The Deacon in the Parish

“In addition to serving as their bishops’ factotums, deacons played an important liturgical role. As early as the middle of the second century, we learn something of this from Justin Martyr, who relates that, after the Eucharist was concluded, deacons would bring it to those who had been unable to attend. Other sources tell us that deacons maintained order in the church, guarded the doors, recited or chanted certain prayers, instructed catechumens, and proclaimed the Gospel. This last function came to be particularly associated with them. At the same time it was recognized that the deacon had a special relationship to the eucharistic chalice. An anonymous fifth-century Gallic work tells us that, according to what must have been a local custom, a bishop might not even lift the chalice from the altar unless it had first been handed to him by his deacon. Deacons also assisted at the baptism of men, while in some places, especially in the East, there were women deacons to assist at women’s baptism and to perform other services on behalf of women. 

…Clearly the diaconate was a position of high importance in early Christianity, and the list of those who as deacons (whether or not they were later promoted to the presbyterate or the episcopate) engaged in significant enterprises on behalf of their bishops or the Church at large includes not only such figures as Callistus and Laurence but also Ephrem, John Cassian, and Gregory the Great. Toward the end of the patristic period, however, the diaconate began to lose its status, and it would eventually turn into a perfunctory step in preparation for ordination to the priesthood. It is interesting to  note that, over the course of the centuries, as the responsibilities of the diaconate decreased, those of the presbyterate increased.”

(Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, p. 122-123)

Ordaining Women Deacons

 St. Phoebe the Deaconess
Reports earlier this year on the Internet stated that the Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria ordained some women deacons.   There have been conflicting stories as to what exactly the Patriarch did and whether or not these women were ordained as deacons following an ancient rite or whether the Patriarch had in fact created a new office in the church.  Recently, a number of American and Greek Orthodox liturgical theology professors offered opinion supporting the Patriarch of Alexandria in his decision to ordain women deacons in Africa: .

While whatever one Patriarchate does always has some implication for all Orthodox, so far no other Patriarch has claimed that they will follow suit and also ordain women deacons.  Although the action of the Alexandrian Patriarch seems controversial to some, he did not do anything forbidden by the Orthodox canons and as the liturgical theology professors note in their letter he is only restoring something that used to exist in Orthodoxy.   Orthodox Patriarchs are not known for being innovative nor for acting unilaterally on such issues.  So one would think he probably sounded out this idea with at least some other Orthodox bishops before doing it.  When it comes to liturgical practices, the Patriarchs are conservative and tend to preserve the current received tradition and rarely try to revive something that disappeared in the past.    The Patriarch’s decision to ordain the deaconesses is reminiscent of how the office of deacon came into existence at the time of the apostles.  There was a need and the Church creatively met the need by creating a new office:

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands upon them. And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.  (Acts 6:1-7)

The Church created a new office to meet its current need.   It needs to be noted that it is the ordination of deacons that leads to the first martyrdom in the Church.   St. Stephen one of the first deacons is the proto-martyr of the Church.  Creating a new ministry in the Church created a new category of saint, the martyr.  Orthodoxy claims the Church is founded on the blood of the martyrs.  It was not the apostles who were martyred first, but a deacon.  The Church was glorified by creating the new ministry in the Church.
Time will show us whether this action is being guided by the Holy Spirit and will bring benefit to the Orthodox Church throughout the world and will bear glorious spiritual fruit for the Church.   The restoration of the women diaconate has been discussed on and off in Orthodox for the last 100 years.  The Russian Church was discussing the issue in 1917 before the communist revolution took control of Russia and forced the Church to stop talking about issues that would make the Church more engaging in society.  The Greek Church had a few women deacons at the beginning of the 20th Century ordained by St. Nektarios.   More recently the discussion has been taken up by  the St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess.    I think such discussion is healthy for the Church.  This is a discussion about restoring an office that once was part of the Orthodox Church.  It is not about creating something that never existed in the Church.  This is not following societal trends, but rather making the Church, the Body of Christ whole.  St. Paul said if one member of the Body suffers, we all suffer.  If we the Church have lost a vital ministry, we all are suffering that loss, and healing the Body and restoring the ministry would be a good thing.  St. Paul writes:
On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those parts of the body which we think less honorable we invest with the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.   (1 Corinthians 12:22-31)
We all need to pray for the Church that God will provide for us the ministries that we need to witness to the world today.  God has appointed us to carry the Gospel to the world, and we need all the members of the Body to be working and working together.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”  (Matthew 9:37-38)

