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Deacons and the Church

Deacons and the Church

by John N. Collins

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John Collins, author of the groundbreaking study Diakonia, explores the pastoral implications of a new scholarly understanding of the role of deacons in the Early Church.


John Collins, author of the groundbreaking study Diakonia, explores the pastoral implications of a new scholarly understanding of the role of deacons in the Early Church.

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Deacons and the Church

Making connections between old and new

By John N. Collins

Church Publishing Incorporated

Copyright © 2002 John N. Collins
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8192-2785-0



The Diakonia of Modern Deacons

The first thing we hear about deacons in today's churches is that they are servants. Servants of Christ, servants of the church, servants of the people whose gathering makes up the church, servants in the margins of the world. Books about deacons attempt to be more precise about this.

The second thing we hear is that church authorities are increasingly recognizing deacons. Until 1964 churches that followed the Roman Catholic system of a threefold ministry of bishop, priests and deacons used to ordain deacons as a first step to ordination to priesthood. In that year, however, the Second Vatican Council proposed that the order of deacons need no longer be just an introductory phase but could become a permanent ranking within the clergy. Thus what were called permanent deacons began to become a feature of churches in some regions. Today some 30,000 deacons operate in the Roman Catholic Church. Anglican churches have also adopted that system.

Many other churches, however, stem from traditions which, at the time of the sixteenth-century Reformation, had rejected the idea of deacons. They had made this decision on the grounds that the medieval deacons they knew had nothing of specific value to offer the church. In the nineteenth century, however, new types of non-ordained deacons began to emerge in Lutheran communities in Germany. They adopted the specific responsibility of extending Christian love and service to the destitute and disabled. Their ideas and organizations quickly spread into other regions and among other traditions. And in recent times among several of these churches official recognition of deacons by way of ordination has emerged. Sometimes this recognition has extended to including deacons among members of the clergy, thus marking a return to the historic threefold ministry. Like their counterparts in the Catholic traditions, these new Protestant deacons are performing an increasing range of liturgical and public roles. Their original strong sense of being called to service in obedience to the gospel has at last prompted their churches to present them as the church's official presence in the world. Above all, the new deacons seek to be in the church the kind of deacons who functioned in its first few centuries but who were lost to it for over a thousand years largely as a result of the church's unworthy ways.

The ultimate question

In addition to hearing about deacons as ordained servants, a third thing we might hear, depending largely on the kind of church environment we live in or the kind of theological literature we read, is that some people ask awkward questions about deacons, even the ultimate question: does the church need them? Some bishops and synods actually make decisions not to allow deacons in their churches as a result of ambiguities about the identity and role of deacons. These ambiguities and the increasingly various attempts to address them are the occasion of this book. This book proposes that misunderstandings abound concerning the identity and role of the deacons in the early churches, and that it is these which contribute to the widespread unease about a renewed order of deacons at the very time when in so many areas deacons appear to be flourishing. If we can come to a clearer understanding of early deacons we ought to be in a better position to decide what we ought to aim for in deacons for churches of our times. The search for a clearer understanding is not a search for an ancient model to which today's deacons would be expected to conform. Rather, the object of the search would be to clear away misunderstandings of the early deacons so that we would be able to avoid working from unreliable models.

A broken story

As all discover when they begin to look into the question of deacons, their story has been a broken one. On the one hand a long tradition presents us with familiar icons of ancient deacons in Stephen of the Acts of the Apostles and Lawrence of third-century Rome. On the other hand, the story of deacons in those early times is obscure. The disturbing thing is that as the deacon enters history the story is almost as much about putting legal restraints on deacons as about any honourable role they may have had within communities. And eventually they almost disappear.

Across the medieval and later centuries of the western church congregations were vaguely aware of deacons as vestmented figures making cameo appearances in the high liturgies of important festivals of the church's year. In fact, for a thousand years or more these individuals were almost invariably priests disguised as deacons. Deacons reported in history were rare individuals like the scholarly Alcuin or the saintly Francis of Assisi.

The Alcuins and Francises, however, were exceptions proving the rule that 'once a deacon' the deacon always advanced from his lowly rank among the clergy to the higher rank of priesthood. So predictable was this in the Roman Catholic practice that when the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s proposed restoring the diaconate a twofold diaconate emerged. For decades the new members of the order were designated permanent deacons, with the result that deacons who are ordained as a prelude to ordination as priests came to be known as transitional deacons. Not surprisingly, in some quarters today there is a vigorous campaign to eliminate diaconal ordination as a prerequisite for ordination to the priesthood.

Catholic traditions

Changes in the Roman Catholic diaconate over the last third of the twentieth century had close repercussions in especially the Anglican communion. Both churches had of course inherited deacons from the period prior to the Reformation. Unless novel developments had occurred outside the traditional diaconate, however, it is highly unlikely that these ancient churches would have interfered with the order of their threefold ministry of bishop, priest, and deacon. This was a time-honoured ministerial order indeed, but one which had every appearance of being a comfortable ecclesiastical arrangement.

