FROM CONSTANTINE TO LUTHER: THE FOURTH TO FIFTEENTH CENTURIES
The first hundred years of Christianity has been described as the ‘Golden Age of the Diaconate’. Take time to read extracts from some of the documents of that period to get an idea of the major concerns within the faith community and the role of deacons.
Justin Martyr was born in Flavia Neapolis circa 100 A.D., and converted to Christianity sometime around 130 A.D. A Christian apologist, he taught and defended Christianity in Asia Minor and at Rome. He suffered martyrdom in Rome about 165 A.D. Justin Martyr's "First Apology" is the oldest (non-New Testament) record we have of how early Christian worship was conducted.
On the day called Sunday there is a meeting in one place of those who live in cities or the country, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits. When the reader has finished, the president in a discourse urges and invites us to the imitation of these noble things. Then we all stand up together and offer prayers. . . . When we have finished the prayer, bread is brought, and wine and water, and the president sends up prayers and thanksgivings to the best of his ability, and the congregation assents, saying the Amen; the distribution, and reception of the consecrated elements by each one, takes place and they are sent to the absent by the deacons. Those who prosper, and who so wish, contribute, each one as much as they choose. What is collected is deposited with the president, . . . and, briefly, he is the protector of all those in need
(Justin Martyr, I Apology, 67). See J. Stevenson, "A New Eusebius".
The Didache (Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) is a brief anonymous early Christian treatise written in Koine Greek, dated by modern scholars to the first century. For example, see Chapter XV ‘Teaching of the Twelve Apostles’
Now appoint for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men meek and not avaricious, and upright and proved; for they too render you the service of prophets and teachers.
See also selections From Writings Of The Fathers Of Third And Fourth Centuries by Philip Schaff. The full text is able to be read online through the website of the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. For example, I found references to deacons and their ordination, ordination of deaconesses and characters of a deacon.
These brief glimpses help us recall the place and role of deacons in the early Church. However changes were ahead. The very context for the ministry of deacons was about to undergo major change and in this topic we look at developments over the next thousand years.
In summary, under the emperor Constantine, fourth century Christianity began the process of becoming the state religion of the Roman Empire. This had major consequences for the role of clergy and the organisation of the Church particularly in areas formerly assigned to deacons, i.e. administration and welfare. Dramatic increases in Church membership and workload led to the development of minor orders who took over diaconal roles. At the same time Bishops delegated some of their responsibilities to presbyters who gained power and status (including over deacons) in an increasingly hierarchically ordered Church. To ensure adequate training and experience for presbyters and bishops it began to be required they progress through what were now seen as ‘the minor orders’ and this included the diaconate. The stage was now set for the Christianity in the West to see the diaconate as merely a stepping stone to priesthood rather than a lifelong commitment.
By the Middle Ages, when monasteries and religious orders had taken over administrative and welfare roles and deaconesses had been absorbed into monastic movements, deacons (all male) functioned primarily in a liturgical role, subordinate to the priesthood and as an apprenticeship (albeit often a brief one) to it. By the 12th century even most archdeacons were priests.
World-wide change at every level.
Let us not forget the wider context for this change in the Church; these were years of worldwide change at political and social, economic and religious levels. For example, between 800 and 1000 C.E., in China paper money was being introduced, in England King Alfred was at work uniting smaller Anglo-Saxon states, Iceland was being colonised by Vikings, Eric the Red settled in Greenland and the Mayans emigrated to Yucatan peninsular.
In Christendom, controversies raged over the veneration of icons, transubstantiation and filioque, the independence of the papacy and its relationship with temporal authority. Popes came and went, for better or worse; monasteries grew, renewed, grew again; eastern orthodoxy was declared the official state religion of Russia and the split between east and western Christianity deepened.
In the first two hundred years of the second millennium, the Chinese perfected production and use of gunpowder, there was an agricultural revolution in medieval Europe following improved climate and technological innovation and William the Conqueror invaded England.
Meanwhile Scandanavia and Hungary converted to Christianity, there was growing disagreement between secular and papal rulers, Muslim armies marched on Jerusalem to begin their destruction of Christian holy sites, and in Europe the building of massive cathedrals had begun. Cardinals became responsible for the election of popes, the East-West schism was sealed, Pope Gregory VII excommunicated all married priests and Westminster Abbey opened. Anselm became Archbishop of Canterbury. The Crusades marched against Muslim invaders making their way to reclaim Jerusalem killing Jews and Muslims along the way. The Order of the hospital of St John was founded as a special order of knights dedicated to guarding a pilgrim hospital in Jerusalem, the Polynesian Islands were colonised, even more religious Orders created and the Virgin Mary became a saint.
To go more deeply into the radical changes in the diaconate in the fourth century and beyond we use the Barnett text first.
- Chapter 6. The Radical Transition of the Fourth Century
Now we return to the Olson text and explore the diaconate from the fourth century right through to the fifteenth. The church grows into the institution we know today, state and church consider whose role it is to provide political structures, authority, welfare and education, ministry roles within the church change and develop. As you read make a list of all the different roles deacons are recorded as having during that period. Pay close attention to Olson’s section on deaconesses since the eighteenth-century renewal of the deaconess order owes much to the early church period.
- Chapter 2 From Constantine to Luther: the fourth to fifteenth 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 to me directly by email as soon as they are completed. Answers will not be graded but merit will be accorded upon satisfactory completion of all the worksheets.
Please answer as simply as possible and send each one as soon as you complete it.
- Barnett helpfully summarises some of the ancient diaconal functions we know of and how.
- Which, if any, surprise you?
- Which can or should be important for the church today and why?
- There is still debate over the role of deaconesses – briefly summarize Olson’s view.
- A question raised by my study so far is ....