What Are Deacons? Was There A Special Office In The Early Church?
Deacons are perhaps the most misunderstood officers in the Christian Church today. They came up as the people to rescue the mainstream ministers from the logistical and administrative strains of church operations. This office has had mixed fortunes throughout the life of the church. In some instances, it grew, while in others it simply disappeared from the leadership hierarchy of the church.
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This study aims at rediscovering the role and purpose of deacons in light of the institution and operations of this office in the early church. In particular, the paper seeks to answer the following questions: What are deacons? Was there a special office for them in the early church, and what are the major issues surrounding their existence in the Christian Church?
The Deacons In Acts
Without variance, scholars identify the book of Acts 6 as the first appearance of Christian deacons. Many scholars note that the bible does not use the word “deacon” in that passage.1 Elsewhere in the same book, there are incidents of major significance to the early church that involved deacons. These incidents include the stoning of Stephen and the Baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch by Philip.
They indicate that the deacons were not people who had a fixed responsibility but the church requested them to help alleviate specific issues affecting the church. They were ministers first, and officials second. There is need to examine each of these circumstances in some more detail to provide a proper background for this discussion.
The need for deacons came about because of growth. The Christian community in Jerusalem grew in numbers because of the growing numbers of new believers. The church shared resources, starting with the neediest members. Grecian Jews (Hellenists) felt that their widows were not getting equal attention during the distribution of food.
There are many reasons given for the differences ranging from conservative and liberal views of temple worship, to the influence of the Maccabean revolt, betraying greater tensions in the early church beyond those portrayed in the book of Acts.2 The Greek speaking Jews could have felt that the Hebrew-speaking ones looked down on them.3 This disquiet led to the apostles to intervene.
The twelve stated, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables” (Acts 6:2, NIV). This may mean that there was a problem with the administration of the physical needs, which, it appears, did not have any specific overseers. It was in this context that the apostles proposed the appointment of seven men to take care of the matter.
The emergence of deacons therefore was not because of divine revelation, but was a way of taking care of a practical issue that threatened the harmony of the church. From the activities of Stephen and Philip, it appears that this appointment was also not permanent.
The apostles stated three qualifications for deacons. They required them to be “men” who were “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3, NIV). The choice of men for these positions resonates with the cultural background of the society in which these events were taking place. Scholars can argue that there was no overriding need to appoint men in that situation because the problem was primarily between women.
However, the Jewish society was patriarchal hence the predisposition to appoint men to positions of leadership. The need for the filling of the Holy Spirit also appears rather exclusionist in the appointment of people who in essence were to “wait on tables” (Acts 6:2, NIV). It however shows that the apostles took the positions seriously and looked far beyond the administrative tasks that necessitated the appointments.
According to Anyabwile (2012), the office of the deacon, “is a spiritual office”.4 In a sense, apart from the apostles, these were the only ordained ministers in the Church. The final requirement of wisdom resonates better with the position. Since their work was to ensure no conflict ensued because of the distribution of food, it was necessary that these men posses wisdom.
Paul gave requirements that are more elaborate for people qualified for appointment as deacons. Their purpose was not the same as those of the deacons in Acts. It serves to show that deacons were a special group of ministers, chosen to handle specific issues in the church.
The only clear-cut responsibility that the apostles assigned to the seven men was “waiting on tables” (Acts 6:2, NIV). There were no specific roles spelt out for the seven except the responsibility of overseeing the daily distribution of food. However, there is sufficient proof that this is not the only thing they did. They were part of the ministry of the church.
Pao (2011) presented this situation as a glaring inconsistency on the work of Luke by failing to follow up the career of the seven men in regards to waiting on tables.5 It is confusing to think that they required ordination to wait on tables but did not require it to participate in ministry of the church.
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This view of the work of deacons sums up the statement, “the deacons work is primarily focussed on the physical needs of a congregation, in distinction from the work of elders and preachers who are focussed on the spiritual needs of the congregation”.6
While classifying the work of deacons into practical work and liturgical work creates a dichotomy that is difficult to support scripturally, it shows the desire to clarify the role of deacons in the church.
