Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Byron Center, Michigan.
In previous articles we set forth two main principles governing our view of the diaconate. First, we argued that a scriptural view of the office of deacon places it on a par with the offices of pastor and elder. Second, by examining the institution of the diaconate, we saw that the fundamental work of the deacon is to care for the poor of the church.
Although the church abided by these principles for a time, she gradually abandoned both. By the Middle Ages, the church’s government had become hierarchical, so that the deacon was viewed as inferior to both elder and pastor — or, as it came to be, to both priest and bishop. Furthermore, the church assigned to the deacons many responsibilities entirely unrelated to the care of the poor, while giving this important work to others. A third way in which the church deformed the diaconate was by modifying the qualifications for the office which Scripture gives in I Timothy 3.
The office of deacon, by the time of the Great Reformation, stood in need of its own reformation.
Let us examine these three areas of deformation in more detail.
Until the fourth century, deacons were generally considered to be equal to presbyters (also known at first as bishops; we would call them elders). The office of deacon and of presbyter, from the time of their institution by the apostles until the end of the first century, were considered to be the two fundamental offices in the congregation. Early in the second century the church fathers, beginning with Ignatius, began distinguishing more clearly between the offices. The office of bishop and of presbyter were now viewed as two distinct offices, with that of bishop corresponding somewhat to that of pastor in our churches. Each church had one bishop who ruled the church in connection with the presbyters (elders). Some scholars believe that Ignatius planted the seeds of decline in the office of deacon, by teaching that the bishops represented Christ, the elders represented the apostles, and the deacons were the servants of the bishops.1 However, in other letters Ignatius spoke of the deacons as representing Christ, indicating that he did not intend to view the office of deacon as inferior to the others.2
Two interesting developments took place in the third century. First, the church added many other offices to the three spoken of in Scripture. One of these new offices was that of subdeacon. Because the seven deacons in the church at Rome were so busy, the city was divided into seven regions, with one deacon over each region and several subdeacons appointed to assist him. (Interestingly, the church did not think she could add to the number of deacons, because the apostles had appointed seven deacons in the church in Jerusalem; however, she had no problem adding to the number of offices in the church.) This proliferation of offices certainly paved the way for the hierarchy which would develop later. Second, of the seven deacons one came to be viewed as an archdeacon, who served as the bishop’s personal assistant, and was often the bishop’s successor. In these developments we can see more seeds of inequality in the offices. Still, the deacon was considered to be a very important person in the church. If there was any clear inequality among the offices at this time, it was that the diaconate was viewed as more prestigious an office than that of presbyter.
In the fourth century the decline of the office became more noticeable. One factor which contributed to this decline was the large growth of the church after Constantine legalized Christianity in 313. This large growth resulted in changes in the structure of the church, which changes took the form of a hierarchy with the bishop at the top. By 451 the bishops of the five major cities (Rome, Alexandria, Constantinople, Antioch, and Jerusalem) were considered patriarchs, and the patriarch of Rome was on his way to becoming the most important of the patriarchs.
Accompanying this change in structure was a redefining of the roles and duties of the various officebearers. With the growth of the church, the bishop could not possibly continue to be the pastor of all the people in his city, so he became the administrative head of the church in that city, while the presbyters became the heads of the various congregations within the city. The presbyters also took on more liturgical functions, and soon came to function as priests, whose work was to preside at the offering of the Eucharist. The deacons were viewed as the New Testament counterpart of the Levites, whose duties were largely to assist the priests. The office of deacon was therefore considered inferior to the priesthood in the New Testament church.
While in the first centuries the office of deacon was viewed as a permanent, lifelong office, it now came to be viewed as temporary, a stepping stone to that of the priesthood. Sometime between the fourth and eighth centuries, the church councils decided that the minimum age for deacons should be 25, and for presbyters (priests), 30. A person could be an “assistant priest” for five years as a deacon, then “graduate” to the priesthood. The church considered this “graduation” to be the good degree of which I Timothy 3:13 speaks: “For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree….”
By the eighth century, any seeds of disparity in the offices had become fully grown plants. The office of deacon, though still an important office in the church, was assumed to be inferior to that of priest and bishop.
With this disparity in the offices came a change in the duties ascribed to the office of deacon.
For several hundred years after its institution, the diaconate continued to care for the poor. That this was still considered to be their duty in the second century is evident from writings of the church fathers, who repeatedly called the deacons to be responsible stewards of the money they collected. DeJong speaks of the work of the diaconate in the early third century, as he gleans it from the Book of Clement.
