Deaconesses: This is Not That

It seems to me that self-described Christian Feminism is becoming increasingly shrill (I was struck by this when reading recently some feminist commentaries on the Song of Solomon). Orthodox Feminists, however, seems to offer a kinder, gentler feminism (the works of Eva Topping being a famous exception), perhaps because of being anchored in Scripture and the Fathers. Bluntly put, Orthodox feminists cannot easily say, “To hell with St. Paul and the Fathers” and dismiss them as a bunch of misogynistic wretches in the same way as other feminists can who feel themselves unencumbered by the weight of Holy Tradition. An Orthodox writer has to at least give the appearance of fidelity to the Fathers and the apostolic Tradition which defines them.

One sees this in current discussions about possible revival of the office of deaconess—or, as it is often billed, “female deacons”. Such deaconesses did indeed exist in the early church, though not in apostolic times (Phoebe notwithstanding) and never universally. The office came into existence when pastoral necessity dictated and passed out of existence when the necessity no longer held. One can read all about it in Georges Martimort’s definitive work Deaconesses: An Historical Study.

Orthodox feminists often collapse the office of deacon and deaconess into a single office, referring sometimes to “male and female deacons”, as if the office were identical for both. It is true that Chrysostom referred to “woman deacons”, but he also knew that the two offices were utterly different in kind and function. The feminists pushing hard for the creation of an order of female deacons often emphasize that the rite wherein the candidate was made a deaconess was a true ordination (as opposed to a simple blessing), a true cheirotonia, not a mere cheirothesia, and that it took place at the altar. That is true, but the anachronistic distinction between ordination and blessing hides the profound distinction between the two ordinations, and therefore the office to which the candidate was ordained. That is, both male deacons and female deaconesses were given the ceremonial orar (which was rapidly becoming customary among subdeacons also, indicating that the bestowal of the orar did not indicate sacramental parity between deacon and deaconess), but the deaconess wore it differently than did the deacon. The deacon was given the chalice during his ordination, so that he could help administer it during the Eucharist that followed, while the deaconess immediately returned the chalice, expressing her exclusion from Eucharistic administration. Also, the deacon was ordained while kneeling on his knee, resting his head on the altar, while the deaconess stood and merely inclined her head. Most significantly of all, the prayers of ordination for the two orders were entirely different. These liturgical differences were not merely stylistic; they reveal that the two orders are different in kind.

Pastorally the potential candidates for the two offices differed even more profoundly: the canonical minimum age for deacons was twenty-five, and they could be married. The canonical minimum for deaconesses was forty (thus the Quinisext Council, canon 14), and they were required to be celibate. Their functions also could scarcely have been more different: the deacon ministered to the congregation as a whole; the deaconess’ main task was the pastoral visitation of women who were sick and the anointing of female candidates in the baptismal waters (since those candidates were naked, and their anointing by a male deacon was judged inappropriate). By anyone’s unbiased assessment, the two offices were entirely different. Martimort sums it up well: “A deaconess in the Byzantine rite was in no wise a female deacon. She exercised a totally different ministry from that of the deacons”.

It is just this fact that Orthodox feminists wish to gloss over. And this refusal of history is, I suggest, no accidental lapse of scholarly judgment. It is part of a considered strategy to advance women to ordained ministry. This is apparent when the “revival” of the office of “the female diaconate” comes with significant changes—such as the removal of both the age and celibacy requirements. It also comes equipped with an equally significant addition of pastoral function—deaconesses are now no longer simply ministries to women in situations where men could not minister, but partake of the liturgical universalism of male deacons. In some cases, theological education would be required, or at least recommended.

