History and Nature of the Diaconate
The scriptures and the ancient Christian writers make it clear that there have been different ministries within the Church since the time of the Apostles. The three distinct orders of ordained ministers, Deacon, Priest and Bishop, are the embodiment in the community of the priesthood, servanthood and episcopacy of Christ which all of the people of God participate in through baptism. These orders are a gift of God, to the people of God, for the service of God.
From New Testament times, the Holy Spirit has called and continues to call individuals to leadership in the Church. Those who respond to the Spirit's call do so in life long devotion. Throughout the history of the Church there have continued to be bishops, priests or presbyters and deacons, or equivalent, functioning in the major Christian denominations.
Almost from the beginning, the Christian community found it necessary to appoint those who would assist in looking after its poor. We see in Acts 6: 1-6 that seven were chosen to take food to widows, who some said were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. These seven have been looked to as a model of the diaconate since early on in the history of the Church. A specific reference to deacons may be found in Philippians 1: 1 where Paul addresses "to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons." (NIV) 1 Timothy 3:8-13 contains the third reference in the scriptures to deacons when it sets out the qualifications for bishop and deacon. Both offices are to be filled by respected persons in the community. The requirements for deacon are strict due to the dignity of the office.
The period 100-600 AD has been called the Golden Age of the diaconate. Deacons flourished in numbers and in importance. They oversaw the pastoral care of the Church; administered Church charities; were assistants to the bishops of the Church; often succeeded the bishops they assisted; and had a major role in the liturgies of the Church. Above all else, they were the living symbol of the servant ministry to which all baptized Christians are called by Christ. Deacons were servants of the Church, not of another order or official. The order of deacon was a permanent vocation. The entrance of unprecedented numbers into the Church in the fourth century led to radical changes in the Church. With these changes came the decline of the diaconate as a separate and distinct order. The ministry of the Church became a graded succession of offices reflecting its greater complexity and its new civic role.
The 1968 Lambeth conference acknowledged that the diaconate as an ordained ministry was necessary to the Church of Christ and recommended that the practice of regarding the diaconate as an inferior order be reformed and that the order of deacon be restored to a significant and operative order.
The deacon’s role today is neither inferior to the role of the priest, nor superior to the role of the laity, but instead is a complementary part of the ministry of the whole Church. It is a permanent, not transitional order; full in itself and equal to other ordained roles within the Church. Deacons exist to remind all Christians the nature and character of the ministry to which all baptized Christians are called is service. Within this, they are both personally involved in service to the world and inspire and support others in their service to the world. Deacons earn their living outside the Church, and, standing at the altar with other orders, represent the unity and goodness of both ‘secular’ and ‘spiritual’ realms, witnessing to the reality that God is present within both.
© Diocese of New Westminster, Deacons Handbook, 2016