Lifting Up the Servants of God: The Deacon, Servant Ministry, and the Future of the Church

Dr. Thomas Ferguson, former faculty member, now the Associate Deputy for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations at the Episcopal Church Center, wrote of the history and place of deacons in the church. The following informational links contain his work. For a hardcopy of this publication, contact The School for Deacons.

Dr. Tom Ferguson holds a BA from Wesleyan University; a MDiv from Yale Divinity School; a Certificate in Anglican Studies from Berkeley Divinity School at Yale; and a ThM from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. He is currently a PhD candidate in the History of Christianity at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA.

Diakonia and the Church

Defined by early Christians much earlier than the better known sacred orders of priest or bishop, the sacred order of deacons is the oldest ordained ministry. The word "deacon" derives from the Greek word diakonia, which has a variety of meanings ranging from "service at tables" to that of an agent entrusted with authority to negotiate a contract or treaty. Regardless, the concept of diakonia defined the ministry of the early church- to be sent and to serve.

Baptism provided entry into the Christian community, whose members were called and sent to serve. During his visit to the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus expressed an awareness of his call to serve, as Luke 4:16-21 presents. Likewise, Jesus commissioned and sent The Twelve, as well as The Seventy to minister to all the world. Jesus' viewpoint was clear- a call to serve was essential for ministry. Jesus remarked, "I am among you as one who serves (Luke 22:27)" and "the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve (Luke 12:37)." The diakonia of Jesus and the Apostles inaugurated the Holy Reign of God in which the hungry would eat, the blind would see, and the deaf would hear.

Foundations of the Diaconate

Thus, diakonia was a central concept to Jesus and the apostles; therefore, it belongs to all the members of the church, through baptism, to help bring about God's reign on earth. For example, in Paul's letters we read of the Holy Spirit who empowers different members of the church, calling some to be teachers, some prophets, some apostles. "All these are activated by one and the same Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:11)."

The New Testament provides accounts of the development of the orders of bishops and deacons in 1 Timothy 3:1-13 and in Philippians 1:1. Outside of the New Testament, evidence for the development of the orders of ministry exists in the writings of Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, who was martyred around 112. Ignatius is the earliest example of the three-fold understanding of ordained ministry within the church. The Bishop symbolized the unity of one God for all people, presbyters represented the Council of the Apostles, and deacons symbolized Christ. Ignatius said of deacons, "Everyone must show the deacons respect. They represent Jesus Christ, just as one bishop has the role of the Father, and the presbyters are like God's council and an apostolic band. You cannot have a church without these. --Letter to the Trallians"

The First Deacons

Perhaps the best-known description of the development of the diaconate occurs in the Book of Acts. Tension arose between Greek and Jewish converts in Jerusalem. Acts tells us that the Apostles asked the community to "select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the world (Acts 6:3-4)."

The task to which the new deacons were appointed was to be agents of social justice expressed as serving at table. The issue was to ensure a just distribution of the food for the (minority) Greek widows and orphans. The community chose the Seven, apparently from the Hellenistic or Greek Christians, to serve the community. The apostles laid their hands upon them to set them apart for this ministry of service. Among these was Stephen, called the "protomartyr" or "first martyr" for the faith. Stephen did "great signs and wonders" (Acts 6:8) and, like Jesus, fell afoul of the ruling authorities in Jerusalem on account of his proclamation of the Good News. He was eventually stoned to death.

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.

The Shift to a Transitional Diaconate

As the church experienced dramatic growth following the end of persecution and the conversion of Constantine (313), the diaconate began to be overshadowed. As the church grew, the bishop could no longer serve as the primary pastor of the community, and sacramental authority and pastoral oversight eventually fell to presbyters (priests). Concurrently, the church adapted itself to the overwhelmingly hierarchical structures of Roman society, and the role of bishop increasingly became prestigious in an Imperial Church. Likewise, leadership in the church became a progression of grades through which one passed- an increasingly accepted practice. Other orders developed "below" the diaconate (eg, doorkeeper, exorcist, lector, and subdeacon), and clerics-in-training passed successively through each of these orders, then to the diaconate, and then to the priesthood. Eventually, the other orders disappeared, except for the order of deacon, which became "transitional." The diaconate had become a stepping-stone on the way to the priesthood, and the vocational deacon faded from existence.

The Diaconate Obscured

Throughout the Middle Ages, the diaconate remained obscured as a transitional step to priesthood. The sense of diakonia (service) also slipped away, to emerge only in the charism of some of the religious orders that proliferated in those years. The most notable exception and symbol of diakonia during the Middle Ages was through "everybody's favorite saint," Francis of Assisi, who remained a deacon during his life as a friar. Communities that eventually adopted Francis' charism dedicated their ministries particularly to the needs of the poor and marginalized.

