Deacons & Diakonia
Deacons & Diakonia
During the last couple of months, we’ve been blessed to have three different deacons assist with the Divine Liturgy and Holy Week services. Today, the Third Sunday of Pascha, is also known as the Sunday of the Myrrhbearing Women. Yet, it could also be known as the Sunday of Deacons because today’s Epistle reading from Acts 6:1-7 talks about the selection and ordination of the first deacons of the early Church. Why was it necessary to have deacons? After all the Apostles were performing great miracles and converting many people to faith in Jesus Christ. Let’s listen to the passage:
1Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. 2Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables.
We can see that amongst the Christians in the first century (the Book of Acts is the story of the early Church founded by Christ and His Apostles), there were practical needs. In this case, widows did not have the means to support themselves. They depended on the daily distribution of food and financial assistance. The word ‘distribution’ is an interesting translation of the Greek ‘diakonia’ (v.2). Diakonia is a rather familiar word in the Greek Orthodox Church. It means ‘service’ that meets a need, but it can also be the actual aid or support, especially of alms and charitable giving, that is provided by the service itself.
The service of diakonia to the poor and needy was important. However, just as important was another ministry or service—prayer and preaching. In the early Church, the Apostles were responsible for leading the liturgical worship and proclaiming the word of God. As the Church grew and the number of disciples also grew, the Apostles could no longer do both ministries. Thus, they instructed the people and said:
3Therefore, 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; 4but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry [διακονίᾳ] of the word.”
Notice that it is the faithful, not the Apostles, who select the deacons. Candidates for the clergy come from the people who proclaim them worthy. We also see the criteria for determining who is worthy to be chosen to fulfil this diakonia/ministry: they must be of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom. The Apostle Paul further expanded the requirements when he wrote to the Apostle Timothy who was the Bishop of Ephesus of Asia Minor.
8Likewise deacons must be reverent, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy for money, 9holding the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience. 10But let these also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons, being found blameless. 11Likewise, their wives must be reverent, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things. 12Let deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. 13For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a good standing and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus. (1Timothy 3:8-13)
Thus, we see that the diakonia/ministry of the Church was not to be carried out simply by people who had knowledge or expertise and could work hard to meet a need. What matters just as much is the personal character, moral behavior and faith of these deacons, and their wives. Diakonia is not mere social work but a ministry of the Church.
The next thing we learn is that deacons were not just appointed or put on a committee. The deacons were ordained for their ministry. The faithful select the clergy but it is only the Apostles and later the bishops who confirm this selection through ordination.
5And 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, 6whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them.
The laying on of hands is still the rubric/means to this day for the ordaining of deacons, priests and bishops. The Mystery of Ordination is a major sacrament of the Orthodox Church and the only one, besides the Eucharist, that is still done in the context of a Divine Liturgy. I hope one day we will have an ordination in our parish so all of you can witness this beautiful and most profound Mystery. Only a bishop can ordain a priest or deacon and it takes three bishops to ordain another bishop. In the prayers of ordination for a deacon, the bishop says:
The divine grace, which always heals that which is infirm and completes that which is lacking, ordains the most devout Subdeacon (Name) to the office of Deacon. Let us, therefore, pray for him, that the grace of the All-Holy Spirit may come upon him.
Lord our God, in Your providence You send your Holy Spirit upon those who are ordained by Your unsearchable power to become servants to minister Your Pure Mysteries, do You Lord, look upon this man whom You have consented to be ordained by me to the service of the Diaconate and preserve him in all humility, that he may hold the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience. Grant to him the grace which You gave to Stephen, Your first martyr, whom You called first to the ministry of Your Diaconate. Make him worthy to please You as he serves You in the office which you, in your goodness bestowed upon him. For those who minister well prepare themselves for good reward; and proclaim him Your perfect servant.
O God our Savior, by your immortal voice You established the office of the diaconate through Your Apostles and showed forth the First martyr Stephen whom You elected first to fulfill the work of a deacon. It is written in your holy Gospel, "whoever would be first among you, let him be your servant." Lord of all fill this, Your servant, whom you have consented to enter the ministry of a deacon with the totality of faith, love, power, and sanctification by the descent of Your Holy and Life-giving Spirit. For not through the laying on of my hands, but by the divine visitation of Your rich mercies grace is bestowed upon Your worthy ones; that he, liberated from every sin, may stand blameless by You in the awesome Day of Judgment and receive the true reward of Your promise.
The reason ordination is done by the laying of hands is the same reason an iconographer signs his or her icon “by the hand of.” Because it is not the iconographer who writes the icon, rather it is God Himself, by the Holy Spirit, through the hand of the iconographer. Likewise, it is not the bishop who ordains but God Himself, by the Holy Spirit, through the hand of the bishop. Likewise, it is not the deacon who provides the ministry. Rather it is the Divine Grace of the Holy Spirit through the deacon that heals the infirm and completes what is lacking, both in the deacon and in the people he serves. As the prayer says, it is the Lord Himself who fills the deacon with faith, love, power and holiness to share with those in need. And it is Jesus example of serving (Luke 22:27) and His teaching on humble service (Mark 10:41-45; Mt.20:24-28) that we follow.
Finally, what is the result of the appointment of the seven deacons by the Apostles? We hear in the last verse of today’s Epistle: 7Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith. (Btw, priests here refer to the Jewish priests). The deaconate in the Orthodox Church today is just a mere shadow of its former self. In third century Rome, the Church supported 1,500 widows and needy. In fourth century Alexandria Egypt, the Church fed 3,000 needy every day. In 11th century Constantinople, the Cathedral of Agia Sophia had 80-120 deacons.
Can we imagine the possibilities for ministry if we were able to revitalize the office of the diaconate in the Orthodox Church? It is part of a general restoration that would help reintegrate the liturgical and ministerial functions of the clergy. Today, we are not only shorthanded in the number of clergy (bishops, priests and deacons) providing ministerial service, but we are also suffering from a secularizing influence within the Church itself. That is, in the early Church, every ministerial diakonai/service had a corresponding liturgical function and vice versa. The life of worship and the life of service/ministry were inseparable. Today, in many churches, Orthodox included, we have a mindset that the clergy take care of the worship and the laypeople take care of the ‘business’ of the parish, ‘business’ meaning issues relating to the financials, administrative and physical plant. These are false dichotomies that distort the Christian life of the parish and her faithful members. The Orthodox parish, ours included is on the right track when those who serve on the parish council and other leadership positions, also fully and regularly participate in the liturgical life of worshipping, praising and glorifying God. Let us pray for the full restoration of the Orthodox diaconate and the reintegration of parish life. Amen! Christ is Risen!