See also Deacon
In the early church, a woman involved in the pastoral ministry of the church. Exactly what her function or official status may have been is a matter of dispute. Paul mentions Phoebe, “deaconess” (ousan diakonon) of the church at Cenchreae (Rom. 16:1) and there is also an ambiguous reference in 1 Timothy 3:11. The “widows” mentioned in 1 Timothy 5:3-10 may also be connected with the role. Not until the end of the fourth century is much known about the office of deaconess (Gr. diakonissa). The “Didascalia” and the “” describe their functions as assistants to the clergy in the baptizing of women, ministers to the poor and sick among women, instructors of women catechumens, and in general intermediaries between the clergy and women of the congregation. Fears of the usurping of priestly functions and other considerations led to the extinction of the office in the church at large by the eleventh century.
The modern deaconess movement began clearly in 1836 when the Lutheran pastor T. Fliedner* founded a Protestant community at Kaiserswerth,* near Dusseldorf, devoted chiefly to nursing. The movement spread rapidly through the Protestant world. In the second half of the nineteenth century, deaconesses were established in the, the Methodist Church, and the . They act as pastoral assistants to the minister.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
de’-k’-n, de’-k’-n-es: The term diakonos, and its cognates occur many times in the, as do its synonyms huperetes, and doulos, with their respective cognates. It may be said in general that the terms denote the service or ministration of the bondservant (doulos), underling (huperetes) or helper (diakonos), in all shades and gradations of meaning both literal and metaphorical. It would serve no useful purpose to list and discuss all the passages in detail. Christianity has from the beginning stood for filial service to God and His kingdom and for brotherly helpfulness to man, and hence, terms expressive of these functions abound in the New Testament. It behooves us to inquire whether and where they occur in a technical sense sufficiently defined to denote the institution of a special ecclesiastical office, from which the historical diaconate may confidently be said to be derived.
Many have sought the origin of the diaconate in the institution of the Seven at Jerusalem (
The Seven were appointed to "serve tables" (diakonein trapezais), in order to permit the Twelve to "continue stedfastly in prayer, and in the ministry (diakonia) of the word." They are not called deacons (diakonoi), and the qualifications required are not the same as those prescribed by Paul in
Paul says, "I commend unto you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant (the
We conclude, therefore, that the Seven and Phoebe did not exercise the diaconate in a technical sense, which appears first certainly in
See also BISHOP; CHURCH; CHURCH GOVERNMENT.