The apostles did not choose the seven men. The church chose and presented them to the apostles. This is among the examples of the involvement of the congregation in the choice of leaders in the church. The apostles prayed and laid hands on the seven, completing their perceived ordination. It is debatable that the prayer and lying on of hands constitutes ordination, as understood today.
At best, it means that the apostles fully supported the work the seven men were to do. There is a gap between this example and the practice of the church today. Presently, church uses very elaborate ordination ceremonies to ordain deacons. It could be because the deacons chosen for ministry today are committed in totality to their assigned roles.
Two of these seven men, Stephen and Philip, reappear in the book of Acts, not as deacons but as ministers of the word. Stephen “did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people” (Acts 6:8, NIV). The account of Stephen ends up with his martyrdom, making him the first Christian martyr.
There is no record of Stephen’s replacement as a deacon akin to Matthias replacement of Judas (Acts 1:26) as an apostle, nor is there any more mention of the work associated with waiting on tables. The second man, Philip reappears after Stephen’s death and at the onset of Christian persecution. Along with other Christians, Philip flees to the city of Samaria and preaches there.
“When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said” (Acts 8:6, NIV). Luke, the author of The Acts of the Apostles, did not consider it important to follow the deaconate careers of the seven men, except their ministerial roles as preachers of the gospel7.
Based on the accounts of Stephen and Philip in the book of Acts, the conclusion that the office of a deacon was permanent in the early church is hard to sustain. The appointment of the seven came about to fulfill the practical needs of the church, and not to be precedence for establishing a permanent deaconate.8
This need was not one that would recur in the Christian Church because people in other places did not have similar practices to the Jewish Christians. At best, the office of a deacon, based on the events of Acts 6, is a temporary office of administrative importance.
There are records showing that ministers worked with deacons. Gregory the great, who later became a Pope, had a deacon assist him in his duties and at some point, they prayed together for protection against people who sought to arrests them.9 However, it was inaccurate to use this account to establish a permanent order of deacons in church.
One of the controversies surrounding the special ordination of deacons is that what they are ordained to do is what Christians should be doing anyway. In this sense, all Christians should serve one another, and there is no need to create another class of servants. A special class of servants dichotomizes the Christian faith. It condemns those who are not deacons to a lower level of service in the Christian church.
Towards A Definition Of The Term “Deacon”
The use of the term “deacon” usually refers to a class of ministers, whose work is to assist the substantive minister in any congregation. The name ties their function to serving the church.10
The etymology of this word is often hard to grasp because each scholar who seeks to render it, usually does so in order to arrive at a position that is favorable to his own theological understanding. Maettaous (nd) states, “deacon is a syrian word that means servant”(11).11: 11
1 Gavrilyuk, Paul L. “The Participation of the Deacons in the Distribution of Communion in the Early Church.” St. Vladmir Theological Quarterly 51, no. 2-3 (2007): 255.
2 Pao, David. “Waiters of Preachers: Acts 6:1-7 and the Lukan Table Fellowship Motif.” Journal of Biblical Literature 130, no. 1 (2011): 129-130.
3 Larkin, William J. IVP New Testament Commentary. Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity, 1995: 99.
4 Anyabwile, Thabiti M. Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012: 2.
5 Pao, David. “Waiters of Preachers: Acts 6:1-7 and the Lukan Table Fellowship Motif.” Journal of Biblical Literature 130, no. 1 (2011): 123.
6 Nichols, Robert. This Business: The Office of the Deacon. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse , 2010: 21.
7 Pao, David. “Waiters of Preachers: Acts 6:1-7 and the Lukan Table Fellowship Motif.” Journal of Biblical Literature 130, no. 1 (2011): 128.
8 Sell, Phillip W. “The Seven in Acts 6 as a Ministry Team.” Bibliotheca Secra 167 (Jan-March 2010): 61.
9 Scotland, Nigel. “Signs and Wonders in the Early Catholic Church 90-451 and Their Implications for the Twenty-First Century.” European Journal of Theology 10, no. 2 (2001): 163
10 Hiebert, D Edmond. “Behind the Word “Deacon”: A New Testament Study.” Bibliotheca Sacra, April-June 1983: 151.
11 Maettaous, Anba. Deacons. El Sourian: The Bishopric of Youth Library , 1980