Because of the unusual situation created by persecution and the large number of poor in the churches the diaconate required all the time and energies of its incumbents…. To their care were allotted all the sick and the strangers; likewise were they to aid the widows and act as fathers to the orphans. Of all their labors they were to render an account to the congregation. Nor were they to wait until the poor solicited their help, but as worthy representatives of their office they were to go through the city seeking everywhere to help the sick and suffering and to provide the poor with the necessities of life.3
By the fourth century the bishops had taken ultimate responsibility for the care of the poor, though the deacons assisted them. At the time of Constantine (321), the deacons were responsible, under the bishop’s supervision, for all the finances and property of the church — for the church had become heir of great estates and sums of money. From these funds the poor were cared for. Eventually, however, this work was completely taken from the deacons. By 692 a church council distinguished be-tween the work of the seven men spoken of in Acts 6, whose work was clearly the care of the poor, and the work of the deacons of the church. The care of the poor now fell to the monasteries and religious orders. In addition, voluntary poverty was encouraged and considered meritorious.
What, then, did the deacons do? What other responsibilities were assigned to them, which took them away from their most important work?
First, they were assigned many liturgical responsibilities — responsibilities in the area of worship. Early in the second century, they were allowed to assist the bishops at the Lord’s table. After the bishop had given thanks, the deacons were to distribute the bread and wine to those present, and bring those elements to those who were not present. As time went on, they were also charged with caring for the altar, and bringing the bread and wine (which the people brought as an offering) to the altar. By the middle of the third century they were to ensure that, before the Eucharist was offered, the catechumens were dismissed. They were then to ask the congregation whether any of them had anything against his brother or sister, so that the sacrament might be administered rightly. Later they were even allowed to administer the Eucharist when a bishop could not be present, but with his permission. This latter task, however, was taken from them in 314.
In other areas of liturgical duty, the deacons were assigned in the fourth century to announce the next part of worship (the people did not have bulletins on which the order of worship was printed), and to read the Gospel and Epistle lessons for the day. They were permitted to baptize if the bishop was absent and had given them permission. If the bishop was present, they were to assist him. They were entrusted with keeping the entire service and congregation in order. They served as ushers, and “prevented whispering, sleeping, and disruption.”4 This is but a partial list of their liturgical responsibilities.
Second, they served in many ways as the bishop’s assistants — both pastorally and administratively. They could teach the catechumens, read a homily from the fathers if the bishop were not present (similar to our practice of reading sermons when a pastor is not present). They were charged with being his messenger, with representing him and voting in his place at church councils. They were to mingle with the people of the church, so that they could try to determine who was about to sin, and to see who were sick, bringing these people to the attention of the bishop and the church, so that the bishop could rebuke the sinners and the people could care for the sick. As the church grew and the bishops became busier, the deacons were the ones to whom the people were to come with their needs, so that the bishop would not be bothered.
The deacons were busy men, indeed, but they were not busy in the care of the poor. The office had lost its only legitimate function.
It stands to reason that, if the idea of the office changed, and the work assigned to the office changed, also the qualifications for the office would have to be modified. This did not however begin immediately. Early in the second century, the church father Polycarp set forth in a letter to the Philippians the requirements for the office of deacon. They are very similar to those given us in I Timothy 3. Later in that century, the diaconate was open only to those who were proved, exemplary in character, and brought up a family with children, this latter assuming, of course, that the deacon was married.
Especially the qualifications regarding the deacon’s family life were changed in the fourth and fifth centuries. At first, although it was permitted a deacon to be married, it was forbidden him to marry if he were single at his ordination, unless at that time he had requested of the bishop the right to marry. Furthermore, if a deacon’s wife were to die, he was not allowed to remarry. Later, deacons who were married were expected to refrain from sexual relations. That this restriction could not be realistically enforced was seen when on occasion a deacon’s wife would bear a child. To enforce this restriction, it was later expected of deacons and their wives that they separate at the time of the husband’s ordination and both remain unmarried.
Thus the office degenerated also in this way, that the church imposed unnecessary, even wrong, restrictions on the men who held office. At the same time, she lost sight of the one great requirement for the deacons, that of compassion for those in distress.
Such was the sad deformation of the diaconate. As DeJong says, “Thus the church by the end of this period had completely transformed the office of the deacons and robbed it of its rightful place in the New Testament congregations.”5 The diaconate was in need of reformation.
This history reminds us to be on our guard against the very real dangers of viewing the diaconate as inferior to the office of pastor or elder, of emphasizing other aspects of the work than that of caring for the poor, and of thinking that the qualifications set forth in Scripture need some updating.
1. Peter Y. DeJong, The Ministry of Mercy for Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1952), page 46.
2. James Monroe Barnett, The Diaconate: A Full and Equal Order (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1995), pages 51-52.
3. P. Y. DeJong, op. cit., page 47.
4. Jeannine E. Olson, One Ministry, Many Roles: Deacons and Deaconesses through the Centuries (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1992), page 33.
5. P. Y. DeJong, op. cit., page 50.