The Scriptures clearly record the soul-winning ministry of Philip and Stephen, two deacons who served the early church. However, by taking a critical look, one will discover that deaconesses were also instrumental in instructing others and winning converts to the church. Philip Schaff proposed that Priscilla, whom Paul mentioned along with Phoebe, was also a deaconess.1 Christopher Wordworth agrees with Schaff, saying, “From the position of her name immediately after Phoebe the Deaconess, and before her husband and all the other Roman Christians [Rom. 16], it may be inferred that Priscilla also was appointed by St. Paul to do some special work, like that of a Deaconess, in the Church.”2 Cecilia Robinson, on the side of caution due to the lack of definitive evidence, says, “It was women such as Phoebe and Priscilla who created the ideal of the female diaconate. Whether or not they received the name as an official title matters but little; they certainly ‘executed the office’ of a Deaconess, and bore splendid testimony to the value of a ministry of women.”3 Therefore, based upon the Scriptures, Priscilla was a powerful example of one who instructed others in the truth.
Priscilla and her husband Aquila instructed Apollos, a prominent leader of the early church, in the Word of God. Sensing that Apollos’ understanding was limited to the teachings of John the Baptist, Priscilla and Aquila “took him unto them, and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly” (Acts 18:26). According to the SDA Bible Commentary, the teaching that Apollos received from Priscilla and Aquila “would include the doctrine of salvation by grace, justification by faith, the gift of the Holy Spirit after conversion and baptism, and the meaning and necessity of the Lord’s Supper.”4 This proves that Priscilla was knowledgeable of the Scriptures and able to teach.
To further describe how involved she was in instructing others in the truth, the Commentary states, “It would doubtless follow, as in the case of the twelve men discussed in [Acts] ch. 19:1-7, that Apollos, who formerly knew only John’s baptism, would be rebaptized into ‘the name of the Lord Jesus.’ She evidently took an active part in instructing Apollos, indicating that she was a woman of great power and zeal among the Christians.”5
Edmond Cullinan indicates that Phoebe may have also engaged in proclaiming the gospel and winning souls. He states that “her ministry may not have corresponded exactly to that of later deaconesses; indeed, it may have been more extensive, particularly in terms of preaching and teaching which were particular concerns of St. Paul.”6
Regarding those deaconesses who were not in the forefront as were Priscilla and Phoebe but worked in a more subtle way, Schaff noted the tactful manner in which they used their humanitarian role as an opportunity to teach others the truth and win converts to the church. Concerning the office of deaconess, he said, “It opened to pious women and virgins, and chiefly to widows, a suitable field for the regular official exercise of their peculiar gifts of self-denying charity and devotion to the welfare of the church. Through it [the office of deaconess] they could carry the light and comfort of the gospel into the most private and delicate relations of domestic life, without at all overstepping their natural sphere.”7
Citing Clement of Alexandria, Nancy Vyhmeister writes of another subtle way in which these women ministered: “‘But the apostles in conformity with their ministry concentrated on undistracted preaching, and took their wives around as Christian sisters rather than spouses, to be their fellow-ministers [fellow deacons] in relation to housewives, through whom the Lord’s teaching penetrated into the women’s quarters without scandal.’”8
The deaconesses ministered by using the gifts God gave them within the context of their own unique personalities and circumstances. Some were in the forefront in instructing others in the truth, while others worked subtly behind the scenes. Both were effective in their ministry.
As deaconesses and deacons of the Seventh-day Adventist Church adopt the mindset of soul-winners, focus on their mission to spread the gospel, and earnestly pray for opportunities to witness, “the Word of God [will increase]; and the number of . . . disciples [will multiply]” (Acts 6:7).
1 Philip Schaff, Apostolic Christianity (A.D. 1-100), vol. 1 of History of the Christian Church, 500, 501.
2 Christopher Wordsworth, The New Testament of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (1923; repr., Charleston, SC: BiblioLife, LLC, 2009), 130.
3 Cecilia Robinson, The Ministry of Deaconesses (1898; repr., Charleston, SC: BiblioBazaar, LLC, 2008), 12.
4 “Way of God,” Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, 6:369.
6 Edmond Cullinan, “Women and the Diaconate,” Worship 70, no. 3 (May 1996): 261.
7 Schaff, 500.
8 Nancy Vyhmeister, “The Ministry of the Deaconess Through History,” in Ministry, July 2008, 18.
Vincent E. White, Sr., D.Min., is a retired pastor and author of The Twenty-First Century Deacon and Deaconess: Reflecting the Biblical Model; The Twenty-First Century Deacon and Deaconess: Reflecting the Biblical Model Workbook; and Problem Solvers and Soul Winners: A Handbook for Deacons and Deaconesses.