The Office of Deacon (Article 24)

"The deacons shall be, chosen, approved and installed in the same manner as was stated concerning the elders." In Articles 24 to 26 of the Church Order the office and function of the deacons is described. Mention is also made of the deacons in Article 37 where it is stated that they may be added to the consistory by local regulation where the number is small. Article 40 stipulates the time, purpose and manner in which the periodic Deacon's Meetings shall be held. In Article 83 we find another reference to the deacons in connection with their assisting the poor who, out of necessity, are compelled to move from one place to another and lack the financial means to do so. Finally, Article 30 of the Netherlands Confession mentions the deacons as forming part of the Council of the church. Although this office is also mentioned in other places, these are the main references in our Confessions. To the matters that concern this office we now direct our attention. 

In the above quoted article mention is made of the election, approbation and installation of the deacons. The article merely states that all of this shall be conducted in the same manner as was stipulated concerning the elders in Article 22. Since we have already written about this matter in detail, we shall not reiterate here what was afore written but will concern ourselves with other matters that pertain to this particular office. 

A. Its Origin and History 

The oldest and most generally accepted view of the church has it that Acts 6:1-6 records the origin of the office of the deacons in the New Testament church. According to this passage 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. (Agapae) The mere fact that the word "deacon" is not found in this passage does not conclusively disprove the claim of Mayer and other of the more authorative interpreters that, "from this first regular overseership of alms, the mode of appointment to which could not but regulate analogically the practice of the church, was gradually developed the diaconate, which subsequently underwent further elaboration." 

On the matter of the origin of this office there are, as may be expected, divergent views. Some hold thatActs 6 speaks of no ecclesiastical office at all but simply mentions a special service which the men appointed were required to render to the church at that time. Others point to the fact that two of the men appointed, Philip and Stephen, also engaged in the ministry of the Word and, consequently, claim that this appointment included both the office of elder and deacon. It cannot refer to the office as we know it in our circles today since our deacons do not preach. When, however, the passage in question is considered in the light of later passages such asPhilippians 1I Timothy 3, etc., it seems proper to conclude that Acts 6 relates the beginning of a permanent and essential office in the church. 

Upon the decease of the apostles and especially during the second century of the New Testament era, the office of the deacon underwent a radical change and degradation. Originally the church was governed by the Elders or Presbyteries. These became distinguished in two groups. The one group assumed the position of Bishops, corresponding somewhat to the office of the high priests in the Old Testament, while the other group of elders became common or ordinary priests. Thus did the deacons receive a position subordinate to the priest. They were regarded as occupying a position similar to that held by the common Levites under the old dispensation. Their rank was then inferior to the priests, even as these were again inferior to the bishops and thus birth was given to the Orders as maintained by the Romish Church to the present day.

When then in the course of time the primary functions of the deacons were absorbed by other institutions as the sick and the poor were placed in hospitals and alms houses and the orphans into orphan asylums, this office was divested of its sacred rights and assigned other duties of assisting in the public worship, especially at baptism and the Lord's Supper.

Justin Martyr, one of the earliest church fathers, describes the work of the deacons as follows: 

"The deacons distributed the bread and wine at the Eucharist after they were blessed by the presiding officers, and also carried them to the sick. They arranged the altar, presented the offerings of the people, read the Gospel, gave the signal for the departure of the unbelievers and catechumens, recited some prayers, and distributed the consecrated cup (in the absence of the priest, the bread also), but were forbidden to offer the sacrifice. Preaching is occasionally mentioned among their privileges, after the examples of Stephen and Philip, but very rarely in the West." 

Hilary, the Deacon, in his commentary on Ephesians 4:11says that originally all the faithful preached and baptized, but that in his day the deacons did not preach. In some cases they were forbidden, in others authorized to preach. The Pontificale Romanum, however, defines their duties and privileges with the words: "It is the duty of the deacon to minister at the altar, to baptize, and to preach." 

At the time of the Reformation of the 16th century, Luther attempted to restore the office of deacon to its rightful place but was unsuccessful. In the Lutheran church, the office as defined in Scripture, has no place even today. The work of mercy is left to the Civil Government and the term "deacon," when used, is applied to those who act as assistant ministers or, in some cases, to those who belong to organizations that are trained for general, unofficial Christian services. 

Calvin, who regarded the diaconate as one of theindispensable offices of the church, and the care of the poor as their proper duty, had more success in restoring this office in the church to its rightful place although the degree of success was not always the same in all Reformed Churches. In 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. 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." 

In Congregational or Independent churches the deacons hold a very important office, taking the place equivalent to that of the lay elders in the Presbyterian churches. In Methodist circles the deacons constitute an order in the ministry, as also in the Episcopal church. They are ordained by the bishop to administer baptism, solemnize matrimony, assist the elder in administering the Lord's Supper and to do all the duties of a traveling preacher. Traveling deacons must exercise their office for two years before they are eligible to the office of elder. Local deacons are eligible to the office of elder after preaching four years. 

We believe that this last mentioned characteristic of Methodism is an error that in practice is frequently found in a slightly modified form also in our own circles. The conception is not strange that the office of the deacon is of inferior rank and, therefore, a stepping stone to the higher office of the elder. After one serves a term or two as deacon he may be considered as possible material for the office of elder. Without this internship, his prospects of being chosen as an elder are greatly reduced. This error has its origin in a misconception of the nature and distinction of two equally important offices of the church. In view, therefore, of the history and the current misconceptions of the office of the deacon, it may be profitable to carefully re-examine the whole matter in the light of holy writ. In this way we can perhaps arise to a better understanding of the Biblical import of the office and avoid or eliminate some of the practical abuses which are inflicted upon it and so restore it more fully to its proper place and function in the church. It is indeed lamentable when an office that is as spiritual as that of the deacons is regarded by even those who hold it as no more than an "administrative function" in the church and who are loath to engage in any spiritual labor connected with their office but consider that all such work belongs exclusively with the elders and that their task is completed when they have accounted and disbursed the monies of the church. Furthermore, with such things as Social Security, Pensions, Government Relief, etc. being as common as they are today, what has happened to the duty of the deacons to care for the poor? If this office of Scripture is to be preserved we shall have to restore it to its proper place and examine carefully those things of our present complex society that threaten its annihilation. 

With this in mind we will briefly consider, D.V., such matters as: (a) The Idea or Nature of the Office; (b) The Qualifications for the Office; (c) The Functions or Duties of It; (d) The Matter of Deaconesses; (e) The Deaconate and the Question of Government Relief; (f) The Deacons and Institutions of Mercy; etc. 

(to be continued) 

G.V.d.B.