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Wives of deacons or women deacons?

Are there deaconesses in the New Testament? Some traces of them can be discovered, especially in the Pauline epistolary literature. This articlespecifically examines the question of how the role and function ofthe women mentioned in a paragraph on deacons in 1 Timothy 3 should be understood

Straddling the first and second centuries a.d., 1 Tim 3 offers us a so-called “picture of requirements”. First of all are listed the ethical and moral qualities – which appear rather to be general and not very specific – of an episkopos (“bishop”, 2-7) who must be a person respected both in his own household and in society, then, in8-13, come the characteristics of diaconoi, “deacons”, (servants), formulated partly in parallel ; the definitions seem clear with regard to the ministries which would subsequently be called such, but they are not congruent with the functions of a leader’s, describedin 1 Timothy 3. In verse 11 of this passage special attention is paid to the women to whom it isaddressed: “The women likewise must be serious, no slanderers, but temperate (like the episkopos in verse 2), faithful in all things”. From the linguistic point of view, this brief indication is structured following the same syntactic construction as the description of the qualities required which begins in verse 2 and is repeated once again in verse 7 (“he must be”; in theGreek accusatives are followed by infinitives), in a manner that parallels verse 8 entirely: “Deacons/women likewise must be serious, no slanderers”, (the other characteristics also correspond in the content), thereby creating the impression that a further group of office-holders is being introduced.

With a new syntactic construction the following verse establishes the monogamy of male deacons: “Let deacons be the husband of one wife, and let them manage their children and their households well” (3:12), which corresponds tothe personal characteristics required for the office of episkopos (cf. verses2 and 4).In both these types of office, those who hold the office must show themselves to be, in accordance with the concept of ekklesia as a household (oikos), a head of a house capable of managing it. In fact – as the aside in verse 5 explains – if a man is incapable of keeping order in his own family, he is not considered suitable for managing the ekklesia as “the household of God” (v. 15). Therefore, since in 3:12 the focus is on the household, that is, the family of the diakonoi, verse 11 might also – according to a current interpretation – refer to their women (wives). However the text does not state explicitly that it refers to their women. The question also arises as to why women– unlike in the case of the episkopos where a similar reference is lacking – should be referred to heredirectly, moreover within the contextof the qualities required. It is hard to deduce that the demands made of the families of diakonoi are greater than those of the family of an episkopos.

It is thus far simpler to think of women diakonoi. Since in biblical Greek there is no testimony of a female linguistic form to indicate deaconesses but they are called by the male form (in this regard see Phoebe, later, in Romans 16), in order to define this group’s gender the additional word gynaikes (“women”) is required to characterize them as women deacons. Nevertheless, for men and women readers of antiquity it seems to be evident that in a chapter on diakonoi it is women who are diakonoi, so that this explanatory addition might just as well not exist.

In any case although no definitive certainty can be drawn from the text, it is nonethelesspossible to sustain a historical argument relying on other sources – both biblical and non-biblical – as external evidence. As has already been said,one can first refer to Phoebe, for whom Paul, at the beginning of the list of greetings with which he ends his Letter to the community of Rome, writes a recommendation (cf. Rom 16:1-2). Phoebe is described bythe male term – which as a terminus technicus should thus be understood as a title – of diakonos. The present participle which precedes it indicates in a linear and durative manner a function continuallyexercised in the community of Cenchreae, a port city near Corinth. Thus the male plural forms may be read in an inclusive manner too. In the letter to the community of Philippi, for example, where in 1:1 the diakonoi are addressed, this group could of course include women if one thinks, for example, of Euodiaand Syntyche, explicitly mentioned in 4:2. The New Testament does not explain exactly what the tasks of the diakoniaare. Since in Romans 12 diakonia is listed in second place among the charisms, between prophecy and teaching (v. 7), the term must allude to the task received of service to the Gospel, to its proclamation. It is in this sense that Paul describes himself as a diakonos [servant, minister] (cf. for example, 1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3:6; 6: 4; in addition, Col 1:23). The responsible involvement of women in the community’s work and in leading roles is also evidencedby the other women collaborators mentioned in Romans 16 who “work” (a terminus technicus for missionary and preaching activity) at the service of the community.

An interesting piece of information also comes from the correspondence between Pliny the Younger and the Emperor Trajan – which can be dated more or less to the period of the pastoral letters (c. 112) – which also provides us with a testimonyon the situation in Asia Minor (Bythinia lies to the north). Pliny wanted to know from “two slave women, who were called ministrae” the truth about Christianity (cf. Epistulae 10, 96, 8). The formal and official title – as a Latin equivalent of the Greek term – indicates its establishedusage in the language.

