The Early Church Did Not Have an All-Male Leadership image

The Early Church Did Not Have an All-Male Leadership

Deaconesses performed a great variety of services. They assisted in the burial and baptism of the women. They instructed the women, especially the women catechumens. They cared for sick women at home, visited the poor, and informed the bishop and elders about the condition of the people. Deaconesses were intermediaries between the women and the heads of the community, often presenting the needs of the women to the bishop. Finally, in some communities they presided over the women's section of the assembly.

In order to understand the full significance of the position of deaconess in the early Christian community, one must understand how it relates to the positions of deacon and elder. First, the deaconess was a female deacon. As the Didascalia Apostolorum states, the deaconess, like the deacon, is chosen to work under the bishop as a helper. They are both servants of the community and serve as extensions of the bishop, acting under his direction ...

Like the deacon, the deaconess held a recognised position within the Christian community. Like the deacon, she was not one of the heads of the community but served as an extension of the bishop and elders ... In short, the deaconess can properly be seen as the female position corresponding to both that of elder and deacon. She performed services that both elders and deacons performed. Although the deaconess never bore the authority or independent responsibility of an elder unless caring for an all-female group, she was in certain respects the female elder of the community.

The history and development of the position of deaconess (and widow) in the earl Christian community is complex and uncertain. However, a few key facts stand out clearly. There was a recognised position of leadership for women in the early Christian community, stemming probably from New Testament times, but certainly from within a century afterwards. The deaconess may have performed somewhat different functions at different times and places, but with the widow she performed an important role of leadership in the community, especially among the women, and held an honoured place. The early church did not have an all-male leadership, as has been common in much of the Western church in more recent times.

- Stephen Clark, Man and Woman in Christ, 120-122

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