Olympias the Deaconess (Wikipedia)

By Rev. Prof. Dr. Francis Nigel Lee, Th.D.. Ph.D.

5.       Deaconesses in Early Church History

Already in the later Pre-Christian synagogues, the office of Deaconess seems to have been developing (see the Talmud); and Paul discusses it as well-established in the New Testament Church.   Rom. 16:2 & I Tim. 5:11 & 5:9ff.    Pliny mentions church diaconissae or ministrae in his 112 A.D. Epistle to Trajan; and so too do Ignatius, Hermas, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Theodore of Mopsuestia, the Apostolic Constitutions, and Chrysostom. 

The Apostolic Constitutions give the following prayer “concerning a Deaconess” at the time of her church appointment: “O bishop,, you shall lay your hands upon her in the presence of the Presbytery, and of the Deacons and Deaconesses, and shall say: ‘O Eternal God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Creator of man and of woman, Who did replenish with the Spirit Miriam and Deborah and Anna and Hulda (Ex, 15:20, Judg, 4:4, Luke 2:16, II Kgs, 22:14); Who did not disdain that Your only begotten Son should be born of a woman; Who also in the tabernacle of the testimony and in the temple did ordain women to be keepers of Your holy gates (Ex, 38:8ff, I Sam. 2:22, cf. Joh. 18:16-17)  -- do now also look down upon this  servant of Yours who is to be ordained to the office of a Deaconess, and grant her Your Holy Spirit and cleanse her from all filthiness of flesh and Spirit (II Cor. 7:1), so that she may worthily discharge the work which is committed to her to Your glory, and the praise of Your Christ with Whom glory and adoration be to You and the Holy Spirit for ever!   Amen.’”2

6.       Schaff  on the Early Church's Deaconesses

The renowned Swiss-American Presbyterian Church History Professor, Rev. Dr. Philip Schaff, has the following to say in his monumental work History of  the Christian Church: “The office of  Deaconess which under the strict separation of the sexes in ancient times and especially in Greece was necessary to the completion of the Diaconate, and which originated in the apostolic age (cf. Rom, 12:1-13), continued in the Eastern Church down to the twelfth century.   It was frequently occupied by the widows  of clergy....  Its functions were the care of  the female poor, sick & imprisoned; assisting in the baptism of adult women; and, in the country churches of the East, perhaps also of the West, the preparation of women for baptism by private instruction.   Rom. 16:1f.

“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 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 

To be continued.


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