The very curious thing about maintaining the threefold order in this way was that it increasingly appeared as an expression of the churches' homage to an inherited ministry whose theological principles were obviously no longer fully understood. Far from being embarrassed at such a development, the older churches sought rather to champion what they had inherited in the face of those other new churches which had discarded the diaconate as a ministerial superfluity and made do with a twofold or even with a single order.

The situation throws some light on the more mystifying ways of theology. For a theologian within the Catholic system to ask questions about the threefold order was to live dangerously. He could find himself ejected from the clerical order – the theologian was always a priest, if he had not already become a bishop – or – but this was rare until the second half of the twentieth century – he could feel obliged to withdraw his own ministerial services. A theologian's responsibility was to protect the sacred status quo. The outcome, accordingly, was that these churches maintained a threefold order by the artifice of ordaining theological students as deacons while they were waiting to finish the course of studies which would qualify them for ordination as priests at the young age of about 25.

Protestant initiatives

The novel development from outside the Roman and Anglican experience which changed all this was the initiative taken by some German Lutherans in the middle of the nineteenth century. This was to introduce deacons into a church which at that time had none. The interests of these innovators were not theological, although their activities introduced a discomforting element into the modern theology of ministry.

The nineteenth-century Lutherans were not proposing to reform their theology of ministry, which was as rigid in its way as that of the Romans and the Anglicans. The initiative was, rather, entirely pastoral. Pastor Theodor Fliedner and his wife Friederike were driven by a vision to provide a Christian response to the increasing numbers of 'forsaken sick, neglected children, disheartened poor and wayward prisoners' spawned by the same socio-economic conditions which were inspiring the drafting of the Communist Manifesto. Drawing inspiration from the story in the Acts of the Apostles of how the first church responded to neglected widows by commissioning seven men, among whom was Stephen, to minister to neglected women, the Fliedners and others established the renowned Motherhouses of deaconesses for the purpose of providing services to those in need. Parallel initiatives inspired men also to take part in providing such services.

These institutions spread widely in central and northern Europe, entered North America, and were more lightly represented elsewhere. In their homelands their work expanded during the twentieth century well beyond institutions like the Motherhouses to become enmeshed in the fabric of both church and society. Their existence in the heart of German churches and their prominent place in the public life of several nations gradually made an impact on the theology of ministry on a scale which, on purely theological grounds, theologians across the centuries had not thought it proper to attempt. The reason why the emergence of a new diaconate impacted on the general theology of ministry lies in the Fliedners' understanding of the ancient title of the deacon, which in turn is tied to the traditional understanding of the story of the Seven in Acts 6.

The title of deacon

The title of deacon comes from the word diakonos in the Greek New Testament. Throughout history this Greek word filtered into the languages of the Christian churches as the title of the third member of the threefold ministry of bishop, priest and deacon. The process began when the Latin bible represented the Greek word with the Latin transliteration diaconus, and evidence of the process continuing in later European languages is recognizable in words from modern languages like Diakon, diacono, diacre, deacon, and so on. Clearly, the Greek word was preserved in these ways for the set purpose of designating that member of the ordained clergy who was known in the early churches by the title diakonos. An effective sign that this title was being treated with a special reserve and respect is that all other uses of the Greek diakon- words in the New Testament have always been translated by other words like ministry or service. The word deacon was clearly a special case. In the instance of the German deaconesses, however, while the title of deacon was retained, the church showed no interest in offering the women ordination – or those men who carried out a parallel role. For 150 years these dedicated people remained marginal to the official ministry of their church at the same time as they spent their lives performing works which they called diakonia.

Diakonia is the word that occurs in the story of Acts 6. In fact it occurs there twice, and these days is usually translated in the first instance as 'the distribution' of food (Acts 6:1) and in the second as 'the ministry' of the word (6:4). Because this assumed connection between diakonia and food was further linked with the long tradition that identified the Seven as deacons, the nineteenth-century innovators trained women and men to be deacons in the sense of servants of those in need. This connection of the word with the notion of helping led to the formation of the German word Diakonie. As the social work of the deaconesses spread, the word Diakonie also became known across German lands as the church's form of social service. Similar neologisms appeared in neighbouring languages like those in Nordic regions and in Holland.

A ministry of service

By the middle of the twentieth century this emphasis on understanding diakonia as service to the needy quickly began to have an impact on how ministry generally was understood in the church. In fact theologians began to reevaluate the fundamental nature of what was commonly called the ordained ministry. That this should happen was inevitable because in the New Testament other roles in ministry were also designated by the Greek word diakonia.

