Biblical Ministries for Women

Formerly, from regard to the apostolic precept in I Tim. 5:9, the Deaconesses were required to be sixty years of age (cf. Tit. 5:3-5, and the Theodosian Code 16:2:27)…. The noblest type of an apostolic Deaconess which has come down to us from this period (before 450 A.D.), is Olympias the friend of Chrysostom and the recipient of seventeen beautiful epistles from him. She sprang from a respectable heathen family, but received a Christian education; was beautiful and wealthy; married in her


2 Pliny's ad Tra.j. X:57; Ignatius's Ad Smyrn. 6,13; Polycarp 4; Justin Martyr's Apol. I ch.. 67; Hermas's Vis. 2:4; Tertullian's Ad Uxor. 1:7; Mand.. 8; Sim. 15:5; 9:26-27; H. Bavinck's Woman in Modern Society (Kampen: Kok, 1918), p. 53; Marie Zeeman's Woman in the Church (Bloemfontein: Sacum, 1965), pp. 88ff; Susan Foh's Women and the Word of God (Phillipsburg N.J.: Presbyterian & Reformed), 1979, pp. 97, 255-56; and Apostolic Constitutions, 8:19-20.


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seventeenth year (A.D. 384) the prefect of Constantinople, Nebridius; but in twenty months after, was left a widow and remained so in spite of the efforts of the Emperor Theodosius to unite her with one of his own kindred. She became a Deaconess; lived in rigid asceticism; devoted her goods to the poor; and found her greatest pleasure in doing good." When she died, she was "lamented by all the poor and needy in the city and in the country around."3

7. Mediaeval corruption of the office of Deaconess

With the rise and spread of the unbiblical notion of celibacy for the male clergy of the Middle Ages, even the office of Deaconess became corrupted. In 451, a General Church Council reduced the minimum age of widows who become Deaconesses from sixty as stated in Holy Scripture (I Tim, 5:9-10) — to the 'canonical' age of forty. It stated: "No female shall be consecrated Deaconess before she is forty years old; and not then, without careful probation. If, however, after having received consecration, and having been some time in the service, she marry — despising the grace of God — she, with her husband, shall be anathematised."4

As Schaff points out: "In the West..,the office of Deaconess was first shorn of its clerical character by a prohibition of ordination passed by the Gallic councils in the fifth and sixth centuries…. At last, it was wholly abolished.

"The second Synod of Orleans in 535 [A.D.] ordained in its eighteenth canon: ‘No woman shall henceforth receive the benedictio diaconalis (which had been substituted for ordinatio) — on account of the [stated] weakness of this sex.' The reason betrays the want of good Deaconesses — and suggests the connection of this abolition of an apostolic institution with the introduction of the celibacy of the priesthood which seemed to be endangered by every sort of female society. The adoption of the care of the poor and sick by the state…also made female assistance less needful."5

8. Calvin's restoration of the office of Deaconess

Originally, a usually-married male officer had cared for the poor entrusted to his care. Yet in the Middle Ages, there was a corruption of this office of Deacon into the unbiblical mediaeval 'office' of Archdeacon. There, a celibate male priest was enjoined to perform sacerdotal functions. As a result, even the auxiliary office of Deaconess was phased out.

At the great Protestant Reformation, however, Calvin wisely revived the New Testament auxiliary office of Deaconess — while also divesting even the three male special offices of Preacher-Elder-Deacon of their mediaeval perversions. Thus Calvin commented that the "mercy" offices of Rom. 12:7-13 are referring also to the "widows and other ministers [alias servants] who were appointed to take care of the sick, according to the custom of the Ancient Church."

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