The Golden Age of the Deacon

The first three centuries of the church have been called the Golden Age of the Deacon, for as Christianity spread, the diaconate flourished. Deacons developed distinctive functions within the Christian community. They collected and distributed money to the poor, particularly in the Church of Rome where seven deacons- each with their own district- oversaw the church's social services. In addition, deacons have always had a special relationship to the bishop by serving as the bishop's "eyes and ears" through making known the concerns of the community. The earliest ordination prayer, contained in the writings of Hippolytus, notes that the bishop alone lays hands on deacons. Deacons also had roles within the liturgy: calling the people to prayer, reading the Gospel, and assisting in the distribution of communion. Also, deacons were integral to the preparation of catechumens (people seeking baptism), which was a three-year preparation period. Deacons both taught and prepared the catechumens as well as assisted the bishop in the actual baptismal rite.

The third century also saw famous deacons within the church- for example, Lawrence, who was deacon of the Church of Rome, and Ephraim of Syria, preacher and hymn-writer. As a result of their close ties with the bishop and with church administration, deacons were even elected bishop! Athanasius of Alexandria, steady defender of Nicene orthodoxy, was perhaps the best example. A deacon and secretary to the Bishop of Alexandria at the Council of Nicaea (325), he was eventually elected bishop. Although the diaconate was often a lifelong ministry, the progression from deacon to presbyter to bishop, though becoming increasingly more common, was still not normative.

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