The first to have knowledge of the Resurrection, the women disciples were the first to proclaim the good news. For this reason Orthodox tradition recognizes them as both evangelists and as disciples. In a recent illuminating article Bishop Demetrios Trakatellis has interpreted priesthood as discipleship.49 In view of this interpretation, the women disciples, the true followers of Christ, offer a significant biblical paradigm which deserves serious consideration in future discussions on the ordination of women to the priesthood.
To look back to the apostolic church itself is to discover challenging models of women who functioned in major roles of leadership. Galatians 3:28 did not propose males as the norm for life in the spirit. It ruled out maleness as a requirement for leadership roles in the church, declaring the irrelevance of ethnic, social and gender distinctions in the new creation inaugurated by Christ.50 Thus, in the early church women were not marginalized. Rather, they were empowered to share equally in the various ministries of leadership.
The apostolate, the highest position and authority in the early church, was open to women as well as to men. In his epistles St. Paul makes clear that the leadership of apostles was the most decisive for the primitive ekklesia. St. Paul also inscribes on the record of women's roles in the church the name of an "outstanding" woman apostle (Romans 16:7). The only woman in the New Testament who is called apostolos, Jounia51 represents who knows how many women apostles and leaders, whose names have been lost. Converted to Christianity before St. Paul, Jounia and her husband Andronikos were an apostle-couple like Priscilla and Aquila.
In addition to Sts. Jounia (May 17) and Priscilla (February 13), the Orthodox Church recognizes a number of other women apostles.52 Thereby it honors the memory of courageous charismatic women who criss-crossed the Roman Empire to spread the evangelion to establish churches and to exercise authority over them. The women apostles commemorated by our church include: Saints Mary Magdalene (July 22); Horaiozele (July 26); Apphia (November 22); Xanthippe and Polyxena (September 23); Thekla (September 24); Mariamne (February 17); Photeine (February 26)53; and Nympha (February 28).
The career of St. Hermione (September 14)54 illustrates the many faceted activity of the woman apostle. A prophet known throughout Asia Minor, Hermione was also an inspired teacher and preacher, winning many souls to Christ by her "god-speaking tongue." Empowered by the Holy Spirit, who did not scorn souls wearing female bodies, she cast out demons and healed the sick. Like her brother apostles, Hermione preached a new faith to a multi-ethnic, polylingual and polytheistic society. Hers was a public ministry, shocking and revolutionary in the patriarchal culture of her time.
The women apostles and leaders of the primitive church did not fail to win the recognition and admiration of the very church fathers who excluded women from leadership roles. St. John Chrysostom, who decreed silence, submission and segregation for women explained the contradiction between past and present practices: women in his day were no longer like those in the days of the apostles.55 Hence there was no chance of expanding women's roles to what they had once been in the church.
Likewise, St. Paul inscribes on the record the name of Christianity's first woman deacon. Phoebe was deacon of the church at Cenchreae and the "ruler over many" including himself (Romans 16: 1-2). Paul clearly indicates that Phoebe enjoyed authority in this church near Corinth. The importance of the deacon is suggested by Philippians 1:1, where Paul names the "presiding elders and deacons" as the leaders of the church at Philippi. At that time the diaconate was open to women and men on equal terms. The qualifications for both were the same (I Timothy 3:8-11), as were their functions. Later, however, the ministry of the deaconess was restricted, although she too wore the orarion and communed at the altar with priests.
The order of deaconess has a long and respected tradition, extending from apostolic times to the twelfth century in Eastern Christendom.56 Documents of the third and fourth centuries describe the diaconate of women as it developed in post apostolic times. It was considered a position of honor. The Didache XII Apostolorum states that the deaconess should be honored as a figure of the Holy Spirit. Her position is analogous to that of the deacon. Both were seen as collaborators of the bishop. Immediately one thinks of Orthodoxy's most celebrated deaconess, St. Olympias (July 25)57, the influential confidante and supporter of several hierarchs, including her friend St. John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople.
After New Testament times women deacons were authentically ordained and belonged to the clerical hierarchy. At the Council of Nicaea (325) deaconesses are referred to as clerics. In the Apostolic Constitutions of the fourth century the bishop is charged to ordain deaconesses. Their ordination took place during the Divine Liturgy at the same point as that of the priest. This document specifies terms, prayers and actions (the laying on of hands, etc.) for the ordination of deaconesses, which are the same as those used for the ordination of bishop, priest and deacons. If these were sacramentally ordained, then so were the deaconesses.