The Saints
The Role of Women in the First Century Church as a Model for Today 
Part 2: Orders for Ordinary Christian Women
By Presbytera Valerie Bockman

          This is the second in a series dealing with women in the Church. Part 1 dealt with women saints of the first century, and their extraordinary activities as role models for today's Orthodox women. Having been edified by the lives of the women saints, we will now examine the various orders for "ordinary" Christian women, including the order of widows, the order of virgins, and the office of deaconess.
The deaconess ministered to women in their houses and assisted at baptisms of women. Later the deaconess kept order in the church; cared for the women sick and poor; was present when bishops, priests, or deacons spoke with women; and introduced women catechumens

The Order of Widows

          Widows were a distinct group of women set apart, first of all, by their having lost their husbands. Concern for widows goes back to Old Testament precepts. Because they were very vulnerable in ancient Israel, special provision was made for them in Israelite law. The prophets harshly condemned those who were unjust toward widows, and a beneficent attitude toward them was one of the marks of true piety.

          The Acts of the Apostles show that this ideological concern for widows and their children became a practical one in the case of the Greek speaking widows who were not being given their proper share in the distribution of food. Seven men full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, were appointed to take care of them. The seven men were brought before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. Some say that this event established the office of deacon.

          The order of widows consisted of widows who were enrolled, i.e., those put on the payroll of the church, who were to were to be representatives of and perform services on behalf of the church. The enrolled widow: 
  1. was at least sixty years of age 
  2. had led a pure married life 
  3. had a reputation for good works: (a) had reared children, (b) had shown hospitality, (c) had washed the saints’ feet (literally and figuratively), (d) had helped those in trouble, (e)  had followed every kind of good work.

           The standards were not arbitrary, but rather a clear indication of her ministry. Her duties included praying, teaching women, and doing good deeds.

          Widows were not allowed to function in any specifically male roles. "They were not to answer questions of a theological nature, but rather to refer these to the leaders of the community" (House 92). The Didascalia clearly prohibited baptism by women.

          Evidence of the widows' high place was that sinners prostrated themselves in the center of the assembly before the widows and presbyters. The Alexandrian writers listed widows along with the bishops, presbyters, and deacons. Clement referred to biblical commands to "chosen persons, some to presbyters, some to bishops, some to deacons, others to widows." Origen (later tainted by heresy) also listed them along with the clerical ranks when he said: "Neither the bishop, nor the presbyter, nor the deacon, nor the widow may be married twice." A very important distinction to keep in mind, however, is that widows were appointed, but not ordained. There was no laying on of hands accompanied by prayer.

          Some widows apparently abused their position by establishing businesses. Others visited the houses of the rich in order to receive money donations, which they were amassed and lent out at usurious rates. The order of widows disappeared entirely by the beginning of the third century in most places, although St. John Chrysostom attests to the position of widow up to the end of the fourth century. The reason for its demise was most likely that it was gradually subsumed into the office of deaconess.

The Order of Virgins

          One of the most "revolutionary" aspects of the advent of Christianity was its emphasis on self-denial, particularly in the matter of marriage. St. Paul's err-quoted admonition to the Corinthians was: Art thou bound unto a wife? Seek not to be loosed. Art thou loosed from a wife? Seek not a wife. The message is one of continence: divorce and remarriage are to be avoided.

          In about the third century. the order of widows began to decline and was gradually replaced by the order of virgins. For some period of time the distinction between the order of widows and the order of virgins was blurred because young virgins were admitted to the order of widows. Some Church leaders disapproved of this practice because it violated the requirements that a widow be sixty years of age, a mother, and someone who had taught her own children.

          Some historians have thought that virgins in the Christian community of Smyrna were called widows simply because they did the same work as the order of widows. Others say that it was because both groups had the same "life-style," i.e., one characterized by continence. What ever the case, the order of virgins was eventually subsumed into women's monasticism, possibly beginning in the fourth century.

The Office of Deaconess

          The office of deaconess was abolished in the West before the eleventh century, but in the East it lasted to the end of the Byzantine period in the fifteenth century. It is now retained only in some Orthodox convents.  

          St. Paul mentions the first deaconess, St. Phoebe of the Church at Cenchrea, in his epistle to the Romans 16: 1-2: I commend unto you Phoebe our sister which is a deacon of the church which is at Cenchrea. That ye receive her in the Lord, as becometh saints, and that ye assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of you: for she hath been a succourer of many, and of myself also.

          The interpretations of this passage vary. Those who would deny that there ever were ordained deaconesses say that the word "deacon" simply means servant, and that anyone could be a servant, male or female, ordained or not. That interpretation is at odds with the Church's recognition of Phoebe as the first deaconess. It also fails to take into account that the word "deacon" derived from the Greek and meaning "helper" or "'minister" is exactly what the deaconess is supposed to be.

