This month we will start to look at the history of the diaconate in the early church. The period of time we will be looking at is roughly from the beginning of the second century through the end of the fifth century, or from the year 100 AD to about 500 AD. This was a time of rapid change for the church. It covers the period of the post-apostolic era when Christianity continued to spread from Palestine across the whole of the Roman world, the rise of the great persecutions, and the age of Constantine when the church first became tolerated and then became, in some places, the offical church. During this entire period deacons played an important and vital role in all aspects of the life of the church. There are many historical documents that cover this period of the diaconate, so many in fact that there just is not enough time or space in a Chronicle article to go over all of them in detail. If you want more detail, I would recommend four resources for further reading. The first is “The Diaconate: A Full and Equal Order” by James Monroe Barnett.1 The second is “Many Servants: An Introduction to Deacons” by Ormonde Plater.2 The third is “Deacons and the Church: Making Connections Between Old and New” by John N. Collins.3 The last is another book by Collins, Diakonia: Re-interpreting the Ancient Sources.4
We will start this story where the Acts of the Apostles leaves off. At that time, the followers of Jesus met in homes. Each of these “churches” had an episkopos as a leader. This is, of course, the root for the name of our denomination and is usually translated as “bishop.” A better translation could be “superintendent.” This person acted as the leader and teacher of the church and presided at the agape meal which was the worship service. Closely associated with this superintendent were the diakonoi, or deacons. They had several roles. They tended the door during worship since only baptized believers were allowed to take part. They prepared the meal, set the table, and distributed the food including the blessed bread and wine. They supervised the preparation of the meal, the setting of the table, and the distribution of the food including the blessed bread and wine. They also took the meal, including the blessed elements, to those who could not be part of the community worship. In addition, the deacons performed administrative functions such as keeping records and distributing alms.
The key to understanding the diaconate at this time (and, by the way, ever since) is the relationship between the episkopoi and the diakonoi. Collins puts it best in his book: “Of great value is the fact that we know under whose mandate the diakonoi operate: that is, the episkopoi. So long as some people were functioning as episkopoi, the diakonoi had a role and a public identity. We say this because, from the nature of the terms, episkopoi could operate without diakonoi, but diakonoi could not operate without some such mandating functionary as an episkopos.”5
Collins says “by the nature of the terms” for a very good reason. The various forms of the diakonia words in Greek were rare and had special meaning. Collins’ book Diakonia: Re-interpreting the Ancient Sources is an in-depth study of these words and their meaning both in scripture and in other ancient documents of the time. In short, these words indicate an action or a person who is empowered by and is acting on the behalf of another. The most common use for these words were for the person who had the honor of staging an ancient Greek formal dinner to discuss politics (a high calling in those days) and other weighty matters. It was an honor to be chosen to perform such a function but it only came about when you were designated to do so by the leaders of the community. You had no function without such a designation. Diakonia words were also used to designate ambassadors or representatives of powerful people. In any case, there could be no diakonia without the relationship back to the designating authority.
This was the model for the early house churches. Each church has an episkopos supported by diakonoi as needed. As time went on and more than one church was present in a city or an area, the same model was followed. Each church had a superintendent (episkopos) and diakonoi (deacons).
What followed next was the choosing of elders or presbyteroi to act as the ruling body of the local church. Next month we will trace the development of these three offices, episkopos, presbyteros, and diakonos, over the early centuries of the Christian era.
1 Barnett, James Monroe; The Diaconate: A Full and Equal Order; Harrisburg, PA; Trinity Press International; Revised Edition 1995
2 Plater, Ormonde; Many Servants: An Introduction to Deacons; Cambridge, MA; Cowley Publica-tions; Revised Edition 2004
3 Collins, John N., Deacons and the Church: Making Connections Between Old and New; Harrisburg, PA; Morehouse Publishing, 2002
4 Collins, John N., Diakonia: Re-interpreting the Ancient Sources, New York, NY, Oxford Press, 1990
5 Collins, Deacons and the Church Making Connections Between Old and New, p. 92