AskDefine | Define deaconess

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deaconess n : a woman deacon

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Extensive Definition

Deaconess (and also deacon) comes from a Greek word diakonos (διακονος). This Greek word means a servant or helper and occurs frequently in the Christian New Testament of the Bible and is sometimes applied to Christ himself. Deaconesses trace their roots from the time of Jesus Christ through the 13th century. Evidence for the presence of ordained female deacons in the early Christian period in portions of the Eastern Church, is “clear and unambiguous" according to religious scholar Valerie Karras. Deaconesses existed from the early through the middle Byzantine periods in Constantinople and Jerusalem; although the office may not have been in existence throughout the Europe churches. The female diaconate in the Byzantine Church of the early and middle Byzantine periods was recognized as one of the major orders of clergy. A modern resurgence of the office began in the early nineteenth century in both Europe and North America. Deaconesses are present in many countries of the world at the present time, not, however, in the Roman Catholic Church, in which it is held that ordained ministry is restricted to men.

Early Christian Period

Evidence from the early 2nd century, within a letter from Pliny of Bithynia to the emperor Trajan, attests to the role of the deaconesses. Pliny refers to “two maid-servants” as deaconesses whom he tortures to find out more about the Christians. This reinforces the existence the office of the deaconesses in parts of the eastern Roman Empire. In addition, within the Didascalia of the Apostles, further mention of the female deacons is found. Within the book, there are claims that Mary Magdalene was indeed a deaconess who also served Jesus Christ. The word diakonein translated as minister, is used in the New Testament to describe Mary Magdalene, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Susanna and others that provided for Jesus, as a service group . However, it is more commonly believed that the institution of the deaconesses began in the 3rd century around the time the Didascalia was actually written . It is the first document that specifically discusses the role of the deacons and the deaconesses in the 3rd century, in the region of Syria. In it the author asks the bishop to take the deacons and deaconesses as “workers for justice”, denoting their prominent place in the church hierarchy. The office gradually developed, and was recognized by the Church and during this time period, the church ordained women deacons along with male deacons whom both acted in various leadership roles, including bishop, elder and deacon.
Later in the fourth century, the deaconesses were mentioned in the Council of Nicea in 325 which implies their clerical, ordained status. Olympias, one of the closest friends and supporters of the archbishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, was known as a wealthy and influential deaconess during the 5th century. Later, Paul reveals the actual qualifications of these ordained females (I Tim 3:8-13).
The women likewise must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things…for those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith in Christ Jesus. The church at Philippi is another example of early female leadership where women both founded and controlled the church’s ministry. In Paul’s letter to the Philippian church, he addresses the three female leaders, Euodia, Syntyche and a third, for which he uses the affectionate term, syzugē to mean “mate”.(Phil. 4:1-3). Through the Pauline epistles it is clear that deaconesses exercised important roles identified and recognized as central within the office of the church. It appears in Paul's writings that there is no gender-specific working in the churches, as well. Paul identified women who labor in spreading the gospel as equal in rank to himself and was familiar with submitting to women. Paul made clear in his letters that women had governing functions in the churches.

Women as Deaconesses

Two types of monastic women were typically ordained to the diaconate in the early and middle Byzantine period. Abbesses and nuns with liturgical functions, as well as the wives of men who were being raised to the episcopacy. There was a strong association of deaconess with abbess starting in the late fourth century or early fifth century in the East, and occurred in the medieval period in the Latin as well as the Byzantine Church.


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deaconess in German: Diakonisse
deaconess in Finnish: Diakonissa
deaconess in Italian: Diaconessa
deaconess in Dutch: Diakones
deaconess in Russian: Диаконисса
deaconess in Swedish: Diakonissa
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