The term diakonos, and its cognates occur many times in the New Testament, as do its synonyms huperetes, and doulos, with their respective cognates. It may be said in general that the terms denote the service or ministration of the bondservant (doulos), underling (huperetes) or helper (diakonos), in all shades and gradations of meaning both literal and metaphorical. It would serve no useful purpose to list and discuss all the passages in detail. Christianity has from the beginning stood for filial service to God and His kingdom and for brotherly helpfulness to man, and hence, terms expressive of these functions abound in the New Testament. It behooves us to inquire whether and where they occur in a technical sense sufficiently defined to denote the institution of a special ecclesiastical office, from which the historical diaconate may confidently be said to be derived.
Many have sought the origin of the diaconate in the institution of the Seven at Jerusalem (Acts 6), and this view was countenanced by many of the church Fathers.
The Seven were appointed to "serve tables" (diakonein trapezais), in order to permit the Twelve to "continue stedfastly in prayer, and in the ministry (diakonia) of the word." They are not called deacons (diakonoi), and the qualifications required are not the same as those prescribed by Paul in 1 Timothy 3:8-12; furthermore, Stephen appears in Ac preeminently as a preacher, and Philip as an evangelist. Paul clearly recognizes women as deaconesses, but will not permit a woman to teach (1 Timothy 2:12). The obvious conclusion is that the Seven may be called the first deacons only in the sense that they were the earliest recorded helpers of the Twelve as directors of the church, and that they served in the capacity, among others, of specially appointed ministrants to the poor.
Paul says, "I commend unto you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant (the Revised Version, margin "or, deaconess") of the church that is at Cenchrea" (Romans 16:1). This is by many taken as referring to an officially appointed deaconess; but the fact that there is in the earlier group of Paul's epistles no clear evidence of the institution of the diaconate, makes against this interpretation. Phoebe was clearly an honored helper in the church closely associated with that at Corinth, where likewise evidence of special ecclesiastical organization is wanting.
In Philippians 1:1 Paul and Timothy send greetings "to all the saints .... at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons." Here then we find mention of "deacons" in a way to suggest a formal diaconate; but the want of definition as to their qualifications and duties renders it impossible to affirm with certainty the existence of the office.
In 1 Timothy 3:8-12, after prescribing the qualifications and the method of appointment of a bishop or overseer, Paul continues:
"Deacons in like manner must be grave, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre; holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. And let these also first be proved; then let them serve as deacons, if they be blameless. Women in like manner must be grave, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things. Let deacons be husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well." Deacons and deaconesses are here provided for, and the character of their qualifications makes it clear that they were to be appointed as dispensers of alms, who should come into close personal relations with the poor.
We conclude, therefore, that the Seven and Phoebe did not exercise the diaconate in a technical sense, which appears first certainly in 1 Timothy 3, although it is not improbably recognized in Philippians 1:1, and was foreshadowed in the various agencies for the dispensing of alms and the care of the poor of the church instituted in various churches at an earlier date.
William Arthur Heidel
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