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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
Anglicized from the Gr. διάκονος, Lat. diaconus (usually derived from διά and κόνις, q. d. "one dusty from running;" but better from an obsolete διάκω, or διήκω, "to run," or hasten; kindred with διώκω, to pursue: hence, strictly, a runner, i.e. messenger, Buttmann, Lexil. 1:218- 221), a servant (as often rendered),
1. properly, of those who attend on guests or at a table, a waiter (John 2:5; John 2:9; so Polyb. 31:4, 5; Xenoph. Mem. 1:5, 2). Among the Greeks these διάκονοι were a higher class than the δοῦλοι, or slaves (Athen. 10, p. 192 b).
2. Generally, and with the name of the master or person served, a minister (as it is usually rendered in the N.T.) (Matthew 20:26; Matthew 23:11; Mark 9:35; Mark 10:43; so Xenoph. Cyr. 8:3, 8). Also an attendant of Christ, a disciple (John 12:26), of a king (Matthew 22:13), and hence of God (Romans 13:4).
3. Specially, in relation to the Gospel and the Church, a minister or teacher
(a.) of the person for whom one ministers (1 Corinthians 3:5; 2 Corinthians 3:6; 2 Corinthians 6:4; 1 Thessalonians 3:2; 2 Corinthians 11:23; Colossians 1:7; Ephesians 6:21 : Colossians 4:7; Colossians 1:25; and, by antithesis, of Satan, 2 Corinthians 11:15).
(b.) Technically, an officer of the primitive Church, a deacon (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:8; 1 Timothy 3:12; 1 Timothy 4:6; see Acts 6:1-6).
I. Deacons in the N.T. —
1. "The office described by this title appears in the N.T. as the correlative of ἐπίσκοπος, bishop or presbyter (q.v.). The two are mentioned together in Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:2; 1 Timothy 3:8. The union of the two in the Sept. of Isaiah 60:17, may have suggested both as fit titles for the officers of the Christian Church, or have led to the adoption of one after the other had been chosen on independent grounds. The coincidence, at all events, soon attracted notice, and was appealed to by Clement of Rome (1 Corinthians 42) as prophetic. Like most words of similar import, it appears to have been first used in its generic sense, implying subordinate activity (1 Corinthians 3:5) and afterwards to have gained a more defined connotation as applied to a distinct body of men in the Christian society."
2. The origin of the office of deacon in the Church is usually supposed to be described in Acts 6:1-6. The Hellenistic Jews complained that "their widows were neglected in the daily ministrations." This neglect may be ascribed either to "the fact that their widows were not known, being as foreigners of a somewhat backward spirit, or possibly also to some jealousy existing between the proper Hebrews and their kindred from other lands. At first the apostles themselves, who had the charge also of the common fund (Acts 4:35; Acts 4:37; Acts 5:2), superintended this service, employing intermediate agents, young men of the congregation probably (Acts 5:6; Acts 5:10), who had given cause for the complaint now mentioned. In proportion, however, as the Church extended, the more impracticable did it become for them to give themselves to such outward concerns without wrong to their proper spiritual work. ‘ It is not reason,' said the twelve, ‘ that we should leave the Word of God and serve tables' — that is, superintend the daily love-feasts and the distribution of alms. In order, therefore, that they might give themselves wholly to prayer and the preaching of the Gospel, and to provide against wrong and dissatisfaction by a fixed regulation, they proposed the election of seven men of good report, full of the Holy Ghost and of prudence, for this particular service, and set them apart to it solemnly, after they had been chosen by the people, with prayer and the imposition of hands. In the Acts, indeed, these officers are styled simply οἱ ἑπτά, the seven (21:8), and not deacons that is, servants or helpers; but that this was their character we know, partly from the terms διακονία, διακονεῖν τραπέζαις, used of their office (Acts 6:1-2), and partly from almost universal exegetical tradition. (The ancient Church even held the sacred number seven in this case of obligatory. force; and at Rome, for example, there were still as late as the third century only seven deacons, although the number of presbyters amounted to forty)" (Schaff, Apostolic Church, § 134).
