As you may know, the question of whether women can serve as deacons has been recently debated among many evangelicals. Since scripture makes clear that Phoebe served as a deacon in the church in Cenchrea, there is an abundance of historical and archeological evidence that women deacons were upheld by the apostles. Both Clement of Alexandria and John Chrysostom recognize Phoebe was a deacon. This should give us pause. Why? Because the early church not only had the scriptures to guide them, they were also familiar with the oral teachings of the apostles. Since apostles, like Paul, supported the service of the deacon Phoebe, women's service as deacons continued throughout the early centuries.
Here are four (though there are many more) examples of early church women referred to as deacons.
Apollonia was a deacon in the church of Alexandria. Her prominence as a deacon is noted by the crowd who seized, tortured, and martyred her in 249 C.E. Her service as a deacon included educating converts, caring for the ill, and overseeing the rite of baptism.
Sofia was a fifth century deacon in the church of Jerusalem. Her tombstone, located in the Mount of Olives, was discovered in 1903, and the inscription translated from Greek reads: "Here lies the minister and bride of Christ, Sofia the deacon, the second Phoebe..." Sofia's work as a deacon was documented by Egeria, a Christian pilgrim who visited Jerusalem (in 400-417) and carefully recorded her encounters with Christian leaders such as Sofia and Marthana—both female deacons in the Jerusalem church. Egeria's travel notes are consistent with the archaeological evidence that also identified Sofia as a deacon in Jerusalem.
Domnika was a fourth century woman from Alexandria, who was commissioned (or ordained) as a deacon by Nektarios, the Patriarch of Constantinople. As a deacon, Domnika established a community of Christian women and was a teacher within this community.
Guided both by scripture and the oral history of women deacons such as Phoebe, women deacons were widely accepted in the early centuries, as the historical and archeological evidence suggests. Apollonia, Domnika, Sofia, and Marthana are among the great host of women who "proclaim the good tidings..." (Psalm 68:11).
Mimi Haddad is president of Christians for Biblical Equality. Join her this July 24-26 and consider these themes more closely at CBE’s 2009 conference, titled “Are Men from Mars and Women from Venus? A Biblical Response to Gender Difference.” Read more about the rich history of female leadership in the New Testament and in evangelical Christianity in Mimi Haddad’s article Empowered by God in July’s issue of Sojourners.