The Diaconate – An Overview
In this chapter we shall consider the position of the deacon in a diaconal congregation. We shall see that the position of the deacon is foremost one of service. Deacons do not take over the task of the congregational members, but are specifically engaged in supplying whatever is necessary, as well as in edifying, together with the congregation.
Deacons and the Diaconal Congregation
The Christian congregation shows the characteristics of both followers or disciples, as well as those of a family. Acts 2 and 4 clearly illustrate what it means to follow in Christ's footsteps. Disciples who follow their Master all of the way, must call their fellowmen to repentance so that they will not perish. They do, however, not rely on words only but they dispense their active, practical charity.
At the table that was prepared during the night of the betrayal (right after the washing of the feet), Christ 1instructs us clearly to follow His example (Luke 22:25-27; John 13:13-17). This is why the Lord's Supper is the source of all communion of the saints, as well as it extends the call to practise that communion. Indeed, here are found the roots of the diaconal office.
In addition to this, the Bible shows us that we are not only disciples, but also beloved children who should walk in love. We ought to be children who are joined together by strong mutual bonds, as within a family, because of the love for their Father.
Even within a good family problems may arise because of quarreling or envy. Such a family will then cease to be an example for its surroundings. Neither were the conditions in the New Testament church always as one might expect in a well-functioning family. The result was that the advancement of the preaching of the gospel was endangered.
Deacons have their specific task and position to further the congregation as a community, whereby the communal bond will benefit its unity. Wherever mutual love predominates, there the light of the gospel will radiate for the world around us. Acts 6 shows us this clearly.
In Acts 9 we read that the apostles' workload in the execution of their office became so heavy that they could not sufficiently concern themselves with a smoldering problem within the congregation.[2As a result, the tensions escalate into a conflict. A close-knit community experiences a setback. The congregation's unity is in jeopardy. To prevent endangering the proclamation of the gospel and the caring for one another, the apostles decide (in consultation with the assembly) to institute a new office.3
Seven brothers are given the responsibility to serve at the tables, the so-called agape or the meal of charity, so that everyone will receive according to his needs. Thus a new distribution of tasks comes into view among the apostles and the serving officers (diakonia). In this context it is noteworthy that the concept of serving and deacon is derived from the Greek verb: 'diaconein.'4
These seven men execute an office with diaconal characteristics, though their work encompassed more than the diaconate alone. After the ordination of the seven, the apostles once more find the time needed to proclaim the gospel. Now as before, being-together results in sharing-together. Now the mutual relationships have been restored, and the congregation is growing.
It is not until we arrive at the letters of Paul to Timothy and the Philippians (Philemon 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:8-13) that we run into the concept of deacon. In Philippians 1, the deacons are mentioned in one and the same breath with the overseers, together forming the consistory of the church. In Timothy 3 Paul instructs Timothy what the required qualities of overseers and deacons should be like. In this aspect, the offices of deacon and elder have equal prerequisites. Both have, however, their own task and position in the official duty of taking care of the congregation. Both offices are subject to the same prerequisites.
These references in the New Testament form about the whole extent of the direct texts on this subject.5
The scarcity of these references leaves room for the idea that each era has bestowed on the diaconate its own character, which was most suitable during that particular age; cf. Koole/Velema (1991, p. 33) and Noordegraaf (1991, p. 65).
Deaconesses in a Deaconal Congregation?
A great deal has been written about the place of the deaconess, without arriving at a uniform picture.6We offer a brief survey of the facets that form a part of this picture:
- Romans 16:1 speaks about Phoebe, a deaconess (diakonos) of the church in Cenchrea;
- Phoebe's role in that congregation is tied in with her specific, official commission;
- Phoebe performs practical services (Romans 16:2); actively supporting the causes of the church, she is a protector (patroness) of many (Van Bruggen, 1992).