          Another interpretation, more realistic in view of the historical facts, is that this passage "refutes the hypothesis that [deaconesses] were appointed to administer exclusively to their own sex (Coleman 115). In saying that Phoebe "hath been a succourer of many, and of myself also," St. Paul is saying that Phoebe ministered unto him, a male. (Some speculate that Phoebe nursed Paul back to health from an illness or injury.) 

          "The office of deaconess was already a position for women in the service of the Christian community in apostolic times, but it was an inferior office until the middle of the third century (House 97). It appears to have developed gradually, representing only a small expansion of the role of widow. The Apostolic Constitutions required that a deaconess either be a virgin or a once-married widow, and the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) forbade marriage after ordination.

          The primary duties of the deaconess were ministering to women in their houses and assisting at baptisms. The rationale was that it was not proper for a deacon to go to the house of heathens to visit a believing woman, and it was not proper for a man to anoint a woman during baptism and to receive her as she emerged from the water, because men should not see her unclothed. However, anointing the woman's head, the immersion, and the pronouncement of the words of baptism were duties reserved to the bishop or presbyter performing the baptism.

          By the fourth century, the deaconess was assigning places to female visitors in the church, keeping order, admonishing and praying with latecomers, and assisting "in a minor way" at the altar (House 98). What the qualification "in a minor way" is not clear. The required age of sixty was reduced to fifty by the Didascalia and then to forty by the Council at Chalcedon Other duties added to her charge were to care for the sick and poor of her own sex; to be present when bishops, priests, or deacons spoke with women; anti to introduce women catechumens.

          Several reasons are given for the ultimate demise of the office of deaconess:
  1. The decline of missionary activity and the resultant decline in the number of adult baptisms with which deaconesses would assist.
  2. The rise of monasticism which, to some extent absorbed and redirected the activities of deaconesses.
  3. The taking over of care of the sick and the poor by the Byzantine state.
  4. Abuses on the part of some deaconesses who took ministerial functions upon themselves, such as reading the Scriptures in public.
  5. Reaction against the prominent ministry of women in certain heretical groups, particularly the Gnostics and the Montanists.
The office of deaconess was abolished in the West before the eleventh century, but in the East it lasted to the end of the Byzantine period in the fifteenth century. It is now retained only in some Orthodox convents.

          The office of deaconess was conferred with an ordination practically identical to that of the deacon. The ordination took place in the altar, which was not the case with ordination for the inferior offices. The bishop laid his hands on the candidate and recited two prayers, the first of which invoked divine grace. In matters of precedence she came after the deacon and was robed with the sticharion and the orarion.

          After her ordination, the bishop handed her the chalice which she placed on the altar. She had the right to carry and give Holy Communion to sick women. She could not take a ceremonial part in any of the sacraments or in other ceremonies that required the assistance of a deacon. She was addressed as "reverend, "most honorable" or "most pious." During the time when bishops were selected from among the married clergy, their wives lived apart from them and were ordained as deaconesses. They could subsequently remain in society or enter a convent.

          St. Elizabeth, New Martyr and Grand Duchess of Russia, attempted to restore the ancient office of deaconess in Russia. She was zealously supported by Metropolitan Vladimir of Moscow but opposed by Bishop Germogen of Saratov.

          Particularly in the Eastern Church, the deaconesses was an important ceremonial, instructional, and social-care intermediary between the hierarchy and the women members of the Church. Up to the sacking of Constantinople, during what is now regarded as the golden age of Orthodoxy, deaconesses played a vital role in sustaining the faith of the family. By their own good example, and through teaching, advising, and counseling, they guided wives and mothers to the Orthodox way of living. Interestingly enough, a significant movement to restore the order of deaconess has been occurring in the Eastern Church in recent years in fact. St. Nectarios of Pentapolis ordained deaconesses for his convent.

          An attempt to re-establish the ancient office or deaconess in Russia is described in Metropolitan Amvrossy’s account of the life of St. Elizabeth, New Martyr and Grand Duchess of Russia. Her efforts to restore the office were whole-heartedly and zealously supported by Metropolitan Vladimir of Moscow. However, Bishop Germogen of Saratov opposed the idea because of a misunderstanding. He even went so far as to accuse her of having Protestant tendencies - but he later repented of this accusation. Nevertheless, the Grand Duchess abandoned her plans and submitted to Church authority. It is significant that she did not take advantage of her position as Grand Duchess to achieve her cherished dream.

          It is clear from the remarkable lives of women saints which we reviewed in Part 1, and from the account of the orders for ordinary women in Part 2, that the role of women in the first century Church was indeed much more extensive then it is today. In Part 3 we will consider the historical explanations given for the expansive role of women and what happened to curtail it.