This month we continue with the history of the diaconate in the early church. We left off in the early second century at the point where the church had established three offices — the episkopos or superintendent, the presbyteros or elder, and the diakonos or representative/agent. These offices would grow into bishop, priest, and deacon as we call them today. How these offices changed and grew was a process that occurred over the next three or four centuries. While this process happened in different ways, in different places, and at different times, there were several significant trends that grew with time. Gradually, these trends came to be accepted by the church as a whole.
The first of these trends is the “mono-episcopate.” The function of the superintendent, or president, of a church being vested in one individual seems to have come to be the norm by the start of the second century. Each individual church had its own episkopos, but the trend was towards only one per church. This individual was assisted by a council of elders, and by deacons. The three orders were separate and permanent. One order was not a prerequisite for any other. Each was elected to its office. This did not exclude, for example, a presbyteros or a diakonos from being elected as episkopos, but being a presbyteros or a diakonos was not required.
The second trend started in Rome. It is there we see the beginning of the practice of having one bishop for a city with presbyters in charge of local churches. And in Rome we also see the practice of limiting the number of deacons and the deacons becoming the staff or advisers of the single bishop. This system was well established in Rome by the middle of the third century when Pope Sixtus II was captured with his seven deacons in 258. Rome by that time had one bishop and had limited the number of deacons to seven to administer each of the seven districts of Rome. It was common by this time for the popes to be elected from one of the deacons. This tradition continued for some time. The most prominent example is Pope Gregory the Great, who was a deacon when elected pope in 590. This Roman model was not followed everywhere, but it set an important precedent.
The third significant trend has its roots in the growth of the church. In the year 260 the Emperor Gallienus issued the Edict of Toleration which ended the official persecutions of the church. This caused the church to grow more rapidly. The Edict of Milan in 313 issued by the Emperor Constantine went even further. It disestablished paganism as the official religion and restored to the Christian churches the property that had been seized from them or repaid them for the property. In 325, shortly after unifying the western and eastern empires under his control, Constantine summoned the Council of Nicaea to deal with the Arian heresy which threatened to split the church. The emperor did not want another split in his empire which was rapidly become more and more Christian. We associate the Council of Nicaea with the creed it promulgated and which we say every Sunday. But several other significant actions were taken by the council. The council issued twenty decisions or Canons. Canon 18 decreed that when a bishop did not preside at the Eucharist, this job was to fall to the priests and not to deacons. This decision was necessitated by the fact that the church had become more and more hierarchal like the empire it was now accepted by. As in Rome, more bishops were now in charge of cities or areas, not individual churches. Dioceses had started to be established and metropolitans or archbishops had appeared. In making this change, the bishops had passed most but not all (the right to ordain was retained by the bishops) of the liturgical duties to the priests whose numbers grew rapidly. The diaconate gradually grew smaller in number.
This caused the last and fourth trend. The diaconate became largely (but not exclusively) a step towards ordination as a priest. By the start of the middle ages, few persons were ordained to the diaconate alone. There were exceptions, but not many. The most famous permanent deacon of the middle ages is Saint Francis of Assisi.
The diaconate would remain like this for over a thousand years. Next month, the growth of the modern diaconate.