The earliest references to local resident leaders in the Pauline churches are Philippians 1:1 and Romans 16:1-2. Paul addresses his letter to the community at Philippi with their episkopoi and diakonoi (both masculine plural titles in Greek, both terms borrowed from secular leadership). These are the terms that later came to mean "bishop" and "deacon."
The episkopoi cannot mean here "bishop" as we understand it because there are many in one community. The role of the diakonoi
also had not yet evolved into that which was later understood as
The revised edition of the New American Bible translates the
words as "overseers" and "ministers" and acknowledges in a note that the
later development had not yet taken place.
Masculine plural forms are used in Greek to refer either to groups of
men or to groups of mixed gender. In Romans 16:1-2, Paul introduces to
the letter's recipients a woman named Phoebe, a benefactor who is also a
diakonos of the church at Cenchreae, one of the seaports of
Thus we know that women could hold this title at the time, and
therefore the diakonoi in Philippi could be a mixed group. If the episkopoi
of Philippians were heads of house churches, as seems likely, it is not
impossible that some of them were also women (for example, Nympha in
The account in Acts of the Apostles 6:1-6 of the apostles choosing
seven men to take care of table service is usually considered the origin
of the office of deacon, yet no one in the story is called diakonos and the apostles appoint them for the diakonia of the table so that the apostles can devote themselves to the diakonos of prayer and the word. All perform diakonos of different kinds.
Some years later, the churches of the Pastoral Epistles seem to have had a single episkopos,
now a bishop (1 Timothy 3:1; Titus 1:7), with deacons as assistants.
Women are explicitly included among the deacons (1 Timothy 3:11),
possibly as wives of deacons but most likely as deacons themselves.
Presbyters are a shadowy group here, mentioned later (1 Timothy
5:17-19). This reference could be to leaders in general, since the word
originally meant "elders."
Slightly later texts, like the letters of
Ignatius of Antioch in the early second century, show the developing
structure of bishop with his deacons and presbyters. The role of the
deacons is clearer, as assistant to the bishop. The presbyters seem to
be a council to the bishop. Nothing is said that precludes the presence
of women in either group.
By the third century, there are both male and female deacons,
particularly in the Eastern church. There is abundant literary and
inscriptional evidence of female deacons. Their title is "deacon" or
"deaconess," seemingly interchangeably. The early third-century Syrian Didascalia Apostolorum
compares the bishop to God, the male deacon to Christ, and the female
deacon to the Holy Spirit.
The presbyters are likened only to the
apostles; their role is still not clear (9.3-8). Though this document
prohibits women from teaching, female deacons have a ministry to women
that only they can perform: instruction, assistance at baptism, and
other kinds of pastoral ministry. The late fourth-century Apostolic
Constitutions gives the rite for ordination of a female deacon, with
hands laid on and invocation of the Holy Spirit (8.19-20).
A further document, the Testamentum Domini, probably written
in the late fourth or early fifth century, assumes the existence of
deaconesses, but preeminence is given to widows, who are clearly among
the clergy along with bishop, presbyters and deacons (1.19, 23). There
is a rite for their ordination (1.41). Deaconesses are not seated among
the clergy, but at the head of the rest of the women of the
Later in the document, female presbyters appear, to remain
after liturgy with the bishop and the widows, fasting and praying until
dawn (2.19). Here, the root meaning of "older women" could apply,
though their placing with widows for all-night vigil with the bishop
would then seem strange.
Only in the mid third century does the role of presbyters begin to
emerge, when Christian congregations in a given region are growing too
large to assemble all together with the bishop. As church organization
evolves in the fourth century, presbyters are now in charge of satellite
communities in large urban areas, and increasingly in rural areas as
well. From these years come several conciliar and episcopal
condemnations of women presbyters (for example, Council of Nîmes, In ministerium leviticum, canon 2; the Council of Laodicea, presbytides, canon 11; Letter 14 of Pope Gelasius, ministrare sacris altaribus; Fulgentius of Carthage, presbyterae).
It is highly unlikely that so many condemnations would appear about a
nonexistent practice. The frequency of occurrences suggests a widespread
Moreover, there is positive evidence of women presbyters.
Several earlier inscriptions from Phrygia, Thera, Egypt and Sicily
commemorate female presbyters, in one case (Ammion in Phrygia), the
commemoration made by a bishop. The holy presbyter Flavia Vitalia in
early fifth-century Dalmatia (today, Croatia) sold a piece of church
burial property, so she was an authorized church agent.
in late fifth-century Calabria is commemorated by her husband, who does
not bear an ecclesiastical title; it is therefore highly unlikely that
her title comes from being his wife. Martia presbyteria made the offering along with two men in a graffito from Gaul around the same time. Giulia Runa presbiterissa
is commemorated in the church of St. Augustine at Hippo, from a time
soon after his death, probably during the Vandal occupation.
intriguing are two fragments of a tombstone from Solin in Dalmatia, one a
cross, the other the word fragment -- dotae, of which the most obvious reconstruction would be sacerdotae, to the (female) priest.
It is interesting to note that most of the references to female
presbyters come rather late and that most come not from the East, where
female deacons were more widely known, but from the West.