The fact that women in various ancient Christian communities were called “deaconesses” is indisputable. Yet this does not mean that deaconesses held holy orders in the Church. In the earliest centuries of Christianity, the words “deacon” and “deaconess” were used as imprecisely as “minister” is used today. Some called deaconesses were simply the wives of deacons; others were female monastics or abbesses.
The specific roles assigned to deaconesses in ancient documents such as the Didascalia Apostolorum comprise charitable services for women, the instruction of female catechumens, and the anointing of women at baptism. In other words, deaconesses ministered strictly to women, fulfilling functions that are best performed by women rather than by men, if scandal is to be avoided. Another early Christian document, the Apostolic Constitutions, prescribes: “A deaconess does not bless, nor perform anything belonging to the office of presbyters or deacons.” Deaconesses manifestly did not have a role at the altar during Eucharistic celebrations.
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