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10. Of the Rank and Duties of Deacons

Antiquities of the Christian Church
CHAPTER III. Of the Ministers of the Church

10. Of the Rank and Duties of Deacons

The terms * are primarily employed with reference to every kind of service, and every species of assistance, whether relating to religion or not; but they generally denoted some specific office. They correspond with the Hebrew**, though the Septuagint does not so interpret them, except in two instances. In the New Testament the words are of frequent occurrence, both in a general, and specific application.

But they are generally used in a specific sense to denote some kind of service in religious things, as in the following passages, Acts 6:4*; 2 Cor. 3:8*; 2 Cor. 9:12*; Acts 1:17, 25, Acts 20:25, Acts 21:19, Rom. 11:13*; 2 Cor. 3:6*; 2 Cor. 6:4*. Compare also 1 Pet. 4:10. 1:12, 2 Tim. 1:18, Acts 19:22.

It is particularly important however to remark that the word * has, in many passages, reference to an office in the church instituted by the apostles; and that the apellation of deacon* denotes one whose duty it is to receive the charities of the churchy and to distribute their alms. Acts 9:29, 30, 12:25, Rom. 16:1, 31, 15:25, 2 Cor. 8:4, 9:1, 13, 19, 20, Heb. 6:10, 1 Tim. 8:8, 10, 12, 13, Phil. 1:1: 1, 1 Pet. 4:10, 11. An explicit account of the first appointment of a deacon in the church at Jerusalem is given in Acts 6:1–7. Here it may be observed,

  1. That the appointment was made to obviate a misunderstanding between their Jewish and Gentile converts respecting the distribution of the daily alms of the church.
  2. This account presupposes that there were already almoners of the poor; but that they belonged exclusively to the Jewish converts. Mosheim. and Kuinoe. have well observed, that the office of deacon was derived from the Jewish synagogue, in which there were three persons entrusted with the care of the poor, who were called pastores**. But in the church at Jerusalem seven were appointed, that they might better reconcile the two parties.
  3. These seven were Hellenists, Grecians, as both their names and their care of the widows of such sufficiently indicate.
  4. They were inducted into office by prayer, and the imposition of hands, and yet, though full of faith and the Holy Ghost, they took no part in the ministration of the word.
  5. They were not reckoned with the priesthood. By virtue of their ordination they became officers of the church, and bore a part in the service of the church*, while they had no concern with the instruction or discipline of the church.

These officers continued for a long time to perform only the duties at first ascribed to them, nor does it appear that they were appointed in any church save that at Jerusalem. It is at least remarkable that no trace of them is perceptible in the Acts of the apostles, not even when the apostles are making arrangements for the due administration of the church in their absence, chap. 14: 23. comp. Tit. 1:5, nor in the epistles to the Romans, Ephesians, Colossians, and Thessalonians. In Phil. 1:1, mention is merely made of them in connection with bishops, but no intimation is given respecting their office.

On the other hand in 1 Tim. 3:8–13, instructions are given for the appointment of deacons in the church at Ephesus, whose offices are totally unlike those of the seven whose appointment is recorded in the sixth chapter of Acts.

  1. They are introduced in immediate connection with bishops, of whom Luke makes no mention.
  2. In Jerusalem they were chosen by the church and installed in their office. Here nothing is said of their election and the inference is from Tit. 1 and 2, that Timothy was authorized to appoint them.
  3. If bishops and presbyters are classed together as one in office, then these deacons obviously constitute a distinct class. But if the deacons and presbyters are identical, then it would follow that there is no mention of deacons in the New Testament as constituting a third order. The ancients adopted the first supposition and accordingly always unite the terms bishops and deacons.
  4. Many have denied that the deacons were entitled in any case to preach. In reply to which no further proof is requisite, than the words of the apostle. 'Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. They that have used the office of a deacon well, purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus. 1 Tim. 3:9, 13.'

The most ancient authorities afford the fullest evidence that they were strictly ministers who acted as the assistants of bishops and presbyters in their religious services and other official duties. To use a military phrase, they were the adjutants of the bishop. Such is the uniform testimony of ancient history. 'Let the deacon,' says the book of Apostolical Constitutions, 'refer all things to the bishop, as Christ did to the Father.' 'Such things as he is able, let him rectify by the power which he has from the bishop, just as the Lord is delegated by the Father to act and to decide; but let the bishop judge the more important cases.'  – Again, 'let the deacon be the ear, the eye, the mouth, the heart, the soul of the bishop.' They are also styled his angels and his prophets. So universally did the bishop employ their service in the discharge of his duties.