The developments that took place in the broader theology of ministry as a result of understanding diakonia as service have been featured in many books. The point here is that an attempt to recreate the office of deacon in the German Lutheran church on the basis of a nineteenth-century understanding of what diakonia meant in the New Testament has determined the kind of diaconal movement which had developed across the churches by the turn of the twenty-first century. This is the outside event which eventually shifted the building blocks of ministerial theology. Until this shift occurred in the 1960s churches had every intention of advancing into the new age bearing as an appendage to their theology of ordained ministry the deadweight of a moribund diaconate.

The leading edge of the new ministerial model was service. Society's need for service had been the call to which the Fliedners and their contemporaries had responded. Generations of deaconesses cultivated a spirituality based on service. Associated with their lives of service was an expanding body of theological investigations into the precise character of Christian service. Almost necessarily, spiritual advisers of the deaconesses and some interested theologians pursued these investigations along paths suggested by the very name of deacon, that is, through the ancient Greek diakon- words. Initial perceptions of the values carried by these terms were expounded by chaplains in addresses to deaconesses and were soon taken up by academic theologians. Uniformly they wrote of diakonia as a term adopted by early Christians to express the specific kind of selfless, caring, and loving service that characterized Jesus in his dealings with the lame and rejected men and women who people the gospel narratives.

Academic support for a theology of service

The first substantial academic exposition on these lines was by Wilhelm Brandt, a New Testament scholar and chaplain to deaconesses. In Dienst und Dienen im Neuen Testament (Service and Serving in the New Testament, 1931) he insisted that the word diakonia expressed a specifically Christian type of service. Brandt's linguistic assessment received full academic recognition when H. W. Beyer incorporated it into the landmark publication The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. This occurred in the German edition of 1935 and thirty years later in the enormously influential English translation. From this point onwards service applied as the category within which the theology of ministry was to be constructed.

The great influences in forming a public perception that service was the original character of Christian ministry and should remain so were Eduard Schweizer in Church Order in the New Testament (German 1957, English 1961) and Hans Küng in The Church (German 1967, English 1967). Thomas O'Meara's widely read Theology of Ministry of 1983 (second revised edition 1999) is a striking example of how the new service-theology of diakonia permeates and transforms a more traditional theology of orders.

The priority given to the ideal of service in the theology of the diaconate continues to this day as an obvious trait in a wide range of books, journals, newsletters and websites. The deacon movement is rich in newsletters and websites where deacons and their directors are constantly stretching the borders of fields of service and reporting on the experiences of deacons on the margins of church or society. An ideal of service is the mainspring of what is probably the most widely read study of the diaconate, James Monroe Barnett's The Diaconate: A Full and Equal Order (1979, revised edition 1995). The argument is that the diaconate died its first death precisely when its focus on service was lost in the bright allure of hierarchical systems of the fourth century. Barnett wrote within the North American Anglican tradition, and his perspective of service is to be seen also in other influential publications within the Anglican tradition such as the report to the House of Bishops of the General Synod in England, Deacons in the Ministry of the Church (1988) and the collection of papers edited by Christine Hall, The Deacon's Ministry (1991).

Lutheran and Reformed diaconates

Within the Lutheran and Reformed churches of Germany and their associated churches, especially those in Nordic countries and the United States, the foundational principle of diaconate has long been service. The spirit of service is encapsulated in the German word Diakonie, a word formulated for the specific purpose of designating a particular style of lowly and loving Christian service. The University of Heidelberg includes an institute devoted to the scientific analysis of Diakonie. Its most recent major publication of over 400 pages (1990, reprinted 1994 and 1998) provides academic studies by 19 scholars of what are called biblical foundations of and perspectives on Diakonie. Edited by Gerhard K. Schäfer and Theodor Strohm under the German title Diakonie – biblische Grundlagen und Orientierungen (Diakonia – Biblical Principles and Perspectives), these studies exemplify a long scholarly German Lutheran tradition of promoting service as the key to understanding the nature and practice of diaconate.

Within the Reformed tradition, Marc Edouard Kohler elaborated on expressions of the same value across history and in contemporary forms of diaconate in what was originally a Swiss work in German, Kirche als Diakonie (Church as Diakonia, 1991). This soon appeared in a form adapted to French and ecumenical experience of the diaconate under the title Vocation, service compris! La diaconie de l'Église (Vocation, Service included! The Church's Diakonia, 1995). About the same time and from a similar Swiss provenance appeared a celebration of diakonia as love by Gottfried Hammann, L'amour retrouvé (Love rediscovered), a survey of the ministry of the deacon from early Christian times to those of the Protestant reform. Within the Reformed tradition the influence of Calvin's original perceptions and arrangements for deacons as servant members of the church has been enormous and long lasting. Elsie Anne McKee has shown the profound impact on his thinking of his reading of Acts 6 (John Calvin on the Diaconate and Liturgical Almsgiving, 1984; see also her Diakonia in the Classical Reformed Tradition and Today, 1989).

Excerpted from Deacons and the Church by John N. Collins. Copyright © 2002 by John N. Collins. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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