Sacred Texts  Christianity  Early Church Fathers  Index  Previous  Next 

Canon XI.

Presbytides, as they are called, or female presidents, are not to be appointed in the Church.

p. 130 Notes.

Ancient Epitome of Canon XI.

Widows called presidents shall not be appointed in churches.


In old days certain venerable women (πρεσβύτιδες) sat in Catholic churches, and took care that the other women kept good and modest order.  But from their habit of using improperly that which was proper, either through their arrogancy or through their base self-seeking, scandal arose.  Therefore the Fathers prohibited the existence in the Church thereafter of any more such women as are called presbytides or presidents.  And that no one may object that in the monasteries of women one woman must preside over the rest, it should be remembered that the renunciation which they make of themselves to God and the tonsure brings it to pass that they are thought of as one body though many; and all things which are theirs, relate only to the salvation of the soul.  But for woman to teach in a Catholic Church, where a multitude of men is gathered together, and women of different opinions, is, in the highest degree, indecorous and pernicious.


It is doubtful what was here intended, and this canon has received very different interpretations.  In the first place, what is the meaning of the words πρεσβύτιδες and προκαθήμεναι (“presbytides” and female presidents)?  I think the first light is thrown on the subject by Epiphanius, who in his treatise against the Collyridians (Hær., lxxix. 4) says that “women had never been allowed to offer sacrifice, as the Collyridians presumed to do, but were only allowed to minister.  Therefore there were only deaconesses in the Church, and even if the oldest among them were called ‘presbytides,’ this term must be clearly distinguished from presbyteresses.  The latter would mean priestesses (ἱερίσσας), but ‘presbytides’ only designated their age, as seniors.”  According to this, the canon appears to treat of the superior deaconesses who were the overseers (προκαθήμεναι) of the other deaconesses; and the further words of the text may then probably mean that in future no more such superior deaconesses or eldresses were to be appointed, probably because they had often outstepped their authority.

Neander, Fuchs, and others, however, think it more probable that the terms in question are in this canon to be taken as simply meaning deaconesses, for even in the church they had been wont to preside over the female portion of the congregation (whence their name of “presidents”); and, according to St. Paul’s rule, only widows over sixty years of age were to be chosen for this office (hence called “presbytides”).  We may add, that this direction of the apostle was not very strictly adhered to subsequently, but still it was repeatedly enjoined that only elder persons should be chosen as deaconesses.  Thus, for instance, the Council of Chalcedon, in its fifteenth canon, required that deaconesses should be at least forty years of age, while the Emperor Theodosius even prescribed the age of sixty.

Supposing now that this canon simply treats of deaconesses, a fresh doubt arises as to how the last words—“they are not to be appointed in the Church” are to be understood.  For it may mean that “from henceforth no more deaconesses shall be appointed;” or, that “in future they shall no more be solemnly ordained in the church.”  The first interpretation would, however, contradict the fact that the Greek Church had deaconesses long after the Synod of Laodicea.  For instance, in 692 the Synod in Trullo (Can. xiv.) ordered that “no one under forty years of age should be ordained deaconess.”  Consequently the second interpretation, “they shall not be solemnly ordained in the church,” seems a better one, and Neander decidedly prefers it.  It is certainly true that several later synods distinctly forbade the old practice of conferring a sort of ordination upon deaconesses, as, for instance, the first Synod of Orange (Arausicanum I. of 441, Can. xxvj.) in the words—diaconæ omnimodis non ordinandæ; also the Synod at Epaon in 517 (Can. xxj.), and the second Synod at Orleans in 533 (Can. xviij.); but in the Greek Church at least, an ordination, a χειροτονεῖσθαι , took place as late as the Council in Trullo (Can. xiv.).  But this Canon of Laodicea does not speak of solemn dedication, and certainly not of ordination, but only of καθίστασθαι.  These reasons induce us to return to the first interpretation of this canon, and to understand it as forbidding from that time forward the appointment of any more chief deaconesses or “presbytides.”

Zonaras and Balsamon give yet another explanation.  In their opinion, these “presbytides” were not chief deaconesses, but aged women in general (ex populo), to whom was p. 131 given the supervision of the females, in church.  The Synod of Laodicea, however, did away with this arrangement, probably because they had misused their office for purposes of pride, or money-making, bribery, etc.

Compare with the foregoing the Excursus on Deaconesses, appended to Canon XIX. of Nice.

This canon is found in the Corpus Juris Canonici, Gratian’s Decretum, Pars I., Dist. XXXII., c. xix., in Isidore’s version; but Van Espen remarks that the Roman Correctors have pointed out that it departs widely from the Greek original.  The Roman Correctors further say “The note of Balsamon on this point should be seen;” and with this interpretation Morinus also agrees in his work on Holy Orders (De Ordinationibus, Pars III., Exercit. x., cap. iij., n. 3).

Next: Canon XII