In consequence of these relations to the bishop they early assumed to themselves great consequence, and refused to render similar assistance to presbyters, so that it often became necessary in ecclesiastical councils to admonish them of their duties by such decrees as the following. "Let the deacons observe their proper place, knowing that they are indeed the assistants of the bishop, but that they are inferior to the presbyters." – "Let the deacon know that he is alike the minister of the presbyter, and of the bishop." The same council proceeds to admonish him of his subordination, reminding him that he was ordained to his office by the bishop alone without the aid of presbyters, for which they offer the following reason: Quia non ad sacerdotium sed ad minisierium consecratur.

The deacons continued to acquire increasing consideration as the bishops rose in power. Those particularly who were called archdeacons gained great favor with the bishop by reason of the assistance they rendered to him in curtailing the power of the presbyters. The seven who were originally appointed at Jerusalem, became a precedent for limiting their number in other churches, beyond which they were never much increased. So that they derived increasing consequence from the fact that they were so few. 

There was another class of persons whose duty it was to perform the lower offices of deacons, and who, for this reason, were called subdeacons and assistants*. These were created a distinct class when the duties of the deacons became too arduous for them, in order that they might not diminish, by the increase of their own number, the consideration which they had acquired. Even these subdeacons are, in many churches, included in the superior order of their officers.

Deacons are sometimes called Levites, and their office levitica dignitas, leviticum ministerium. In the councils of the Western church presbyters and deacons are indiscriminately called by that name. 

From the above statements it appears, that the duty of the deacons was to perform the services which the bishops and presbyters were either unwilling or unable to discharge, with the exception of those which, according to the rules and usages of the church, could not be delegated to another. There were official duties of his own which the bishop could not impose upon presbyters. These it was equally unlawful for him to delegate to the deacons. Exceptions were occasionally made, especially in the case of the archdeacon, but they were violations of established usage. In consequence of performing the delegated duties of the bishop, the deacons made many pretensions to superiority over the presbyters, of which the latter often complained.

The consecration of the eucharist was one of the reserved rights which could not be delegated to the deacons. Instances to the contrary occasionally occurred, but they were violations of an established rule. Baptism, extreme unction, etc. they were allowed to administer as not belonging to the most sacred offices of the priesthood. From their performing only these subordinate ministerial duties they were early called sacerdotes secundi vel tertii ordinis.

But there must have been certain duties belonging to their office besides those which were delegated to them, else they could not with propriety be regarded as a third order of officers in the church. Of those offices, two are generally specified – that of reading the gospels – and of assisting the bishop and presbyter in the sacrament of the Lord's supper. Diaconatus est ordo sacer in quo confertur gratia, et traditur precipua potestas ministrandi proximo Episcopo et Presbutero in missa sacrificio et solemnitur legendi Evangelium. The deacons alone were permitted to read the gospel in the communion service. For this reason the presentation of the gospel to them was one of the rites of their ordination.

The above were the distinguishing characteristics of their office. A full enumeration of their duties is given below.

  1. Their first duty was to assist in the administration of the sacrament. 'After the benediction of the minister, and the response of the people, says Justin Martyr, they whom we call deacons distribute the consecrated bread and wine and water to each one who is present, and carry them to those who are absent.' According to the Constitutions, the bishop distributed the bread, and the deacons presented the cup. In the absence of the bishop, the presbyter invariably performed the same service.

    Connected with the sacramental service, certain other duties devolved upon the deacons,