St. Stephen the First Martyr and Deacon

On the 3rd Sunday after Pascha, the Sunday of the Myrrhbearing Women, the Epistle/Apostolos reading is Acts 6:1-7, which introduces us to St. Stephen who is among the first deacons chosen in the church, and will become the first martyr of Christianity.  Didymus the Blind  (d. 398AD) comments on St. Stephen the Protomartyr:

“After all, Stephen, that first witness to the truth and a man worthy of his name, was said to be filled with wisdom and the Holy Spirit (Acts 6.3) – consequently, wisdom is implied when the Holy Spirit abides in him – as the Scripture says: And the Apostles chose Stephen, a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit (Acts 6.5). And after some other passages: But Stephen, a man filled with grace and power, was doing great signs and wonders among the people (Acts. 6.8). And still concerning the same: And they were not able to withstand the wisdom and Spirit that was speaking in him (Acts 6.10). For the blessed man was filled with the Holy Spirit, and was made a participant in the faith which comes from the Holy Spirit, in accordance with the passage: But to another, faith by the same name Spirit (1 Cor. 12.9). Having grace and power according to the same Spirit, he did great signs and wonders among the people. Indeed, he also abounded in those gifts according to the same Spirit which are called the graces of healing and power.

For in the first epistle of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians these are numbered among the gifts of God in the Spirit and according to the Spirit. But Stephen overflowed with divine grace to such an extent that none of his opponents and those disputing with him were able to withstand the wisdom and Spirit who spoke in him. For he was wise according to the Lord and the Holy Spirit. This is why Jesus clearly proclaimed to his disciples: Whenever you are brought to authorities and powers and councils and synagogues, do not be anxious regarding what you ought to say or how you should speak at that time. For words of wisdom shall be given to you by the Holy Spirit, which not even those very experienced in disputations will be able to oppose.”     (Works on the Spirit, pp. 155-156)

Called to Serve, Not to be Served

The multiplication of ministries in the church began with the Christian community needing to respond to issues created by the increasing numbers of believers in local Christian communities.

Christ feeding the thousands

Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a murmuring against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the   disciples and said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. “Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; “but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And the saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch, whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them. And the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.   (Acts 6:1-7)

Dr. Kesich referring to the above Scripture passage explains:

“The evangelist Luke in Acts does not cover up or minimize the ‘unpleasant disturbances’ in the life of the Jerusalem church. With the growth of the community, inevitably other problems confronted the ‘disciples’ of Christ. They had to solve them, for the future of Christian mission and its expansion depended on their resolution. Acts identifies the members of the community [koinonia] as disciples [mathetai] of Christ. … In Acts, Luke uses the word ‘disciple’ for any believer in Jesus (Acts 6:1, 9:19). Paul never used the term mathetai for his followers or companions. Only Jesus could have mathetai.

With the rapid growth of the church, some members of the community began to complain of neglect. Acts 6 reports that the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were slighted in the daily distribution, probably meaning in sustenance given to the poor and needy. The Twelve took the complaint of the Hellenists seriously and dealt decisively with the discontent that was endangering the koinonia. They summoned the body of the faithful [plethos] and asked them to select “seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3) to serve tables [diakonein trapezais], whom they, the Twelve, would appoint for this duty.

