Diaconate: The Biblical Basis for the Ministry of Deacons

Norm Metzler

*Dr. Norm Metzler taught  Systematic theology and Ethics at Concordia University  in Portland Oregon.  He recently served a vacancy at a congregation where he worked with a deacon in training to complete his program and get licensed by the district.  The deacon then was contracted to serve a vacancy at a neighboring congregation which is presently too small to support a fulltime pastor.  He may be called to serve them longer-term, since it has been working out very well..

 

INTRODUCTION

The issue of ministry roles or positions is the subject of ongoing debate among Christians, and in recent time particularly within our LCMS. It has generated Synodical Convention discussions and resolutions regarding the office of “licensed deacon.”  Some in our church body question whether this is a valid role or position within our church body. This issue arose already in earliest Christianity. The New Testament indicates a number of different ministry gifts and tasks, and names two particular “offices” or “positions” for ministry within the early congregations: “elder/pastor/bishop”, all translating the term “presbyteros”; and “deacon,” the usual translation (except at times “deaconess” in reference to a female deacon) of the Greek term “diakonos.” It does not explain as fully as we might like the nature of these ministry leadership functions, but we must keep in mind that in the early church they did not expect the present world order to exist much longer; they would not have seen the need for developing and explaining a fuller, ongoing church structure.

Since the role of deacon is explicitly mentioned and described to some extent, It is appropriate that we look closely at the biblical basis for the role or office of the diaconate, to gain from Scripture what clarity and guidance we might in seeking to understand rightly and practice appropriately this role within the life of our congregations, districts and Synod.

THE NEW UNIVERSAL PRIESTHOOD OF CHRISTIANITY

There were two major spiritual roles or “offices” among the Old Testament people of God: the role of “prophet,” proclaiming God’s word to his people; and the role of “priest,” a leader in tabernacle or temple worship.  The Old Testament Levitical priest served as mediator between God and his people, and offered sacrifices on behalf of the people for the forgiveness of their sins. The New Testament understands that priesthood as prefiguring Christ (Hebrews 7-10), and therefore no longer necessary with the coming of Christ, our great high priest.

In the New Testament era also the Jewish priest played a prominent role; the Sadducees were the priestly leaders among the Jewish people. The role of prophet was still a known category, typically as “preacher” expounding on the reading of God’s Word within worship, both in the Jewish synagogue and in the Christian congregation. In addition, the role of rabbi or teacher in the synagogue had developed during the Exile in Babylon.  The Pharisees were spiritual leaders among the Jews; since the Exile they focused on keeping the 613 covenant laws as fully as possible. Much of Jewish spiritual life in Jesus’ time took place around the local synagogue; the rabbi was therefore an important figure with a significant role in Jewish society.

Jesus was known variously as a “rabbi” or teacher, or as a “prophet” among God’s people. He wanted to be understood among his followers as a “servant,” one who came to serve others.  He likewise empowered and gifted his disciples for servant leadership. Therefore a fundamental element of the Christian faith is that in the new covenant in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, every Christian is authorized in principle as a “royal priest” for all functions of ministry.  The writer of 1 Peter 2:9 states,    “you are a royal priesthood, a holy nation;” that is, every single believer is now a priest, capable of mediating between God and other people.  Matthew 27:51 and following reports that at the death of Christ on the cross, the curtain separating the people from the Holy of Holies in the temple was torn completely in two. This symbolized the removal of any barrier to direct access of all people to God. Whereas previously only the high priest could go behind this curtain, now all of God’s people had direct access to God.

Matthew 16:18 states that Peter’s faith is the rock upon which Jesus would build his church. All disciples are given authority to proclaim guilt and innocence, to bind and loose the sins of others; Acts 5:3-9 gives an example of this, recounting how Peter bound the sins of Ananias and Sepphira.  According to 2 Corinthians 5:20, every Christian is an ambassador of Christ, God making his appeal through us. An ambassador has the authority to speak for his ruler; every Christian similarly now has the authority to speak for Christ his/her Lord.  In short, every Christian has a direct, immediate relationship with God through Christ; each one is empowered with the authority to speak and act on Christ’s behalf, as Christ’s ambassador. Every Christian has the fundamental obligation to serve actively and authoritatively the Body of Christ for the common good.

This means that in principle every Christian is empowered to lead worship, preach, teach, baptize. celebrate Communion,  hear confession and proclaim absolution, give pastoral care, and the like.  Indeed, in cases of need any Christian can and should confidently take on and fulfill any/all of these ministry roles on behalf of the Body of Christ.  Let us consider a case scenario: a plane crashes on a remote, uninhabited tropical island, with seven survivors. Six of them are seriously disabled, while one  survives relatively unscathed — and she is trained medical nurse.  All seven of them are Christians from different denominations.  Now what “pastoral” functions could this able-bodied nurse properly perform within that body of seven?  Biblically speaking, she should be able to perform any and all of these pastoral roles – Word and Sacrament worship leader, confessor, biblical discussion leader – on behalf of and for the sake of the other survivors.

