Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Byron Center, Michigan.

We have seen that the office of deacon as instituted in the New Testament church fell into disgrace during the Middle Ages, when it was considered inferior to the priesthood, and when the deacon was assigned liturgical, pastoral, and administrative duties, but not the care of the poor.

Out of the Reformation came new branches of churches — Reformed, Lutheran, Anabaptist, and Anglican. Each had its own view of church government, and consequently its own view of the place and work of the diaconate. By a general historical survey of the diaconate in these churches, we will see that the Reformed churches have done more than the other branches of the Reformation to restore the office to its rightful place in the church.

In both the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church, the view of the diaconate which was popular during the Middle Ages continued to be held for centuries after the Reformation.1 The deacons were considered to be superior to the laity but inferior to the priests and bishops. The diaconate was a steppingstone to the priesthood. One writer says that “the great majority of Anglican deacons spend no more than a year in the diaconate.”2 The work assigned to them was, and still is, highly liturgical — assisting at the sacraments; bringing the Eucharist to the sick; and, in the place of an absent priest, officiating at baptisms, weddings, funerals, and other prayer services. They are also given pastoral and educational duties — teaching catechism, giving instruction to new members and those preparing for marriage, working with the youth, counseling those with problems, and working in the community to promote social and moral changes. Their works of charity include caring for the sick, poor, lonely, and homebound.

Within the past fifty years, however, the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church have made a notable change in their view of the office. At Vatican II (a Roman Catholic council which met in the early 1960s), Romish clergy approved in principle the restoration of a permanent diaconate — that is, one in which men functioned for a lifetime, without seeking to be promoted to the priesthood. The council gave authority to local church leaders to make the ultimate decision whether or not they wanted permanent deacons. The same council permitted married men to hold the office of deacon, provided they had reached the age of 35, but continued to require celibacy of an unmarried man who sought the office. For the unmarried, the minimum age was 25. Such changes the Jesuit Echlin considers to be a “restoration” of the diaconate.3

Similarly, the 1958 Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Churches recommended that the local parishes “consider whether the office of Deacon shall be restored to its primitive place as a distinct order of the Church, instead of being regarded as a probationary period for the priesthood.”4

We agree that the diaconate ought to be considered an office in its own right, and not merely asteppingstone to the priesthood (or, in our case, to the eldership). For this reason the proposed change is an important change in the right direction. However, this change can hardly be considered a restoration of the office, for it accomplishes far too little, both with regard to the work of the office and with regard to the position of the diaconate in the church.

This proposed change does nothing to restore to the diaconate its rightful and basic work of administering Christ’s mercies to the poor and needy. Too much emphasis is still placed on the liturgical and educational aspects of the office, work which Scripture does not assign to the deacons. Admittedly, in these churches the deacon is assigned various works of charity including the care of the poor. He is, however, instructed to “administer charity in the name of the hierarchy.”5 That is, the bishops and priests are considered responsible for caring for the poor; the deacons merely assist them in this matter. That such is the deacon’s fundamental work is ignored.

This proposal also does not change the thinking that the diaconate is subordinate and inferior to the priesthood in a hierarchy of offices. Having men remain in the diaconate longer will, perhaps, emphasize the importance of a certain rung in the hierarchy. After all, a ladder needs every rung to be useful and effective. However, the hierarchy is not abolished.

The Romish and Anglican churches must do at least two things in order truly to restore the diaconate in their midst. First, they must reexamine their whole system of church government. They must begin to view each congregation as an autonomous body of Christ; the congregation, not the denomination, is the church. Furthermore, the offices of pastor, elder, and deacon ought to be found in each congregation. These offices must be considered on a par with each other, and each office must devote itself to the work to which Scripture assigns it — the pastors to teach, the elders to rule, and the deacons to administer Christ’s mercies. Secondly, they must reexamine their whole manner of worship, and see that much of their high liturgy is irrelevant, even wrong, in light of God’s command to worship Him in Spirit and in truth (John 4:24). Were the deacon to be excused from these unnecessary liturgical duties, he could concentrate more on the work of mercy.

The office of deacon cannot be fully restored in these churches if such things are not done.

While the Romish and Anglican churches have done little to restore the office of deacon, the Lutheran branch has been responsible for its further demise. The fact is that the office of deacon, as Scripture speaks of it, is virtually non-existent in the Lutheran churches.

Martin Luther, who desired to bring the church back to the Scriptures, also wanted to reestablish the office of deacon, claiming that “the diaconate is the ministry, not of reading the Gospel or the Epistle, as is the present practice, but of distributing the church’s aid to the poor.”6

It was the Lutheran form of church government which prevented this ideal from being realized. The Lutheran churches historically have allowed the state to rule the church. So long as the government was sympathetic to Lutheranism, Luther himself was content with this arrangement. As a result, the government also took over the work of caring for the poor. The men in the church who were given the title “deacon” were given the task of preaching, not of caring for the poor.7

Today, in the Lutheran churches in Europe, a “deacon” is a member of an organization which is not directly connected to the church, but which undertakes some work of mercy, such as nursing, social work, and mission work (the latter being largely viewed as a form of social work). This work is often his full time, salaried work, requiring professional training and state certification. We are told that

a deacon is understood to be a man who, as a member of an institution usually called a Bruderhaus (Community), has been trained in specific services — social, educational, administrative, medical, or purely ecclesiastical. He then practices these forms of service professionally, on behalf of his Church, of a church organization, of a Christian association, or of the public administration, but always in agreement with his Bruderhaus.8

This deacon is not ordained, nor does he even hold an office in the church: “the deacon has been given no place which would integrate him organically” into the church.9

In evaluation, little need be said. This concept of what a deacon is and does is far different from that set forth in Scripture, which clearly teaches that a deacon holds an office in the church (Acts 6:1-6, I Tim. 3:8-13, Phil. 1:1), and that his work is that of caring for the poor and needy of the church (Acts 6:1-6).