 …Luke differentiated the role of the Twelve and that of the ‘multitude’ [plethos] in the appointment of the Seven. The Twelve and the community of believers participated in the decision-making process. The Twelve took the initiative, approving and appointing the seven worthy Hellenists whom the community had selected from among themselves. The leadership of the Twelve was undisputed, while the consent of the faithful was indispensable. … They were engaged in service in the community, for in Acts 6, Luke uses the term diakonia, ‘service’, but not diakonos, “deacon.” Paul uses diakonos for a distinct group in the hierarchy of a local church only once in his undisputed epistles. (Veselin Kesich, Formation and Struggles: The Birth of the Church AD 33-200, pgs. 38-39)

Multiplying Ministries Enables Church Growth

Sermon for the Sunday of the Myrrhbearing Women  1984         Epistle Lesson: Acts 6:1-7

Do you think the early Christians ever complained about the way the holy apostles were leading the Church?

Can you imagine someone saying, “That St. Peter plays favorites in the community.  He talks to the same few people and always makes sure his ‘friends” are taken care of first.”

O how about, “There’s St. John, he’s a good Gospel writer, but he never has time for anything important and he doesn’t even teach in the church school!”

Well, today’s Epistle reading, Acts 6:1-7, shows us exactly that people did complain about things in the church from the beginning – even when the original hand chosen disciples of Jesus were leading the church.

“Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a murmuring against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution”   (Acts 6:1).

With such a complaint, how were the Christians to handle the problem?  Ask Jesus for a new set of apostles?  Quit the church and join a different one?  Demand the disciples do more work?

As the text indicates, the problem was brought to the attention of the apostles, and once aware of the problem, what did the apostles do?

stephenThey tell the people, “We have certain ministries to which we have been appointed (preach the gospel, teach the Word of God, pray), and it would not be pleasing to God for us to give them up.  Therefore we are going to set up a new ministry (deacons) with which to serve you and appoint new ministers for this task.”  In effect the apostles both expand leadership by creating a new ministry and share power with more members in the church so that the church’s mission can continue and grow.

The Apostles recognize the essential nature of both the human needs of the believers and of the additional ministry required to meet this need.   (Putting the situation in modern terms we might say they recognized the importance of the fellowship hour after the liturgy – the membership’s human needs must be met).

The apostles set out 2 principles of church life:

1)     There is a division of labor in the church.  There are some who have special assignments to carry out – to pray, teach, preach, distribute food, wait on tables.  This insures that people with special gifts, talents or assignments can concentrate on the work to which God has appointed by freeing them from other responsibilities.

2)    When needs arise, appoint new worthy people to meet these needs.  Multiplying ministries also helps the community to grow.   This is an important principle for our parish.

mercytochrist1In the life of the parish we have to find the ways to free all of the ministers of the Gospel to do what they are specifically equipped, gifted, trained and appointed to do by freeing them from all extraneous responsibilities – help the priests to be the priests, deacons to be deacons, teachers to teach, council to administrate, choir to sing, and all the committees and volunteers to do their appointed tasks.  If everyone steps up and becomes an active minister and takes responsibility for their role in the parish community than all others are freed to take on their own roles.

If there are any people within the community who feel neglected by the priest or the parish council, it is OK for the community to arrange for new ministries to emerge to tend to the needs.

The apostles understood that they could not minister to every need of all the people.  Their response was to have good people – people of wisdom and full of the Holy Spirit – chosen and ordained to carry on the ministry to meet the emerging need.  Every parish has good members – people of wisdom and full of the Holy Spirit – which God provides for the parish to fulfill its mission.

The end result of what the apostles did was that they were freed from being responsible for everything so that they could concentrate on what only they could do in the church.  And new people became involved in new ministries and more needs were met.  As it says in Acts 6:7

“And the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly…”

So we are given an example by today’s Epistle lesson as to how to deal with needs and with complaints within the community.  If we followed the example of the apostles and the first Christians we would find that the word of God will grow for us as well, and the number of disciples will be greatly increased.