OUR SOCIETY IS VERY DIFFERENT from the first-century world in which the Church began. Older people relied on their families to care for them; there were no social programs to assist them. Widowed women were required to rely on their sons or other male relative for support. A woman on her own had few ways to support herself besides selling herself into slavery or becoming a prostitute.
Rulers in Israel were enjoined to support the widows who had no family to care for them. The local synagogues became their arm in assuring the support of these women. The first Christians in Jerusalem, organized along similar lines, undertook the same responsibility in their communities. In the Epistle of James we see how important this was in the apostolic Church: “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).
Acts 6 tells how the order of deacons was established in part to assure proper care for all the widows in the care of the Church. We also find that women like the Tabitha, whose death and resuscitation was recorded in Acts 9, were instrumental in caring for these widows. She may have been a widow herself as no family members are mentioned in the report. Rather it was the widows of the community who were her principal mourners: “This woman was full of good works and charitable deeds which she did… And all the widows stood by him [Peter] weeping, showing the tunics and garments which Dorcas had made while she was with them” (Acts 9:36, 39).
Dorcas represents something new in the condition of widows. In the Christian community they not only received assistance but, as disciples of Christ, they gave it as well. As persons in need they could be given support by the Church, but as Christians themselves they too were called to imitate Christ by caring for His poor.
The “Order” of Widows
Within a short time the Church began organizing formal groups of widows as part of its orders of ministry. St Paul – who believed that all Christian women should be adorned, “not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing, but, which is proper for women professing godliness, with good works” (1 Timothy 2:9, 10) – provided guidelines for such an order. After listing the qualities needed for bishops and deacons, he went on to say: “Honor widows who are really widows. But if any widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show piety at home and to repay their parents; for this is good and acceptable before God. Now she who is really a widow, and left alone, trusts in God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day. But she who lives in pleasure is dead while she lives. And these things command, that they may be blameless. But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
“Do not let a widow under sixty years old be taken into the number, and not unless she has been the wife of one man, well reported for good works: if she has brought up children, if she has lodged strangers, if she has washed the saints’ feet, if she has relieved the afflicted, if she has diligently followed every good work (1 Timothy 5:3-10).
The order of widows was part of the Syrian Church for several centuries. The chief work of widows in this order was to pray for the Church, particularly for their benefactors. In some places these widows visited the sick or engaged in the instruction of younger women. In other places, however, according to the third-century book of Church order called the Didaskalia, “there are some indeed who profess themselves widows, but do not works worthy of their name” (iii, 10).
In any case, by the fourth century the order of widows declined while another women’s order thrived: the order of deaconesses.
Deaconesses in the Church
When we hear the term “deacon” we think of the sacred minister in our own day with his extensive role in the Liturgy In fact, diakonos is simply the Greek word for a servant such as a waiter or messenger. In the early Church the deacon’s first role was that described in Acts 6: distributing food to the poor, leaving the apostles free to devote themselves “to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).
St Paul uses the same term to refer to certain women in his communities such as Phoebe (Romans 16:1), whom he says has been a help to many. Writing to the Philippians he mentions two women, Euodia and Syntyche, and asks his readers to help these women “who labored with me in the gospel” (Philippians 4:2). We do not know what kind of help these women provided – perhaps financial – as St Paul’s helpers.
In ad 112 the Roman governor Pliny the Younger wrote to the Emperor Trajan concerning Christians in his province, Bithynia. He had questioned two ministrae (“female slaves” or “maidservants”) called deaconesses, he wrote, but does not describe their role in the community.
We first see specific roles of deaconesses in the third-century Syrian book of Church order, the Didaskalia. Their duties include:
Visiting Women in Their Homes –“There are houses to which you cannot send a deacon to the women, on account of the heathen, but may send a deaconess… to visit those who are sick, and to minister to their needs, and to bathe those who have begun to recover from sickness;”
Assisting in Baptisms of Women – “Also, because in many other matters the office of a woman deacon is required. In the first place, when women go down into the water, those who go down into the water ought to be anointed by a deaconess with the oil of anointing… it is not fitting that women should be seen by men.” The Fourth-century Syrian book of Church order, the Apostolic Constitutions, Book II, adds “And when she who is being baptized has come up from the water, let the deaconess receive her, and teach and instruct her how the seal of baptism ought to be (kept) unbroken in purity and holiness. For this cause we say that the ministry of a woman deacon is especially needful and important.”
Keeping Order in the Women’s Section of the Church – “Let the Porters stand at the entries of the men, and observe them. Let the Deaconesses also stand at those of the women, like ship-men. If a poor man, one of a low family, or a stranger come upon you, whether he be old or young, and there be no place, the Deacon shall find a place even for these… Let the Deaconess do the same thing for those women that come, whether poor or rich… Moreover, let both the Deacons and the Deaconesses be ready to carry messages, to travel about, to minister and serve” (Apostolic Constitutions II, 57, 58).
The Didaskalia directs the faithful to esteem the bishop as they would God, the presbyters as the apostles, the deacons as Christ and the deaconesses as the Holy Spirit.
According to this same document, deaconesses were ordained by the bishop in a rite similar to but not identical with the ordination of deacons. The text we have for this rite come from the eighth century.
The roles which deaconesses played, particularly in the baptism of adult women, became less important over time. The order of deaconess eventually lapsed, except in some women’s monasteries, and their roles were assumed by priests’ wives, godmothers or nuns. The order was never formally abolished, however, and deaconesses may still be found in some Armenian and Greek convents.