by Fr. Joseph Allen


Our Lord Jesus Christ gave us, through the Church, the means and possibility to nourish and to complete the divine life in our souls. But He also left us with a particular order under which these means could best be distributed to men. Who was to approach men with these signs and sacraments? In His sacraments, He bequeathed to us the fruits of His redemption, and that redemption, having as its reason the way of man’s returning to God, was to be entrusted to us in no chaotic manner, but in an important and orderly manner. These sacraments are therefore for the service of man; they bring man and God together. In a certain sense they take over the task of Christ’s humanity. That “orderly manner,” however, excludes no Christian, for the Christian ministry is an all-inclusive, organic and sacred fellowship; it embraces all the members of the Body of Christ. There are many scriptural metaphors which are used to show this “priesthood” of all Christians; St. Peter calls them “living stones” with which the spiritual temple is constructed. They are a “holy nation,” and “a royal priesthood.” St. Paul also calls them stones with Christ as the cornerstone. In their unity and life, Christ lives on earth as the Church, as His Body of which they are members.

But within this “orderly manner” of the Church, there are those who are called with a distinctive commission to “go and preach,” and to “baptize.” Those that accepted this mission are no more important than any other of the people of God but the difference is here one of purpose and service. In I Corinthians (12:28-30) St. Paul tells us, “Are all apostles? Are all preachers? Are all teachers?” This distinction, therefore, existed from the beginning as one “among” the Church and “in” the Church, but nevertheless set within the community as a type of “ambassador” for the continuation of His saving mission on earth.

All this explanation is necessary because the function and purpose for any of the offices of the clergy can only be understood when the total “function” of the Church is understood.

These ambassadors within the Orthodox Church fall into three major orders of clergy: Bishops, Priests (presbyters) and Deacons. Of the first two, no one can deny importance. In the simplest form and without delving into the history of these two offices, we can say that where the bishop is, there is the Church and the priest is representing his bishop at his assigned Church. In the early Church, there was a bishop in every Church and it was only after the function of the bishop changed to a more administrative one that the priest or presbyter began his present function as a “pastor.”

The Deaconate, however, is an order which is little understood today in the Church. Many think that it is a “stepping-up” place to the Priesthood. But it was never intended to be such a “means to the end”; it is an “end” in itself — a distinctive order and function within the community.

We must bear in mind that the term “Diaconos” in the New Testament signifies first of all those who are members of the fellowship of service. To be a Deacon means to be a servant. Our Lord gave meaning to the importance of  “servanthood” when He said, “I am among you who serves” and “the Son of man came not to be served but to serve.” But there is also an historical development to the Diaconate. (Ep. 3:7 and Col. 1:23)

The Book of Acts (6:2-3) describes the difficulties of a growing Church which finds the origin of the Diaconate:

2 - Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples together and said : It is not reason that we should leave the word of God and serve tables.

3 - Wherefore brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.

It was, therefore, because the Apostles could no longer perform all that was required of them that they appointed Deacons as well as Bishops to preside over the founded Christian Communities. This, of course, is still seen today when a Bishop serves with a Deacon; the Liturgy is performed almost without the need of the Priest for now the Bishop is the presbyter. The Deacon, therefore, is not a free agent; his ministry exists only because of his relation to the Bishop and, therefore, to the particular community. Canon 15 of the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) because of the importance of this understanding says “nor deacon shall pass from city to city.” This of course is also held to the bishop and presbyter in order to insure the proper relationship between any of the clerics and the community. This idea was reiterated again in Canon 16 at the same Council and later at length in 341 A.D. at the Synod of Antioch where only the bishop is mentioned, but the understanding of this mystical marriage remains the same. It is often true, however, that the Church, in its own interest, had to make exceptions as in the case of St. John Chrysostom’s transfer from Antioch to Constantinople. In any case, what is important to realize now is that the deacon receives his authority from the bishop or priest and from within a community.

In order to emphasize this dependent place of the deacon, Canon 28 of Nicea (325 A.D.) warns that “in some districts and cities, the deacons administer the Eucharist to the presbyters, whereas neither canon nor custom permits that they who have no right to offer should give the Body of Christ to them that offer.” The canon further states that deacons should remain “in their own bounds,” that they receive the Eucharist “according to their order, after the presbyter” and finally that they should not “sit among the presbyters.” The deacon therefore does not have the full power of function of the presbyter or bishop. This is most clearly shown by noticing that he is ordained following the consecration of the bread and wine, whereas the priest is ordained before the consecration. The power of consecration belongs only to the presbyter (or bishop).

The deacon’s ministry, although not with full power of function as bishop or presbyter, remains a very important one. This function of “service” found meaning in two ways. The first was that they had the responsibility of gathering the offerings of the people and distributing them to the needy whom the Church supported. This certainly was the primary reason why the Apostles asked for Stephan and the first seven deacons. It was here a ministry of charity, a moving as a type of social worker among the people to find their needs and bring those needs to the attention of the bishop. The second function of service was within the liturgical needs of the community. It was here where the deacon accepted the gifts from the people and prepared them in the Diaconicon (a separate room or storehouse) for the Eucharistic gatherings and offering at the Liturgy. In Orthodox Churches today the deacon still carries the bread at the offeratory (Great Entrance) in remembrance of this function. During the Liturgy, he stood among the people as a uniting agent in order to lead the people in prayer. He directed them in the proper pastime and movement i.e. “Let us bow our heads unto the Lord” and “Let us attend.” His prayers, in the same understanding, were probably according to the immediate needs of the people for his working among the people brought to him a knowledge of who was sick and suffering, who was traveling and departed this life. In a more universal way, however, as he usually does today, he asked for “peace in the world” and for “union of all men.”

It is in this second area, the Liturgical, where the canons seem more involved. This is probably because his function became more “liturgical” than “social” and therefore this is where the guidance was needed. “Guidance” is the reason for the canons,

The Council of Ancyra (Canon 2) shows that already as early as AD. 314, the deacon’s Liturgical function was being fixed. It speaks about “bringing forth the bread and cup” and “acting as a herald.” We can see that he was bringing the sacrament to the people and was reading the Gospel at the gathering. Today, of course, these are still done by the deacon in the Liturgy. The deacon still calls the people: “With fear of God and faith and love, draw near.”

We can see by Scripture and by these Canons what were the functions and the reason for the functions of the deacon. There are many more canons which make mention of the deacon, but more often than not, it is accompanying the Canons which are to “guide” the bishop and presbyter also. This is because in any order of the clergy, the gift, the charisma, is basically the same and therefore each order, according to its function, bears part of that responsibility for the total welfare of the Church. The Church, therefore, guides through the Canons and speaks about all three orders when it tells us about things such as their marriage and chastity, their stability and humility, and finally, their ordination, that is, who, how, when and by whom.

What I have been trying to show is that the deacon’s ministry can give life to the Church for it brings together the spiritual, social and economic activities of the Church. But this must be founded in love in order to transform it all into something “offerable” to God. Perhaps it is the lack of such love that has caused the decay of the diaconate. I can offer no solutions to restore the diaconate as it was meant to be, but one thing seems certain, this same lack of love in the Church has caused the disunity between clergy and laity, the loss of the social dimension of the Church, and finally, the lack of a real Liturgical understanding as one of concelebration, as oneness in mind.

The Church cannot afford to be careless about this, but when the depth of understanding its own function as the Body of Christ, “founded in love and truth” is restored, perhaps then the diaconate will again be restored.

From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
September 1972
pp. 7-8