The Deacon in the Reformation

The English Reformation continued with the ministries of bishops, priests, and deacons, but the diaconate was still a transition to the priesthood. One notable deacon in the centuries following the Reformation is Nicholas Ferrar, who founded the community at Little Gidding (UK). This community is still remembered as offering a "counter-cultural" model for living the Christian life. By the time the Episcopal Church in the United States became organized, she too followed in the footsteps of the Church of England by enshrining in its ordination service the concept that the ministry of the deacon was "an inferior office" (1928 BCP, p. 535) through which one hoped to advance. The Church continued to see the priesthood as the fullest expression of ministry.

The Deacon in the 20th Century

People in the 19th century saw much social upheaval and economic disparities created by the industrial revolution and the breakdown of traditional political systems. In response, the Lutheran churches on the continent created orders of deaconesses and deacons who performed servant ministry in ways that laid the groundwork for a wider "social gospel" in the 20th century. Up to the 1950s, the diaconate manifested itself in three distinct forms. The church ordained deacons to minister to Native Americans and other ethnic groups. (A good example is David Pendleton Oakerhater.) Though not ordained, women were "set apart" as deaconesses who performed diaconal ministry, even if not recognized at the time as "deacons." Thirdly, the "perpetual" diaconate of the 1950's, created deacons who performed primary liturgical tasks, when demand for priests outstripped the supply, particularly in growing areas (eg, California). When the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church voted to restore a permanent diaconate in 1962, the 1968 Anglican Lambeth Conference built from the Roman Catholic decision and passed a resolution commending the restoration of the diaconate throughout the Anglican Communion.

The Deacon in Today's World

Beginning in the 1960's, the diaconate within the Episcopal Church underwent remarkable rebirth, and the phenomenal resurgence continued throughout the 1970's and 1980's. By the 1990's, the number of deacons nearly doubled. Functioning in almost every imaginable setting within the Episcopal Church, one can categorize deacons in three ways:

  • As parish deacons, who lead, model, and encourage the diaconal ministry of all the baptized. One can find graduates of the School For Deacons at the heart of the Grace Cathedral congregation, in the smallest of the four parishes in Berkeley, and everywhere in between. The Bishop of California dreams of the day when the church has at least two deacons in every congregation.
  • As institutional deacons, who work as chaplains in prisons, for law enforcement teams and firefighters, in hospitals, hospices, and in schools. School For Deacons graduates serve as chaplains at San Francisco General Hospital, the Monterey County jail, and with the Oakland and the San Rafael police departments.
  • As diocesan deacons, who work with and for bishops in a variety of staff and leadership roles. In the Diocese of California, Deacon Dorothy Jones is the Archdeacon for Deacons and another deacon serves as Coordinator for Social Ministries.

In all that they do, deacons center on fulfilling the role as an image of Christ by being called and sent to serve in the world to mobilize the baptized for service. Such was Jesus' ministry and something that Ignatius of Antioch recognized 1800 hundred years ago.

Deacons and the Future

The recovery of the diaconate as a "full and equal order" of ministry has come a long way, with still much more to be done. Misconceptions still hover around the idea of the diaconate. These misconceptions are due to the early Church's failure to clearly define the distinction in roles between deacon and priest. Likewise, the experiment of the "perpetual" diaconate of the 1950's (ended in the 1970's) further blurred the boundary between deacons and priests. Prior to the existence of Lay Eucharistic Ministers, deacons tended to function almost exclusively as liturgical assistants, often chosen by the Rector, which led to a misconception that deacons were "junior" priests.

The current rebirth of the order of deacon must be clearly distinguished from most persons' experience of the diaconate prior to the 1970's. Today, we more clearly see the priest as the one who stands at the center of the gathered community, leads its sacramental worship, and ministers to its needs. The current diaconate is the restoration of the ancient, full, and equal order of ministry, based on the call to imitate Christ in service to the poor and needy. The deacon stands at the edge of the gathered community as a bridge to the world, "to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world . . . and to show Christ's people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself." [BCP p. 543] This is quite different from the ministry of transitional deacons as well as the short-lived experience of perpetual deacons. Perhaps most important, the current renaissance of the diaconate is part of the church's recovering its own sense of diakonia, of being called and sent into the world to serve. Education continues to be needed to ease the tensions and concerns of presbyters and bishops, and to inform the laity of the varied and distinct ministries of deacons. To move ahead in the third millennium, the church will need scores of called, dedicated, well-trained and passionate deacons to bring the word of Christ to all people, to interpret to the church the needs of the world, and to restore the early church's understanding of diakonia to all the baptized.