A deaconess in the early Church?


Reading Romans 16 this morning, I was struck by the first verse, which describes ‘our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae’. Is this a poor translation of the original, or was there actually a woman who received the sacrament of Holy Orders in the earliest days of the Church?

I’m sure the ‘ordaining women’ crowd would love that verse a lot. I’m hoping there’s a better explanation.


Jimmy Akin explains it pretty well here…


A deaconess is not a deacon. She had a role in the ministry, but she was not an ordained cleric. A deaconess did not receive the sacrament of Holy Orders and wouldn’t rise to the presbyterate or episcopate.

Clement of Alexandria provides some insight on this point when he addresses the context of 1 Corinthians 9:5 (remember that the koine greek word for wife and woman are the same, and 1 Cor 9:5 offers clarification by prefacing the word for wife/woman with the word sister):

Accordingly he says in a letter: “Have we not a right to take about with us a wife [woman] that is a sister like the other apostles?” But the latter, in accordance with their particular ministry, devoted themselves to preaching without any distraction, and took their wives [women] with them not as women with whom they had marriage relations, but as sisters, that they might be their fellow-ministers in dealing with housewives. It was through them that the Lord’s teaching penetrated also the women’s quarters without any scandal being aroused.

According to Clement, these women, who would be deaconesses, had a role in bringing the gospel to other women, because they could go to places that men couldn’t without causing scandal or offense. 1 Timothy 3:11 may refer to women who were selected for this role.

In some sense, the role is a bit of a discipline, like lay EMHCs, Lectors, and altar servers (I am not saying deaconesses served at the altar, just an example). It’s not a sacramental or doctrinal order.



It was not what most people today think it might be/could be


It is a poor translation I would say. Translation isn’t even the right word really as it is a direct transliteration of the Greek word διάκονον (diakonos). Diakonos simply means a servant. In many translations that passage read just that way: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae”. The same Greek word is used in John 2:9 and is translated as: “And when the headwaiter tasted the water that had become wine, without knowing where it came from (although the servers {διάκονον} who had drawn the water knew)…” Both Romans 16:1 and John 2:9 use the same root Greek word but one is translated as “servers” and the other is some times transliterated as “deacon”.

All of the titles we use for Holy Orders are derived from more mundane sources so just because we read ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos) in something we need to understand in context if it is referring to any overseer or if it is specifically referring to a bishop. In this case it seems odd the modern translations use deacon here when it has traditionally be translated as servant (or ministerio in the Vulgate). It is not so much that the transliteration is wrong as it it odd to choose to translate in one place and transliterate in another. It almost seems to be meant to sow confusion.


The deaconess, like the sub-deacon were never received the Sacrament of Holy Orders, though they were “ordained” to their office via a blessing and installation rite.

This is was the same for the other minor orders: Porter, Lector, Exorcist & Acolyte. A deaconess would most likely be on the level of a porter or lector.

Once the Church stopped baptized people in the nude, deaconess were no longer needed.

God Bless.


I love this site…I can always count on a good answer from people way more knowledgeable than me. Thanks, everyone!


Dr. David Anders relates that (many) baptisms in the early Church were done in the nude. It was clearly inappropriate for men to be involved in such.


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