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 two.
IV – the extended ministry of the Deacon
In Acts 6, seven men are ordained to the deaconate. One of them is Stephen, whose story is immediately followed. He was “full of grace and power” and performed many “signs and wonders,” in other words, his ministry looked much like that of the Apostles. He also turned out to be an effective speaker, debater, and preacher, and those gifts quickly get him arrested and executed.
Right after that, chapter 8 picks up another one of those seven deacons’ story. Philip travels North to Samaria where he enjoys a very fruitful charismatic ministry. But Philip’s not a free agent, he’s just a deacon. So once his ministry is well underway “the boss” is called in to officiate what many would describe today as Confirmation: Peter & John lay hands on the converts to bestow on them the Holy Spirit. Next, Philip is given a new mission: travel South! So off he goes, and eventually he meets a eunuch from Ethiopia, whom Phip proceeds to instruct in the entire Christian faith.
Long story short, Stephen’s and Philip’s ministries as Deacons seem to include evangelism and teaching.
V – the broad ministry of the Deaconate
At some point in time, pretty early in the Church’s history, it became customary that all who would be ordained as Priests must first be ordained as Deacons. (Likewise, Bishops, in turn, would be elected from among the Priests.) Although there is no Scriptural or even Early Church mandate for this, there are three excellent biblical principles at work in this system:
- His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much.” (Matthew 25:21)
- The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Matthew 23:11-12)
- Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. (Luke 22:26)
Additionally, being a deacon for a while before becoming a priest is just plain practical, too, as it gets you a time of final training and preparation before moving on to the larger duty and burden. Or does it?
Take my situation, for example. I’m currently a Lay Pastor (a non-ordained minister) in a small church plant with no clergy of our own. Hardly two weeks from the time of writing this, I will be ordained to the Deaconate. Then what? There’s still no overseeing priest at Grace Anglican Church for me to assist. There also aren’t any Greek widows for me to feed. (Well there is a widow, but she’s not reliant upon the Church for her daily bread). Instead, my ministry as a Deacon should generally more closely resemble that of Philip: evangelizing and teaching to build up the Church. Like Philip, I’ll need to bring in clergymen ordained to higher leadership offices – priests and bishop – in order to provide the sacramental roles that are proper to those offices, but otherwise most of my work will be relatively independent. I’ll be under a vow of obedience to my bishop, of course, but there simply won’t be a priest assigned to my church for me to assist.
Thus the flexibility of the deaconate is illustrated. Under normal circumstances (that is, a congregation with at least one priest in its midst), deacons may assist their priest and serve the congregation in a number of ways ranging from mercy ministries (like Acts 6) to being on the preaching schedule (like Acts 8). But in the absence of a priest, the deacon is entitled to carry out all the pastoral functions normally covered by the priest.
What this really stems down to is the question of delegation. The bishop can’t be everywhere at once, nor can he do everything, so he has priests to assist him with most of the sacramental ministry, and to represent his teaching authority and apostolic function to the local congregations. The priests, though, can’t do everything in their local congregations either, and thus focus on “the ministry of the word” and have deacons assist them in the large-scale ministries. But it doesn’t stop there, either; lay people have ministries too. It seems one is forced to ask at this point – what is the difference between the deacon and the lay person?
Stay tuned to find out!