Grant us, O Lord, not to mind earthly things, but to love
things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among
things that are passing away, to cleave to those that shall
abide; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and
reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever
and ever. Amen.
Grant us, O Lord, not to mind earthly things, but to love
Grant us, O Lord, we pray thee, to trust in you with all our
heart; for, as thou dost alway resist the proud who
confide in their own strength, so thou dost not forsake those
who make their boast of thy mercy; through Jesus Christ our
Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Enuma Okoro discusses the new image of friendship emerging from the 30-something set (at least, new to them): sustained, life-long relationships that take years to cultivate.
John Wilson reviews the book “The Searchers: A Quest for Faith in the Valley of Doubt,” by Joseph Laconte, which focuses on the experience of God’s invisible, hidden presence reflected through mystery, the holding of truths in tension, and the limits of knowledge.
Elizabeth Scalia offers an intelligent warning against political idolatry.
Catholicity and Covenant reflects on the gender theory expressed in the marriage rite of the Diocese of Sydney (Australia), which requires the bride to answer the question “Will you honour and submit to him, as the church submits to Christ?”
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 three.
VI – the specific ministry of the Deaconate
Perhaps it was the inability to answer that question which resulted in the Deaconate virtually disappearing (at least in the West) from being a regular office. At some point, the only deacons around were those on their way to becoming priests. But if that’s the only purpose of the deaconate – to transition people from laymen to priests – then why keep it at all? All it does then is serve to make the priests look so set apart from laymen that they have to go through a middle order just to get there! Perhaps this misunderstanding did creep into common opinion for a while, and contributed to the radical Church explosion now known as the Reformation? Whatever the case, if we are going to address this issue, we need to identify not only what separates the deacons from the laypeople, but also what separates the deacons from the priests. What on earth is a Deacon, anyway?
There’s a potential typology that might help get us started on this final question. Although the Old Testament priesthood is different from the New Testament priesthood, the way in which God orders the ministers of his people can be informative. Among the Israelites were Levites and priests. The priests were Levites specifically descended from Aaron, and were specially in charge of performing sacrifices. The High Priest was in charge of the most special sacrifice on the Day of Atonement. Levites, then, were the rest of the tribe not descended from Aaron. They could not serve as priests but they did function as teachers, and they assisted the priests in various ways in worship. This is a very similar picture to the Christian Orders: our priests preside at the Eucharist, bishops are like the old High Priests, and the Levites make a picture akin to our deacons today.
But that’s just a typology, an example-picture. What we really need to positively identify deacons is something more theological. And we can get that from what we’ve already explored in Paul’s writings: deacons are ordained by bishops, deacons are ordained by bishops to serve, and deacons are ordained by bishops to serve as Christ served.
All three of those facts are critical to expressing the identity of the deacon, but it’s that last one that really holds it together. If we just focus on the fact that deacons are ordained, and leave the rest of the job description vague, then they start to resemble a sort of redundant sub-priestly office. We saw this both in the first paragraph of this section, and in 1 Timothy 3 (back in part III). If we just focus on the fact that deacons are servants, ministers, or assistants (as with Tychicus or Archippus or the original seven) then we start to question what the difference is between deacons and lay persons. Why should one have to be a deacon to be a minister?
But when we take into account Romans 15, we have a fuller explanation.
For I tell you that Christ became a servant [deacon] to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.
Just as Jesus lived out a priestly and pastoral ministry that would be taken up especially by bishops and priests, Jesus also lived out a ministry of servanthood that would be taken up especially by deacons. It’s not that deacons are the only ones who can or should serve in the Church, but rather, deacons are ordained examples of Christ-like service.
VII – summary & conclusion
By way of a brief recap, we’ve looked at the conceptual origins of the deaconate, how it started with a specific need (hungry Greek widows) and an organizational need (overworked apostles). Then we explored some of the ways the role of the deacon expanded throughout the New testament, until finally it had some discernible prerequisite traits that could be written down. For the most part, this material emphasized how deacons were like specially-empowered lay people. Then we explored the broader ministry of the deaconate, which shows the more pastorly side of the deacon’s potential role. This, finally, led to our exploration of what made the deaconate distinct both from non-ordained people and the other ordained offices of bishop and priest. What we found was that a Deacon is someone who is (1) ordained by a bishop (2) for service in the Church (3) to particularly represent the servanthood of Christ.
