On Being a Deaconess
By Dss Teresa R. Johnson
When I announced my plans to attend seminary, I was asked by more than one person if my intention was to “advance” to the priesthood. My usual response was, “No, my intention is to continue to be what God has called me to be: a Deaconess in the Reformed Episcopal Church. I just want to be a better educated one.” The position of the Reformed Episcopal Church, in keeping with the tradition of the Church catholic, is that Scripture allows only for males to be ordained to Apostolic orders.
Yet the Bible is equally clear that God calls all of His people, male and female, to serve faithfully in His Kingdom. Therefore, it is important to have a sound answer for those who think that any service by a woman puts the Church on a “slippery slope” toward disobedience. In fact, the opposite is true. Obedience to God requires the full and joyful participation of every member of the Body of Christ. The Church is diminished if any member is wrongly disqualified from exercising his or her gifts (within the proper authority structure) in response to the Great Commission.
Therefore, for those who believe that the Bible does not allow for the ordination of women, the answer is not to impose an overly restrictive view of Christian ministry on the Church and relegate women to the kitchen and the nursery. Rather, the answer is for us to take a courageous stand in every area of life by forbidding what God forbids, requiring what God requires, and allowing what God allows. And the simple fact is that God requires everyone, both male and female, to be active in ministry to the extent that He has provided gifts and opportunities.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence of this requirement is the baptismal charge that is given to all, whether male or female, in the liturgy of the Reformed Episcopal Church, which is based on the baptismal liturgy in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. When a baby is baptized, whether boy or girl, the priest signs her with the Sign of the Cross, "in token that hereafter she shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner, against sin, the world, and the devil; and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto his life’s end" (REC BCP, page 465). Though our responsibilities are different, we are engaged in the same spiritual warfare.
Since God requires women to be active in ministry, fighting manfully under his banner, and allows women to serve as Deaconesses (as demonstrated by Scripture and by records of the early Church), it would be profitable to explore what a Deaconess does and how this office fits into the structure of the Church. A woman who has been set apart for the work of a Deaconess in the Reformed Episcopal Church serves at the will of the Bishop Ordinary in a support capacity to the leadership in the venue where she is assigned to serve. In a parish, she operates under the authority of both the Bishop and the Rector to assist with many facets of the life of the Church, including teaching (though not sermons at the Eucharist), preparations for worship, visiting the sick, and ministry to women and children. One important function of a Deaconess is to assist women in situations where the presence of a man might cause both parties some unnecessary embarrassment, such as visiting new mothers in the hospital and counseling women on private and personal issues. Though there have been some minor differences in the duties of a Deaconess throughout the life of the Church, and though the office was lost in the western Church for many years, the duties that have been approved by the REC bishops are in line with the practices of the historic Church.
I've been told more than once that it’s “too bad” I can never be a “real Deacon” or a Priest, as though my disqualification for Apostolic orders means that I am relegated to the back of the bus to Heaven. To that statement, I would offer two observations regarding ministry.
First, none of us is worthy even to gather up the crumbs under God’s table, yet we have been made heirs with Christ, and we are invited to gather at His table to join the family feast. What a remarkable privilege that is! I am just so glad to be a part of God’s family that I am pleased to serve Him in any capacity that brings Him glory and demonstrates my gratitude for His grace. All Christians, including non-ordained men who faithfully serve Christ, should share that same joy.
Second, most of the work to be done in the Kingdom of God does not require ordination. Christians don’t need Apostolic “binding and loosing” authority to visit those who are sick or imprisoned, to feed the hungry, to comfort the sorrowful, to champion the downtrodden, or even to teach the Gospel in a variety of settings. We do need a heart inclined toward loving service rather than a head filled with visions of wielding power. Too often, Holy Orders are sought only for the purpose of gaining honor and authority in the Church. While it is true that the Church should honor the representatives of Christ and should be obedient to their authority in Christ, it is equally true that Apostolic authority is neither a battleaxe nor an emperor’s wreath.
Rather, Apostolic authority is best viewed as a shepherd’s staff that represents the solemn responsibility to bear witness to the sacrificial love and unyielding truth of Jesus Christ, the Great Shepherd who gave His life for the sheep. The example of loving leadership should then disseminate through the Church so that all the members of the Body of Christ are free to use their gifts to the glory of God, for the edification of each other, and for the advancement of the Kingdom in the world. Only when we develop a right view of authority and of Holy Order, can we fulfill our solemn duty to bring the light of Christ to the world.
And that is precisely where women who hold the office of Deaconess can assist the modern Church in preparing other women to fulfill their calling. By maintaining a proper relationship to the authority structure within the Church and by being an official, yet non-ordained, representative of those who are called and duly ordained in Apostolic succession, Deaconesses have the opportunity to demostrate within the Church what Eve should have been, a helper to Adam in the pursuit of the purpose of God.
Even before the Fall, God’s intended authority structure was for men to have primary authority and for women to serve as their vice-regents. Eve’s ministry was to be a helper suitable to Adam in his work in the world (Genesis 2:18), an argument that St. Paul also uses in I Corinthians 11:9-11. He refers to this authority structure as one in which women do not approach God without a covering, which consists of her recognition that she, like the angels, is never to act on her own volition.
This situation in no way demeans women, for St. Paul indicates that there is order even within the Trinity; he says that the head of Christ is God. The Son willingly submits to the Father, as can be seen in Matthew 20, where we read that the mother of James and John asked that her sons be considered for top honors in the Kingdom. Jesus stated that such honors were not His to give but belonged to the Father alone. If our Lord was pleased to operate within the economy of the Godhead, how much more should we be willing to maintain the order that God intended for us!
Wherever women in the New Testament Church are mentioned as being in any sort of ministry, it is always evident that they are operating within God-given boundaries. In Acts, we are told that Apollos was taught by the husband-and-wife team of Aquila and Priscilla, not by Priscilla in defiance of her husband's authority. In Romans, St. Paul commends Phoebe because she had been “a helper of many,” including himself, and in Philippians, he mentions other women who had labored with him in the Gospel. This language echoes Genesis 2, in that Phoebe was a help-meet, not a free agent. St. Philip’s daughters prophesied, but only under the covering of his authority. We are not told their names, just that they proclaimed the Gospel.
So in exercising the office of Deaconess, I am testifying to the great truth that God is an orderly Ruler; I am not saying that women are inferior to men. Similarly, the Son is not inferior to the Father, nor is the Spirit in any way inferior to either. Based on the order that exists within the Trinity, Holy Order in the Church is established by God for His own glory and for our own good.
"No lady should be recommended for the deaconess office without sufficient and careful training in nursing, in teaching, and in all parochial work; but it is still more important that she should be an earnest Christian, desirous to follow in her Master's footsteps amongst His poor and suffering, and that she should be possessed of the requisite devotion and capacity for such work. Also, that she should seek to have the spirit of love, of obedience (which essentially implies humility), and of self-reliance--a self-reliance of which the spring is God-reliance, and which implies such experience and such a calm power of judgment and of decision as will prevent her unnecessarily troubling those under whom she labours. " - from Deaconesses in the Church of England
O LORD, we beseech thee mercifully to receive the prayers of thy handmaidens who call upon thee; and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfill the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
We are affiliated with the Anglican Deaconess Association.
For more information about the Order of Deaconesses, firstname.lastname@example.org.