DEACONS AND DEACONESSES IN THE BIBLE AND THE EARLY CHURCH.
The unity of the scattered Christian Communities depended on two things – on a common faith and on a common way of ordering their life and worship. They called each ‘brother’ or ‘sister’. Whatever differences there might be of race, class or education, they felt bound together by their focus of loyalty to the person and teaching of Jesus. The pattern of worship derived all its meaning from its reference to him. The rite of baptism by which they were admitted to the Church was both a commemoration of the moment at the river Jordon when Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit for his life work, and a once for all renunciation of evil, which St Paul, in a powerful metaphor described as ‘being buried with Christ’. Each Sunday they met for their ‘thanksgiving’ in which the baptised ate bread and drank wine in a sacred meal which they spoke of as ‘eating the body’ and ‘drinking the blood’ of Christ. To share in this sacred meal was so deeply felt to be the essential expression of membership of the society that fragments of the broken bread were taken around to any who were absent through illness or imprisonment.1
In this topic we begin an historical overview of the diaconate. Note that particularly in this first of the history topics a number of sources are considered to build up a picture of ministry, church, deacons and the diaconate.
- The Bible, particularly but not exclusively the New Testament. What did the writers mean when they used the word deacon? Can we find the equivalent of diakon- words used in Hebrew Scriptures? Did the various writers all mean the same thing? What relevance might it have if we find non-scriptural uses of the word to compare with use in the Scriptures?
- Writings from other leaders in the first centuries of the early Church. How many different organisational structures emerged in this time? Why the variety? What do we learn about deacons from letters by people such as Ignatius or Polycarp?
- Material which reveals the organisation and experience of the early Christians. What were the expectations and rules around ministry and leadership and responsibility at this time? How did worship roles and pastoral roles work together?
- Material which provides the socio-cultural context for the developing Church. What societal influences played their part as the early Christians worked out their relationships and leadership structures? How did their political and economic situations affect the Christian communities?
Reading for this topic will concentrate on the two required texts each of which provides a slightly different perspective on the same events. We begin with Barnett as he continues with his view of the development of the diaconate in the first four centuries; by the time you have read his next three chapters you will have a useful broad overview as he refers to writings from a number of different sources. You may find it helpful to create a simple timeline as you read, and plot some of the major events or dates of writings/references.
Text : Barnett
- Chapter 3. The Diaconate in the New Testament
- Chapter 4. Age of the Apostolic Fathers
- Chapter 5. From the Post-Apostolic Age to the Constantine Era
With the next reading we begin on the journey that Olson takes us, a journey looking at deacons and deaconesses through the centuries. Olson’s first book on this came out in 1992 and was called: One Ministry Many Roles: Deacons and Deaconesses through the Centuries. Packed with information about historical and current developments, across continents and denominations that book was well commended and proved to be a very useful reference text as well as being an interesting read in its own right. Then it went out of print although libraries do still hold copies.
In 2005 a revised edition was published. This time the book was simply called Deacons and Deaconesses Through the Centuries but although its title had shrunk, the contents of the book had grown! For example, the first chapter originally had 20 pages and a comprehensive 106 footnotes. Now, in smaller denser type, this chapter has 22 pages and 146 footnotes! This revised edition has one extra chapter and aims to include as much recent writing as possible. For this reason I encourage you to use the revised edition rather than the original as your text.
You will indeed find, as the title suggests, that Olson offers an overview which raises the role of deaconesses alongside of and distinct from that of deacons. If you have created a timeline there will be more information to add as you work through this first chapter. As you will have gathered from the first topic, appreciating where the diaconate has emerged from is important to appreciating where it is now and indeed might be in the future.
Text : Olson
- Chapter 1. Deacons and Deaconesses in the Bible and the Early Church: from the first to the fourth centuries.
Reminder: these worksheets require 2-3 SHORT answers each as part of an ongoing reflection on the material being read. Answers may be written out (two-three sentences at most ) and posted or preferably sent by email directly to me as soon as they are completed. Answers will not be graded but merit will be accorded upon satisfactory completion of all the worksheets.
Please send each one as soon as you complete it.
Please answer as simply as possible:
- At this stage, what impression have you formed of the role of the deacon in the early church?
- In the last topic, we looked at the way the role of deacon has been described by words such as agent and servant. Can you add three or four more words to this list now? Words that could encompass something of the role of deacons and/or deaconesses in those first few centuries?
- If you are a deacon or in training, how do these descriptions relate to your role or the role you expect to have?
- Chadwick, Henry, The Early Church, rev.ed., (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1993), 32.