As December 26 is the Feast Day of the first martyr of the Christian faith, the Deacon St. Stephen, I felt that it would be fitting to post Part I of the research I’ve been doing on the Diaconate today. It would be my sincere wish that all of my brothers in the Diaconate, whether Lutheran, Catholic, Episcopalian, or any and all other denominations, would engage in this conversation (of course, all are welcome to comment!).
What are your views on the Diaconate, dear brothers? How do you and your church body view your service to our Risen Lord?
Blessings in Christ Jesus!
Deacon Douglas Morrison
Trinity Lutheran Church, Memphis
Welcome Back, Deacon!
The Church Rediscovers an Important Part of the Ministry of the Early Church
Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus of Antioch. “The Seven.” They were the original Deacons, and, after the Apostles themselves, the first called and ordained ministers of the Word in the New Testament.
The office of Deacon has returned to the Church. The 1989 Synod Convention of The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod in Wichita, Kansas authorized the licensing of laymen to carry out pastoral functions including the administration of the Lord’s Supper “when specifically authorized to do so by the congregation and with the approval of a supervisory pastor and the District President.” The 2004 Synod Convention in St. Louis, Missouri voted to “Affirm District Programs that Equip Laity for Ministry.” Locally, the Deacon Ministry Program was reaffirmed in the 2012 Mid-South District Convention in Memphis, Tennessee.
For some, this reinstatement of a part of the active ministry created at the time of the Apostles is a cause for rejoicing, for others a cause for consternation. What’s the problem? And how are we, as Lutherans, coming to grips with this?
First of all, what is a deacon? Historically, a deacon was part of the three-fold ministry of the early church: bishop (ἐπίσκοπος, episkopos), presbyter/elder (πρεσβύτερος, presbuteros) and deacon (διάκονος, diakonos). The title, based on the Greek verb diakoneo (to serve or minister), is taken from the account of the creation of the office in Acts 6:1-7 (NIV):
In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on [diakonein] tables. 3Brothers, chose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry [diakonia] of the word.” 5This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. 6They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. 7So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.
Of these seven men, ordained by the laying on of hands by the Apostles themselves, we hear again of only two: Stephen and Philip. And, these men are never pictured in scripture as “waiting on tables.”
On the contrary! Stephen, “a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people” (Acts 6:8, NIV). In speaking of this passage Martin H. Franzmann remarked, “The seven were never intended to be narrow specialists in welfare work.”1 Stephen, the very first martyr of the Christian faith (Acts 7:54-8:1, NIV), delivered a sermon that outlined God’s promise of salvation from Abraham to Christ Jesus, a sermon of such power and importance that Luke recorded it in its entirety (Acts 7:1-53, NIV). By directly accusing the members of the Sanhedrin of betraying and murdering the Christ, Stephen effectively severed Christianity from Judaism, triggering a great persecution which scattered the disciples. This diaspora of believers may have sent the church “underground,” but it also served to send the Word to other parts of the region.
Philip, the only other member of The Seven that we hear of again, was the first evangelist to the Gentiles. After the dispersion in Jerusalem, Philip did the unthinkable: he evangelized in Samaria. Acts 8:4-13 (NIV) tells of his proclaiming the good news to these traditionally “unclean” people. Going up against a “sorcerer” named Simon, Philip was so effective in proclaiming the gospel message that even the Apostles back in Jerusalem were amazed; they sent Peter and John to confirm, to see with their own eyes, what had happened there!
Philip the deacon had become Philip the deacon-evangelist. Acts 8: 26-40 (NIV) describes his being sent by an angel of the Lord to the road that went between Jerusalem and Gaza, to encounter and convert an Ethiopian eunuch. Franzmann again notes that
“. . . it was Philip who baptized an Ethiopian eunuch, excluded from the ancient people of God because he was a Gentile and because he was a eunuch (Dt 23:1, NIV). So the promise of Is 56:3-5(NIV)2 and the prayer of Ps 68:31(NIV)3 were fulfilled in this foreigner, and the universally inclusive character of the new people of God found an unforgettable expression.”4
So far, based on Scripture alone, we can safely say this about the diaconate of the first century: they were called by the church body (“the whole group,” Acts 6:5, NIV) and ordained by the laying on of hands (Acts 6:6, NIV); they were involved in the offices of preaching (Stephen, Acts 7:1-53, NIV), teaching (Philip, Acts 8:35, NIV), and the administering of sacraments (baptism, Philip, Acts 8:38, NIV). We have no record in scripture of any subsequent administrative duties. What the Apostles had proposed was clearly altered to fit what God intended: a new order of ministry to take the word of salvation beyond the confines of Jerusalem and Judaism.
Next: Mission and Martyrdom
1 Martin H. Franzmann in Concordia Self-Study Commentary, 110. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1971, 1979.
2 Is 56:3-5 (NIV): 3Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” And let not any eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” 4For this is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant – 5to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.”
3 Ps 68:31 (NIV): “Envoys will come from Egypt; Cush will submit herself to God.”
4 Franzmann, 110.