|Olympias the Deaconess (Wikipedia)|
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
“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.
To be continued.