Taking A Careful Look At The Ministry Of Women In The New Testament Church (Part Five)

It is written:

“I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea, 2  that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and assist her in whatever business she has need of you; for indeed she has been a helper of many and of myself also.” (Romans 16:1-2)

Phoebe was considered a “deaconess” by the early Christians.

Yet what does this mean?

Brother Everett Ferguson discusses the work of deaconesses in the post-apostolic church:

“How early and how widespread the office of women deacons appeared depends on the interpretation of disputed texts (in the New Testament and outside its pages). An early non-Christian source may refer to women deacons in the church. Pliny the Younger, Roman governor of Bithynia about 110-112, describes his examination of Christians in order to learn the truth about their activities and says he tortured “two female slaves, who were styled women servants [ministrae, ‘deaconesses’?]” (Epistles 10.96). The significance of the designation is not clear. The Latin ministrae was a general word for women servants that in this passage could refer to (1) to the feminine worshipers of a deity (Christ), (2) slaves (on this meaning, perhaps Christians chose to use this term rather than slaves for their fellow believers), (3) women especially active in service (in this context Christian service), or (4) “deaconesses” (in view of the apparent reference to a special Christian usage). Being slaves, these women could not have had much independence of action on behalf of the church unless their owners were Christians. Clement of Alexandria (about 190) may understand 1Timothy 3: 11 as “women deacons” (Miscellanies 3.6.53), but there are problems with this reference, for Clement speaks of Paul’s “other (second?) letter to Timothy” (or this “other” may be in addition to the preceding reference to 1 Corinthians 9: 5) and many students think he refers to the enrolled widows of 1 Timothy 5: 9f. In the third century there is certain evidence for the existence of women deacons. The Syriac Didascalia 16 uses “deaconess” for a woman appointed for ministry to women, care for the sick, and assistance at the baptism of women, including instruction of these newly baptized women in pure and holy behavior. These women deacons are distinct from the widows (discussed in its preceding chapter 15) and are the counterpart of male deacons, who serve under the bishop in other matters. The name “deaconesses” was a newly coined title (the main surviving usages of the Greek word are from the fourth century).” (Everett Ferguson, Women In The Church: Biblical And Historical Perspectives, 862-876 (Kindle Edition); Abilene, TX; Desert Willow Publishing)

The work of deaconesses in the early church did not involve any kind of leadership role; rather, the deaconesses were simply helpers and servants in the Lord’s church.

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