A Brief History of the Diaconate
By Rev. Wendy Guyton
Edited by Rev. Robin Hollis & The Venerable Amy Bryan
Early Christian writers make it clear that there have been different ministries within the Church since the time of the Apostles. The three distinct orders of ordained ministers are the embodiment in the community of the priesthood (priests), servanthood (deacons), and episcopacy (bishops) of Christ, in which all members of the body of Christ–both clergy and lay alike–participate in through baptism. These orders are a gift of God, to the people of God, for the service of God. From New Testament times, the Holy Spirit has called and continues to call individuals to leadership in the Church. Those who respond to the Spirit’s call do so in lifelong devotion.
In the early Church, the Christian community found it necessary to appoint individuals to assist in looking after its poor. We see in Acts 6:1-6 that the office of deacon originated in the selection of seven by the apostles to assist with the charitable work, among them Deacon Stephen, who was the first Christian martyr. At that time, the seven were chosen to take food to widows, who were being neglected by the community in the daily distribution of food. The example of these seven has been looked at as a model of the diaconate since early in the history of the Church.
A specific reference to deacons may be found in Philippians 1:1 where Paul addresses “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.” 1 Timothy 3:8-13 contains the third reference in the scriptures to deacons when it sets out the qualifications for bishop and deacon. Both offices are to be filled by respected persons in the community. The requirements for deacon are strict due to the dignity of the office.
The period 100-600 CE has been called the Golden Age of the diaconate. Deacons flourished in numbers and in importance. They oversaw the pastoral care of the Church; administered Church charities; were assistants to the bishops of the Church; often succeeded the bishops they assisted, and had a major role in the liturgies of the Church.
Above all else, deacons were the living symbol of the servant ministry to which all baptized Christians were called. Deacons were servants of the Church, not of another order or official. The order of deacon was a permanent vocation.
In the following centuries, as Christianity evolved and grew, the entrance of unprecedented numbers into the Church led to radical changes. The ministry of the Church became a graded succession of offices reflecting its greater complexity and its new civic role. With these changes came the decline of the diaconate as a separate and distinct order, which became viewed as inferior.
The 1968 Lambeth conference recognized that the diaconate was necessary to the Church. It recommended that the practice of regarding the diaconate as inferior be reformed and that the order of deacon be restored to a significant and operative order.
All clergy begin their ministries as ordained deacons. The deacon’s role today is neither inferior to the role of the priest, nor superior to the role of the laity, but instead is a complementary part of the ministry of the whole Church. It is a permanent, not transitional order; full in itself and equal to other ordained roles within the Church, and priests and bishops do not leave their diaconal vows behind when they are ordained to other orders. Deacons exist to remind all Christians the nature and character of the ministry is service, to which all baptized Christians are called. Within this, they are both personally involved in service to the world and inspire and support others in their service to the world. Deacons earn their living outside the Church and, standing at the altar with other orders, represent the unity and goodness of both ‘secular’ and ‘spiritual’ realms, witnessing to the reality that God is present within both.