Thus, on the basis of 1 Timothy 3:11, we may think of women deacons as an institutionin the Pauline mission territory between the end of the first and the beginning of the second centuries. In the New Testament epistolary literature, however, the tasks of deacons and deaconesses, perhaps in part because of the variety of charisms and “services” (cf. 1 Cor 12:5), are only very roughly outlined and, in addition, the rigid distinctions between official “ministry” and non-official “service” have not yet been examined in depth.

However, the fact that in 1 Timothy 3:11 deaconesses are mentioned only fleetingly, in the shadow of their male colleagues in a brief indicationreflecting an existing practice, follows the line of the letter which emerges in particular in 2:11-15: “Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach” (in contrast, a special attitude to teaching is required of the episkopos in 3:2). The prescriptive statementsin 1 Tim 2 allude to a restriction of women’s teaching authority (expressly in verse 12). The inclusion of women at the end ofthe list of required qualities in3:2-11 – which probably dates back to a traditional value that had been handed down – in a compositional context that strongly reflects the author’sperspective, might explain the ambiguities of the position of women in verse 11). Beside the traditional stereotypes in normative texts however – similarly to what happens, for example, in the Roman contemporary authors –information emerges on the effective presence and authority of women: the reality of the community is more complex and inclusive than the restrictive declarations suggest at first sight. Various testimonies on the participation of women in the Pauline communities are scattered throughout the corpus Paulinum.

Finally, several clues can demonstrate concisely that in early Christianity (1 Tim 3:11) thisparticipation was recognized in the sense of women deacons. Thus, for example, John Chrysostom, who lived in the second half of the fourth century, in his homily 11 on 1 Timothy 3 when he cites verse 11 on “women”, expressly addsthat deaconesses are implied (wherever Paul uses the plural male form). A propos of this he comments: “Some have thought that this is said of women in general but it is not [so], for why should he introduce anything about women to interfere with his subject? He is speaking of those [women] who hold the rank of deaconesses (feminine participle in Greek)”. With regard to the condition of monogamy in verse 12, John Chrysostom states: “This must therefore be understood to relate to women [as] deacons/deaconesses (gynaikon diakonon)”. Here deaconesses are described, adding to the term “women” the masculine form diakonoi.However, in their commentaries Theodore of Mopsuestia and Theodoret of Cyrrhus begin with a reference to deaconesses in 1 Tim 3:11, regardless of the way in which their “service” is interpreted as regards content.

Moreover, in the Didascalia Apostolorum – a widespread ecclesiastical text of the first half of the third century (the Greek original has been lost; what has been preserved, in addition to a Syriac version, are numerous Latin fragments which date back to the end of the fourth century) – the existence of deaconesses is also documented. For example, wherever the bishop must choose a man and a woman (this in particular concerns women) and ordain them deacons (3, 12, 2), no terminological distinctions are made, otherwise, as well asthe expanded phraseswhich have so far been found in the texts, there is also the feminine variant diakonissa. The need for the “service of a ‘woman deaconess’” (ministerium mulieris diaconissae) is biblically legitimized by a reference to the women disciples who follow Jesus, whose “ministering” (diakoneo) is witnessed (the names mentioned in 3, 12 and 4 correspond to Matthew 27:56). Through a Trinitarian typology, a theological foundation was conferred upon the office with a daring image, comparing the bishop with God, the deacon with Christ (see, for example Mark 10:45), and the deaconess with the Holy Spirit (feminine in the Semitic languages, 2:26). Among the spheres of deaconesses’ activities, which in the wake of the progressive evolution are now described more clearly (particularly that of baptismal assistance and of charitable home visits) teaching is not listed: For it is not to teach that you women… are appointed” according to Didascalia 3, 6, 1, as in 1 Timothy 2:12). The Didascalia or Teaching of the Apostles was alsoaccepted in a revised form in the Apostolic Constitutions, an older collection of ecclesiastical rules (the first six of the total of eight books of the Greek Constitutiones apostolorum largely coincide with the Didascalia). As well as the Greek form diakonissa (3, 11, 3; 8, 19, 2; 8, 28, 6.8) the male form diakonos is also found, with the qualifying addition of “woman” (3, 16, 1-2; in 3, 19, 1, once again without being followed by diakonos) or with the female article (3, 16, 2.4; also in the plural: 2, 26, 3; 8, 13, 14), to indicate a deaconess. Based on an acceptance of these forms which testify on the one hand to the linguistic usage of the descriptive phrase “womendeacons”, with male nouns and feminizing additions, and on the other hand to a corresponding practice in the community, for 1 Timothy 3:11 “deaconess” is the most plausible interpretation, although the extentof the activities of deaconesses in the New Testament period is not clearly delineated, thus leaving various questions still open.

Andrea Taschl-Erber

The author

Andrea Taschl-Erber obtained a degree in 2006 at the Catholic Theological Faculty of the University of Vienna and in 2018obtained the qualification to lecture at the Department of New Testament Biblical Sciences and Biblical Theology of the University of Graz. 

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