Some writers (e.g. Mosheim, Comm.: cent. i, § 37) maintain that the "seven" were appointed, not to care for all the poor at Jerusalem, but only for the widows and poor of the Greeks or foreigners. This view supposes that similar officers had previously existed to discharge these functions for the general Church (so Conybeare and Howson, Life of St. Paul, 1:467; Whately, Kingdom of Christ; Hinds, Early Christianity). Stanley (Apostolic Age, p. 62 sq.) supposes that "the seven" were not deacons such as we find in the later period of the apostolic age, "though they may possibly have borne the name, and though there was in some respects a likeness between their respective duties." (Compare, on the other hand, Schaff, Apostolic Church, § 134). Dr. W. L. Alexander, in Kitto's Cyclopedia (s.v.), asserts that it is not easy to justify the assumption that the "seven" were deacons in the later sense. "Nothing can be drawn from the meaning of the word διακονία as applied to their functions (Acts 6:1), or the word διάκονος, as if this title had been originally derived from such a ‘ serving of tables' as is here referred to, because these words are used in the N.T. with the utmost latitude of meaning, so as to include every kind of service rendered to the Church or cause of God on earth — the service of presbyters (2 Corinthians 11:23; Ephesians 6:21; Colossians 1:7, etc.), of evangelists (1 Thessalonians 3:2), of apostles (Acts 20:24; Acts 21:19; Romans 11:13; 2 Corinthians 6:4, etc.), of prophets (1 Peter 1:12), of angels (Hebrews 1:14), of Christ himself (Romans 15:8), as well as service in temporal matters. Nor can much weight be attached to patristic testimony on this head, because we have no clear declaration in favor of the position assumed earlier than that of the sixth General Council (in Trullo), held A.D. 680; all the earlier witnesses speak of the diaconate in connection with spiritual services or the ‘ rites' of the Church. If, moreover, this was the institution of a permanent office in the Church, it seems somewhat strange that it should disappear entirely from the history of the Church for many years, and come up again, for the first time, in the form of an incidental notice in an epistle written in the latter half of the first century. Taking the narrative in the Acts in its connection with the history of which it forms a part, the appointment of the seven brethren has all the appearance of a temporary expedient to meet a peculiar emergency."
Some writers maintain that the office of the "seven" corresponded to that of the חִזָּן, chazzan, in the Jewish Synagogue, the ὑπηρέτης, or "minister," of the N.T. (Luke 4:20; John 7:32). This is the opinion of Vitringa (De Syn. Vet. p. 895 sq.; Bernard's Condensed Tr. p. 87 sq.), whose principle, that the order of the Christian churches was constructed on the model of the synagogues, led him to press the analogy between the two in every possible way. But for this opinion there is no solid support. Vitringa's main principle is itself unsound, for nothing can be more evident than that the' apostles proceeded upon no prearranged scheme of Church policy, but instituted offices and appointed usages just as circumstances required; and, as respects the deacon's office, it cannot be shown that one of the duties pertaining to the office of chazzan in the synagogue belonged to it. As Hartmann remarks (Enge Verbind. des A. T. mit d. N. p. 281), the chazzan was a mere servant whose functions resembled those of our sexton or church officer (Kitto, Cyclopedia, s.v.; see also Neander, Planting and Training of the Christian Church, Ryland's translation, 1:34 sq.). (See SYNAGOGUE).
