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Deacons and Women in the Apostolic Fathers

Deacons as Envoys in the New Testament and Apostolic Fathers

In the New Testament and in the collection of writings known as the Apostolic Fathers, there is ample evidence that many deacons travelled. We have already seen that deacons such as Phoebe and Tychicus travelled and were letter carriers, but other deacons also travelled and acted as representatives, or envoys, of specific congregations or of ministers. For example, in his letters to the Philadelphians, Ignatius asks that they send a deacon to the church in Syria as an ambassador (IgnPhild 10:1-2; cf. IgnSmyrn 11:2-3). Deacons helped to maintain a vital network of communication between the churches that were spread across the Roman Empire (cf. Tit. 3:12-13).[1]

In the first and early second centuries, travelling diakonoi provided assistance by carrying letters, and by collecting money for Christian communities suffering hardship or famine (e.g., 2 Cor. 8; cf. 1 Cor. 16:1-5). They also personally assisted missionaries. When Paul was travelling on his missionary journeys, he was often accompanied by men and women from different churches.[2] For instance, in Acts 20:4, we read that while travelling through Macedonia, Paul “was accompanied by Sopater son of Pyrrhus from Berea, Aristarchus and Secundus from Thessalonica, Gaius from Derbe, Timothy also, and Tychicus and Trophimus from the province of Asia.” These men may have been sent by their respective churches to assist Paul in his mission. Paul also sent deacons to churches he had founded to act as his representative. For example, Acts 19:22 states, “He sent (aposteilas) into Macedonia two of those ministering (diakountōn) with him [or, to him], Timothy and Erastus, while he stayed in Asia.”

Deacons also personally assisted Christians in prison. The church at Philippi had sent Epaphroditus to minister to Paul when he was in prison. Paul expressed his gratitude in his letter to the Philippians, thanking them for their much-needed support brought to him through Epaphroditus. In Philippians 2:25, he describes Epaphroditus in glowing terms as his brother, coworker, and co-soldier, as well as an apostle or messenger (apostolos) of the Philippians, and a minister (leitourgos) of Paul’s needs. Absent from the passage about Epaphroditus are words related to diakonos. Yet Epaphroditus seems to be functioning as a deacon: he travelled and ministered to the practical needs of Paul while representing the Philippian church. And he probably carried Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul’s free use of ministry titles seems to indicate that some terms such as coworker, deacon and apostle may have had overlapping meanings.

Early in the second century, Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, was arrested and taken to Rome. During the long trip to Rome, he was accompanied by at least two deacons who had been sent by churches in order to minister to him. The church at Ephesus had sent a deacon named Burrhus, and the church at Cilicia had sent a deacon named Philo (IgnEph 2:1), etc. In his letters, Ignatius speaks with a particular warmth about deacons, indicating his deep gratitude for the service and companionship they have offered him. This service was vital, as prisoners were not well provided for by their captors, and were dependent on the assistance of relatives and friends, or, in this case, deacons acting on behalf of their church.

There is another person whom Ignatius refers to with warmth, and that person is Alce (or Alke). Ignatius greets her affectionately in two different letters with, “I greet Alce, a name very dear to me” (IgnSmyrn 13:2; IgnPol 8:3; cf. MartPol 17:2). Alce was a prominent young woman in the church at Smyrna. She came from a wealthy family, and we know that some of the members of her family were hostile towards Christianity. Ignatius’s affection probably stems from Alce’s ministry to him. Perhaps she functioned as a deacon in the church at Smyrna and was a prostatis of Ignatius, as Phoebe had been of Paul.

Polycarp, in his letter to the Philippians contained in the Apostolic Fathers, commends a man called Crescens who was acting as his representative and letter carrier. Polycarp also recommends Crescens’s sister who was travelling with her brother to Philippi (PolPhil 14). Perhaps Crescens and his sister were both deacons of the church at Smyrna. Alce, Crescens’ sister, and a widow called Gavia appear to be prominent women in the church at Smyrna, yet they are not given any official titles, unless “widow”, used of Gavia, is a title (IgnSmyrn 13:2; cf. IgnPol 8.2). There seems to have been several women in active ministry in the church at Smyrna where Polycarp was bishop. In the other letters of Ignatius almost no women are mentioned. This may indicate that Polycarp and the Christians at Smyrna were accepting of women ministers, unlike some other bishops and congregations.

