16 August 2012

My homegirl Phoebs

I finally caved and bought Cheryl Naumann's LCMS deaconess history on Kindle. It has a lot of primary documents, so thumbs up there.

The Lutheran deaconesses back in Germany were nurses. Later, people in the LCMS made an argument that there should be LCMS deaconess nurses because sick Lutherans should have Lutheran nurses. This is interesting. Sick people are vulnerable. I've heard of pastors having trouble with theologically stupid things nurses say to patients, and I myself have had theologically stupid things said to me by dear and loving nurses who wished to comfort my in my trouble. There's no doubt that a well-catechized nurse population would be a nice thing to have available.

But it turned out that the LCMS girls didn't want to be nurses, just deaconesses.

The Lutheran deaconesses back in Germany were also celibate, either virgins or widows. They were free to marry, but then they weren't deaconesses any more. OBVIOUSLY. OK, I hate it when people get snotty about obviouslies so here is why marriage and deaconessing were considered incompatible: when a woman marries, her job is to care for her family. Deaconesses are people who, since they are free of family constraints, may care for those whose only family is the Church. Speculation is of limited value, but I have a hard time imagining that Loehe and other champions of the deaconess concept would have responded favorably to the notion that a woman should leave her children and husband each morning to go and work as a deaconess. She would have failed in her service the minute she walked out the door (and if it is necessary for her to work--wouldn't it make sense for her to pursue employment that pays better? :P)

It is clear that some people, especially Loehe, really wanted there to be deaconesses. But I don't think their motive is clear. Was it because the church needed Lutheran nurses and other caregivers? Or was it because the unmarried woman (especially the unmarried young woman) was as big a practical problem back in old timey times as it is now? Probably some of both.

I found this quotation from Loehe astonishing:

"From the outset the deaconesshood is joined to the preaching office as Eve is to Adam, and a church which does God's work among the Gentiles without deacony [sic] seems to me like a one-legged man."

I respectfully (and nervously given my total lack of qualifications) disagree. I am curious about the word "deaconesshood." I do not know German. I don't know if the word used by Loehe is somehow distinct from that which might normally be translated "diaconate," or how either of these word[s] compare[s] with what comes out later in the sentence as "deacony," or if this is a translator's rendering of the same word, whatever that might be. Either way, the expression as it comes across in English suggests that deaconesses are a female counterpart to pastors. They are not. The parish is the feminine counterpart to the masculine pastor as the Church is to Christ.

Deaconesses are made up. The best way I can think to describe them is as a distillation of the Church which has occasionally been considered beneficial to have. It would help a lot if we called them something other than deaconesses since there is a New Testament OFFICE of deacon and the two can't help getting tangled up with each other when discussed. Deacon is a technical term in Scripture with specific requirements. There is simply no New Testament OFFICE of deaconess. There is only an itsy-bitsy reference to a woman named Phoebe who serves, end of Phoebe story. I could name 15 women off the top of my head from my own little parish about whom the exact same bio could be written. I could be completely wrong here, but I contend that it is hard to make a case for Phoebe's service as an OFFICIAL one. It's the exact same problem we run into today with "ministry."

Also interesting: the same idiotic arguments for everything are old news. Even back in the bad old LCMS days of women on one side, men on the other, people were boohooing about Galatians 3:28 and the horrific prospect of women's talents being wasted. I'd make a crabby comment about women being considered too stupid to figure out that they should use their talents; on the other hand, there is a bit of a problem with talentolatry conflated with hobbyism on the part of women, the novelty of which I also doubt. Golly, maybe everybody has always been pandering and/or self-obsessed! I wouldn't know, naturally . . . .

That's as far as I've gotten. It's a really long book.


etem said...

I've been dabbling here and there in the book for a couple of years, and especially like the primary docs, too. In other news, Here are two things I think:
1. I would have liked to have been a nurse/deac. And I wish that would have been the path encouraged.
2. I'm totally ok with Phoebe being a wealthy patron. Why is that bad, again?

Untamed Shrew said...