When these subtractions and additions are weighed, it is apparent that what is being proffered to the Church is not a revival of the order of deaconess, but the creation of an entirely new ordained order of female ministry, masquerading as a deaconess. One notices too another significant deviation from the mind and methodology of the early church: the early church created (and let lapse) orders and ministries according to pastoral need; we now are trying to create an order based primarily or even solely upon the desire of candidates to be ordained. This is and is intended as the “edge of the wedge” to push women into the diaconate proper and thence into the priesthood (the “edge of the wedge” argument is not invalid simply because it is so often maligned). It would be well for the feminists to admit this up front, and not hide behind the usual rhetoric.

At the very least one may hope for an end of some disingenuous tentativeness. One thinks here of the final words with which the dear late Ms. Behr-Sigel ended her keynote address at the Agapia Women’s Conference in Romania in 1976: “[These] are questions which we Orthodox women gathered here at Agapia wish to put before the Church, praying that the Spirit will guide her, and will guide us in the right way. In the words of the psalmist we say, ‘Show us the way we must take!’” One might imagine from these words that for her and her feminist colleagues the matter was as yet undecided and the question an open one. Her subsequent writings leave little doubt that she and others with her felt they knew already which way the Spirit was trying to guide the Church (compare her suggestion that the Orthodox might begin ordaining women priests in some places while maintaining a “disciplinary pluralism” about the practice). The feminists do not regard the question as genuinely open, any more than I do. That is quite fair. But let us be honest about where we stand and what we believe, otherwise our discussions will reflect a degree of unreality and will not bear fruit. I am mindful of the words of JFK: “We cannot negotiate with people who say, ‘What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours in negotiable’”.

Whatever discussions occur regarding the possible revival or creation of an order of female deacon, let us all at least be open and truthful. Let us admit that this is not that: the proffered model of deaconess bears little resemblance to the ancient order. Let us therefore debate possibility of the new model on its own modern merits.




  1. For its proponents, the question of the female diaconate can ONLY be argued from history because there is simply no other argument for it. As the argument goes, it was the practice of some Churches at given times; therefore, there is no reason it cannot be done today.

    Fair enough.

    There were, in fact female deacons in some places during certain periods of history. They were consecrated for their role as servants of the Church (whether in the Alter or not – frankly, who cares?). They served close to, although outside, the Alter as Cantors and keepers of order. They assisted the bishop in the (naked) baptisms of women. They brought the Eucharist to home-bound women. They were consecrated, celibate women ‘of a certain age’ whose primary service was to lead and to care for women in the Church on behalf of the bishop…

    So what?

    What does any of this have to do with modern, distorted ideas of equality? What does any of this have to do with the dignity of women or with ‘feelings’ of not being ‘validated,’ of being ‘unrecognized,’ or other self-centered modern psychological nonsense?

    Is anyone saying that the role of women in the Church is unimportant? Is anyone preventing women from serving the Church? Is anyone preventing women from singing in – or even leading – a choir (which, unlike those times, in our modern parish settings typically includes leading the male singers as well), as they say these deaconesses did? Is anyone preventing women from leading and serving the women of the Church, as they say these deaconesses did? Is anyone preventing women from serving in leadership roles on parish councils – a leadership role which these deaconesses did NOT have. (Parish Council members, by the way, are also prayed for and consecrated for the task, as they say these deaconesses were for theirs.) Is anyone ‘keeping women down,’ not allowing them to pursue theological studies, etc.? Is any woman being denied her dignity by having to expose her nakedness to a member of the clergy? Is any shut-in woman denied Holy Communion from the clergy because it is improper for him to visit her at home?

    Moreover, is anyone preventing women from being consecrated to a life of celibacy (as these deaconesses were) or even from being leaders of orders (i.e., Abbesses)? Are these women who are arguing for an entirely new and previously unheard of female diaconate flocking to the monasteries in droves for the ‘validation’ they claim to be seeking from serving the Church?

    Although the need for the office of consecrated deaconess has passed for all the reasons above, I personally, would have no objection to reviving the office as long ALL the original, historical qualifications and rules of the office were maintained PRECISELY as they were, in which case the office would be as it was when the office was active – one of self-sacrifice, life-long commitment to celibacy, total obedience, and service to the Church on behalf of the bishop.

