Many Christian denominations insist that female ordination was permitted in the ancient Church. They even point to Biblical evidence of this. Specifically they rely on passages that describe female deaconesses, most notably the following verse from Paul’s Letter to the Romans:
"I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is the deaconess [servant] of the church at Cenchreae." (Romans 16:1)
This chapter of Romans goes on to mention several women who had prominent roles in the Church and presumably may have been given the title “deaconess.” Also, there is this passage from 1Timothy:
“Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain, but holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. These men must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach. Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things. Deacons must be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households. For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.” (1Tim 3:8-13) [emphasis added]
Notice that women are mentioned within the context of describing the proper traits for deacons. This may indicate that women were included in this office. These and other passages which describe an active role for women in the Church are used to bolster the claim that women were ordained in ancient Christianity.
The problem with this argument is that ecclesial terminology (the language used by the Church to describe itself) was not fully developed at this early stage. The term “deacon” or “deaconess” was simply the Greek word for “servant.” (The New Testament was written in Greek.) These women were “servants” of the Church, just as men were “servants” of the Church. It is not at all clear from the text that men and women shared the same role as “servants” in the Church – it is only clear that they were sometimes both described as “servants” using the same Greek term. Did they hold the same office? Were they “ordained” as part of the clergy? Did they serve the same functions? Not likely. Paul clearly states elsewhere that women are to be “silent in Church” (1Corinthians 14:34), so it would seem that men and women did not function in the same way as servants/deacons (whatever that term may have meant to Paul).
In the first few centuries of Christianity terminology was imprecise. For example, the term “episkopos,” which means “overseer” in Greek, eventually came to denote specifically a “bishop.” But among early Christians the Greek word “presbyteros” was also used interchangeably with “episkopos,” often with no clear distinction between the two terms. Only later did the term “presbyteros” come to mean what we now call a “priest.” In today’s Church these are two distinct offices – bishop/episkopos and priest/presbyteros - but in the early Church these two terms were often used without distinction. The offices were not clearly defined. Knowing this, it would be irresponsible of us to apply our modern understanding of the clearly distinct roles of bishops and priests to the understanding of Paul and the early Christians. When they used these terms they did not always mean exactly what we mean today. Likewise, we must not assume that our understanding of the word “deacon” is what the early Church meant when using that word.
The Catholic Church today understands the Sacrament of Holy Orders to include deacon, priest, and bishop. But the clear delineation of these three offices is something that developed over time. As with any doctrine, it often takes centuries for the Church to state clearly the truth of the Christian faith against any heretical teaching or misunderstanding. Look no further than the doctrine of the Trinity or the divinity of Jesus. The precise terminology used to describe these beliefs was hammered out over hundred of years. The same is true of deacon/deaconess and the exact role of women in the Church. Over time the Church came to use the term deacon to describe a male-only office within the Sacramental priesthood. The original Greek word was assigned a precise meaning.
This development can truly be seen when one examines the writings of the Church Fathers with regard to heretical sects that did in fact “ordain” women. For instance, this passage from Tertullian concerning heretical sects of his day:
"How wanton are the women of these heretics! They dare to teach, to dispute, to carry out exorcisms, to undertake cures, it may be even to baptize." (The Prescription of Heretics 41)
"It is not allowed to a woman to speak in the church nor to teach, baptize, offer, or claim for herself any function proper to a man, and least of all the office of priest." (On Veiling Virgins, 9.1)
Or this from St. Epiphanius:
"If women were ordained to be priests for God or to do anything canonical in the church, it should rather have been given to Mary... She was not even entrusted with baptizing... Although there is an order of deaconesses in the church, yet they are not appointed to function as priests, or for any administration of this kind, but so that provision may be made for the propriety of the female sex [especially at nude baptisms]. Whence comes the recent myth? Whence comes the pride of women or rather, the woman's insanity?" (Against Heresies 79)
Clearly the Fathers were not ignorant of the term deaconess (as found in the Bible) or of female ministry in the Church. But the Church understood this role for women as a practical matter in ministering to the needs of other women. And so, at baptisms (which at the time were done in the nude), women were not the presiding ministers, but rather they assisted the priests to avoid any occasion for sin. As customs changed, and nude baptism became less and less the norm, the need for female deaconesses in this role faded.
It is not that women were viewed as incapable of performing priestly duties; rather it was seen as the proper role for men to perform the priestly function. As St. John Chrysostom wrote concerning the duties of leadership within the Church:
"Many of the subjects could easily do the things I have mentioned, not only men, but also women. But when there is question of the headship of the church... let the entire female sex retire." (On the Priesthood 2)
So, as we saw in earlier reflections in this series, the Church has always recognized different spiritual roles for each of the sexes. Women are certainly capable of ministering within the Church, but the Sacramental priesthood is a distinctly male role. Although female deaconesses are mentioned in the Bible, they have never been considered a part of the Sacramental priesthood. As ecclesial terminology developed, and as the role of deaconess became obsolete, the Church clearly taught that only men are to be ordained into the priestly office.
We will explore more on the history of deaconesses and other ministries within the Church next time…