3. But, whatever view may be taken of Acts 6, it appears clear that the later church office (Philippians 1; 1 Timothy 3) developed itself from the office designated in Acts 6, and may be traced back to it. The functions of the deacon were primarily secular, but soon rose into spiritual importance. Hence the "moral qualifications described in 1 Timothy 3 as necessary for the office of deacon are substantially the same as those of the bishop. The deacons, however, were not required to be ‘ given to hospitality,' nor to be ‘ apt to teach.' It was enough for them to ‘ hold the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience.' They were not to gain their living by disreputable occupations (μὴ αἰσχροκερδεῖς ). On offering themselves for their work they were to be subject to a strict scrutiny (1 Timothy 3:10), and, if this ended satisfactorily, were to enter on it. It does not appear to have [necessarily] belonged to the office of a deacon to teach publicly in the church. The possession of any special χάρισμα (spiritual endowment) would lead naturally to a higher work and office, but the idea that the diaconate was but a probation through which a man had to pass before he could be an elder or bishop was foreign to the constitution of the Church of the first century. Whatever countenance it may receive from the common patristic interpretation of 1 Timothy 3:13 (comp. Estius and Hammond, ad loc.), there can be little doubt (as all the higher order of expositors have felt, comp. Wiesinger and Ellicott, ad loc.) that when Paul speaks of the καλὸς βαθμός, or ‘ good degree,' which is gained by those who ‘ do the office of a deacon well,' he refers to the honor which belongs essentially to the lower work, not to that which they were to find in promotion to a higher." On the other side, Dr. Thomas Scott says (Comment. on 1 Timothy 3:8-13), "The deacons were primarily appointed to dispense the charity of the Church, and to manage its secular concerns. Yet they preached occasionally, or taught in private, or were readers in the public assemblies, and pastors and evangelists were chosen from among them. This interpretation has been contested, yet it seems to be the apostle's meaning; and, without adverting to modern habits and controversies, it is evident that the due discharge of the primitive office of deacon must tend to qualify men for the ministry."
II. In the Early Post-Apostolic Church. — That the duties of the seven deacons 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. It is strange, therefore, that the 18th Canon of the Council of Constantinople, in "Trullo," should declare, referring to Acts 6, that the seven deacons had no spiritual function assigned them. OEcumenius (a celebrated Greek writer of the tenth century) gives his testimony to the same effect (In Act. Revelation 6, p. 433). But opposed to this opinion is that of some of the fathers of the Christian Church. Ignatius, a martyr-disciple of St. John, and bishop of Antioch († 115), 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 (Ignat. Ep. ad Trall. n. 2). Again he says (Ep. ad Trall. n. 3), "Study to do all things in divine concord, under your bishop presiding in the place of God, and the presbyters in the place of the apostolic senate, and the deacons most dear to me, as those to whom is committed the ministry of Jesus Christ." Tertullian († 220) classes them with bishops and presbyters as guides and leaders to the laity. He asks (Tertull. De Fuga, c. ii): "Quum ipsi auctores, id est, ipsi Diaconi, Presbyteri, et Episcopi fuaiunt, quomodo Laicus intelligere poterit? — Cum Duces fugiunt quis de gregario numero sustinebit?" Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, A.D. 250 (while referring their origin to Acts 6), styles them ministers of episcopacy and of the Church (Cypr. Ep. 65, al. 3, ad Rogat.); at the same time he asserts that they were called ad altaris ministerium Ñ to the ministry of the altar. Though Jerome in one place speaks of them (Ep. ad Evang, et Com. Ezekiel c. 48) as servants of tables and widows, yet again he ranks them among the guides of the people: still he distinguishes them from the priests of the second order, that is, from the presbyters, by the title of Servites. And so, frequently, in the Councils, the names Sacerdos and Levita are used as the distinguishing titles of presbyter and deacon. The fourth Council of Carthage expressly forbids the deacon to assume any one function peculiar to the priesthood, by declaring, "Diaconus non ad sacerdotium, sed ad ministerium consecratus." (See also 18th Can. Con. Nic.)
