Book Review: Deaconesses

Deaconesses: An Historical StudyDeaconesses: An Historical Study by Aime G. Martimort
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the most meticulous works of scholarship I have seen. The subject is narrow and the research is thorough. Martimort examines the office of deaconess from the post-apostolic era to the late middle ages. A majority of the work is devoted to the early church through the tenth century. The reason for this is that the office had disappeared by the Middle Ages due to the rise of nuns and other factors. He is Roman Catholic, but he examines the history of the deaconess in both Western/Latin and Eastern/Greek church. He looks at texts which mention deaconesses, including sermons, manuals, and liturgical documents. He also looks at inscriptions, which mention deaconesses. Like a previous reader I dropped one star because a later chapter has too much untranslated Latin.

He is careful not to overstate his case, but several things are clear from his study. There is no definitive office of deaconess in the history of the Church. The office was absent at points, at some points they were right under a deacon, and at other points they were pretty far down the list of non-ordained ministers in the church. The role of deaconess was almost always restricted to ministering to females. The exception is when they were ministering to the sick, but even then it was usually restricted to females. Deaconesses were in certain situations equivalent to an Abbess in a convent. They were allowed to perform certain liturgical functions in the convent, but only when a priest or deacon was not available and only to women. They did perform baptisms of women at some points because adult women were baptized naked. However, there are several baptismal documents that make no mention of a deaconess, yet do mention women being baptized naked. In other words, deaconesses were not necessary to baptize women, nor were they standard.

They were not equivalent to deacons. They were not ordained in the same manner (when they were ordained), they were not given the same role as deacons, they did not play a role in the Lord’s Supper, they of course, did not teach, which deacons often did, and their presence in the history of the church is inconsistent, while the presence of deacons is prevalent. From the early church onward the office of deacon is there and mentioned over and over. This is not the case with a deaconess.

The office of widow is the only office mentioned for women in the 1st and 2nd century and continues to be the dominant office for women through the first several centuries of the history the church. Virgins eventually come in, though it is worth noting that in one place widows are called “virgins” by a church father. That is, they were spiritual virgins who were now espoused to Christ.

On a historical note, Martimort notes that many later liturgical manuals retained the liturgical order for ordaining deaconesses, but they did not actually have deaconesses in practice.The copyists simply copied what the earlier manuscripts had written down. This is interesting because it shows that just because an office or liturgical practice can be found in a document does not mean it was actually used in real life. I think this is important in many areas, not just this subject of deaconesses.

The one thing I wish he had done was more comparison between what the deaconesses did and what deacons did. He covers it in some places, but I wish that had been more thorough.

All in all, a very interesting and excellent study. It is not an easy read for a Protestant. The writing is not exciting and at times he is tedious. Martimort speaks in Roman Catholic terms, which makes it difficult at times to understand everything he means. However, any attempt to formulate a doctrine of deaconess grounded in church history must give heed to this book. Now we need a thorough study for Protestants from the 1300’s to the present.

View all my reviews

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Deaconesses

Comments are closed.