Monday, May 28, 2007

Female Deacons, 3

In the previous post on this subject, my goal was a simple one. I wanted to show that there's plenty of evidence to indicate that at least some of the Judaisms in the ancient world recognized female leaders. There were, in fact, women who served as heads of the synagogues. And some synagogues had priestesses.

Again, here's the connection I want to make. More than anything else, it is the synagogue that provides the setting for the establishment and growth of earliest Christianity. Recording the first mission trip, Luke tells us "At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue" (Acts 14:1).

Evidently, Christian assemblies were even called "synagogues." Here I'm referring to the Greek text of James 2:2. Most English translations lose their nerve and say something like, "Suppose a man comes into your meeting . . . " (NIV). But the text quite literally says, "For if a man comes into your synagogue . . . "

When we put the facts together, what seems clear enough is that the earliest Christians wouldn't have blinked at the idea of a female appointee called a diakonos, an official "servant." If we have a problem with the idea, it must be remembered that it is our problem. It certainly would not have been theirs.

One reason I mention this has to do with an objection to my theory. That objection goes something like this: Because Judaism in particular, and the ancient world in general, were so very patriarchal, female appointees among the earliest Christians would have been unthinkable. But in light of the evidence, it should be obvious that this objection survives only by ignoring the facts. To the next point.

I mentioned in the first post that female deacons are known in early Christian history, the New Testament foreground. The earliest and best support for this view can be found in an ancient letter.

In the year 112 A.D., less than two decades after the death of the Apostle John, a Roman governor named Pliny (the Younger), wrote to his boss, the Emperor Trajan.

What I find especially interesting about their correspondence is that Pliny asks what he should do about one of the many odd and suspicious groups in the province he now governs. What should he do with people publicly accused of being Christians?

Trajan had previously sent Pliny to serve as governor of a rough and rebellious part of the Empire, the Province of Bythinia, a region where strange and superstitious clubs were common, one of them being the church. Pliny wants to know if the way he has handled things so far is the right way, or if there something more the Emperor can tell him regarding interrogations, trials, and sentencing.

In one section of his letter, Pliny explains that, in order to enforce his prohibition of political associations (here we must remember that the expression "Jesus is Lord" would have been heard by Romans as political, rather than religious, speech), Pliny had found it "necessary to extract the real truth" from the Christians. He had done this, he says, "with the assistance of torture, from two female slaves, who were styled deaconesses."

The significant Latin word in this passage, of course, is ministrae, rendered "deaconesses" in the standard English translation of the correspondence, and rightly so. Had Pliny wanted to say that these two women were simply members or were a part of the Christian community, he could and certainly would have said so without using what can only be understood as a sort of technical term: ministrae, which means "ministers" or as I would call them, "deaconesses."

Thoughts? Comments? Criticisms?

A Bit of Bibliography:

I do not currently have access to a copy of the standard text of Pliny which is found in the Loeb Classical Library. The Loeb series is so nice because you get the Latin or Greek text on one side of an opening, and translation into English on the opposite side. To read, in the Loeb edition, the letter quoted in this post, you would need to get this volume of the series.

In this post, I have quoted from an English translation of Pliny that I found on-line. You can read the letter I'm referring to here.


Royce Ogle said...

Your teaching is not a popular one among our people but true.

We are millenia away from ever having a female deacon but our preachers have taught our people the truth.

Thanks for having the courage to teach the truth even if it flies in the face of traditional positions that many of us hold dear.

Grace to you,
Royce Ogle

preacherman said...

It has been an interesting series.
Is there any evidence in the N.T. of women deaons? If not, then we should follow the Bible. Even if the world deacon means servant. Can a woman serve in the Church, yes. Can the hold the title, no.

It is my opinion that their is no qualification for deaconess's in the Word of God.
I think no matter what; even if we are in the 21st century we must follow God's word.

I would hope the church of Christ would be done talking of womens role in the Church. It is my personal opinion that the devil gets us to focus to focus on inward debates so we won't focus on the lost who need Christ. The more we fuss, and fight with each other; the less energy we are spending on evangelism.

Just my thoughts.

Frank Bellizzi said...


Thanks for your nice words. I don't think of myself as being very courageous at all. Fact is, I'm mostly chicken.


Regarding biblical evidence, I mentioned in my first post that the only person in the New Testament called a diakonos of a particular congregation is sister Phoebe in Romans 16:1.

In 1 Timothy 3:11, Paul is clearly describing the ideal candidate for a post filled by "the women." For several reasons, I take them to be "deaconesses."

Obviously, I think that a discussion about female deacons is a valid one to be having. And I don't think it can easily be separated from the value of evangelism.

Matt said...


I would venture to say that 99% of churches of Christ have female deacons. They just don't call them that.

Matt said...

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Frank Bellizzi said...

Matt, regarding deaconesses that just haven't been formally ordained, of course you're right. But my question is "Why not appoint them"?

When a man clearly has the qualities and heart of a pastor, we say, "We've got to make him an elder." If a younger man is a solid worker, we say, "Make him a deacon."

Why? Because not only is it biblical, it gives the person a sense of divine and congregational sanction to lead or to head up a ministry.

No congregation of the Church of Christ that I know of says, "We're not going to formally appoint any of our men because, after all, we've got elders and deacons, we just don't call them that." Sometimes the opposite is true; the absence of the characteristics doesn't stand in the way of ordination.