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 Canon of the 4th Council of Carthage declares, he was ordained, not to the priesthood, but to the inferior services of the Church. Duties. —
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, that it was the deacon's duty to hand the elements to the people, is evident from Justin Martyr (Apol. 2, p. 152), and from Cyprian (Serm. v, "De Lapsis"). Not, however, that the, deacon had any authority or power to consecrate the elements; for the 15th Can. of the Council of Arles, A.D. 312, forbids this. And the 18th Can. of the Council of Nice orders the deacons not even to administer the Eucharist to priests because of their inferiority.
3. Deacons had power to administer the sacrament of baptism (Tertull. De Bapt. c. 17; also Hieron. Dial. contr. Lucif. c. 4, p. 139). The Council of Eliberis, Can. 77, plainly acknowledges this right, although the author of the Apost. Constitutions, and Epiphanius also, would seem to deny it.
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 (see Cypr. Ep. 10, al. 16, p. 37 (Hieron. Com. in Ezekiel 18, p. 537).
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 (Cypr. Ep. 13, al. 18, ad Eter.).
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 (Constit. Apost. 8:28).
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. The Apostolical Constitutions (2. 57, p. 875) inform us that one of the subordinate duties ofthe deacon was to provide places in the church for persons as they entered — to rebuke any that might whisper, talk, laugh, etc. during divine service. This was a duty which, however, usually devolved upon the subdeacon.
10. 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 his duty to refer them for redress to the bishop.
In general, the number of deacons varied with the wants of a particular church. Sozomen (7. 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 laics."
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, as may be seen in Justinian, Novell. 123, c. 14, fixed his age to the same period.
The Council of Laodicea, A.D. 381, forbids a deacon to sit in the presence of a presbyter, and the 11th Can. of the first Council of Carthage regulates the number of judges at ecclesiastical trials-three bishops upon a deacon, six upon a presbyter, and twelve upon a bishop. This would mark the rank of each of the parties. Originally the deacons had been the helpers of the presiding elder of a given district. When the two names of the latter title were divided and the bishop presided, whether as primus interpares, or with a more absolute authority over many elders, the deacons appear to have been dependent. directly on him and not on the presbyters, and, as being his ministers, the ‘ eyes and ears of the bishop" (Const. Apost. 2:44), were tempted to set themselves up against the elders. Hence the necessity of laws like those of Conc. Nic. c. 18; Conc. Carth. 4, c. 37, enjoining greater humility, and hence probably the strong language of Ignatius as to the reverence due to deacons (Ep. ad Trall c. 3; ad Smyrn. c. 8).
III. In the Modern Church deacons are found as a distinct order of the clergy.
In the Roman Catholic Church there are subdeacons as well as deacons, both in orders. The subdeacon's duties are "to prepare the altar-linen, the sacred vessels, the bread and wine necessary for the holy sacrifice — to minister water to the priest or bishop at the washing of the hands at mass — to read the epistle — to assist at mass in the capacity of a witness, and see that the priest be not disturbed by any one during its celebration." To the deacon "it belongs constantly to accompany the bishop, to attend him when preaching, to assist him and the priest also during the celebration of the holy mysteries, and at the administration of the sacraments, and to read the Gospel at the sacrifice of the mass." . . . "To the deacon also, as the agent of the bishop, it belongs to inquire and ascertain who within his diocese lead lives of piety and edification, and who do not; who attend the holy sacrifice of the mass and the instructions of their pastors, and who do not Ñ that thus the bishop, made acquainted by him with these matters, may be enabled to admonish each offender privately, or, should he deem it more conducive to their reformation, to rebuke and correct them publicly. He also calls over the names of catechumens, and presents to the bishops those who are to be promoted to orders. In the absence of the bishop and priest, he is also authorized to expound the Gospel to the people, not, however, from an elevated place, to make it understood that this is not one of his ordinary functions" (Council of Trent, sess. 23, ch. 2). There are eighteen cardinal-deacons in Rome, who have the charge of the temporal interests and the revenues of the church. A person, to be consecrated deacon, must be twenty-three years of age (Council of Trent, sess. 23, c. 17).
