By Matthew George
Despite being a blessing and a privilege, the role of a deacon is not one of superiority or entitlement. The position of a deacon is one of responsibility, service and duty, earned through virtue and labour. This article will give a brief overview of what is expected of a deacon and how one can serve in this role with reverence and honesty.
The History of the Deaconate
The word deacon finds its origin in the Greek word diakonos (διάκονος), which can be translated as meaning “servant” . As the etymology of the word suggests, the deaconate has existed for many centuries and its origins can be traced back to the time of the apostles. In the book of Acts, we read that the multitude of the disciples struggled to meet the needs of those they were serving and were therefore instructed by the twelve to appoint seven men to assist in the service.
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. Acts 6: 3-6
It should be noted that before being appointed deacons, the men had to have already met particular requirements: being of good reputation, being full of faith and being full with the Holy Spirit. After having met these criteria, the deacons were appointed after prayers and the laying of hands, a tradition that our Orthodox church maintains until this day.
The Deacon as a Rank of Priesthood
In the Coptic Orthodox church, priesthood is comprised of three discrete orders :
1. The order of Deacons
2. The order of Priests
3. The order of Bishops
Just as in the early church in the book of Acts, these three orders serve different roles in order to minister to the church: the deacon is the servant, the priest is the teacher and the bishop is the overseer and shepherd. The deacon is therefore on the front line of serving the needs of the church and acts as the priest’s helper. Although the deacon is the most junior of these three orders, it is also considered the first rank of priesthood and therefore a very important responsibility. Indeed, St Paul writes very highly of this rank and tells us of the reward to those who serve faithfully as deacons,
For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a good standing and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus. (1 Timothy 3: 13)
Thus, the deacon who serves well earns a twofold reward; firstly a good standing, entailing being held in a high regard in the eyes of both God and the congregation, and secondly confidence and assurance in his own spiritual struggle as a Christian .
The Qualities of the Deacon
In addition to praising the order of deacons, St Paul also gives us a very serious warning of the qualities that should be expected of a deacon,
“Likewise deacons must be reverent, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy for money, holding the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience. But let these also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons, being found blameless.” (1 Timothy 3: 8-10)
To be reverent implies a form of respect so deep-seated that it is shown through one’s actions. In the context of the Christian’s life, and in particular the deacon’s life, this calling is intended to be threefold. A deacon must not only be respectful towards God, but also to himself and to the congregation he serves; a deacon cannot serve faithfully without having reverence for all three. Through honour and worship, the deacon’s relationship with God grows to fruition, becoming a vessel to bring God’s Word to others. The deacon must not falter in his reverence for others, for all those whom he serves are born in God’s image and have a share in His kingdom. Being filled with God’s Word, the deacon must therefore conduct himself with the utmost respect for that which dwells within him. Indeed, this is the command given to all Christians when we are instructed to walk worthy of the calling with which we are called.
Being double-tongued covers a range of undesirable qualities, including speaking deceitfully, hypocritically and giving oneself to idle gossip. It is important that a deacon is consistently honest in his words and that they be words of spiritual enlightenment rather than gossip and destruction. Words of deceit, slander and impurity have no place in a Christian’s mouth and a deacon’s words must be reflective of his love for God. Again, it is essential that the deacon’s actions are consistent with his words and with the calling with which he is called.
“Not given to much wine” and “not greedy for money” illustrate that the heart of a Christian should not be given to worldly things, but instead should be set on God’s kingdom and eternal life. Satan is able to tempt Christians with many worldly vanities, just as he did with our Saviour, but we must stand firm in our desire to be given a part in God’s kingdom and, just as Solomon wrote (book of Ecclesiastics), see what the world has to offer as only second best. The deacon must be seen to be striving for this prize in order to provide an encouraging example to his congregation.
Finally, the deacon must hold the mystery of faith with a pure conscience. Not only must the deacon be ardent in his faith, he is also required to pass it on to others with the utmost accuracy. This means that the deacon should adhere to the church’s teaching in terms of doctrine and theology and not attempt to take away from it. This verse in particular relates to the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ , but must also be remembered in relation to the sacraments and other teaching.
Perhaps most importantly, St Paul names a final condition on those who serve as deacons; they must be first tested and be found blameless. It is therefore clear that serving as a deacon is not a matter of entitlement, but one of virtue. Deacons must be observed over a period of time and subject to appraisal before being allowed to serve; they are tested first and only allowed to serve on passing this test. This is further affirmed in the extract from the book of Acts which was discussed earlier; the seven men chosen to serve as deacons were already men of good reputation and filled with the Holy Spirit.
