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A Woman Deacon’s Supervisory Role in the Assembly

by John Wijngaards

In the early Church, control over who entered the assembly was an important matter. Persons to be kept out were especially:

(a) spies from the government during times of persecution (harassment by politicians continued well after Constantine’s edict in 312 AD);

(b) unbaptized persons who had not been initiated into the Christian mysteries through catechumenate and baptism;

(c) persons belonging to heretical sects.

It was the task of the male and female deacons to control the admission of strangers to the liturgical assembly. This is what is meant with their ‘watching the gate’.

“When thou, O Bishop, callest an assembly of the Church as one that is the commander of a great ship, appoint the assemblies to be made with all possible skill, charging the deacons as mariners to prepare places for the brethren as for passengers, with all due care and decency. . . . Let the deaconesses also stand at the gates of the women, like shipmen. . . . But if any one be found sitting out of his place, let him be rebuked by the deacon, as a manager of the foreship, and be removed into the place proper for him; for the Church is not only like a ship, but also like a sheepfold. … Let the door be watched, lest any unbeliever, or one not yet initiated, come in.” Apostolic Constitutions 2,57.

“If any brother, man or woman, come in from another parish, bringing recommendatory letters, let the deacon be the judge of that affair, inquiring whether they be of the faithful, and of the Church? whether they be not defiled by heresy? and besides, whether the party be a married woman or a widow? And when he is satisfied in these questions, that they are really of the faithful, and of the same sentiments in the things of the Lord, let him conduct every one to the place proper for him. …… The very same thing let the deaconess do to those women, whether poor or rich, that come unto them.” Apostolic Constitutions 2,58

The deaconess, who stood under the deacon in matters of organization, was generally in charge of matters relating to women. Women referred to her, rather than to the Bishop or deacon.

“And let the deaconess be diligent in taking care of the women . . . Let every one [=both deacon and deaconess] know his proper place, and discharge it diligently with one consent, with one mind.” Apostolic Constitutions 3,19

“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. And as we cannot believe on Christ without the teaching of the Spirit, so let not any woman address herself to the deacon or bishop without the deaconess.” Apostolic Constitutions II, no 26.