In the Church of England and in the Episcopal communions in Scotland and North America, a deacon receives ordination by the imposition of hands of a bishop; in consequence of which he can preach, assist in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, and, generally, may perform any sacred office except consecrating the elements and pronouncing absolution. By the statute 44 George 3, c. 43, it is enacted that no person shall be admitted until he shall have attained the age of twenty-three years complete; but this act is declared not to affect the right of granting facilities, exercised by the archbishops of Canterbury and Armagh respectively, viz. to admit at earlier ages; and by 59 George III, c. 60, sec. 1, the two archbishops of the realm, or the bishop of London, or any bishop authorized by any or either of them, may ordain as deacons any persons whom he or they shall deem duly qualified, especially for the purpose of officiating in his majesty's colonies or foreign possessions. But no person so ordained can afterwards hold any living or other benefice in the United Kingdom without the previous consent in writing, under hand and seal of the bishop in whose diocese such benefice, etc. shall be locally situated; nor without like consent of the archbishop or bishop by whose consent he was originally ordained, or of the successor of such archbishop or bishop, in case of his demise or translation; nor without producing a testimony of his good behavior during his residence abroad from the bishop in whose diocese he has officiated, or (if there be not any such bishop) from the governor in council of the colony wherein he may have resided, or from the colonial secretary of state (sec. 2). At the time when the liturgy of the Church of England was composed, it was the deacon's office, "where provision is so made, to search for the sick, poor, and impotent people of the parish, and to intimate their estates, names, and places where they dwell, unto the curate" (that is, to the rector or vicar having the cure or care of souls), "that by his exhortations they may be relieved with the alms of the parishioners or others" (Rubric in the form of Ordination). This was the more ancient office of a deacon, and this rule was made in England before the establishment of the poor-laws, in pursuance of which that care has now devolved upon the churchwardens and overseers of the poor, which last office was specially created for that purpose.
In the Methodist Episcpopal Church the deacons constitute an order in the ministry. They are ordained by the bishop, without the imposition of hands of the elders. According to the ordination service, "it appertaineth to the office of a deacon to assist the elder in divine service. And especially when he ministereth the holy communion, to help him in the distribution thereof, and to read and expound the Holy Scriptures; to instruct the youth, and, in the absence of the elder, to baptize. And furthermore, it is his office to search for the sick, poor, and impotent, that they may be visited and relieved." In the Presbyterian Church of the United States the "Form of Government" states that "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" (chap. 6). In some Presbyterian congregations, and in the Free Church, there are deacons regularly ordained to have charge of the funds of the Church. In other Presbyterian churches the office is merged in that of ruling elders.
In German Protestant churches the assistant ministers are generally called deacons. If there be two assistants, the first of them is called archdeacon. In the German Reformed Church in the United States, the Constitution, ch. 3, art. 2, provides as follows: "The office of the deacons is to collect the alms and other contributions which are designed for the relief of the poor, or the necessities of the congregation; to distribute the alms willingly and conscientiously; and to provide for the support of the ministry of the Gospel." See also the form of ordination in the German Reformed Church.
Among Congregationalists, the deacons, besides attending to the temporal concerns of the Church, assist the minister with their advice, take the lead at prayer-meetings when he is absent, etc.
Literature. — Besides the works named in the course of this article, see Neander, Church History (Torrey's transl.), 1:184 sq.; Bingham, Orig. Eccles. bk. 2, chaps 20; Siegel, Chr.-kirchl. Alterthiimer, 1:498 sq.; Sawyer, Organic Christianity, chap. 13; Dexter, On Congregationalism, p. 134 sq.; Hooker, Eccles. Polity, bk. § 78; Howell, The Deaconship (Am. Bapt. Pub. Soc.), Philippians 1846, 18mo; Punchard, Congregationalism, 1844, part 3.
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Deacon'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​d/deacon.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.