We found that all three are important for understanding the uniqueness of the deaconate. Points 1 and 3 distinguish deacons from lay people. For “service” can mean any number of things, hardly any of which needs Holy Orders to carry out, so what sets deacons apart from laypeople is the fact that they’re ordained to be living examples of Christ’s ministry. Thus their commitment must be greater, worthy to be “shown” to the congregation. But being an example also suggests leadership – “leading by example,” after all, is one of the best leadership styles.
On the flip side, points 2 and 3 distinguish deacons from priests. Priests are ordained for a more specific ministry, representing Christ the high priest by presiding over the spiritual life of the flock. Deacons, although also ordained by bishops, carry a call to a (potentially) broader range of ministry. Where the priest is typically more focused on organizing, guiding, and directing, the deacon is more focused on leading, demonstrating, and enabling. Thus, in actual practice, there is a sense in which the deacon may appear to be a mid-point between laity and priesthood, but that is not its actual purpose.
Getting God’s Attention
We are hungry for attention. We don’t have to go far to see it. Whether it is the girl (or boy) who is spending an hour in front of the mirror before school, the fan holding the huge sign at a Red Sox game just hoping to get on camera, or the streaker that runs across the field during that same game, it is clear. We expend a huge amount of energy simply trying to be noticed.
People have done even more bizarre things to be noticed by God. The story of the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel is a perfect example. In their contest with Elijah, they desperately needed Baal to send them fire. They cried out, limped around the altar, cut themselves, and raved all day, but “No one answered; no one paid attention.”[i] In mockery, Elijah suggested all sorts of reasons why their God might not be answering: “Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”
We must never believe the true God to be so distractible. “Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.”[ii] He will never forget us, for he is the one who says, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.”[iii] God will never forget us, both because he loves us so perfectly and because he is not subject to the limitations in recall that so often besets humans. This God of love does not desire that we degrade ourselves like the prophets of Baal to get his attention; we have it already!
Yet it often seems, from every measurable standard, that he has forgotten us. This creates a struggle within us; we know as a fact that God has never forgotten us, yet everything in us longs to cry out something like, “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?”[iv] These words, found in the Psalms, are one of many God-inspired prayers that call upon God not to forget. Since God gave this prayer to us, it must be right and good for us to pray this way. God does not shun the honest cry of our lonely hearts. Such a prayer is actually laudable, because even when we feel like God is a million miles away, we are still addressing our prayer to him. It shows a faith in God’s presence that goes even deeper than our sense of divine abandonment.
What a blessed irony. The God who does not forget has, in condescension to our limited perspective, given us prayers to use and (as we shall see) other actions to perform that are designed to get his attention, to cause him to “Remember your congregation, which you have purchased of old.”[v] Such prayers and acts of remembrance are a tremendous gift. Without them, we would be resorting to the desperate and degrading acts of the Baal-worshippers. With them, we can approach the throne of grace with confidence.
The Holy Eucharist is one of those acts of remembrance given to us by God. This truth was before me throughout my childhood, carved on the Communion Table: “In remembrance of me.” Yet, we defined “remembrance” in a different way than I have come to understand it. We believed that these words meant, “As you do this, remember me.” Human memory was central to our understanding of the Lord’s Supper. Through meditating on Christ’s passion as we received the bread and the cup, we remembered everything Christ had done for us and gave him thanks.
We would also use these words, spoken by Jesus in the Last Supper, to “set straight” anybody who believed in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. One may argue (as did Luther), “It really is the Body of Christ. He says, ‘This is my body.’” We would respond, “Ah, but he says, ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’” The implication seemed to be that the command to remember somehow negated all possibility that the bread was really Christ’s body in any sense.
I have come to believe that we were missing the point of Jesus’ words. A “remembrance,” particularly when used in a sacrificial context, is to an act or object designed to cause God to remember. Thus, “Do this in remembrance of me” can be understood to mean, “Do this to bring me into God’s remembrance.”[vi] What follows is meant to explain why such a reading is the most consistent with the Scriptures, and to explore how this understanding can enrich our participation in the Eucharist, particularly in an Anglican context.
Anamnesis in the Septuagint
“Remembrance” is an English translation of the Greek anamnesis. This word comes up eight times in the Greek texts of the Old and New Testament, and once in the Apocrypha. Of these occurrences, three are direct quotes of Jesus in the Last Supper. The other usages must be discussed individually.