    And if this restoration/revival of the order of deaconess were to occur precisely in the manner that some of the more honest among their own scholars say it once existed in some places, could it not also easily be predicted with a high degree of accuracy that the vast majority of those now arguing most strenuously for the revival of the office would be among the first to eschew it as being beneath their dignity, incompatible with their level of personal sexual commitment – and, above all, beneath their ambition?

    For the record, my wife (who can in no way be said to be shy about expressing herself or contradicting a man simply because she is a woman) read this prior to posting, and she heartily agrees.

    1. Thank you for your excellent comments. I would have no objection to a revived order of deaconesses if they were along the lines of deaconesses in the Coptic church–i.e. monastics with a pastoral role in the world, for that would be more consistent with the ancient model. But I feel that the engine driving the current desire to have women deacons is not concern for the pastoral needs of the Church nor admiration for the ancient model, but simple secular feminism with its desire for validation. The root is poisoned, and its fruit would be also.

    2. “…Without females holding an official role in the church as in the early church, 50% of the church is not adequately ministered to…” (

      Good comments Brian. I think it is important to remember that for the vast majority of women in the western world today, “justice” and “equality” in this or the Kingdom is not possible without a bland “equality” of “official role”. It is sort of painful to read that FAQ (or really any of the writings of the “progressive” Orthodox) because they so obviously do not see that their house is divided – their heart has one foot in a secular account of anthropos (and thus of “justice” and “equality”) and half in a classical (i.e. Orthodox) world of equal-but-different.

      Thanks Fr. Lawrence for continuing to point out that none of this is *really* about “restoring” what has come before but about bringing in a new (and very modern) sacrament…

  2. Dear Fr. Farley,

    I’m sincerely surprised to hear for the first time (forgive my ignorance on this matter) that there are feminist voices within the Orthodox Church?!
    Why should women feel any kind of inferiority within the Church?
    I’m a woman myself, and not only I agree with the comment above but would also add this.
    The purpose of the Christian life is holiness, acquiring the Holy Spirit. And if we look around when we enter the church, we see tens of icons of women saints we have achieved this goal.
    The first and the Most Blessed of all the Saints (men included) the Holy Virgin, our Theotokos.
    We do not need ordination to achieve this, to become holy. We do not need ordination to follow Christ. We do not need ordination to give our whole life to our Lord and serve the Church. All the women who ministered the Lord during His earthly life did not ask to be called Apostles or to be ordained bishops. Where they inferior to the Holy Apostles? By no means! Many of them are called by the church Equal to the Apostles. The dignity of a human being is not in the ordination but in the calling of God (both to men and women) to become holy, to become gods by grace.
    Furthermore all the lay people are called to be the Royal Priesthood.
    Sincerely I’m really surprised to hear for the first time that such discussions are taking place within our orthodox church.
    Would you please write more on this topic and give more details on what level of hierarchy is this matter being discussed?
    I would greatly appreciate more information on this matter, because I agree with you, that whoever is pushing this agenda, is pushing for the ordination of women into the Priesthood.

    Thank you and God bless you.

    Pray for me,

    1. The feminist agenda in Orthodoxy is being pursued by a number of persons, mostly in the academic world. This witnesses, I believe, to an unhealthy and fundamental divide between the world of the Academy and the rest of the Church. I am not aware of any hierarchs outside the Academy which are actively pursuing it, but then again I don’t know many bishops well other than my own.

      1. Thank you Father for your response……..I’m somewhat relieved to hear that these voices come mostly from the academic world (although at the same time I feel sorry for this)……….well maybe we might want to bring in mind Corinthians 8:1….”Knowledge puffeth up……”

        Thank you again and God bless you

  3. Father,

    Thank you for this! In the article, you referenced ‘Deaconesses: An Historical Study’ as a resource to read further on this issue. Is there a more generalized book that discusses the role of women in the early church?

