One of the books I’ve been reading is Feminine Threads: Women in the Tapestry of Christian History by Diana Lynn Severance. In discussing the early church she has a section on deaconnesses.
There is some debate about whether Phoebe is a servant of the church (Serverance), or held the office of deacon in the church (Calvin).
As Severance has studied the history of the Church, she believes that as an office or position probably developed from the order of widows. These women likely performed the same duties as the widows. This means that they were responsible for “nursing the sick, caring for the poor, dispensing the alms of the Church, and evangelizing pagan women.” (pp. 54) Their ministry was to other women in light of Titus 2. There was also the problem of widows being taken advantage of in many ways (including financially) by predators.
In the 3rd century, the Didascalia provided a “specific ritual for the consecration of widows and deaconesses. A principle work of the deaconesses was to help prepare women for baptism.” (pp. 55). This work continued with the actual baptism of the women. They also counseled women about marriage. Since the early Church often separated the sexes during worship, deaconesses would help the elders distribute communion to women, at church and at home.
We should remember that “the deaconesses worked primarily with other women and under the authority of the presbyter.” (pp. 55) They were women under authority. They exercised shepherding gifts, pastoral gifts, as well as diaconal gifts but did not exercise authority and were not instructing men. They instructed women. Considering their duties, there was no need for female priests contrary to the suppositions of feminist.
The Church became more structured over time, and the widows were placed under the responsibility of the deaconesses. By the 5th century, widows as a position seems to have been abandoned. But the position of deaconess continued for a few more centuries. Severance notes that in the 6th century, the staff of St. Sophia in Constantinople included “60 priests, one hundred deacons, forty deaconesses and ninety sub-deacons. By the eleventh century, however, the position of deaconess had virtually disappeared.” (pp. 55)
We see the existence of deaconesses as well in ordination services for them. So, at least in this period of church history, while the office of elder and deacon were not open to women, ordination was not limited to men.
Once the institutionalization of the church happened, most baptisms were infants, not converts. The need for deaconesses decreased. The popularity of cloistered societies also decreased the need for deaconesses as well. Eventually this “ordained” office fell into disuse and obsolescence.