The Holy Spirit and Deaconesses

The Holy Spirit and Deaconesses April 27, 2020

No photographer listed: Icon of Holy Women [not deaconesses] /pxfuel
In the so-called Apostolic Constitutions, probably written in late 4th century Syria, we read not only of deaconesses in the church, we see that they were understood as serving as a type of the Holy Spirit. The Apostolic Constitutions did not do this by themselves; they followed the precedence given to it by the early third century Teachings of the Apostles (Didascalia Apostolorum), as Corrado Marucci indicates:

According to the Apostolic Constitutions the deaconesses are gathered from among the virgins and the widows; for both of them he diákonos and diakónissa are the terms used. The reason they exist is the same as in the Didascalia, that is, mainly the desire to avoid scandals in the apostolate to Christian women. However, unlike the Didascalia, in the Constitutions even the deaconess, as the deacon, can be charged by the bishop to other tasks, such as carrying messages. The Constitutions reiterate and develop the analogy between the deaconess and the Holy Spirit already found in the Didascalia.[1]

The typology seems to follow the one founded by St. Ignatius of Antioch, who considered the bishop to be the representative of Christ. Thus, Pietro Sorci informs us, the Syriac tradition promoted the deaconess as a representative of the Holy Spirit:

In addition to widows, the Didascalia mentions deaconesses. Developing further the typology of Ignatius, according to which the bishop is the image of Christ, while presbyters are images of the apostles, the Didascalia adds that the deaconess must be honored as a figura [type] of the Holy Spirit. [2]

The typology is clarified and becomes better in the Apostolic Constitutions, for in it, a bishop is seen to present God the Father, deacons Christ the Son, and deaconesses the Holy Spirit:

For let the bishop preside over you as one honoured with the authority of God, which he is to exercise over the clergy, and by which he is to govern all the people. But let the deacon minister to him, as Christ does to His Father; and let him serve him unblameably in all things, as Christ does nothing of Himself, but does always those things that please His Father. Let also the deaconess be honoured by you in the place of the Holy Ghost, and not do or say anything without the deacon; as neither does the Comforter say or do anything of Himself, but gives glory to Christ by waiting for His pleasure.[3]

Now, it is important to remember that this text comes to us from before the council of Nicea, before Trinitarian theology had been systematically explored. Christians at this time were slowly trying to work out and understand the implications of the Trinity. They had great difficulties in explaining the relationship and equality of the persons of the Trinity.  Indeed, many Christian writers tended to possess (intentionally or not) a semi-subordinationist Trinitarian understanding with the Father being said to be greater than the Son, and the Son greater than the Holy Spirit. They did not deny the unity of the Trinity as one God, but they found it difficult to understand how each of the persons were equal to each other. Christians were trying to overcome that subordinationst tendency; in the midst of Trinitarian works written in this era, we can find the basic foundation of Trinitarian theology with the equality of the persons being promoted. The difficulty they had was trying to interpret various passages of Scripture which seem to suggest the Son is subordinate to the Father, and the Spirit to the Son (such as when Jesus said, “You heard me say to you, `I go away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I go to the Father; for the Father is greater than I’” (Jn. 14:28 RSV)).[4] Likewise, the Holy Spirit certainly is shown to be sent by the Son, making it seem to be subordinate to the Son.  This, we can see, lies behind the typology used in the Apostolic Constitutions.

Why, some might ask, did the Holy Spirit get equated with deaconesses? Perhaps it is because the Holy Spirit in the Syriac tradition is understood and represented by the feminine because the word for spirit is feminine in gender. But, as Johannes van Oort explains, there are other reasons:

It would be completely wrong to state that the image of the Holy Spirit as a woman and mother is simply caused by the fact that the Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac words for ‘spirit’ are (nearly) always feminine. Of course this was an important factor, but there were other significant factors as well, such as the link between the figures of the Holy Spirit and Wisdom or between Holy Spirit and the Jewish feminine concept of the Divine Presence or Shekinah.[5]

For, as Oort continues, Genesis suggests there is something feminine in God, and the Spirit took on that femininity:

These Jewish Christians (or, perhaps better: Christian Jews) adhered to Genesis 1:27 where it is said that God created male and female after his image. If this text is really taken for true, then something female is inherent to God. Apart from the image of a  Mother,  Syrian  and  other  Jewish  Christians  stressed  the  ‘hovering’  (rahhef)  of  the  Spirit  as  stated,  for  instance,  in  Genesis 1:2 and Deuteronomy 32:11.16 Besides, they attributed to  the  Spirit  the  motherly  features  which  Jewish  prophetic  writings  like  Isaiah  (49:15–15;  66:13)  find  in  God. [6]

The intuition seen in the Didascalia and the Apostolic Constitutions, that is, the relationship between a bishop, a deacon, and a deaconess, is highly suggestive and indicates a reason why the church, far from repressing deaconesses, needs them if they also have deacons. Otherwise, the bishop-deacon relationship would indicate a binity. Nonetheless, the intuition needs reform, so that the subordinationistic interpretation of the Trinity, which is also evident in the Apostolic Constitutions, is transcended. To do this properly, deacons and deaconesses need to be seen as equals, with equal responsibility and ministry in the church just as the Logos and the Holy Spirit are equals. While, for example, the Spirit is sent from the Son, we must also realize, as Bulgakov says, that the Son also finds himself resting in the Spirit, so that the two are equally connected to and with each other:

The Holy Spirit reposes upon the Logos, and the Logos abides in His bosom. The Holy Spirit is life, and love, and the reality of the Word, even as the Logos is, for Him, the determining content, word-thought and feeling, Truth and being in Truth – as the Beauty of self-revealed Truth. [7]

