Sunday, July 24, 2016

What's in a name?

Now that the Pope has brought up the idea of studying the idea of female deacons (deaconesses), the internet is abuzz with voices about what this means. Some of the same tired old ideas of the past have been trotted out to suggest that female deacons were the "norm" in the early church and that they had a status the same or similar to male deacons. The problem for those both for and against deaconesses is that the early history is somewhat vague and confusing. That said, the reality is that no form of deaconesses had "holy orders" as such nor were they the functional equivalent of the male deacons -- something more clearly true as the diaconate evolved into a step on the ladder to priestly ordination but no less true in the earlier days as well. Furthermore, an official ecclesiastical function is a modern day term and not one ordinarily used by the early church where such practices originated.

There seems to be little question that some women deacons, even so-called "ordained" women deacons, performed what might be described as an official ecclesiastical function for many centuries in the early Church. The problem lies in figuring out what that function was. Neither the terminology nor the descriptions of these women and what they did were uniform or explicit. Nor was the practice ever normative or ordinary -- it appears to have been localized and limited if at all.

The Phoebe, “deacon of the church,” whom Paul mentions in his letter to the Romans, may or may not represent a female deacon since the Greek “diakonos” that Paul uses more typically meant “servant” at the time Paul wrote. For example, John used the same noun in reference to the servants who filled the stone jars of water at the wedding feast at Cana. Though the Acts of the Apostles references the seven men chosen to feed to the poor (tend the tables) so that the apostles would be free to focus on prayer and preaching, it does appear that Stephen did preach -- was it in a liturgical context or was it in public witness only?

Early Christian literature provides a little more detail. Women began to assume more formal roles (from widows to the female deacons). Some of these documents use the term deaconesses (“diakonissai”), and it is possible to find a rare reference to the bishop’s ordination ("laying his hands") on these women. That said, there is nothing to suggest that this was normative and could have been an aberration. From the East there are some women named as “deaconesses” but those so named were nearly always widows (referencing St. Paul's mention of this class or order) or some form of early nun or women who chose the celibate life. We do know that their primary duties and role consisted mostly of charitable works (similar to the male deacons but directly toward women) and work both assisting in the catechization and baptism of adult women. This is certainly understandable when baptism was by immersion and cultural prohibitions and a sense of modesty would have made it hard for males to act alone with respect to the instruction and baptism of women. Whether these deaconesses assisted priests in the liturgy is a different matter. While it was certainly conceivable within monastic communities of nuns who had contact with males only through their priest (similar to cloistered orders still to this day), this did not appear to have taken place within the ordinary parish exercise of the liturgy. Furthermore, the women who did assist were most likely the leaders of their communities (abbesses).

In other words, how many and what these deaconesses did does not automatically translate into the debate for the ordination of women or even the wider role of women within the church. In fact, it contributes little since the issue before us is not whether or not to have women serving officially in caring roles in the work of the church but directly the question of whether or not women may be ordained to the diaconate with equal status to either permanent deacons or the transitional deacons heading toward priestly ordination.

In fact, much to the chagrin of those who champion the priestly ordination of women and who therefore are encouraged by the discussion of deaconesses, the very nunnishness of these early Christian women who were called deaconesses is often considered both demeaning and a hindrance to the cause of women's ordination.

The argument for the ordination of deaconesses to an office the exact counterpart to the male diactonate and as a first step toward priestly ordination is still without clear precedent and an invention of a modernity sifting through history for anything and everything that might justify this departure from clear apostolic and consistent catholic practice.

I say this not to disparage what we in the LCMS call deaconesses -- not at all -- but to distinguish this godly service with the same name from what those pursuing the ordination of women are looking for from any evidence for or prospect of an ordained female diaconate. Indeed, the Lutheran history of deaconesses is a heroic legacy of women who served in places where others refused to serve, in conditions that tried and tested their lives and faith, without recognition or material reward. But this is a different story than those who are using Francis' words to make a big jump between the mercy work of the Gospel and the ordination to the pastoral office.

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