What the heck is a Deacon, anyway?

I swear this is not on purpose, but it seems that this summer has resulted in a slow-moving study through the three-fold order of ministry: I wrote about bishops in late May, about priests in early July, and now about deacons in late August.  However, those were reviews of others’ articles.  This one is my own material.

(Well, technically it’s not my own material, it’s just an exposition of some relevant biblical information with an eye to the historical and liturgical and practical life of the Church.  But you get what I mean.)

I – the conceptual origin of the Office of Deacon

The Greek word diakonos appears in the New Testament at least 13 times.  Its general definition, before it became a technical term among Christians, was “servant” or perhaps more specifically, “waiter.”  It was a job (or a person who did the job) of ministration, looking after the needs of others, especially in terms of bringing them food.

It is this definition of diakonos that we encounter in Acts 6.  Critics have argued that nobody is called a Deacon in that chapter, so we shouldn’t try to claim the origin of the Deaconate in this passage.  This argument misses the point, however, that the concept of the Deacon was instituted in Acts 6, and the title came along later.  There were Greek widows who were missed in the daily “deaconly service,” so a group of men were “appointed” (basically the same concept as ordained) to do the job.

But there are two things going on in Acts 6.  One is the widows’ needs being met, and the other is the Apostles’ needs being met.  Notice what they say in v2: It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.”  In other words, the leaders of the Church were overloaded with work, recognized a ministry field that they could give away, and they ordained some people for the job.  This second dynamic is what we see develop the most over the course of the New Testament.

II – the transitional Deaconate

(Yes, I couldn’t resist the pun.  In modern practice, many people ordained to the deaconate are “transitional” because they’re to be ordained as priests later.  But what I actually mean here is the nature of the deaconate transitioning over time.)

At the end his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul writes that he’s sending his faithful servant (deacon) Tychicus to them.  Tychicus is also described as a deacon in like manner in Colossians 4.  He also shows up in Acts, 2 Timothy, and Titus, each time as a messenger.  It seems that the deaconal role of Tychicus was to be Paul’s messenger and representative.  He served Paul by representing him, particularly later in his ministry when Paul was otherwise busy being imprisoned.

There’s also a little hint of another sort of deacon in Colossians 4 – Archippus is reminded to fulfill the deaconal ministry that he received.  No leaders are identified or referenced anywhere in that letter.  Could it be that Archippus was a deacon acting as a pastor?  Total speculation, I admit, but it’s noteworthy that someone is described as a deacon with no reference to an Apostle or overseer to assist.  Perhaps he’s feeding Greek widows like the original group?  More likely, there’s some other ministry to which he’s called that we’ll never know, and it was just one of the many possible situations for a “deacon,” however formalized that was at the time.

III – the qualified Deacons

By “qualified” I don’t mean that the previous deacons (like in Acts) were “unqualified,” rather, I mean that over time a set of qualifications became recommended for choosing good deacons.  Paul gave one such description to Timothy.  If you glance through the description and compare it to the qualifications for being an overseer (bishop), you’ll notice that they’re very similar.  Why should that be the case if the bishops (like the Apostles) are supposed to be dedicated to the “ministry of the word” as stated in Acts 6, while Deacons are just their lackies?  There are a couple reasons.

First of all, even if you’re doing menial stuff, simply being set apart, appointed, or ordained to assist the leaders of the Church brings a lot of attention to you.  It may seem silly, but it’s true.  Thus you need to have as good a character as the leader whom you serve.  Plus there’s a sacramental side to this ministry of service too: whenever we do anything in the name of Christ, we’re representing him in some way.  So when bishops and elders/priests are ordained to labor in the Word, they’re representing the teaching & pastoral role of Christ.  And thus, when deacons are ordained to assist in various forms of service, they’re representing Christ the servant.  St. Paul actually hints at this at one point by describing Jesus as a servant (deacon!) representing God to the Jews and Gentiles alike.  It’s the same idea: the servant reflects on his master.

Secondly, deacons aren’t just the lackies of their overseeing apostles, bishops, or priests; deacons have a legit ministry in their own right!  This can be amply demonstrated if we turn back to Acts 6 and the stories that follow.

IV – the extended ministry of the Deacon

In Acts 6, seven men are ordained to the deaconate.  One of them is Stephen, whose story is immediately followed.  He was “full of grace and power” and performed many “signs and wonders,” in other words, his ministry looked much like that of the Apostles.  He also turned out to be an effective speaker, debater, and preacher, and those gifts quickly get him arrested and executed.