Leviticus 24:7 You must put pure frankincense on each row, and it will become a memorial portion for the bread, a gift to the LORD. (NET)
In this context, the LORD is giving instructions around the bread of the presence in the tabernacle. Anamnesis is a translation from the Hebrew azakara, or “memorial portion.” In other usages of azakara[vii], the memorial portion is a handful taken from a grain offering. While the rest of the grain offering is given to the priest for food, the memorial portion is put on the altar and burned as a pleasing aroma to the Lord. This text stands out only slightly from them, in that while the bread is set out and later given to the priests for food, the frankincense offered with it makes up the memorial portion. Through the offering of the memorial portion, the entire gift is brought to God’s remembrance, so that he may be pleased with it.
Numbers 10:10 On the day of your gladness also, and at your appointed feasts and at the beginnings of your months, you shall blow the trumpets over your burnt offerings and over the sacrifices of your peace offerings. They shall be a reminder of you before your God: I am the LORD your God.”
Here, anamnesis translates the Hebrew zikaron, or “remembrance.” This is one of several uses of this term in the Old Testament in which the term is used to describe an object or action that causes God to remember. We may puzzle over why the God who cannot forget commands these remembrances, but it is clear that he does. God’s people and/or their sacrifices are brought into God’s remembrance through trumpets blown over sacrifices[viii], through stones on the high priest’s vestments bearing the names of the tribes of Israel[ix], through the census tax money brought to the tabernacle[x], through the jealousy offering[xi], through the offerings of the plunder of the Midianites[xii], and through the names of the faithful written in a book before the LORD[xiii]. While there are cases in which the zikaron is intended to bring something to human remembrance[xiv], the most common use of the word, particularly in a sacrificial context, is that of an act or object that brings God’s people and their gifts to God’s remembrance. We see here the development, by God’s grace, of “outward and visible” objects and actions that objectively release God’s grace.
Psalm 38:1 A PSALM OF DAVID, FOR THE MEMORIAL OFFERING.
Psalm 70:1 TO THE CHOIRMASTER. OF DAVID, FOR THE MEMORIAL OFFERING.
The Hebrew word which is translated anamnesis in Greek and “for the memorial offering” in the ESV is a hiphil infinitive construct of zakar, literally meaning “to cause to remember.” For this reason, the NET translates this “written to get God’s attention.” Conventional wisdom, leading standard translations to render this as “memorial offering,” assumes that the superscription on the psalm is designating the liturgical setting in which this psalm would be used; as the memorial offering is being presented to the Lord, these psalms of entreaty are lifted up, apparently with the hope that, as this pleasing aroma reaches God’s nostrils, he will “make haste to help” the one who prays. Thus, the NET’s translation, though it neglects the likely liturgical significance of the superscription, truly reflects the purpose of the psalm and of the memorial offering itself.
Wisdom 16:6 They were troubled for a little while as a warning and received a symbol of deliverance, to remind them of your law’s command.
This is the one case in which anamnesis is clearly used in the sense of bringing something to the remembrance of human beings. The symbol or reminder referred to is the bronze snake that the Israelites were commanded to look upon to receive healing from their snakebites. Wisdom says that this symbol is a reminder of God’s law. Interestingly, this is another example of an “outward and visible sign” truly conveying the grace of God. As the following verse affirms, “He who turned toward it was saved, not by what he saw, but by you, the Savior of all.”
Anamnesis in the New Testament
Hebrews 10:3 But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin every year.
In this unique text, it is difficult to understand the particular use of anamnesis. Only in this text are we actually having an anamnesis of something that is bad: sin. The previous verses say that the animal sacrifices being offered under the Mosaic law, particularly those offered on the Day of Atonement, could never take away sin. If they had, because the worshippers would no longer be conscious of sin, these sacrifices would no longer be offered. Human remembering is certainly going on in these sacrifices; the repetition of the sacrifices effectively keeps us from ever forgetting our ongoing sin. Yet, in light of the larger context of Hebrews 10, it seems that the use of anamnesis should be read, like its use in the Old Testament, as referring to that which causes God to remember. Since the Lord does not take pleasure in these sacrifices and they do not take away sin, these sacrifices rather serve to keep the unpleasant reality of our sin a central part in the divine-human discussion, effectively bringing it into God’s remembrance. Though he passed over these sins, leaving them unpunished, it was not because the sacrifices had taken them away but in anticipation of the atoning sacrifice that would be offered by Christ.[xv] The nuance of divine remembrance becomes clear through the contrast introduced in v. 17, which quotes Jeremiah’s prophecy of a new covenant in which God would remember our sins no more. Thus we enter into God’s presence by means of one single sacrifice (v. 12), Christ’s blood (v. 19) and his flesh (v. 20). The contrast could not be starker. The sacrifices of Yom Kippur annually caused our sins to be remembered. The sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood once for all caused our sins to be remembered no more.