    1. They publicly proclaimed the name of each communicant. 
    2. They received the contributions of the communicants and delivered them to a subordinate officer for safe keeping,
    3. They had the charge of the sacred utensils – the chalice, the patin or plate, the napkin, the fan for repelling the flies, flabellum*, etc. 
  2. It was their duty, previous to the appointment of readers, to perform the services of that office. Subsequently it continued to be their duty to read the gospels in the celebration of the eucharist whenever the bishop did not officiate in person, in which case the reading devolved upon the presbyter.  At Alexandria the archdeacon alone read the Scriptures – in other churches, the deacons, and in many also the presbyters performed this service, and on feast days it was discharged by the bishop himself. 
  3. They acted as monitors in directing the several parts of religious worship, giving notice by set forms*, of the commencement of each act of worship, and calling the attention of the audience to it, commanding silence and preserving order. For this reason they were called the sacred heralds of the church, tibicines sacri, precones, etc.* The following are examples of these forms: oremus*, let us pray; orate catechumeni, let the catechumens pray; attendamus, attention; fleclamus genua, kneel; you are dismissed*; ite, withdraw*; missa est, the service is ended; sursum corda, lift up your hearts; sancta sanctis, holiness becomes sacred things; and the like. 
  4. They had a general oversight of the assembly in religious worship to prevent disturbance, and see that everything was conducted with propriety.
  5. They occasionally preached in the absence of the bishop. Chrysostom, when deacon of the church at Antioch, preached for his bishop Flavianus, as did also Ephraim the Syrian, under similar circumstances. The right is firmly denied by Ambrose, but explicitly authorized by the second council of Vaison, A. D. 529. c. 2. which devolves upon them the duty of conducting the worship in the absence of the bishops and presbyters, or when they were prevented by infirmity from officiating.
  6. The duty of giving catechetical instructions stood on the same footing. It was the appropriate duty of the bishop; but the deacons were frequently intrusted with this service to the candidates for baptism, especially when it was continued for a length of time.
  7. They administered baptism by permission of the bishops and presbyters as their substitutes, but not as authorized administrators of the ordinance. 
  8. They were not only permitted, but in certain cases required, to absolve and restore penitent backsliders. St. Cyprian says, "If they, the sick, are seized by any dangerous disease, they need not await my return, but may have recourse to any presbyter that is present, or if a presbyter cannot be found, and their case becomes alarming, they may make their confession before a deacon that so they may receive imposition of hands and go to the Lord in peace." – Ep. 13. al. 18.
  9. They had the charge of, the inferior orders of church officers and servants, and, in the absence of the presbyters might, at their discretion, censure or suspend them for a time for misconduct.
  10. They acted as the representatives and proxies of their bishops in general council. In such cases they sat and voted, in the Eastern church, not as deacons, but as proxies, in the room and place of those that sent them. In the Western church they voted after the bishops, and not in the place of those whose proxies they were.
  11. They exercised an inspection over the life and morals both of the clergy and laity. They were the jutstices and grand jurymen of the church, and were to make diligent inquiry and due presentation to their bishops. It is in this sense that they are styled the eyes and the ears of the bishop. Their office evidently must have been one of great respectability; but at the same time such duties must have rendered it odious to the community.
  12. It was their duty to receive and disburse the charities of the church. In the discharge of these duties they were styled the mouth and the heart or soul of the bishop. In this sense they were accounted the indispensable assistants of the bishop, without whom he could do nothing. Their duties increased with the possessions of the church, so that they acted essentially as the accountants and clerks of the bishop.

Casp. Ziegler de Diaconis et Diaconissis veteris ecclesiae. Viteb 1678. 4: Jo. Phil. Odelemi Dissert, de Diaconissis primitivae ecclesiae. Lips. 1700. 4: Delia origine della digniia Anridiaconale. S. Sarnelli Lettere Eccles. 1716. Lett, xxv: J. P. Kress Eriauterung des Archidiaconal-Wessens imd der geistl. SendGerichte. Heliiist. 1725.4: J. G. Pertschen's: Vom Ursprung der Archidiaconen, Archidiaconal-Gerichte, bischofl Officialen und Vicarien. Hildesli. 1743. 8.
(No tag #1 appears in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)

De Rebus Christianis ante Const. M. p. 118, coll. p. 139.

Comment, in h. e.

Vgl. Hienrick's Ep. ad Timoth. p. 15. p. 55–57.

Ignatius Ep. ad Trail. c. 2. ad Smyrn. c. 8. Magnes. c. 9.

Polycarp ad PhiL c. 5.

Ziegler. de Diacoiiis, Thomassin, Binterin, etc.

Lib. ii. c. 44. c. 30:

Coucil Nic. c. 18.

Coiicil. Carthag. IV. c. 37.

Coinp. Euseb. h. e. lib. vi. c. 43: Sozomen. Eccl. hist. lib. vii. 19: ustin Novell. III. c. 1. 123. c. 13: Concil Neocaesar. c. 15.

Concil. Turon. I. c. 12: Agath. c. 16, 17: Tolet. IV. c. 89: Arelat. 111. c. 1: Bracar. 111. c. 5: Isidore. Hisp. lib. ii. c. 12.

Constitut. Apost. viii. c. 28: Concil. Nic. c. 18: Arelat. 1. c. 15: Ancyra. c. 2: Hieron. Ep. 85. ad Evagr.

Constitut. Apost. viii. c. 28.

Apol. I. (al II.) c. 65. p. 220. ed. Oberth.

Constitut. Apost. viii. c. 18.

Cyprian, Ep. 9. (al 16.) p. 37: Hieron. Comment, in Ezek. 18.

August. Quaest. 5. et N. T. quaest. 6.

Constit. Apost. ii. c. 57: Hieron. ep. 57: Concil. Vasense. II. c. 2.

Sozom. h. e. lib. vii. c. 19.

Constitut. Apost. viii. c. 5, 6, 10: Chrysost. Horn. xvii. in Heb. 9: Horn. ii. in 1 Cor.

Comment, in Eph. 4

Tertullian. de Bapts. c. 17: Cyrill Hieros. Calech. 17. c. 17: Hier. contr. Lucif. c. 4: Concil. Illiberit. c. 77.

Constitut. Apost. ii. c. 44:

Epiph. Haeres. 85. c. 5.

This reference to the relations of Christ to the Father was very common in the second and third centuries. From the fourth century it was avoided to -prevent giving countenance to the Arian theory of his actual subordination.

(* denotes Greek text in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)

(** denotes Hebrew text in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)


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