The Baptist churches have done better than the Lutheran, Romish, and Anglican churches in regard to the work of the diaconate. Originally the Baptist churches were concerned that the deacons care for the church’s poor and needy, and manage the church’s finances. In the latter part of the 1700s in America, the view began to be popular that the deacons were the church’s administrators and business managers. Even then, they continued to serve the tables, which meant caring not only for the poor but also for the needs of the pastor and serving at the Lord’s table. This latter duty included distributing the elements to the members, as well as “admonishing those members who failed to attend the ordinance, and reporting to the church anyone who refused to heed such an admonition.”10 Although it is still common today in Baptist circles to view the deacons as the church’s executive officers, more emphasis is again being placed on the spiritual tasks of the diaconate, those of caring for the poor, the sick, and the minister, and being busy with “witnessing, preaching, counseling, worship, education, community projects,” and the like.11

The fact that the Baptist churches do not have elders (except for their pastors) means that the deacons are really the only other people to carry out the official work of the church. Perhaps this detracts somewhat from doing the real work of the diaconate; yet it is clear that the Baptist churches have the office of deacon in their midst, and are generally concerned to care for their poor through that office.

We ought not view our deacons as simply business managers, or church administrators, as has been done in Baptist circles. However, Reformed churches are not immune from this same pattern of thinking. Because the deacons are included in the council of the church (and rightly so), they do have some responsibility to oversee temporal matters, such as the church’s building and finances. But we must be careful that these works do not detract from the work of charity with which our deacons must be busy.

This survey has demonstrated that a right (biblical) conception of the diaconate requires a right conception of church government. Because the Reformed (Presbyterian) system of church government is more consistent with scriptural principles than are the other systems, Reformed churches have had a good foundation on which to restore the diaconate to its rightful place.

The Reformed system of church government is based on the scriptural principle that the local congregation is in itself a complete manifestation of the body of Christ, in which functions the office of all believers, as well as the three special offices — pastor, elder, and deacon. Though uniting in a denomination with other churches of the same faith to manifest the unity of Christ’s body, each individual congregation has the authority to preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, exercise church discipline, and care for its poor and needy. The churches do this work through their pastors, elders, and deacons, believing that Christ Himself works through these men. Following from these premises, we argue that the office of deacon is essential in the church, and that the diaconate is equal to both the pastorate and eldership in its authority, although its work differs from that of the other offices.

John Calvin was instrumental in restoring the diaconate to its rightful place in Reformed churches. He deplored the low state into which the diaconate had fallen.12 Convinced that the church ought to have the three special offices in it, and that the office of deacon was that of administering Christ’s mercies, he proceeded to organize the church along those lines.

That the Reformed churches after Calvin followed his thinking about the place and work of the diaconate in the church is evident from official statements of the Reformed churches regarding the office. We refer particularly to the Belgic Confession, Articles 30 and 31; to the Church Order, Articles 2 and 24-27; and to the Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons. The view of the diaconate set forth in these documents is still held and practiced by the Protestant Reformed Churches in America, as well as many other Reformed denominations today. These documents show clearly that the office has a place in the church, and that its work is the care of the poor and needy.

We have begun to show that the Reformed churches have done more than other branches of churches since the Reformation to restore the diaconate to its rightful place in the church. We ought, however, not simply assert this generally, but demonstrate it more specifically. To do that, we will devote the next article to a more detailed treatment of the history of the diaconate in the Reformed churches.

1. For a treatment of the diaconate in the Anglican Church, cf. The Diaconate: A Full and Equal Order, authored by James M. Barnett. (New York, New York: The Seabury Press, 1981). For a treatment of the diaconate in the Roman Catholic Church, cf. The Deacon in the Church: Past and Future, authored by Edward P. Echlin, S.J. (Staten Island, New York: Alba House, 1971). To both these books I am indebted for much of the information in this section.

2. George Every, “The Diaconate in the Anglican Communion,” as compiled in The Ministry of Deacons (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1965), page 49.

3. Echlin, op. cit.; chapter 4 (pages 95-124) is entitled “From Trent to the Restoration: The Deacon Returns.”

4. Resolution 88 of the conference, quoted in Barnett, op. cit., page 149.

5. Echlin, op. cit., page 121, summarizing the papal document Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem (The Holy Order of Deacons), which appeared in June of 1967.

6. Quoted in Charles W. Deweese, The Emerging Role of Deacons, (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1979), page 19.

7. Cf. Prof. William Heyns, Handbook for Elders and Deacons, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1928), pages 287-288.

8. Herbert Krimm, “The Diaconate in the Lutheran Church,” as compiled in The Ministry of Deacons, page 54.

9. Ibid., page 55.

10. Deweese, op. cit., page 35.

11. Ibid, pages 54-55.

12. Cf. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, transl. Ford Lewis Battles, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), vol. 2, pages 1088, 1097-1098, 1479.