Anamnesis in the Eucharist-
1 Corinthians 11:23-26 23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
The phrase “Do this in remembrance of me” should be read not as referring to the human recalling of Christ’s offering, but rather to divine remembrance. Just as God provided his people under the Mosaic Covenant with outward and visible actions or objects which served as divinely-authorized means to cause God to remember his people and their sacrifices, so in the Eucharist, we are given divine command to “do this” in order to bring Christ and the one perfect sacrifice of his body and blood into God’s remembrance.
Several factors cause us to see Christ’s command in this light:
1- The Sacrificial Context of the Last Supper
Given that “remembrance,” in a sacrificial context, is almost always a reference to a memorial before God, the sacrificial context of the Last Supper would encourage us to read Jesus’ words in that light. If we accept that the Last Supper was a Passover meal (or even an anticipation of the Passover), then the sacrificial context stands out for us. In the Passover, the lamb is slain and eaten. This points back to the spreading of the blood of the lamb on the doorframes. Jesus, announced as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,”[xvi] now offers himself as the Lamb, both as the sacrifice and, in instituting the Last Supper, as the sacrificial meal.
Jesus words about “the new covenant in my blood” also hearken back to the “blood of the covenant” in Exodus 23:8. As God covenants with the Israelites at Sinai, it is by means of the blood of their sacrifices, which is thrown both on the people and on the altar. The covenant is also sealed by a covenant meal, shared in the presence of the Lord by the chief men of Israel. Just as that blood and that meal established the Old Covenant, so Christ, in this meal, offers us “the new covenant in my blood.” Matthew, making the connection between the new covenant and the forgiveness of sins, records that this blood of the covenant “is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”[xvii]
2- The Continuing Nature of the Eucharist as Sacrificial Feast
The Eucharist, continuing perpetually by Jesus’ command at the Last Supper, continues to be, for Christians, a sacrificial feast. This is most clearly seen in 1 Corinthians 10:14-22. St. Paul is warning the Corinthian church against feasting in pagan temples. No, the idols to which the sacrifices are offered are not true gods, but there are demonic powers behind those idols, to whom those sacrifices are truly offered. By eating the sacrifices, taking into themselves and metabolizing that which has been offered to a demon, they become koinonoi (participants, communicants, sharers) with those demons. Meanwhile, the cup that we bless and the bread that we break are a koinonia (participation, communion, intimate fellowship) in Christ’s blood and body. It is communion because it is a sacrificial feast; as we eat and drink, we are taking into ourselves the very sacrificial body and blood of Christ and becoming sharers in his sacrifice. This direct parallel between idol feasting and the Lord’s supper climaxes with, “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.”
3- Resonance with the Liturgy of Passover
The Passover Haggaddah gives very specific instructions for how the Passover Seder is to be performed. There are limitations in using this to look back at the Last Supper, as the text was only formalized later, when the public liturgy of the temple no longer continued after the destruction of Jerusalem. While there is little doubt that there is a strong degree of continuity between the Jerusalem Passover celebration in the days of Christ and the Haggadah, we don’t’ know how strong that continuity is or where it is manifested. The prayers found between the afikoman and the third cup, commonly seen as corresponding with the bread and the wine that Jesus offered his disciples, point very clearly to this conception of remembrance.
Our God and God of our fathers, may there arise in your sight, and come, and be present, and be regarded, and be pleasing, and be heard, and be visited, and be remembered, our remembrance and our visitation, and the remembrance of our fathers, and the remembrance of the Messiah, the son of your servant David, and the remembrance of Jerusalem, the city of your holiness, and the remembrance of all your people, the house of Israel: for escape, for prosperity, for grace, and for loving-kindness and mercy, for life and for peace, on this day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Remember us on this day, Lord our God, for prosperity, and visit us on it for blessing, and save us on it for life. And by the word of salvation and mercy spare us, and grant us grace, and have mercy on us, and save us, for our eyes look to you, for you, O God, are a gracious and merciful king.[xviii]
If this or any similar prayer was commonly being used in this context in Jesus day, then the specifically God-directed nuance of anamnesis in Jesus’ words at this moment is virtually certain. This ritual action is bringing God’s people, his holy city, even the Messiah, into God’s remembrance. The result of that remembrance is the pouring out of God’s mercy and blessing. Remembrance leads naturally into petition.
