the First Week of Advent
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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature
This word in its more extended sense is used, both in Scripture and in ecclesiastical writers, to designate any person who ministers in God's service. In , the Apostle says, 'But in all things approving ourselves as the ministers (deacons)of God.' Again, , 'Whereof I was made a minister' (deacon); and in , he employs the same epithet to express the character of his office. In , St. Paul calls our Lord 'minister of the circumcision,' literally deacon of the circumcision; and, in his Epistle to the Philippians, he addresses himself to the bishops and deacons ().
But it is in its more confined sense, as it expresses the third order of the ministry of the primitive Church, that we are to examine the meaning of the word Deacon.
In Acts 6 we have an account of the election of seven persons to the office of deaconship for the purpose of superintending the distribution of the church's bounty. That their duties, however, were not of an exclusively secular character is clear from the fact that both Philip and Stephen preached, and that one of them also baptized. Ignatius, a martyr-disciple of St. John, and bishop of Antioch, A.D. 68, styles them at once 'ministers of the mysteries of Christ;' adding, that they are not ministers of meats and drinks, but of the Church of God.
Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, A.D. 250 (while referring their origin to Acts 6), styles them ministers of episcopacy and of the church: at the same time he asserts that they were called to the ministry of the altar.
Tertullian, a celebrated Father of the second century, classes them with bishops and presbyters as guides and leaders to the laity.
The fourth Council of Carthage expressly forbids the deacon to assume any one function peculiar to the priesthood, by declaring the deacon as consecrated not to the priesthood but to the ministry.
His ordination, moreover, differed from that of presbyter both in its form and in the powers which it conferred. For in the ordination of a presbyter, the presbyters who were present were required to join in the imposition of hands with the bishop: but the ordination of a deacon might be performed by the bishop alone, because, as the 4th Can. of the 4th Council of Carthage declares, he was ordained not to the priesthood, but to the inferior services of the Church. We now proceed to notice what these services specifically were.
1. The deacon's more ordinary duty was to assist the bishop and presbyter in the service of the sanctuary; especially was he charged with the care of the utensils and ornaments appertaining to the holy table.
2. In the administration of the Eucharist, it was theirs to hand the consecrated elements to the people.
4. The office of the deacon was not to preach, so much as to instruct and catechize the catechumens. His part was, when the bishop or presbyter did not preach, to read a homily from one of the Fathers. St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, A.D. 380, says expressly that deacons, in his time, did not preach, though he thinks that they were all originally Evangelists, as were Philip and Stephen.
5. It was the deacon's business to receive the offerings of the people; and having presented them to the bishop or presbyter, to give expression in a loud voice to the names of the offerers.
6. Deacons were sometimes authorized, as the bishops' special delegates, to give to penitents the solemn imposition of hands, which was the sign of reconciliation.
7. Deacons had power to suspend the inferior clergy; this, however, was done only when the bishop and presbyter were absent, and the case urgent.
8. The ordinary duty of deacons, with regard to general Councils, was to act as scribes and disputants according as they were directed by their bishops. In some instances they voted as proxies for bishops who could not attend in person; but in no instance do we find them voting in a general Council by virtue of their office. But in provincial synods the deacons were sometimes allowed to give their voice, as well as the presbyters, in their own name.
9. But, besides the above, there were some other offices which the deacon was called upon to fill abroad. One of these was to take care of the necessitous, orphans, widows, martyrs in prison, and all the poor and sick who had any claim upon the public resources of the church. It was also his especial duty to notice the spiritual, as well as the bodily, wants of the people; and wherever he detected evils which he could not by his own power and authority cure, it was for him to refer them for redress to the bishop.
In general the number of deacons varied with the wants of a particular church. Sozomen (vii. 19, p. 100) informs us that the Church of Rome, after the apostolic model, never had more than seven deacons.
It was not till the close of the third century that deacons were forbidden to marry. The Council of Ancyra, A.D. 344, in its 10th Can., ordains that if a deacon declared at the time of his ordination that he would marry, he should not be deprived of his function if he did marry; but that if he married without having made such a declaration, 'he must fall into the rank of laicks!'
The qualifications required in deacons by the primitive church were the same that were required in bishops and presbyters; and the characteristics of a deacon, given by St. Paul in his Second Epistle to Timothy, were the rule by which a candidate was judged fit for such an office. The second Council of Carthage, 4th Can., forbids the ordination of a deacon before the age of twenty-five; and both the Civil and Canon Law fixed his age to the same period.
The primitive church had its archdeacon, though when the office was first instituted is a matter of dispute with learned men. He was not in priests' orders; but was selected from the deacons by the bishop, and had considerable authority over the other deacons and inferior orders.
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Deacon'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature". https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​kbe/​d/deacon.html.