The Diaconate: Then and Now (Part I)

The Diaconate: Then and Now (Part I)
by The Rev'd Michael Bordelon

In the Church, we have 4 orders of ministry.  The Laity, which makes up the vast majority of Christ’s church. and then the 3 ordained orders: Deacon, Priest, and Bishop.  Of these four, the Diaconate often seems to be one of the most confusing.  Since we currently have a deacon in our midst in the form of Rev. Brooks and a longtime member of the flock, Keith Dorwick, is being called to the Diaconate I think its worth taking a closer look at the Sacred Order of Deacons.  This week we will have the “Origin Story” of the Diaconate and see the circumstances that necessitated their formation.  Then we will discover how the ministry of the Diaconate manifests itself today.

The ministry and role of deacons was born from a specific need of the early Church.  As the Church developed and grew following the events of Pentecost it became obvious that the underground, tight knit, often persecuted followers of Christ needed to look after one another.  The entire community shared their resources and possessions; Acts 4:32-35 tells of this communal Church.  “There was not a needy person among them.” (Acts 4:34)  In the early Christian community there was a special ministry that provided for those in their flock who could not provide for themselves.  This group, often referred to as “the poor” was made up of widows, orphans, and resident aliens.  This group was unable to own land and therefore lacked security, a source of income, and stability.  The Church made it their priority to look after this group while still sharing their communal resources and possessions.

As the Church grew, complaints began to arise and disputes broke out because some of the poor were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.  The Church had begun to reach a critical mass.  The twelve apostles had become the administrators, preachers, pastors, and community outreach coordinators. They became overwhelmed by the needs of the community and were incapable of attending to all the ministries of the Church.  Acts records their response, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to [wait on tables/keep accounts].  Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” (Acts 6:2-4) 

The Diaconate is created.  Acts 6:5 lists the first seven deacons of the Church.  The Apostles ordained these deacons by praying and laying their hands upon them.  They were made to share in the work of the Apostles.  Chiefly their ministry was to serve the widows, orphans, and resident aliens, making sure the appropriate resources were provided to the poor.  They also assisted the Apostles in the administration of the sacraments, particularly the sacrament of the table.  The purpose of the Diaconate was to care and serve the community so the Apostles could continue to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  It is important to note that while the Apostles maintained ecclesial authority over the deacons their ministries were of equal importance.  It was a cooperative relationship of shared ministry.  The early needs of the Church facilitated the creation for the specific ministry of Deacons.  That ministry in turn provided the pastoral foundation that the Church was later built.

Check in next week to see how the ministry of the Diaconate is fulfilled today.