DEACON, DEACONESS (Gr. diakonos, servant). Paul used the Greek word of himself (
The diaconate, as a church office, is inferred from
The same Greek word is used of Phoebe in Romans 16:1—translated as “servant” (kjv, nasb, niv) or “deaconess” (jb, rsv). Certain women ministered (diakonein) to Jesus (
The Greek work diakonos means “servant,” with an emphasis on usefulness rather than inferiority. Such service was expected of all members of the early church, but there soon evolved a special auxiliary ministry with this title. Deacons were apparently assistants to the bishops or overseers (Phil. 1:1). Their origin was early attributed to the appointment of the Seven in Acts 6:3,4, though they are not actually called deacons. They were, however, to “deacon” tables, and certainly such administrative service characterized the later work of deacons (note the qualification “not greedy for gain” in 1 Tim. 3:8 RSV).
By the time of Ignatius in the early second century, their flexible beginnings had evolved into a specific office in the threefold ministry of bishops, presbyters, and deacons. The office soon gained in significance, with a combination of administrative, pastoral, and liturgical functions. The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus in the beginning of the third century regards the deacon as the bishop's link with the church. Collecting and distributing alms was a major responsibility and liable to create an undue sense of their importance. From the Council of Arles in 314 onward, their temptation to arrogance is alluded to and their subordinate position to that of presbyters stressed. In the Eastern Church a man often remained a deacon for life while continuing in a secular occupation; his diaconal role was almost entirely liturgical. In the West the diaconate steadily declined in importance during theuntil it became simply a stepping-stone to the priesthood.
In many of the Reformation churches the liturgical function of deacons was discarded. Among the Lutherans pastoral care and witness are their special responsibility. Consequently they are not ordained, but on the European continent are consecrated as members of a community (Bruderhaus). Calvin traced two kinds of deacon in the NT, one to dispense alms and the other to care for the poor and sick (Institutes IV 3.9), a dual role still exercised by this “lay” ministry in the Reformed churches. Among Baptists, deacons approximate to the executive committee of the church, being normally elected by the church meeting for a limited period.
Experiments in permanent diaconate and the advocacy of fresh study of the subject by bothand the Lambeth Conference of 1968 indicate widespread uncertainty concerning their role.
F.J.A. Hort, The Christian Ecclesia (1897), pp. 198ff.; K.E. Kirk (ed.), The Apostolic Ministry (1946); J.G. Davies, “Deacons, Deaconesses and thein the Patristic Period,” JEH XIV (1963), pp. 1-15; The Ministry of Deacons, World Council Studies No. 2 (1965).
Christ as deacon.
The unique source of all Christian diakonía, and its perfect prototype, is found in Him who, being Lord, made himself servant (diákonos,
A curious rabbinic parallel occurs in the Mishnah: when Rabban Gamaliel II astonished his fellow rabbis by rising and serving them at table, Rabbi Jehoshua commented that “Abraham was greater than he, and he served at table,” while another confrere added, “God himself spreads the table before all men, and should not Rabban Gamaliel therefore arise and serve us?” (SBK II, p. 257). In the judgment described in
From these teachings it becomes clear that all Christian diakonía, and indeed the whole Christian life, is a participation by grace in the Servanthood of the Son of man. This diaconate-in-Christ marks the entire Church; we are partakers in the communal life and in the corporate servanthood and suffering of the Suffering Servant (cf.
Some have seen in
The salutation of
The synoptic gospels give curious emphasis to the diakonía of certain women (see above). In
In the early church, a a deaconess was woman involved in the pastoral ministry of the church. Exactly what her function or official status may have been is a matter of dispute. Paul mentions Phoebe, “deaconess” (ousan diakonon) of the church at Cenchreae (Rom. 16:1) and there is also an ambiguous reference in 1 Timothy 3:11. The “widows” mentioned in 1 Timothy 5:3-10 may also be connected with the role. Not until the end of the fourth century is much known about the office of deaconess (Gr. diakonissa). The “Didascalia” and the “” describe their functions as assistants to the clergy in the baptizing of women, ministers to the poor and sick among women, instructors of women catechumens, and in general intermediaries between the clergy and women of the congregation. Fears of the usurping of priestly functions and other considerations led to the extinction of the office in the church at large by the eleventh century.
The modern deaconess movement began clearly in 1836 when the Lutheran pastor T. Fliedner* founded a Protestant community at Kaiserswerth,* near Dusseldorf, devoted chiefly to nursing. The movement spread rapidly through the Protestant world. In the second half of the nineteenth century, deaconesses were established in the, the Methodist Church, and the . They act as pastoral assistants to the minister.
B. Reicke, Diakonie, Festfreude und Zelos (1951); G. Kittel, TWNT II, (1964), 81-93; J. McCord and T. H. L. Parker, Service in Christ (1966); H. von Campenhausen, Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power in the Church of the First Three Centuries (1969).
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
de’-k’-n, de’-k’-n-es: The term diakonos, and its cognates occur many times in the, as do its synonyms huperetes, and doulos, with their respective cognates. It may be said in general that the terms denote the service or ministration of the bondservant (doulos), underling (huperetes) or helper (diakonos), in all shades and gradations of meaning both literal and metaphorical. It would serve no useful purpose to list and discuss all the passages in detail. Christianity has from the beginning stood for filial service to God and His kingdom and for brotherly helpfulness to man, and hence, terms expressive of these functions abound in the New Testament. It behooves us to inquire whether and where they occur in a technical sense sufficiently defined to denote the institution of a special ecclesiastical office, from which the historical diaconate may confidently be said to be derived.
Many have sought the origin of the diaconate in the institution of the Seven at Jerusalem (
The Seven were appointed to "serve tables" (diakonein trapezais), in order to permit the Twelve to "continue stedfastly in prayer, and in the ministry (diakonia) of the word." They are not called deacons (diakonoi), and the qualifications required are not the same as those prescribed by Paul in
Paul says, "I commend unto you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant (the
We conclude, therefore, that the Seven and Phoebe did not exercise the diaconate in a technical sense, which appears first certainly in
See also BISHOP; CHURCH; CHURCH GOVERNMENT.