"Ministry." grooooan. My teacher friends talk about their teaching ministries and my organist friends talk about their music ministries. (Of course, only the males are allowed to be called "Ministers of Music" even though the females work just as hard and are often better theologians.) I'm about ready to start blabbing about my procreation ministry. When a word can mean anything, it means nothing.

greatgaunts said...

Procreation ministry! Haha! Shrew, you're great. :)

Stephanie said...

I am a deaconess intern, and I endorse your message... The more I have learned about deaconesses and their history, the less it has made sense to me. Also, I would offer up Dorcas/Tabitha as a better biblical example of what deaconesses are supposed to be about than Phoebe. She may not have the diakonia word, but she's out there helping the poor...
It is a REALLY long book.

pekoponian said...

"When a woman marries, her job is to care for her family." Thank you! I needed to read this.

Anonymous said...

I, too, believe deaconesses, esp. the current LCMS version of the office, to be made up, even thouse I'm a "certified" deac. The more I studied exegetical theology, the more I realized it. This is not to say that the service of modern deaconesses is not a gift to the Church. . . but why must we go on defending it based on bad exegesis and therefore bad application of Rom. 16:1? Anyway. . . yes, I'm disillusioned. And frustrated. Since I'm on a roll, how do we define deaconesses, anyway?! (A bit of an inside joke.) I'll stop, for now.

Reb. Mary said...

All this confusion helps to (un)explain why a certain church of our sometime association referred to persons of both sexes with a certain amount of synodical training as "deacons," and all in that category vested and helped distribute communion, both on Sundays and to shut-ins.

Cathy said...

talentolatry. Good word.

Anonymous said...

"From the outset the deaconesshood is joined to the preaching office as Eve is to Adam, and a church which does God's work among the Gentiles without deacony [sic] seems to me like a one-legged man."

The operative phrase here seems to be "as Eve is to Adam" aka subordinate, obedient and helpful to him in carrying out what he tells her to do. In no way does it mean she should be like Adam.

Let's set up the analogy

Adam : Eve :: Pastor : deaconess

That certainly does not lead to the following interpretation

Adam : Eve :: Pastor : (female)Pastor

Adam's relationship to Eve is not like a father to a son, nor like a master to an apprentice etc. Eve is not growing into Adam's role nor will she be doing things materially similar to the unique functions specifically assigned to him and not to her.

Also, the Krankenschwester (nurse) literally "sister to the sick" were nuns. Nuns are not really like deacons in the Roman church. The writer is probably more familiar with the Roman system and that may be why he sees the sisters as so essential in caring for people.

And that is my unqualified comment. :-)

Rebekah said...

My objection to the analogy is with the Pastor : deaconess end. I disagree that the deaconess is analogous to Eve. I think the correct analogy is

Adam : Eve :: Pastor : Parish

just as

Adam : Eve :: Christ : Church

per Ephesians 5.

I think the Pastor : deaconess actually DOES slide more easily into deac as chick pastor. I mean, she's just a chick who does pastory stuff, right? Sooooo . . . ? Whereas that mistake could never be made with the parish in the Eve spot. A parish is a totally different THING from a pastor. A parish could never be a pastor. So the deaconess simply doesn't have a place in this logical framework. I'm not saying she isn't a nice girl. :) Also not entirely comfortable putting this in terms of analogy; "type" seems the more fitting schema.

The nun problem is also addressed in the book. As good Lutherans, our forebears couldn't have anything that smelled even remotely nunnish, which is why a case had to be made for deaconesses not really being like nuns at all even though they totally were (less the lifetime commitment to celibacy).

Anonymous said...

What about lay women teachers in the parish school. We could call them deaconesses. It would make as much sense. They are women who are employed by the parish to carry out specific tasks. So is the church secretary, the treasurer/account clerk, etc. We could call anyone who is a paid servant of the church, a deacon or deaconess; the school's lunch lady, the grounds keeper, etc.

Rebekah said...

I'd be a little more careful about using the term deacon for any old guy on the payroll. Deacon IS a New Testament office.