 

DIVERSE SPIRITUAL GIFTS FOR THE COMMON GOOD

For practical purposes, the specific functions of servant leader ministry are fulfilled according to the gifts and calling of God to particular persons, and the election by the congregation of such persons to leadership roles for the common good.  The definite emphasis in the Christian discussion of public ministry is upon function rather than status or “office.”  It is not by accident that the Augsburg Confession describes the “office of preaching” or “ministry” in the church in Article 5, right after Article 4 dealing with “justification.” God instituted the ministry specifically to function in the role of providing the means for “obtaining” faith in our justification by grace alone as a gift. Lutherans in the Reformation movement opposed the Roman Catholic view of the office of ministry, according to which every priest bears an “indelible mark” imposed on the individual through the sacrament of ordination.  According to Luther and the Reformers, the public ministry of the priesthood is not conferred by some “indelible mark” imposed on the individual by the sacrament of ordination, empowering them uniquely to sacrifice Christ in the Mass, but rather is a calling by and from the ranks of the universal priesthood to certain individuals to function in the priestly or pastoral role, acknowledging their giftedness from God for such service (Lutheran Cyclopedia, ed. Lueker, 765; Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Lutheran Confessions, ed. Kolb & Wengert, 220).

St Paul in his letters names different gifts for ministry among God’s people,  in the context of his discussion of the one Body of Christ, and explains that all the members, according to their gifts for the common good, should serve for building up the body for the work of the Gospel.  In 1 Corinthians 12:4-11 Paul mentions various gifts of the Spirit for the common good, including having a  wisdom message (perhaps referring to preaching), having a knowledge message (perhaps referring to teaching), having the gift of faith, of healing, miraculous powers, prophecy, distinguishing between spirits, speaking in tongues, and interpreting tongues.  Just after this in 1 Corinthians 12:27 and following, Paul lists various ministries including apostles, prophets, teachers, miracle workers, healers, helpers, administrators, and tongues speakers. The letter to the Ephesians, 4:11, again provides a list of various ministries given to God’s people as gifts: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors (poimenes) and teachers – “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

PRESBYTER AND DEACON OFFICES/ROLES

At the beginning of the letter to the Philippian Christians, 1:1, Paul addresses his letter to the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, and specifically to the “presbyters” and “deacons” of that congregation. One does not need a “position” or “office” to practice his/her gift for the building up of the body; one already has the fundamental position of Christian priesthood. Thus a preacher or teacher does not need to be in the servant leader role of presbyter or deacon. However, members of the body may be selected for presbyter or deacon positions because in part they have these gifts from God which are necessary for the life and mission of god’s people.  They are elected by the universal priesthood, in the form of the local congregation, and are “ordained,” that is, have hands laid upon them, blessed for their servant leader role. (Acts 6)

In practice, according to spirit-given gifts, some members of the body have certain character qualities and gifts that commend them for the two biblically identified servant leader roles within the body.  These two roles, presbyter and deacon, are the only “public ministry” roles identified as leadership roles within the early Christian congregations.  They are to be respected, but only because of their functions as servant leaders, not because of any given status or “office.”

The position of presbyter is mentioned specifically by Paul in 1 Timothy 5;17 as one of “ruler,” and thus worthy of proper respect and honor among God’s people.  Such respect and honor likely also applies to the other formal position of deacon, since Paul in 1 Timothy 3 treats both offices similarly, including in their qualifications the gift of good management.

PRESBYTER (bishop, overseer, elder) According to 1 Timothy 3, the qualifications for the presbyter have to do mostly with a good character and reputation within the larger public setting. He must be: a moral example, the husband of  only one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, not a drunkard, not violent, not quarrelsome, not greedy,  respected by his children, not a recent convert, and possessor of a good reputation with those outside the Christian congregation.  Paul also mentions a number of gifts associated with the work of a presbyter:  an apt teacher, having pastoral gentleness, hospitable, and a capable manager.

1 Timothy 5:17 specifically mentions that presbyters are involved in preaching and teaching. Paul tells Timothy to concentrate on reading Scripture publicly, preaching and teaching, in 1 Timothy 4:13.  These are the gifts that Paul says were prophesied over Timothy.  Timothy was apparently functioning in the presbyterial role.  Titus 1:7 following also addresses the position of presbyter, mentioning many of the same qualities as 1 Timothy; in Titus 1:9 he specifically states that the presbyter must have a firm grasp of the word for teaching and preaching.