There seems to be a reticence in giving ministry titles or ecclesial descriptions to women in the Apostolic Fathers. This reticence is also seen in the Gospels where the “many women” from Galilee who were following Jesus and who were clearly among the party of disciples, are never explicitly referred to as disciples.[3] In the undisputed Pauline letters,[4] however, Paul shows no reluctance in using ministry titles or technical ministry terms for both men and women.[5] These titles were given to people who were recognised as leaders and ministers by Paul and by their churches.

In later centuries we also see deacons visiting prisoners. Deacons visited Perpetua and others imprisoned before their martyrdom  And in the Apostolic Constitutions, written around 380, it mentions that male and female deacons needed to be prepared to carry messages and travel, and to serve in various ways.

Let the deacons … minister to the infirm as workmen that are not ashamed. And let the woman [i.e. female deacon] be diligent in taking care of the women; but both of them ready to carry messages, to travel about, to minister, and to serve.
Apostolic Constitutions 3.19 (English translation: New Advent; Greek: p. 213, 215 here.)[6]

There is one more ministry that some deacons were involved with, and that is the ministry of teaching. In both the New Testament and in the Apostolic Fathers we see that women, as well as men taught, even if they are not identified with the title of “teacher” or “deacon”.

Deacons and Women as Teachers in the New Testament and Apostolic Fathers

As Ignatius closes his letter to the Philadelphians, he mentions Philo the deacon of Cilicia. Ignatius writes that Philo “even now assists me in the ministry of the word of God” (kai nun en logōs theou huperetei moi) (IgnPhild 11:1). This ministry may have entailed teaching on the part of Philo. Or perhaps Philo was helping in some practical way so that Ignatius could continue teaching even though he was on his way to Rome and martyrdom. The Didache states that both bishops and deacons carry out “the ministry of prophets and teachers” (Did. 15:1 cf. Acts 13:1). In post-apostolic churches, however, teaching was one of the primary responsibilities of bishops or senior elders.

In First Timothy, the only qualification for bishops (episkopoi) that is not a moral qualification is the ability to teach (1 Tim. 3:2; cf. Tit. 1:9).[7] The qualifications for deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8-12 do not include teaching ability. This implies that not all deacons taught (cf. the similar qualifications for deacons given in PolPhil. 5:2). But some diakonoi did teach. In chapter 4 of 1 Timothy, the ministry of teaching is associated with being a deacon, or diakonos. Timothy, who was acting as an apostolic envoy of Paul in the church of Ephesus, is told, “If you put these instructions before the brothers and sisters, you will be a good diakonos of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound teaching that you have followed” (1 Tim. 4:6).

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul writes that the believers in Colossae had learned (manthánō) “the true message of the gospel” and that they “understood God’s grace” through the ministry of the diakonos Epaphras (Col. 1:5-8). Epaphras was a coworker of Paul and was probably the founder of the Christian community in the Lycus Valley, which includes the city of Colossae.

E.E. Ellis, writing specifically about Paul’s coworkers, states that diakonos “refers to workers with special activities in preaching and teaching.”[8] John N. Collins notes that a third of the 150 occurrences of diakonos and its cognates in the New Testament, the Apostolic Fathers and the Apologists “relate to the preaching of the word of God.”[9]

There is an interesting story in The Shepherd of Hermas that indicates some women were teachers in the early church. In Visions 2.4.2, an old woman (hē presbutera), previously identified as the Church, speaks with Hermas.  She tells Hermas,

So when I finish all the words, they will be made known to all the elect through you. Therefore you will write two little books, and you will send one to Clement and one to Grapte. Then Clement will send it to the cities abroad, because that is his job. But Grapte will instruct (noutheteō) the widows and orphans. But you yourself will read it to this city, along with the elders who preside over the church. (Vision 2.4.2-3, Shepherd of Hermas 8:2-3)

Grapte is a woman, most probably a real person in the church in Rome, just as Clement was a real person, even though we only know of her through this vision of Hermas. This passage identifies Grapte as a Christian teacher and, significantly, she is mentioned in tandem with Clement, either the bishop or secretary of Rome, highlighting her prominence. Grapte is not given any ministry title, yet she was clearly recognised as a minister and a leading woman. Her role in the church is one that some later female deacons were responsible for: instructing women and orphans.[10]

Another woman, Prisca, along with her husband Aquila, “explained the way of God more accurately” to a teacher named Apollos (Acts 18:26).[11] Daniel Wallace has argued that Prisca did not “teach” Apollos because the word didaskō is not used here, but the verb ektithēmi.[12] Ektithēmi is translated as “explained” or “expounded” in Acts 18:26, and is also used in the context of Peter’s and Paul’s explanations in Acts 11:14 and 28:23 respectively. Considering Luke’s use of ektithēmi, it is reasonable to assume that Prisca and Aquila’s explanation of “the way of God” included theological teaching. Moreover, as house church leaders, they would have had many opportunities for teaching and exhortation. Paul regarded Prisca and Aquila as his friends and ministry coworkers. The three worked together and travelled together, Prisca and Aquila even saved Paul’s life (Rom. 16:3-5).

