In this series, I am seeking to answer just one question: “what on earth is a deacon, anyway?” I don’t intend for this to be an exhaustive definition-setting essay, but it’s a question I’ve been pondering for much of the past couple months as I’ve been preparing for ordination to that fine Order of ministry. When I finally finished working out the whole thought process, the final product turned out rather longer than I expected, and thus I’ll be sharing the fruits of my efforts in three installments this week. This is part one.
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. More on that next time…