The second part of the Form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons deals with the office of the deacon. This Form is rather brief, dealing with just two matters. First of all the origin and institution of the office is recorded, and this is followed by a brief description of the office itself. To these matters we will return presently, but let us first make some general observations.
The term diakonos (deacon) denotes “a servant, an attendant, a minister.” In its generic sense it is used in Scripture of all ministers of the gospel. We may, for example, confer such passages as, , , , . In it is also used of civil magistrates. Only in , and is the term used in the direct or technical sense to denote a particular class of congregational officers who are distinct from the presbyter-bishops (elders). There is then nothing in the term that lends support to the view that this office in the church is to be regarded as inferior or subordinate to that of the elders and ministers. There was a time in the history of the church in which this view was rather commonly held, and even in our day there are often indications in the church that we have not yet been completely weaned of this notion. By some the office of deacon is looked upon as a sort of stepping stone to that of elder. By others it is regarded as no more than a position or office in which one is entrusted with the care and management of the earthly possessions of the church. Needless to say, both of these views are in error, and we must emphasize and maintain, in practice as well as in theory, that the office of the deacon is a ministry in which is reflected the priestly functions of Christ Himself. It is a service of mercy, a spiritual dispensing of the riches of grace, and only when the diaconate so functions does it fulfill its instituted purpose.
T. Schafer, in The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia, writes:
“After the departure of the apostles, during the mysterious period between 70 and 150 A.D., where information is so scant, that change in the ecclesiastical organization must have taken place which is found pretty generally established toward the close of the second century. The Didache knows only two classes of officers for the local churches, bishops and deacons; they were to be elected by the congregations, and are to receive honor ‘together with the prophets and teacher.’ Ignatius mentions deacons as a necessary part of the governing body of the local church. With him the bishops are raised above their fellow presbyters, and later they were regarded as successors of the apostles; the presbyters, at first simply pastors and teachers, were clothed with sacerdotal dignity, which in the New Testament appears as the common property of all Christians; and the deacons became Levites, subject to the priests. They are often compared to the Levites of the Old Testament. These three officers constituted the three clerical orders in distinction from the laity. An act of ordination marked the entrance. No one could become a bishop without passing first through the two lower orders; but in some cases a distinguished layman, as Cyprian or Ambrose, was elected bishop by the voice of the people, and hurried through the three ordinations. The subdeacon was later associated with the deacon and was declared a member of the ‘major orders’ by Innocent III. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church and the canon law have never formally decided whether the episcopate is a distinct order or not. The Council of Trent did not decide the question, although it speaks of the hierarchy of bishops, priests, and deacons. The schoolmen, including Peter Lombard, Hugo of St. Victor, Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventura say again and again that the episcopate is not a distinct order, but an office or function. They regarded the presbyters, deacons, and subdeacons as constituting the three major orders. The prevailing view today in the Roman Catholic Church, if not the universal one, is that the episcopate is a distinct order and that the subdeaconate is not.” (Pages 370, 371, Vol. III)
The same author also writes: “In the Reformed churches the apostolic diaconate was revived, as far as circumstances would permit, with different degrees of success. In the Reformation of the Church of Hesse (1526) it was prescribed that each pastor should have at least three deacons as assistants in the care of the poor. The Church of Basel in 1529 made a similar provision. Calvin regards the diaconate as one of the indispensable offices of the Church, and the care of the poor as their proper duty (Institutes, Bk. IV., Chaps. 3, 9). The Reformed confessions acknowledge this office (Conf. Gallicana, Art. XXIX; Conf. Belgica, Art. XXX and XXXI). In the Dutch and German Reformed churches the deacons are ‘to collect and to distribute the alms and other contributions for the relief of the poor, or the necessities of the congregation, and to provide for the support of the ministry of the Gospel.’ The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America teaches, in its form of government (Chapt. VI): ‘The Scriptures clearly point out deacons as distinct officers in the church, whose business it is to take care of the poor, and to distribute among them the collections which may be raised for their use. To them, also, may be properly committed the management of the temporal affairs of the church.’ (In accordance with this principle, deacons are a normal part of the machinery of the local churches and receive ordination, though they are not members of the church session.)” (Ibed, Pgs. 371, 372)
It may then safely be affirmed that in the church there is a place for the office of deacon. That office answers to a very real need as much as does the office of the elder. That need is not the same and neither are the offices the same. They are distinct but also equal ministrations to the spiritual as well as to the temporal needs of the church. The office of the deacon certainly implies instruction as well as bodily relief.
