyone does not know how to rule his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?” (verses 4-5). In other words, the test of his character could be seen by observing his wife and children.
After describing the characteristics that must accompany those who desired to be bishops, Paul went on to describe the characteristics of those who desired to be deacons: “Deacons similarly must be respectable, not double-tongued” (verse 8). Then in verse 11 Paul turns to the family of the deacon as he did to the family of the bishop: “Wives (Greek γυνή) similarly must be respectable, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things.”
It is clear that here Paul is here referring to the wives of deacons, and not female deacons. That is because Paul here followed the same pattern of describing the wife and family of the deacon as he did for the wife and family of the bishop, and also because in the next verse he says, “let deacons be the husband of one γυνή, ruling well their children and their own households”—in other words, the subject still under discussion was the family of the male deacon. Divorce was allowed in secular society, but it was not allowed for office-bearers in the Church. Those men had to have had only one wife, and they had to run their households well.
Thus we see that there is no evidence for the existence of female deacons in this passage or in the New Testament as a whole.
Let us also examine possible historical scenarios.
First scenario: if female deacons did not exist in the first century, then their complete absence in the Christian literature of the first two hundred years makes sense. If the office was created in the third century in Syria out of felt need to preserve female modesty, we should expect that the innovation would not become universal throughout the western churches, nor universal throughout the east. We would expect that most liturgical service books therefore would not contain rites for ordaining deaconesses. We would also expect those eastern churches which had female deacons to anachronistically read back the office into texts such as Romans 16:1. And we would expect that the new office, created to meet a particular pastoral need, would be allowed to die out when that need ceased to be or that it would morph into something entirely different, perhaps continuing for a while as an honourary title for rich women benefactors.
In fact, this is exactly what we see in the history of the Church: the office was mostly confined to Syria, Constantinople, and Asia Minor. It was unknown in western churches: the fourth century Ambrosiaster had heard of them and dismissed them as a “foolish presumption” of the Montanists, while the Council of Nimes in 396 denounced them as “unseemly”, “irregular” and “a thing unheard of until now”. We also find that most of the liturgical service books did not include rites for ordaining deaconesses—indeed, out of the approximately 2000 such books, less than 12 contained a rite for ordaining a deaconess. With the decline of adult baptism and the need to provide female ministers to assist the naked women catechumens, deaconesses were no longer needed, and the office soon became an honourary title bestowed upon women, especially in monasteries where the need for female liturgical helpers persisted in that all-female environment.
In other words, all the historical evidence suggests that the office was not apostolic, but arose in the third century as an innovation.
Second scenario: if the office were apostolic, we should expect to find them mentioned along with male deacons by the Church Fathers, citing their experience of them as they cited their experience of male deacons, widows, and virgins. As well as talking about “my fellow-servant Burrhus, your deacon”, “the deacon Zotion, whose friendship may I ever enjoy” and “Philo the deacon, a man of Cilicia” in his letters, we might have expected St. Ignatius of Antioch to have added a word about his friendship with the female deacons, if there were any at that time in Asia Minor. But in fact no such references exist in his letters.
If the apostles everywhere ordained female deacons as they did male deacons, we would also expect to find them throughout the Christian world as male deacons were found throughout the Christian world. But we have seen this was not so, and the western churches had no experience of them, so that they initially denounced them as innovations when they heard of them in the east. And even throughout the east, deaconesses were not universal. Egypt and Ethiopia, for example, did not have them.
All of this is quite remarkable if the apostles ordained female deacons from the first century, and it argues strongly that in fact the apostles did not ordain women as deacons, but only men.
But what, we may now ask, about the reference in a letter of Pliny written to his imperial boss Trajan in about 112 A.D.? In this report from the provinces, Pliny relates that he had interrogated under torture two Christian slave women “who are called ‘ministers’” (Latin quae ministrae dicebantur) to learn the truth about Christianity. The term ministrae could be his translation of the Greek word “deaconesses”, and so represent an early—and sole—instance of the term’s use in the first two hundred years. But there are problems with this identification.
For one thing, this still leaves unresolved the question of why no other instances of the term can be found in Christian literature during the first two hundred years. There is also the problem of the women being slaves. It is unlikely that slaves would be promoted to an authoritative office in the Church since as slaves they were under the authority of their pagan masters and were entirely subject to their whims. Indeed later canons (such as canon 82 of the “Apostolic canons”) expressly forbid such ordinations. We note too that in the case of Pliny’s letter we do not have a transcript of what the two unfortunate women said under torture, but only the brief summary report of a pagan bureaucrat referring in Latin to what they said in Greek.
It is more likely, therefore, that the women said that they served the church in some way (possibly visiting the sick?) and the Pliny summarized this by describing them as “ministrae”. Certainly a single sentence in Latin of what two unfortunate women said under torture forms a slender a basis on which to make sweeping assertions about there being deaconesses in the early second century—especially when absolutely all the other evidence is to the contrary.
To sum up, speaking as a parish priest would when asked a question by an inquiring parishioner: those who are scholars in academic circles live, and move, and have their being in a realm of precision, nuance, and carefully weighed evidence. Such a careful scholar will say (for example) things like “despite abounding post-war rumours of Hitler escaping from the bunker at the end of the war, and reporting citings of him in South America, all the available evidence points overwhelmingly the probable conclusion that he did not leave the bunker alive and that the contrary evidence should be disregarded”. Everyone else will simply say, “Hitler died in the bunker”.
It is the same with this (rather less lurid) question. A careful scholar will say, “It not until the fourth century that the deaconesses are definitely known to have existed in the Orthodox Church.” A parish priest on the front lines when asked by a parishioner, will simply say, “The apostles did not ordain deaconesses.”
I believe this to be the case, and will speak like busy parish priest rather than like a precise academic: Phoebe, worthy woman that she was, was not a deaconess.