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Bible Encyclopedias

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica


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(Gr. Scarcovos, minister, servant), the name given to a particular minister or officer of the Christian Church. The status and functions of the office have varied in different ages and in different branches of Christendom.

(a) The Ancient Church

The office of deacon is almost as old as Christianity itself, though it is impossible to fix the moment at which it came into existence. Tradition connects its origin with the appointment of "the Seven" recorded in Acts vi. This connexion, however, is questioned by a large and increasing number of modern scholars, on the ground that "the Seven" are not called deacons in the New Testament and do not seem to have been identified with them till the time of Irenaeus (A.D. 180). The first definite reference to the diaconate occurs in St Paul's Epistle to the Philippians (i. 1), where the officers of the Church are described as "bishops and deacons" - though it is not unlikely that earlier allusions are to be found in 1 Cor. xii. 28 and Romans xii. 7. In the pastoral epistles the office seems to have become a permanent institution of the Church, and special qualifications are laid down for those who hold it (1 Tim. iii. 8). By the time of Ignatius (A.D. 110) the "three orders" of the ministry were definitely established, the deacon being the lowest of the three and subordinate to the bishop and the presbyters. The inclusion of deacons in the "three orders" which were regarded as essential to the existence of a true Church sharply distinguished them from the lower ranks of the ministry, and gave them a status and position of importance in the ancient Church.

The functions attaching to the office varied at different times. In the apostolic age the duties of deacons were naturally vague and undefined. They were "helpers" or "servants" of the Church in a general way and served in any capacity that was required of them. With the growth of the episcopate, however, the deacons became the immediate ministers of the bishop. Their duties included the supervision of Church property, the management of Church finances, the visitation of the sick, the distribution of alms and the care of widows and orphans. They were also required to watch over the souls of the flock and report to the bishop the cases of those who had sinned or were in need of spiritual help. "You deacons," says the Apostolical Constitutions (4th century), "ought to keep watch over all who need watching or are in distress, and let the bishop know." With the growth of hospitals and other charitable institutions, however, the functions of deacons became considerably curtailed. The social work of the Church was transferred to others, and little by little the deacons sank in importance until at last they came to be regarded merely as subordinate officers of public worship, a position which they hold in the Roman Church to-day, where their duties are confined to such acts as the following: - censing the officiating priest and the choir, laying the corporal on the altar, handing the paten or cup to the priest, receiving from him the pyx and giving it to the subdeacon, putting the mitre on the archbishop's head (when he is present) and laying his pall upon the altar.

(b) The Church of England

The traditionary position of the diaconate as one of the "three orders" is here maintained. Deacons may conduct any of the ordinary services in the church, but are not permitted to pronounce the absolution or consecrate the elements for the Eucharist. In practice the office has become a stepping-stone to the priesthood, the deacon corresponding to the licentiate in the Presbyterian Church. Candidates for the office must have attained the age of twenty-three and must satisfy the bishop with regard to their intellectual, moral and spiritual fitness. The functions of the office are defined in the Ordinal - "to assist the priest in divine service and specially when he ministereth the Holy Communion, to read Holy Scriptures and Homilies in the church, to instruct the youth in the catechism, to baptize in the absence of the priest, to preach if he be admitted thereto by the bishop, and furthermore to search for the sick, poor and impotent people and intimate their estates and names to the curate." (c) Churches of the Congregational Order. - In these (which of course include Baptists) the diaconate is a body of laymen appointed by the members of the church to act as a management committee and to assist the minister in the work of the church. There is no general rule as to the number of deacons, though the traditionary number of seven is often kept, nor as to the frequency of election, each church making its own arrangements in this respect. The deacons superintend the financial affairs of the church, co-operate with the minister in the various branches of his work, assist in the visitation of the sick, attend to the church property and generally supervise the activities of the church.

See Thomassinus, Vetus ac nova disciplina, pars i. lib. i. C. 51 f. and lib. ii. c. 29 f. (Lugdunum, 1706); J. N. Seidl, Der Diakonat in der katholischen Kirche (Regensburg, 1884); R. Sohm, Kirchenrecht, i. 121-137 (Leipzig, 1892); F. J. A. Hort, The Christian Ecclesia (London, 1897).

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Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Deacon'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. 1910.