The PCA and Female Deaconesses (VII)
We are taking a quick excursion into church history precisely because Dr. Tim Keller has remained unchallenged by any PCA church historians on the truth claim that the office of deaconess was widespread, well-known, and accepted in the early Church. We’re simply asking the question: Is that true? It seems to me that others would have asked this question, but there is a rather deafening silence. One can only wonder why.
When we examined what Ignatius (circa 115A.D.) wrote, we learned a number of important things. First, Ignatius’ letters, in general, bear witness of a well-organized and well established local church hierarchy composed of bishops, presbyters, and deacons during the era in which he wrote. To this, the Roman Catholic Aimé Martimort adds, “At the same time, these epistles do not contain even the faintest trace of the existence of any feminine ministry.” Brian Schwertley reinforces this notion when he says of Ignatius, “His description of the diaconate is inconsistent with the idea of deaconesses who function in the same office as male deacons.”
In this issue, we’re going to investigate a contemporary of Ignatius, Polycarp. Afterwards, we’ll take a look at some other pertinent material. To this point, however, Dr. Keller has not closed the deal on his assertion. In fact, the evidence of history seems to point in the exact opposite direction.
(circa 69-155A.D.) Smyrna
According to Irenaeus, Polycarp was a disciple of John, the disciple of Jesus. Polycarp was also a close friend of Ignatius. Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians (Chapter 5—The Duties of Deacons, Youths, and Virgins) reminds his readers of the authority that the deacons possessed in the early Church when he says, “Wherefore, it is needful to abstain from all these things, being subject to the presbyters and deacons, as unto God and Christ.”
In other words, for Polycarp it was a settled notion that church members were subject to presbyters and deacons. It is also instructive that in this letter from Polycarp there is neither the slightest hint of deaconesses nor any indication of females serving on the diaconate. What we do find, however, are references to both virgins and widows, who are called to blamelessness, with purity of conscience, and also highly spiritually-minded women. What is essential for our purposes here is that these widows correspond to 1 Timothy 5 rather than the women spoken of in 1 Timothy 3. This, too, militates against Dr. Keller’s assertion. In fact, it is quite remarkable that he pays no attention to what Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 5 as an option for his views on deaconesses. Martimort asserts that it is not “possible to assimilate the qualities that St. Polycarp wants to see embodied in widows to ‘the women’ of 1 Timothy 3:11.”
We conclude that in accordance with Ignatius, Polycarp does not mention deaconesses, but does address widows. When we arrive at the fourth and fifth centuries it seems quite apparent that what came to be called deaconesses evolved from the order of widows and not from “the women” in 1 Timothy 3. What we do note in the course of history is that later the qualifications of deaconesses are almost identical to what Paul describes in 1 Timothy 5:9-12, with the notable exceptions that over time the age limit was dropped from 60 to 50 and then eventually to 40. What does this mean practically? In terms of history, those who became somehow involved in the “diaconate” were “restricted to godly widows who made a vow of perpetual chastity for the sake of church service.” The vow of chastity was attached to the office and remarriage could result in excommunication. Schwertley adds, “To argue that these deaconesses belonged to the same office as male deacons makes no sense whatsoever…” Martimort argues that there were no deaconesses in the Latin Church during the first five centuries. We shall take our time and move in that direction, but the Roman Catholic historian Martimort argues that “The situation was absolutely clear so far as Rome was concerned: there was no possible role for deaconesses.”
As I close this segment, I want to bring two other Church Fathers to our attention; one of them is well known and the other is less well known. The first is Zephyrinus (died 217A.D.), who was Bishop of Rome from 199A.D. until his death. (Like some today, once he died, he kept on voting.) In 201, he wrote a letter to the bishops of Sicily, instructing them concerning the ordination of both presbyters and deacons. Schwertley reminds us that the term “levite” was synonymous with deacon in the early Church. Zephyrinus explained that the ordinations of presbyters and deacons/Levites was to be performed solemnly on an appropriate occasion, in the presence of many witnesses. Moreover, only those who are “advance tried” and learned men were candidates. Schwertley comments, “When the epistle to Sicily was written there was no mention of deaconesses at all in the western church. The archbishop restricts the diaconal office to ‘learned men.’”
The other Church Father is Cyprian (circa 200-258A.D.), who was the Bishop of Carthage. I mention him because he is one of the most important Church Fathers when it comes to the development of church government in the western church. By Cyprian’s time, the deacons retained their position of authority, ruling along with the presbyters. What is a key here is that even though Cyprian laid a great deal of the groundwork for church government, “There is not one mention of deaconesses in Cyprian’s writings.”
This being the case, why is it that Dr. Keller can say to us that there is sufficient evidence that deaconesses were accepted in the early Church? In our next issue, we’ll examine other fourth century documents.
 Comp. Richardson, ECF, 74-120; Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, (NY: Harper & Row, 1953), pp. 115-116.
 Aimé Martimort, Deaconesses, (K.D. Whitehead [trans.]), (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), p. 26. Emphasis added.
 Brian Schwertley, A Historical and Biblical Examination of Women Deacons, (Southfield, MI: Reformed Witness, 1998), p. 4.
 Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson (eds.), The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 34.
 Ibid. Regarding the virgins Polycarp writes, “The virgins also must walk in a blameless and pure conscience.” In Chapter 4—Various Exhortations, he says the following of the widows: “Teach the widows to be discreet as respects the faith of the Lord, praying continually for all, being far from all slandering, evil-speaking, false-witnessing, love of money, and every kind of evil; knowing that they are the altar of God, that He clearly perceives all things, and that nothing is hid from Him, neither reasonings, nor reflections, nor any one of the secret things of the heart.”
 Martimort, Deaconesses, 27.
 Schwertley, HBEWD, 6.
 Martimort, Deaconesses, 187ff.
 Ibid., 187.
 Schwertley, HBEWD, 6.
 Ibid., 7.
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