    Thank you!


    1. Alas, I am parish priest and not a scholar whose job it is to be current with the latest material, but I can give you what I’ve got, dated though some of it may be. Stephen B. Clark’s Man and Woman in Christ is comprehensive as a general study. Roger Gryson’s The Ministry of Women in the Early Church is more focused on your topic, as is Elizabeth Clark’s Women in the Early Church (mostly a look at some primary sources). Manfred Hauke deals with the topic Women in the Priesthood, though from a more RC perspective. Helpful too is Lynn H. Cohick’s Women in the World of the Earliest Christians. Sorry that I can’t offer a more current bibliography.

  4. I don’t follow the esoterica of the Orthodox world all that much, but are there specific examples of advocates of reintroducing the office of deaconess that do not recognize the distinctiveness of the office?

    1. I think the proponents of modern deaconesses would acknowledge the office was distinct from that of male deacons. The problem as I see it is that they are trying to create a new ordained office for women under the guise of restoring an old one.

      1. How so? If the Deaconess is bounded by canonical structure (as is everything in the Orthodox Church), then how would a new office be created?

    2. Greg,

      I wouldn’t want to paint with too a broad a brush (that is, impugn all the contributors – many are quite honest in their research) , but the Saint Nina Quarterly publishes the articles of the advocates that do not recognize the distinctiveness. Some of them also argue for priesthood itself.

    3. Greg,

      I should have read your comment more carefully. You specifically asked for examples of advocates who are reintroducing (which could be understood as actually ordaining) women to the diaconate without recognizing the distinctiveness. The answer is there are no women being ordained at all – with or without the distinction. There are many, mostly academics concerned with “Gender Studies,” who are advocating FOR it; but their views, while unfortunately gaining traction in some very limited quarters, have not been put into practice.

      Another caveat about the Saint Nina quarterly referenced above: Be careful not to assume that all the contributors are Orthodox (even in a nominal sense). All claim to be Christian, but not all are members of the Orthodox Church. Some are. Others are not.

  5. Calling women shrill is a classic misogynist “dog whistle” word – you should probably reconsider your rhetoric here, Lawrence.

    1. Please note that I did not call “women” shrill, but used the word to describe some of the statements characteristic of Christian Feminism. To give one example among many: one feminist author wrote, “By the end of the second century the situation had changed. The days of the egalitarian church had ended. Reaction against women’s freedom and equality succeeded in limiting the royal priesthood of Eve’s Christian daughters…The unknown author of the two epistles to Timothy explicitly forbade women to speak and teach in the church. Since his prohibition evolved into a ‘divine law’ it is worth noting his contemptuous characterization of women as ‘silly, loaded with sins, swayed by all kinds of desires, always trying to learn and never able to come to knowledge of the truth’ (II Timothy 3:6-7)” Such language is not only shrill, but heretical, since it rejects the teaching of Scripture.

    2. So true. The word “shrill” is the classic put-down used against women (not men), bit like the old usage of “uppity” in relation to people of colour. We all know what it implies and it’s not honourable. Any author using “shrill” against a woman might usefully look at their own work first – log/splinter/eye etc. Thank you Geoffrey for calling this out.

      1. I note too now another characteristic of much feminist writing–namely how quickly and easily offence is taken, and how quickly easily debate becomes personalized. Thus a contrary view is not denounced as simply “wrong”, but as “discriminatory”, “misogynist”, etc. This is not helpful.

    3. Lol an entire article’s worth of content, and you zero in on the word ‘shrill’. Such colossal genius.

  6. Late comment: because of your piece here, Fr. Lawrence, I purchased your 2012 book, Feminism and Tradition (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press). It is erudite, fair, and enjoyable. I look forward to the section on deaconesses and will keep in mind the mantra, “this is not that.”
    Deacon Nicholas

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