The Origin of the Office
The view of the origin of the office of the deacon as expressed in our Ordination Form is a common one. In this Form we read:
“Of the origin and institution of their office we may read,, where we find that the apostles themselves did in the beginning serve the poor, ‘At whose feet was brought the price of the things that were sold: and distribution was made unto every man, according as he had need. But afterwards, when a murmuring arose, because the widows of the Grecians were neglected in the daily ministrations,’ men were chosen (by the advice of the apostles) who should make the service of the poor their peculiar business, to the end that the apostles might continually give themselves to prayer, and to the ministry of the Word.”
The Ordination Form then draws this conclusion: “And this has been continued from that time forward in the Church, as appears from Rom. 12, where the apostle, speaking of this office, saith, ‘he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity.’ Andspeaking of helps, he means those, who are appointed in the Church to help and assist the poor and indigent in time of need.”
With this view Lightfoot also agrees in his commentary on Acts 6, and in his interpretation of Philippians he makes the observation that “the office (of deacons) grew out of a special emergency in the congregation at Jerusalem.”
In the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia this view of the origin of the office is also held. We quote: “As related in, the office grew out of a special emergency in the congregation of Jerusalem in consequence of the complaint of the Hellenists, or Greek Jews, against the Hebrews, or Palestinian Jews, that their widows were neglected in the daily ministration at the common love-feasts. Hence the apostles, who had hitherto themselves attended to this duty, instructed the congregation to elect from their midst seven brethren, and ordained them by prayer and the laying on of hands. The diaconate, therefore, like the pres- bytero-episcopate, grew out of the apostolic office, which at first embraced all the functions and duties of the ministry—the ministry of tables and of the word. Christ chose apostles only, and left them to divide their labor under the guidance of His Spirit, with proper regard to times and circumstances, and to found such additional offices in the Church as were useful and necessary.” (Pg. 370)
Not all, however, are agreed with this view. For example, W. Heidel,in the International Bible Encyclopaedia, has this to say:
“Many have sought the origin of the diaconate in the institution of the Seven at Jerusalem (Acts 6), and this view was countenanced by many of the church Fathers. The Seven were appointed to ‘serve tables,’ in order to permit the Twelve to ‘continue steadfastly in prayer, and in the ministry of the word.’ They are not called deacons (diakonoi), and the qualifications required are not the same as those prescribed by Paul in; furthermore, Stephen appears in Acts preeminently as a preacher, and Philip as an evangelist. Paul clearly recognizes women as deaconesses, but will not permit a woman to teach ( ). 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.” (Vol. II, pg. 800)
The same author, commenting on, writes: “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.”
It would be unfair to leave the impression, in light of the above, that this author then denies the existence of the diaconate in the church. That this is not so is evident from his concluding statement which reads: ‘‘We conclude, therefore, that the Seven and Phoebe did not exercise the diaconate in a technical sense, which appears first certainly in, although it is not improbably recognized in , 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.”
Whether then the diaconate was instituted in Acts 6 or not, in our judgment, must remain an open question. There is not sufficient evidence in Scripture to substantiate either position. Even the statement in our Ordination Form that ‘‘this has been continued from that time forward in the Church, as appears from…and ,” lacks proof. There is nothing here that rules out the possibility that the office mentioned in these two texts is of a later origin. Neither is the determination of the exact historical origin of this office a crucial matter. The important thing is that according to the Scriptures there is sufficient evidence to sanction the existence of the diaconate as a particular office in the church. The office has an important and necessary place in the church. This is true in spite of the fact that in deacons are not mentioned. When the office originated then is not important but the fact that it has been instituted and is sanctioned by the Word of God itself is significant.