This biblical evidence helps us to more clearly understand Jesus’ intentions in the institution of the Eucharist. As he was preparing to offer himself once and for all on the cross, he instituted this feast as a means for his people to continually take hold of the benefits of this sacrifice. He offers us with an accessible, objective way to feed on his flesh and blood, to enter into communion with his sacrifice, and to bring that all-important sacrifice into the Father’s remembrance.
Anamnesis in Christian Liturgy
As in the Passover Haggadah, Christian Eucharistic liturgies connect remembrance and petition. Just as the high priest entered the Most Holy Place by means of the sacrifices of Yom Kippur and made intercession for the people, and as Christ entered heaven itself by means of his own bloodto appear in the presence of God for us[xix], so we boldly make our petitions and intercessions through the remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice. Christ has already offered the perfect sacrifice that pleases the Father, covers our sins, and earns us bold access to the throne of grace. Thus, when we approach God in Eucharist, bringing this sacrifice into his remembrance, we are emboldened and empowered to bring our own prayers to God for ourselves, for the Church, and for the world.
This connection between remembrance and petition is broadly present in Christian liturgy, and is certainly available to us in historic Anglican expression.[xx] First, as the gifts are placed on the Altar, the priest invites “the secret intercessions of the Congregation”, then leads in prayer “for the whole state of Christ’s Church.” These prayers together function as the special intentions for which this remembrance is to be made.
The Eucharistic Prayer begins by speaking of the death of Christ on the cross, “who made there by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world; and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memory of that his precious death and sacrifice until his coming again.” Here we have special attention given to both that which is complete (the sacrifice of Christ), and that which is perpetual (the memory we continue).
After recounting the Institution of the Eucharist, and “according to” that institution, we “do celebrate, and make here before thy Divine Majesty, with these thy holy gifts, which we now offer unto thee, the memorial thy Son hath commanded us to make.” This is pivotal. We do not simply remember; we make the memorial before God Himself. It is before the Father that we are “having in remembrance his blessed passion and precious death, his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension.”
After calling upon God to bless the bread and wine by his Holy Spirit, we make intercession, asking God “accept our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving,” and “to grant that, by the merits and death of thy Son Jesus Christ, and through faith in his blood, we, and all thy whole Church, may obtain remission of our sins, and all other benefits of his passion.” Having made the remembrance of Christ, we immediately plead for God to pour out upon us all the blessings that Christ has obtained for us through his passion.
Finally, “as our Saviour Christ hath taught us, we are bold to say, Our Father…” This is the fruit of remembrance. In our own sinfulness, any approach to God would be one of fear, not confidence. But, with Christ in remembrance, we can “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace.”[xxi]
If we embrace the Eucharist as a remembrance before the Father of the perfect offering of Christ, the Eucharist becomes a powerful opportunity for intercession. Jesus has commanded us to hold before the Father that thing which pleases him the most, Christ’s own perfect sacrifice. We may feel we have nothing to offer God and wonder why God would listen to us, but when we come as communicants and sharers in the sacrifice of Christ, bringing Christ into the Father’s remembrance, we hold it as an article of faith that he is paying attention. This faith bring us the boldness we need to ask for forgiveness, for healing, for reconciliation, for blessing, for the spread of the gospel through all the world, for the peaceful repose of the departed, and for the restoration of all things. Through these prayers, which are covered in the pleasing blood of Jesus, the effect of Christ’s redemptive work continues to progress broader and deeper, drawing us toward that day when God will be all in all.
[i] 1 Kings 18:26-29.
[ii] Psalm 121:4.
[iii] Isa 49:15-16.
[iv] Psalm 13:1. This and all other verses, unless otherwise noted, come from the ESV.
[v] Psalm 74:2.
[vi] I have been working on this understanding for about three years; I believe the idea was first planted in my mind by reading Vernon Staley’s The Catholic Religion.
[vii] Lev 2:2, 2:9, 2:16, 5:12, 6:8, Num 5:26.
[viii] Num 10:10.
[ix] Ex 28:12, 28:29, 39:7.
[x] Ex 30:16.
[xi] Num 5:15, 18.
[xii] Num 31:54.
[xiii] Mal 3:16.
[xiv] i.e. Josh 4:17, Ex13:9.
[xv] Rom 3:25.
[xvi] John 1:29.
[xvii] Mt 16:28.
[xviii] Jasper, R.C.D., and Cuming, G.J. Prayers of the Eucharist: Early and reformed. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1990. 11.
[xix] Heb 9:12, 25.
[xx] For the sake of consistency, all references will come from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.
[xxi] Heb 4:16.
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!
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…