Right after that, chapter 8 picks up another one of those seven deacons’ story.  Philip travels North to Samaria where he enjoys a very fruitful charismatic ministry.  But Philip’s not a free agent, he’s just a deacon.  So once his ministry is well underway “the boss” is called in to officiate what many would describe today as Confirmation: Peter & John lay hands on the converts to bestow on them the Holy Spirit.  Next, Philip is given a new mission: travel South!  So off he goes, and eventually he meets a eunuch from Ethiopia, whom Phip proceeds to instruct in the entire Christian faith.

Long story short, Stephen’s and Philip’s ministries as Deacons seem to include evangelism and teaching.

V – the broad ministry of the Deaconate

At some point in time, pretty early in the Church’s history, it became customary that all who would be ordained as Priests must first be ordained as Deacons.  (Likewise, Bishops, in turn, would be elected from among the Priests.)  Although there is no Scriptural or even Early Church mandate for this, there are three excellent biblical principles at work in this system:

  1. His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant.  You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much.” (Matthew 25:21)
  2. The greatest among you shall be your servant.  Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Matthew 23:11-12)
  3. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. (Luke 22:26)

Additionally, being a deacon for a while before becoming a priest is just plain practical, too, as it gets you a time of final training and preparation before moving on to the larger duty and burden.  Or does it?

Take my situation.  I’m currently a Lay Pastor (a non-ordained minister) in a small church plant with no clergy of our own.  Hardly two weeks from the time of writing this, I will be ordained to the Deaconate.  Then what?  There’s still no overseeing priest at Grace Anglican Church for me to assist.  There also aren’t any Greek widows for me to feed.  (Well there is a widow, but she’s not reliant upon the Church for her daily bread).  Instead, my ministry as a Deacon should generally more closely resemble that of Philip: evangelizing and teaching to build up the Church.  Like Philip, I’ll need to bring in clergymen ordained to higher leadership offices – priests and bishop – in order to provide the sacramental roles that are proper to those offices, but otherwise most of my work will be relatively independent.  I’ll be under a vow of obedience to my bishop, of course, but there simply won’t be a priest assigned to my church for me to assist.

Thus the flexibility of the deaconate is illustrated.  Under normal circumstances (that is, a congregation with at least one priest in its midst), deacons may assist their priest and serve the congregation in a number of ways ranging from mercy ministries (like Acts 6) to being on the preaching schedule (like Acts 8).  But in the absence of a priest, the deacon is entitled to carry out all the pastoral functions normally covered by the priest.

What this really stems down to is the question of delegation.  The bishop can’t be everywhere at once, nor can he do everything, so he has priests to assist him with most of the sacramental ministry, and to represent his teaching authority and apostolic function to the local congregations.  The priests, though, can’t do everything in their local congregations either, and thus focus on “the ministry of the word” and have deacons assist them in the large-scale ministries.  But it doesn’t stop there, either; lay people have ministries too.  It seems one is forced to ask at this point – what is the difference between the deacon and the lay person?

VI – the specific ministry of the Deaconate

Perhaps it was the inability to answer that question which resulted in the Deaconate virtually disappearing (at least in the West) from being a regular office.  At some point, the only deacons around were those on their way to becoming priests.  But if that’s the only purpose of the deaconate – to transition people from laymen to priests – then why keep it at all?  All it does then is serve to make the priests look so set apart from laymen that they have to go through a middle order just to get there!  Perhaps this misunderstanding did creep into common opinion for a while, and contributed to the radical Church explosion now known as the Reformation?  Whatever the case, if we are going to address this issue, we need to identify not only what separates the deacons from the laypeople, but also what separates the deacons from the priests.  What the heck is a Deacon, anyway?

There’s a potential typology that might help get us started on this final question.  Although the Old Testament priesthood is different from the New Testament priesthood, the way in which God orders the ministers of his people can be informative.  Among the Israelites were Levites and priests.  The priests were Levites specifically descended from Aaron, and were specially in charge of performing sacrifices. The High Priest was in charge of the most special sacrifice on the Day of Atonement.  Levites, then, were the rest of the tribe not descended from Aaron.  They could not serve as priests but they did function as teachers, and they assisted the priests in various ways in worship.  This is a very similar picture to the Christian Orders: our priests preside at the Eucharist, bishops are like the old High Priests, and the Levites make a picture akin to our deacons today.

But that’s just a typology, an example-picture.  What we really need to positively identify deacons is something more theological.  And we can get that from what we’ve already explored in Paul’s writings: deacons are ordained by bishops, deacons are ordained by bishops to serve, and deacons are ordained by bishops to serve as Christ served.