Sadly, even after Nicea, even after I Constantinople, the Holy Spirit tends to be treated as having a subordinating position within the Trinity. This is because the Holy Spirit is most often understood in relation to Christ, and so it seems to subordinate itself to the Son. However, Scripture suggests that the Holy Spirit likewise engages and acts in the world with its own mission: “The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Jn. 3:8 RSV). The word translated as “wind” here can also mean “spirit.” Jesus is explaining how the blowing of the wind resembles the way the Spirit works, and so the reason why those who are born of the Spirit are free is because the Spirit is free and acts with its own mission and purpose. All three persons of the Trinity work together and are unified in will; this, often, makes it seem as if one subordinates itself to the will of the other, but all three are God, and all three are the one God acting as God, and so it is not a matter of subordination but a matter of their unity which is expressed when one seems to coordinate itself to the will of another.

Because the Spirit, in all practical purpose, continues to be subordinated in the way people think of it, we need to find a way to promote the integrity and equality of the Spirit. Perhaps the way to do this is to return to the ancient typology suggested by the Apostolic Constitutions, but to do so in a way which conforms to the fullness of Trinitarian theology. This means that if a deaconess is seen to represent the Holy Spirit, there needs to be a reconsideration of what a deaconess can do as a way to highlight and show the equality of the Spirit. Certainly, the Son and Spirit work together and are one, but we must now highlight the equality of that work, promoting a proper Trinitarian theology which does not reduce the Spirit, even as we have learned not to reduce the Son.

No artist named: St Olympia the Deaconess / Wikimedia Commons

Deaconesses must be made equal with deacons in what they can do, thereby allowing us to see the equality of the Son and the Spirit.  As deacons can preach, so deaconesses should be able to preach. This would conform to what Scripture tells us of the Spirit, that the Spirit itself will come among us to teach us of all truth:  “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (Jn. 14:26 RSV). The Holy Spirit, then, is to our teacher, revealing to us the truths of God, for the Spirit knows all the truths of God for the Holy Spirit is God. Thus, Didymus the Blind writes:

The Holy Spirit himself, who has been sent by the Father and comes in the name of the Son, will teach all things to those who are perfect in Christ (that is, all things which are spiritual and intelligible) – in sum, the mysteries of truth and wisdom. But he will not teach as an instructor or teacher of a discipline which has been learned from another. For this method pertains to those who learn wisdom and the other arts by means of study and diligence. Rather, as he himself is the art, the teaching, the wisdom, and the Spirit of Truth, he invisibly imparts knowledge of divine things to the mind. [8]

How, though, can we promote the Spirit and its equality if we reduce those who represent the Spirit to purely subordinate roles with no authority to teach or preach? The subordination of deaconesses to deacons must be changed to equality with deacons, with equal authority as deacons; their ordination is the same, even as the Son and the Spirit are homoousios with each other. Now we must accept what such equality entails. Not only should we have deaconesses (so as to properly represent the Trinity through the bishop-deacon-deaconess typology), deaconesses should be able to fully embrace the full charism of their ordination and serve at the altar, preach the Gospel, indeed, truly take on the role of a teacher to highlight the role of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s equality with the Son.  Then we can realize the truth of the words, “Furthermore, the administration of ecclesiastical discipline is made complete in this Trinity.” [9] For how is the administration of the discipline complete when it continues to follow a subordinationist interpretation?

Therefore, not only is there precedent for deaconesses in the ancient church, we have theological (Trinitarian) reasons to promote them and to make sure that their restoration in the church is not just a repetition of how they were in the past. Rather, we must embrace what the Trinity teaches us of the equality of the Son and the Spirit. We must understand the charism of the deacon and the deaconess is the same. They are equals. They should be able to act in that equality. They should be understood as having the same ecclesiastical authority as each other. That way, not only will women be shown the respect they should be given, we can begin to have a better Pneumatology, one which does not reduce the Spirit but rather, one which recognizes the Spirit is itself an authentic person in the Trinity who will go where it wills. For then we will have the witness of women deacons to represent what this means to us in a practical fashion.

[1] Corrado Marucci, “History and value of the Feminine Diaconate in the Ancient Church,” trans. Carmela Leonforte-Plimack and Phyllis Zagano in Women Deacons? Essays with Answers. Ed. Phyllis Zagano  (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016), 35.

[2] Pietro Sorci, “The Diaconate and Other Liturgical Ministries of Women.” Trans. trans. Carmela Leonforte-Plimack and Phyllis Zagano in Women Deacons? Essays with Answers. Ed. Phyllis Zagano  (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016), 64.

[3] Apostolic Constitutions in ANF(7): 410 [Book II c. 26].

[4] When the theology of the incarnation was explored, Christians found the explanation for such passages lies in the fact that Jesus often talks in relation to his humanity, not his divine personality.

[5] Johannes van Oort, “The Holy Spirit as Feminine: Early Christian Testimonies and their Interpretation,” in HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 72(1):5.

[6] Johannes van Oort, “The Holy Spirit as Feminine: Early Christian Testimonies and their Interpretation,” 5.

[7] Sergius Bulgakov, The Comforter. Trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 186.

[8] Didymus the Blind, “On the Holy Spirit” in Works on the Spirit: Athanasius the Great and Didymus the Blind. Trans. Mark DelCogliano, Andrew Radde-Gallwitz, and Lewis Ayres (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), 187.

[9] Didymus the Blind, “On the Holy Spirit,” 176.


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