Deaconesses, the Ordination and Orthodox Theology

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Petros Vassiliadis, Niki Papageorgiou, Eleni Kasselouri-Hatzivassiliadi
  • Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England: 
    Cambridge Scholars Publishing
    , October
     585 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The call to serve is a responsibility that both men and women are expected to respond to with all readiness. This divine injunction might not be met by all, especially women if the church refuses to give women the opportunity to serve. There is a persistent trend in literature of women being written out of history, especially when it comes to religion. Their roles, contributions, and desire to serve at the highest realms of power in the church, particularly, are conveniently ignored. This discrimination is mostly supported by scriptural texts that admonish women to take a background position so men can shine. Women have continuously been reminded of their need to fulfill their role as homemakers whose activities must revolve around the domestic sphere. Yet in almost all Christian denominations, the number of women greatly exceeds the number of men. They have, since time immemorial contributed to the growth and development of the church through their financial and membership contributions, not to mention their unending dedication to various activities in the church. 

The unanswered question of why women have been left out of the higher echelons of the church’s organization is what these essays seek to unravel. They make a case for the ordination of women, especially into the deaconate.

The collections and presentations in this conference, aimed at honoring the ninety-four-year-old Professor Emeritus Evangelos Theodorou, all tackle in one way or another the “burning” issues of women’s role in religion, with specific emphasis on their ordination and the office of the deaconate.

Kasselouri-Hatzivassiliadi, in eulogizing and extolling the work of the great theologian Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, cites a very illuminative statement made by the theologian in support of women’s ordination, especially into the deaconate:

“The door does seem ajar in the Orthodox Church for an intelligent creative restoration of the diaconate of women accompanied by a comprehensive rethinking of this ministry. Perhaps we should push that door, open, while at the same time still thinking together, in a free and conciliar way, on the question being asked by the churches which do ordain women to the ministry” (401).

The overarching theme that underlies all the presentations in this conference is the participation of women in religion generally and their ordination, as well as the revitalization of the deaconate. However, each article has its distinct focus and thus advances its argument within that perspective. The works can be divided into those that look at women’s historical role in the church and those that pay particular attention to the issue of women’s ordination. 

 As has been indicated by most of the articles in the presentation, the argument against women’s ordination is not theological but rather based on tradition. The argument holds that women’s exclusion from ordination is generally a result of the tradition of the so-called fathers, who in their own “wisdom kept women at bay.” There is also the school of thought that argues that Jesus’s example of excluding women from his selected disciples is a vindication of the decision not to ordain women. Most of the presentations in this conference call this argument and line of thinking into question. Constantine Yokarinis (chap. 8) and Eleni Kasselouri-Hatzivssiliadi (chap. 27), for instance, make the argument that both men and women are called to serve and are thus equal heirs of the kingdom.

Again, the proponents of the “male discipleship” model do not take into account the fact that history has consistently shown that, indeed, women were always part of the religious enterprise. Ioannis Petrou (chap. 3) enlightens the reader on the fact that women were ordained as deaconesses to assist with baptism in the early days of the church and that women were engaged in social services as early as the 4th century. Mary Magdalene, whose relationship with Jesus provides an example of his interaction with women, is cited by various works in this collection to indicate Jesus’s attitude towards women. For instance, Katerina Drosia’s paper successfully shows that Mary Magdalene was more than just a “saved prostitute” as she has traditionally been depicted in the Bible. Using other valuable historical sources such as the Gospel of Mary, Philip, Thomas, and others, she demonstrates that Mary was more than a “saved woman”—she was “a model disciple who teaches, interprets, preaches, and comforts the disciples. She is an apostle and an example of faith and ministry, which cannot be overlooked, at least in regard to the issue of the sacramental priesthood of deaconesses” (148).

Such models are overlooked by those who argue against the ordination of women. Again, there is a clear indication that what we call “church tradition” is in most cases a set of veiled cultural practices that are intertwined with religion. Indeed, it is clear that women were pushed into the margins and eventually out of the deaconate, not by the teachings of the Bible, but by the cultural context within which Christianity was nurtured. Thus, society influenced the church instead of the reverse. The paradox, however, is that while society has moved on and opened its doors to women in all aspects of human endeavor, the Orthodox Church still remains adamantly opposed to their inclusion in certain church positions. Indeed, women’s secular participation in the public sphere has over the years provided women with the impetus to push for full participation in all matters concerning the church, including their ordination. These presentations prod the church to revisit the tradition in which women played active roles in the church and held positions such as deaconess. 

It is fascinating how the writers in this volume blend academic, practitioner, and insider perspectives into their arguments and analyses. This book contributes to the broader discourse on women and religion, but especially makes the case for women’s ordination into the office of deaconate. It pushes the boundaries on the argument for women’s ordination by using relevant examples and case scenarios to bolster their various and varied arguments. The numerous sources—biblical, historical, and academic—that are used to support the arguments adds a fresh dimension to the arguments in favor of women’s ordination into the deaconate. The papers in these presentations are not mere wishful thinking; they are well-argued pieces that seek to prompt the Orthodox Church into action. They question the need for the church’s current stance and call for a more compassionate and rational conversation about this anomaly. After reading the various presentations, one is left with the sense that change is imminent, and the church is being called to be active agents in this movement of change or be left behind.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Grace Sintim Adasi is Research Fellow at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana.

Date of Review: 
October 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Petros Vassiliadis is Professor Emeritus of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, and President of the Center of Ecumenical, Missiological and Environmental Studies (CEMES), and the World Conference of Associations of Theological Institutions (WOCATI). His publications include The Q-Document Hypothesis (1977); Cross and Salvation: The Soteriological Background of the Pauline Teaching of the Cross (1983); Eucharist and Witness: Orthodox Perspectives on Unity and Mission of the Church (1998); Studies in Q (1999); Paul: Trajectories into his Theology (2005); Lex Orandi: Liturgical Theology and Liturgical Renewal (2005); Unity and Witness: Handbook on Inter-Religious Dialogue (2007); and Orthodox Perspectives on Mission (2013).

Niki Papageorgiou is Professor of Sociology of Religion and Ethics at the Theological School of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, having received her PhD from the Department of Ethics and Sociology of the Theological School of the Roman Catholic University of Louvain-La-Neuve, Belgium. She is a founding member and vice-chairwoman of the Hellenic Society for the Study of Religions (SSEASR), and a member of the European Society of Women (SESR), the Société Internationale de Sociologie des Religions (SISR), and the European Society of Women Theological Research (ESWTR).

Eleni Kasselouri-Hatzivassiliadi is Lecturer at the Hellenic Open University, Greece, and a Research and Studies Officer of the Greek National Center for Public Administration and Local Government. Her publications include Women’s Voices and Visions for the Church. Reflections from Orthodox Women (2006) and Many Women Were Also There: The Participation of Orthodox Women in the Ecumenical Movement. Past, Present, Future, (2011).


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