- It is likely that Phoebe was occupied with the organizational work encountered in service;
- A deaconess is by definition not the equivalent of a female deacon;
- 1 Timothy 3:11 speaks about women who are above reproach (as are the deacons); they will not be gossips who break the trust that is vested in them. The parallel drawn with vs. 8 indicates that they are women who have to fulfill a specific duty;
- 1 Timothy 5:9, 10 speaks about widows who perform diaconal and pastoral duties;
- Van 't Spijker (in Koole and Velema, 1991) posits that the church order of Hippolytus (approx. 230 AD) recognizes the appointment of widows in ecclesiastical functions, but holds that this does not require any ordination;
- The First Nicene Council (325 AD) speaks about deaconesses as belonging to the laity, inasmuch as they did not receive the laying on of hands (= ordination);
- One is able to trace the path of the deaconess into the 5th century, after which she disappears from the picture;
- The Convent of Wesel (1568, V, Article 10) restores the place of the deaconess. It becomes even possible to call them to the diaconal office. But this development did not last long.
- The Synod of Middelburg (1581, VIII 16/18) does not consider it advisable to re-institute the office of deaconess. However, Synod considers it advisable that qualified women be appointed to take care of female patients;7
- With a view to Romans 16:1, Koelman (1694) holds that deaconesses may be chosen as help for the deacons, specifically in urban centres with their large number of needy persons.
- During the 19th Century a number of deaconess institutes are founded in several towns. The deaconess in this institute is a woman who devotes her entire life to the nursing of the sick and helping the needy;
- The (provisional) Synods of 1888/89 (Art. 85) and 1890 (Art. 66) do not consider it an opportune time to appoint deaconesses in any other function but that of being a helper for the deacons;
- Recognition is given to the fact that there exists a tendency to supplement the concept of 'deaconess' with the present substance of the deacon's office.
On the basis of what is mentioned above, I think that a cautious conclusion is justified, namely to consider deaconesses as sisters in the congregation who have received a specific task from the church council. When we take a look at a contemporary interpretation, it will be obvious that it is precisely the specific gifts of women (e.g. organizing domestic help and establishing contacts) that should be expressed in such an appointment.
The Purpose of the Diaconate
In a broader sense, the diaconate is concerned with the work that members of the church perform in the service of Christ, for the benefit, the building up, and the growth of the congregation (Noordegraaf, 1991, 13).
Specifically, the office of the deacons is concerned with:
- the stimulation, protection, and preservation of the diaconal functioning of the congregation as a union and communion (Trimp,1988, 68);
- helping and equipping the congregation to perform services of help for the benefit of all who experience social troubles and problems.
This should not be seen as a goal-in-itself. Ultimately, it is all about giving our assistance to protect our neighbour — the lowly brother — and our thankfulness to God.
This is why:
- no one may live uncomforted under the pressure of troubles, anxieties, or want.
- there will be a true experiencing of the communion that is visible, so that in the eyes of the world the gospel will attain a distinct, identifiable foundation.
The New Testament features only one set of texts that specifies the criteria for the office of deacons (and elders). In 1 Timothy 3:8-13 we read about the following conditions applied to deacons; they shall be:
- self-controlled and prudent;
- reliable in speech: not a smooth-talker or a yes-man, but straightforward and honest; one should be able to rely on him;
- trustworthy in his dealings: making dishonest gain will serve as a poor example in the distribution of gifts;
- sober, not given to drink: being under the influence threatens the carefully cultivated interaction with brothers and sisters who experience troubles and problems;
- suitable for the office; i.e. he should be above reproach, which fact will have been ascertained beforehand;
- exemplary: he should be the husband of one wife, and be an example of constancy as well as a good ruler of his family;
- genuine followers of Christ, the great Diakonos, both in doctrine and life style;
- deserving of respect: a deacon who discharges the duties of his office well, deserves respect and receives the strength to speak out freely and to comfort wherever needed.
With a view to the characteristics of the office (of deacon) in our own time, it appears that being in possession of supplementary qualities would be beneficial in this area. These qualities should perhaps not be a prerequisite, but should be seen as attributes that will promote a sound execution of the office. I am thinking here of such qualities as organizational and motivational skills, being able to listen and carry on a conversation, displaying empathy, as well as the gift of discernment. It is evident that these qualities can be acquired by means of study, training, and guidance. To this end, it is my wish to make in this book a contribution for that purpose.