DEACON (servant, minister) Paul describes the position or role of deacon similarly in many ways to that of presbyter. Acts 6:5-6 is generally interpreted as the election and ordination of the first deacons in the Christian church. While Acts 6:2-4 indicates that these first deacons (all with Greek, that is, Gentile names) were to take over from the apostles practical service such as “waiting on tables” (likely intended figuratively) so that they could focus on “prayer and the ministry of the word,” the qualities and spiritual gifts mentioned below suggest that deacons were also often involved in preaching and teaching and leadership in the congregations.

First Timothy 3 lists the qualifications for deacon for the most part as similar to the list for presbyter, dealing with good character and reputation. He should be worthy of respect, sincere, not  a drunkard, not pursuing dishonest gain, has a clear conscience, must be tested  and be shown without reproach before actually entering diaconal service. He should be serious, temperate, not a gossiper, the husband of one wife, and a good manager of his children and household.  Paul notes that those deacons who have served well receive an excellent standing in the community and great assurance in their faith in Christ. First Timothy 3:11 mentions the qualifications for “women,” which in context may well mean “women deacons,” since in Romans 16:1, Paul refers to Phoebe as a “deacon” in the Church of Cenchrea. Such a female deacon should have qualities similar to those of male deacons. This brief mention of the “women” could also refer to the wives of the deacons.

Paul also mentions spiritual gifts associated with the work of a deacon in 1 Timothy 3:8: solid in the truths of the faith (likely for preaching and teaching), a good manager (for congregational leadership), and a temperate pastoral style (for pastoral care). The deacon position, while similar in some ways to that of a presbyter, has more of a local or assisting character in the ruling/managing leadership role within the congregation. Nonetheless, the deacon role stands with the presbyter as a role of servant leadership in the body of Christ, the Christian congregation. It apparently often included worship leading, preaching, teaching, congregational management, and pastoral care for the saints, as well as other practical tasks within the congregation.

As was mentioned earlier, Jesus (Matthew 20:25-28) described leadership in the Christian community as servanthood, contrary to the world’s view of leaders as controllers and dominators, lording over those in their charge.  Jesus says that the greatest leader in God’s terms is the greatest servant of all. Thus Jesus radically equalizes all ministry roles in the church. Paul reflects this understanding of leadership ministry in his references within his letters to other Christian leaders as “fellow servants” with him. He also lists, as noted above, the various gifts for service among the saints, with no hierarchical implications. He only at certain points prioritizes in terms of those gifts that are more or less helpful for building up the body of Christ; by his reckoning, speaking in tongues is a less useful gift than preaching or teaching in words that all can understand. (1 Corinthians 14:1 and following).

WORSHIP IMPLICATIONS

As one who is already authorized and empowered as a member of the universal priesthood, and duly called/trained/recognized by the universal priesthood to serve in a leadership role among the saints, a deacon may well provide Word and sacrament worship leadership in local congregations. As noted above, Lutherans do not consider ordination into or other official recognition of this servant leadership role of deacon to be itself some kind of “magic” bestowing on that person the power to “change” the elements of the Eucharist into the body and blood of Christ. Rather, being properly called to serve on behalf of the body, the deacon in worship may consecrate the elements as part of his worship leadership in the service of Holy Communion, just as he may pronounce absolution and proclaim the Gospel in the service of the Word.

The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod arrangements relative to licensed deacons even “covers” them by placing them in a supervisory relationship with a presbyter/pastor, likewise a called leader serving on behalf of the universal priesthood. This supervising presbyter is recognized as encouraging, advising and monitoring the work of the deacon.  This not only assures at the formal level “good order” in the Church, but also practically provides ongoing collegial support for the deacon. Again, given the fundamental authorization and even “ordination” of every Christian through the laying on of hands in baptism into the universal priesthood, this arrangement does not somehow “legitimize” the call and service of the deacon. Rather, this supervisory relationship provides meaningful and functional “good order” in the life of the Church today, reflecting the apparent understanding and utilization of the presbyter/deacon structure of congregational leadership in the earliest Church.

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, the role or “office” of the diaconate comes from the earliest layers of Christian church organization, as reflected in the letters of the New Testament. It was a ministry of servant leadership within the early Christian community, growing out of the fundamental understanding of the priesthood of all believers as established by Jesus and continued in the early Church. It therefore participates in the radical equality of all Christian servant ministries within the body of Christ. The diaconate quite evidently often included preaching, teaching, congregational leadership, and other works of practical service among the saints. It therefore fairly lays claim to proper honor, respect, and support as a public ministry in the Church alongside the pastoral/presbyterial office.

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