Paul freely acknowledged the ministries of both his male and female colleagues in his letters, including the ministry of Phoebe. Phoebe was Paul’s envoy and representative in Rome, and there is no reason to presume that teaching was not part of her ministry as diakonos of the church at Cenchrea.


[1] These itinerant ministers were financially supported by the “good works” of other Christians (Tit. 3:14; cf. 1 Tim. 2:10; 6:18; etc).

[2] Prisca is an example of a woman who travelled with Paul (Acts 18:18).

[3] Tabitha is the only woman in the New Testament referred to as a disciple. Other women, however, behaved like disciples (e.g., Matt. 27:55-56; Mark 15:40-41; Luke 8:1-3; 10:39; Acts 1:13-14).

[4] The letters that most New Testament scholars regard as being authentically written by Paul include Romans, First and Second Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, First Thessalonians, and Philemon.

[5] Some scholars do not regard First Timothy as having been genuinely written by Paul. If so, it may explain the reticence of the pseudonymous author to give the women mentioned in 1 Timothy 3:11 an official ministry title. These women were discussed in part 5.

[6] This paragraph is comparable to 1 Timothy 3:8-11 NIV in that the word diakonoi is used for male deacons, but the Greek word gynē is used for a female deacon. See my discussion on male and female deacons in 1 Timothy 3 in part 5 here.

[7] It could be that the qualification traditionally translated as “able to teach” actually means “teachable” (didaktikos). See, What is meant by didaktikos in 1 Timothy 3:2 and 2 Timothy 2:24?

[8] E.E. Ellis, “Paul and his Coworkers,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Gerald Hawthorne and Ralph Martin (eds) (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 185.

[9] John N. Collins, Diakonia: Reinterpreting the Ancient Sources (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 63.

[10] Other texts, however, comprehensively show disdain for women as teachers (e.g., Apostolic Constitutions 3.6). Nevertheless, we know some female deacons in the early church were teachers, such as the unnamed woman mentioned in book 3, chapter 10 of Theodoret of Cyrrhus’s Church History. I’ve written about her, here.

[11] Note that Prisca’s name is mentioned first, before her husband’s, in Acts 18:28. Luke uses the diminutive form of her name, Priscilla, in the book of Acts.

[12] Daniel B. Wallace, Did Priscilla “Teach” Apollos? An Examination of the Meaning of ἐκτίθημι in Acts 18:26 (Biblical Studies Press, 1999)

© Margaret Mowczko 2014
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This article is adapted from chapter seven of a paper submitted on the 6th of November 2014 entitled “The Roles of Diakonoi, Male and Female, in the Apostolic and Post-Apostolic Church (c. 40–120) with Special Reference to Phoebe of Cenchrea”.

The bibliography is here.

Some of the information in this series has been included in my newer essay, “What did Phoebe’s position and ministry as διάκονος of the church at Cenchrea involve?” in Deacons and Diakonia in Early Christianity: The First Two Centuries, Bart J. Koet, Edwina Murphy and Esko Ryökäs (eds) (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2018), 91-102. (Mohr Siebeck; Google Books)

Phoebe: Deacon of the Church in Cenchrea

The First Century Church and the Ministry of Women
Part 1: Phoebe and the Ministry of Women
Part 2: Ancient Latin texts in which Phoebe is regarded as an official deacon
Part 3: Phoebe’s role in Paul’s mission to Spain
Part 4: Deacons in the Philippian Church and Phoebe
Part 5: Deacons in the Ephesian Church and Phoebe as Patron
Part 6: Deacons and Women in the Apostolic Fathers
Part 7: Summary and Conclusion

Explore more

A Female Teacher and Deacon in Antioch (AD 360s)
A Christian Lady Teacher in Egypt in the 300s AD
Did Priscilla Teach Apollos?
At Home with Priscilla and Aquila
Believing Wives and Female Coworkers of the Apostles (1 Cor. 9:5)
The Church at Smyrna and her Women

artigos em portugues sobre igualdade entre homens e mulheres no lar e na igreja

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