All three of those facts are critical to expressing the identity of the deacon, but it’s that last one that really holds it together.  If we just focus on the fact that deacons are ordained, and leave the rest of the job description vague, then they start to resemble a sort of redundant sub-priestly office.  We saw this both in the first paragraph of this section, and in 1 Timothy 3 (back in part III).  If we just focus on the fact that deacons are servants, ministers, or assistants (as with Tychicus or Archippus or the original seven) then we start to question what the difference is between deacons and lay persons.  Why should one have to be a deacon to be a minister?

But when we take into account Romans 15, we have a fuller explanation.

For I tell you that Christ became a servant [deacon] to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.

Just as Jesus lived out a priestly and pastoral ministry that would be taken up especially by bishops and priests, Jesus also lived out a ministry of servanthood that would be taken up especially by deacons.  It’s not that deacons are the only ones who can or should serve in the Church, but rather, deacons are ordained examples of Christ-like service.

VII – summary & conclusion

By way of a brief recap, we’ve looked at the conceptual origins of the deaconate, how it started with a specific need (hungry Greek widows) and an organizational need (overworked apostles).  Then we explored some of the ways the role of the deacon expanded throughout the New testament, until finally it had some discernible prerequisite traits that could be written down.  For the most part, this material emphasized how deacons were like specially-empowered lay people.  Then we explored the broader ministry of the deaconate, which shows the more pastorly side of the deacon’s potential role.  This, finally, led to our exploration of what made the deaconate distinct both from non-ordained people and the other ordained offices of bishop and priest.  What we found was that a Deacon is someone who is (1) ordained by a bishop (2) for service in the Church (3) to particularly represent the servanthood of Christ.

We found that all three are important for understanding the uniqueness of the deaconate.  Points 1 and 3 distinguish deacons from lay people.  For “service” can mean any number of things, hardly any of which needs Holy Orders to carry out, so what sets deacons apart from laypeople is the fact that they’re ordained to be living examples of Christ’s ministry.  Thus their commitment must be greater, worthy to be “shown” to the congregation.  But being an example also suggests leadership – “leading by example,” after all, is one of the best leadership styles.

On the flip side, points 2 and 3 distinguish deacons from priests.  Priests are ordained for a more specific ministry, representing Christ the high priest by presiding over the spiritual life of the flock.  Deacons, although also ordained by bishops, carry a call to a (potentially) broader range of ministry.  Where the priest is typically more focused on organizing, guiding, and directing, the deacon is more focused on leading, demonstrating, and enabling.  Thus, in actual practice, there is a sense in which the deacon may appear to be a mid-point between laity and priesthood, but that is not its actual purpose.

About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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3 Responses to What the heck is a Deacon, anyway?

  1. Bill B says:

    This is a very helpful post, Matthew. Thank you for putting such effort into an issue about which many of us seeking or pending ordination wonder (worry?). Are you familiar with the portion of the canons of TEC that address other licensed ministries such as “Pastoral Leader,” “Preacher,” “Catechist” (found at http://www.episcopalarchives.org/pdf/CnC/CandC_2009pp65-121.pdf)? The creation of these other designations seems to work against the general trajectory of your argument, i.e., that the diaconate has a particular and distinct function distinct from the laity and the priesthood. The creation of these other formal categories of lay ministry could operate to thwart diaconal vocations by giving Commissions on Ministry one more magic disqualifying question to pose to postulants, i.e., “why can’t you just serve the diocese as a lay pastoral leader/catechist/etc?” Ah, but that’s another issue for another post.

    Grace and peace,

    • Thanks for reading it, Bill! Not being a part of TEC, I’m not terribly familiar with the licensed lay ministries that you mentioned, but my diocese in the ACNA does have something similar: Lay Pastor (essentially all the layman licenses bundled together). I didn’t get too deep into the distinction between Lay Pastor (with a license) and a Deacon (with Holy Orders), but if I were to write more on this subject, that’s probably what I would address next.
      I agree with you that the licensed lay ministries may work against the office of Deacon if we aren’t careful to give a positive definition of the diaconate. I tried to set out the basic difference (ordination to a representational ministry vs. doing ministry without sacramental distinction) but how that actually plays out, I guess, is a stone still unturned. Thanks for the thought-provoking feedback!

  2. Bill B says:

    Thanks, Matthew. I thought you were in TEC, but as I am in ACNA as well, thanks for steering us back to our own situation! When my parish was part of CANA, there were several persons serving in staff positions in the parish who were ordained as deacons, but since becoming an ACNA parish , the transitional diaconate has come back to the fore as a means for transitioning our evangelical-seminary-trained clergy into Anglicanism. As someone considering a call to the permanent diaconate, it is all very daunting and uncertain.

    Thanks again for your blog. It is a strong blessing to those of us who follow you.

    Grace and peace,

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