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Deaconesses in Europe and their Lessons for Americ

The word diaconate means service


Priscilla, spoken of with Aquila as "my helpers in Christ Jesus," or Tryphena, Tryphosa, and the beloved Persis, who "labored much," or Julia and Olympas, all mentioned in the same chapter, were or were not deaconesses we have no means of knowing.

Outside of this chapter we do not find other references to the order in the New Testament, unless it be in 1 Tim. iii, 11. In the midst of a lengthy description of the qualifications of deacons is interjected the exhortation: "Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things." Now the word _wives_ has no authority from the Greek word, which is simply _women_. Bishop Lightfoot remarks, in his book on the authorized version of the New Testament, "If the theory of the definite article (in the Greek) had been understood our translators would have seen that the reference is to deaconesses, not to wives of the deacons."

Many eminent scholars are of the same opinion, among whom are Chrysostom, Grotius, Bishop Wordsworth, and Dean Alvord. Dean Howson adds: "It should be particularly noticed in connection with this that in the early part of the chapter no such directions are given concerning the wives of the bishops, though they are certainly as important as the wives of the deacons; so that it can scarcely be thought otherwise than that the apostle's directions were for the deaconesses, an order which we find in ecclesiastical records for some

centuries side by side with that of deacons."[4]

Those mentioned in Tit. ii, 3, and in 1 Tim. v, 9, cannot be considered as holding the office of a deaconess. They belong distinctively to the class of widows, who held a position of honor in the Church. St. Paul had clear conceptions of the administrative needs of the Church, and it is not probable that he would set apart to the service of deaconesses, which had many difficult duties, those who were already sixty years old.

The many names of faithful women mentioned in his letters as helpers in the Church are important witnesses for the great apostle's appreciation of woman's co-operation in the work of the Church, although his judgment was necessarily limited in some directions by the influence of the times in which he lived.

Let us examine the requirements for the diaconate of the early Church. The word diaconate means service; helpful service. We use the word to designate service for the Church of Christ; service that more particularly concerns itself with administering the charities of the Church and performing its duties of compassion and mercy. The men who were selected for this office were to be men of "honest report." They must have led a blameless life. Those who had repented of wrong-doing and reformed their lives were excluded from the office, because they had lost a good report "of them which are without." Pre-eminently they must be men of spiritual experience, proven Christians, "full of the Holy Ghost and of wisdom." They were also to have practical gifts that would make them efficient and capable in the duties of every-day life. 1 Tim. iii, 8.

These are some of the qualifications spoken of as belonging to the diaconate, and are the same in application to either sex. The woman deacon must, however, besides possessing the above qualities, be unmarried or a widow. The married woman has her calling at home, and cannot combine with that an official calling in the Church, although she may be a valuable lay helper.

The field of labor of the women deacons of apostolic times and of the present is essentially the same. The conditions of society and of the Church, however, are totally dissimilar. We must, therefore, look to see new adaptations of the same useful qualities. In other words, we shall not expect to take the female diaconate of the days of the apostles and transport it unchanged, into nineteenth century environments. We shall rather expect to see the invariably useful qualities of the diaconate of women adapted to the needs of the sinful, sorrowing, ignorant, and helpless of the age in which we live.

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