It must be noted that the standards expected of deacons are not higher than that of Christians in general; to say this would suggest that there is an elite class of Christian removed from the rest. Rather, all of the qualities identified here are the same high standards to which all Christians are expected to strive for. St Paul is merely indicating here that those chosen to serve as deacons should be from among those who are already aspiring to live by the Gospel.
The Deacon as an Example to Others
We have already discussed the importance of a deacon setting a good example. It is impossible for a deacon to bring a congregation closer to Christ unless he himself already has a genuine relationship with God; I cannot introduce someone to another person unless I already know that person. It therefore follows that a deacon’s service begins with himself and, as he becomes strengthened in his spiritual struggle, this service slowly expands to those around him. St Paul writes,
Likewise, their wives must be reverent, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things. Let deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.(1 Timothy 3: 11-12)
Although not all deacons will be married, St Paul illustrates that the deacon’s service begins in his own life and includes his home and family. A Christian must be able to serve his own spiritual needs before he can contemplate serving others. The key to this is a full and honest relationship with God; speaking to God sincerely through prayer and hearing His word through the Bible. Combined with fasting and the church’s life-giving sacraments, this forms the fundamental basis for the Christian’s life and enables one to be selected to serve.
The Role of the Deacon
Whilst not explicitly stated thus far, the role of the deacon should be becoming fast apparent. To go back to the beginning, the role of the deacon is to serve and this is crucial to contemplate. Service implies that your primary focus is on others and you are therefore at the beck and call of those whom you serve. It is therefore clear that the role of the deacon is not one of pride or honour, but of humility and love. The reward spoken of by St Paul above is simply the by-product of serving faithfully rather than the sole aim.
Although each rank of deacon has specific roles, which will be discussed in a separate article, there are expectations that are common to all ranks of deacon. He is first and foremost an assistant to the priest helping to serve the needs of the congregation . This can range from helping the priest to prepare the altar and oblations for the Divine Liturgy to maintaining peace and order in the church during times of prayer. This means that the deacon is expected to be knowledgeable in the rituals and dogma of the church.
Since the priest is the teacher of the church and the deacon is his assistant, it follows that the deacon also has a small role in teaching at the behest of the priest. This is evident from the deacons’ role in reciting the scriptures during the church’s services. In addition to reciting these readings to the congregation, it is essential that the deacon has sufficient understanding and knowledge to be able to explain them to others. The deacon must therefore dedicate time to studying the scripture and teachings of the church fathers but, more importantly, he must be a living example of that which he has studied.
The deacon is also expected to lead the congregation during prayer, which not only requires knowledge of the church’s hymnology, but also an exemplary relationship with God. How can one lead others in prayer if he himself does not know how to pray? How can one lead the congregation in chanting the heavenly praises of the church if he himself is unable to chant them? This is an important aspect of the deacon’s service and one that begins with the most junior rank of the deaconate.
Above all, the deacon must always follow Christ’s footsteps and follow His example when serving. We must remember that the very nature of service is not to look down upon those we serve, but to bow down before them in humility and wash their feet.
“… just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20: 28)
Humility cannot exist without love for God and its natural progression, which is love for others. The humble servant who loves God must also have love for everyone he serves, showing his humility by always considering the needs of others before his own. It is this same attitude of self-sacrificial love that Jesus showed us in the Gospel that forms the basis of service in the church. Although the responsibilities may seem many and sometimes somewhat trivial, we must always remember the words of our Saviour in the Gospel and pray that we hear the same words at the end of our service,
‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’ (Matthew 26: 23).
- “The Rank of the Deaconate” by Amgad Salama [Also available online at: http://www.suscopts.org/deacons/ranks_of_deaconate.shtml]
- “Sacramental Rites in the Coptic Orthodox Church” (2nd edition) by His Grace Bishop Mettaous [Also available online at: http://www.copticchurch.net/topics/thecopticchurch/sacraments/7_priesthood.html]
- “The Deaconate” by His Grace Bishop Mettaous
- Ephesians 4:1, 1 Timothy 3:16
- Apostolic Constitutions Book II, Section 6. Translated by James Donaldson. From: Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 7. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co.1886.)