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DEACON, DEACONESS (Gr. diakonos, servant). Paul used the Greek word of himself (1Cor.3.5; Eph.3.7). Jesus was declared to be a diakonos of the Jews (Rom.15.8). Household servants were diakonoi (Matt.22.13). Paul told Timothy how to be good diakonos (1Tim.4.6). NIV usually renders “servant”; KJV, “minister.”

The diaconate, as a church office, is inferred from Acts.6.1-Acts.6.8, but at least two of the seven men were evangelists. Ignatius, a contemporary of the apostle John, declared that the deacons were not mere servers of meat and drink. But the seven in Acts.6.1-Acts.6.15 did serve (diakonein) tables, so that the apostles could give themselves to the ministry (diakonia) of the Word. Their successors came to be recognized as church officers. Qualifications given in 1Tim.3.1-1Tim.3.16 show that they were not considered ordinary lay members of the church. Paul’s mention of deacons in connection with bishops (Phil.1.1) supports the view. Clement of Rome based the office on the two classes of synagogue workers mentioned in Isa.60.17 (lxx)—pastors and helpers.

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 (Luke.8.2-Luke.8.3). It does not appear from the Scripture or early church literature that deaconesses were ever church officers.——JDF

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 the Middle Ages until 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 both Vatican II and 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 the Minor Orders in 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, Rom 15:8) and slave (doûlos, Phil 2:6). By His incarnation as the messianic servant of the Father and by His messianic suffering, Christ completely inverted the servant-master relationship and transvaluated the dignity and honor of serving and suffering. Contrasting his own servant-role with both the power structures of Gentile authority and the ambitious strife of the disciples, He affirmed that “whoever would be great among you, must be your servant (diákonos), and whoever would be first among you must be slave (doûlos) of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve (diakonêsai) and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:35-45, cf. 9:35; Matt 20:20-28). Luke, who places the episode in the table context of the Last Supper, concludes the account with the declaration of Christ, “But I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27, ho diakonôn). In the fourth gospel the same servant-nature of the Son is dramatically illustrated by His washing the disciples’ feet prior to the Supper (John 13:1-11).

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 Matthew 25:31-46, the Son of man will separate the sheep from the goats on the basis of diakonía: the Son acknowledges those who ministered to Him (25:44) in feeding, clothing, sheltering and visiting “one of the least of these my brethren.”

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. Phil 2:5-11; Col 1:24-28). According to Romans 12:7 and 1 Peter 4:7, this diakonía is a distinctive gift of the Spirit within the Body of Christ, along with (or manifested in) such gifts as helps, liberality, mercy, and hospitality.

Christian ministry.

Some have seen in Acts 6 the initiation of the diaconate as a church office, since the passage employs the noun diakonía (6:1, 4) and the verb diakoneîn (6:2), and introduces the significant distinction between the “ministry of the Word” (6:4) and the “ministry of tables” (6:1, 2). But the seven are nowhere called “deacons”; Philip is in fact called an evangelist” (21:8) and subsequent accounts emphasize the role of the seven in disputing, teaching, preaching and baptizing.

The salutation of Philippians 1:1 seems to refer to the diaconate as a specific and relatively defined function within the congregation, closely associated with the bishop (or overseer), perhaps esp. in administration of the contribution for which Paul thanks the Philippians. The same quasi-official use reappears in 1 Timothy 3:8-13, again closely linked to the bishop. The requisites for the choice of deacons fit those required for the administration of congregational funds and for house-to-house visitation, two functions typically ascribed to the deacon in patristic lit. (Hipp. Ap. Tr. 9, 21, 23-25, 30). These two passages stand alone as instances of a more technical official sense of the term. Patristic lit. illustrates the progressive definition of its official character, along with the gradual distinction of the bishop and presbyter to constitute a threefold ministry in which the deacon assists the bishop.


The synoptic gospels give curious emphasis to the diakonía of certain women (see above). In Romans 16:1 Phoebe is described as a diákonos (RSV, “deaconess”), but since the form is masculine, without article, and since the first indications of an office of “deaconess” appear only in the 3rd cent., it is highly doubtful that the v. refers to a specific and definite church office. The “women” of 1 Timothy 3:11 prob. refer to the wives of deacons rather than to deaconesses. These passages, however, plus the role of widows indicated in 1 Timothy 5:3-16 and 1 Corinthians 7:8 may point to the earliest origins of the development of the later office of deaconess.

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 “Apostolic Constitutions” 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 Church of England, the Methodist Church, and the Church of Scotland. 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 New Testament, 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 (Ac 6), and this view was countenanced by many of the church Fathers.

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 1Ti 3:8-12; furthermore, Stephen appears in Ac preeminently as a preacher, and Philip as an evangelist. Paul clearly recognizes women as deaconesses, but will not permit a woman to teach (1Ti 2:12). The obvious conclusion is that the Seven may be called the first deacons only in the sense that they were the earliest recorded helpers of the Twelve as directors of the church, and that they served in the capacity, among others, of specially appointed ministrants to the poor.

Paul says, "I commend unto you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant (the Revised Version, margin "or, deaconess") of the church that is at Cenchrea" (Ro 16:1). This is by many taken as referring to an officially appointed deaconess; but the fact that there is in the earlier group of Paul’s epistles no clear evidence of the institution of the diaconate, makes against this interpretation. Phoebe was clearly an honored helper in the church closely associated with that at Corinth, where likewise evidence of special ecclesiastical organization is wanting.

In Php 1:1 Paul and Timothy send greetings "to all the saints .... at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons." Here then we find mention of "deacons" in a way to suggest a formal diaconate; but the want of definition as to their qualifications and duties renders it impossible to affirm with certainty the existence of the office.

In 1Ti 3:8-12, after prescribing the qualifications and the method of appointment of a bishop or overseer, Paul continues: "Deacons in like manner must be grave, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre; holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. And let these also first be proved; then let them serve as deacons, if they be blameless. Women in like manner must be grave, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things. Let deacons be husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well." Deacons and deaconesses are here provided for, and the character of their qualifications makes it clear that they were to be appointed as dispensers of alms, who should come into close personal relations with the poor.

We conclude, therefore, that the Seven and Phoebe did not exercise the diaconate in a technical sense, which appears first certainly in 1Ti 3, although it is not improbably recognized in Php 1:1, and was foreshadowed in the various agencies for the dispensing of alms and the care of the poor of the church instituted in various churches at an earlier date.