How has the church ordered its diaconal ministry in different ways at different times and places?
As the church began to form in new testament times the work of diaconal ministry was done by many within the church, and there was not a specific set of ministers set aside to do this work within church hierarchy (there was very little hierarchy). There were however specific communities that did set aside specific individuals to do specific ministries that were diaconal in nature. This community-based example did give some history to the orders of deacons that developed in the early church. There seemed to be no distinction regarding men and women serving as deacons in the church during the time of the apostles.
The three-fold ministry of bishop, presbyter, and deacon developed as early as the 100s, and although the office continued to evolve there is evidence that deacons duties included: liturgical responsibilities, assistance to the Bishop, service to the poor, and administrative oversight. In regards to this three-fold ministry Ignatius wrote that the Bishops are like the God the Father, the Deacons function as Jesus himself, and the priests function like the apostles. The order of the deaconess also began to emerge in the early church as separate from that of the deacon because the role of women within the culture of the early Christian church dictated a different role for women. Deaconesses evolved from the orders of widows and virgins and were responsible for ministry to women.
At the time of the early church the Deacons had many important roles that varied over time and within communities. Deacons were the eucharistic ministers, including taking communion to shut-ins, and some preached and administered communion within worship services in church as well. Additionally most direct pastoral care was left to the Deacons, and they had so many responsibilities that they required sub-deacons. Their service to the poor included ministering to those that were about to be martyred.
Between 312 and 325 C.E. the role of deacons changes as Christianity moves from being a religion that is persecuted to one that is of political value. The diaconate becomes primarily traditional as a stepping stone to becoming a priest, and the order of deaconess disappears. However, the work of diaconal ministry is still being done, but it is done by those in monastic orders.
At the time of the reformation additional changes regarding the diaconate occur as many monasteries empty, and others must do this important work. Luther’s theology of the “priesthood of all believers” removes a strict hierarchical pattern and no higher or lower order of Christians exists. The implications of removing the hierarchy include developing a new understanding of religious vocation, emptying the monasteries and nunneries, and disrupting the organized form of charity. Luther did express a preference for deacons who provided service to the poor. For women at the time of the Reformation the only way to serve in a public role was to become a “Pastor’s wife” because there were no other option for public ministry. And while Luther raised up the role of family, this still left a gap of no place to serve for many women. The role of who did diaconal ministry varied throughout the various traditions that came out of the reformation, including many protestant roles for deacons. At this time in history the Roman Catholic tradition continued to view deacons as a stepping stone to the office of the priest. Because there was much service needed at this time organizations outside of the church also formed and started doing such ministry to the poor and marginalized.
The rebirth of the modern diaconate occurred in the 19th century in response to the growing needs of the changing European society. A modern deaconess movement evolved with an emphasis on teaching and nursing as those were great needs at the time, and the deaconesses underwent rigorous training, including an emphasis on spiritual formation, in order to do the work. Deacons as service ministers also came from answering the great need at the time including the “Bruderhause” movement started by Johannes Wichern (1833) as the brothers in the house that sheltered, educated and cared for boys in need, were eventually called Deacons.
Meanwhile in the United States there were different needs due to the unsettled circumstance in the 18th century, and two main types of deacons emerged. There were deacons that had primarily administrative duties and there were deacons that were part of a graded ministry and were ordained as clerical deacons. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries the modern diaconate slowly emerged in America as well as each ethnic group formed their own diaconal ministries beginning, in most cases, with mother houses and deaconess communities.
There are many legacies of these early communities in America including the creation of institutions of service, such as hospital, and of service agencies. Specifically the ELCA Deaconess community is a direct descendant of the historical diaconate in America, and the ELCA Diaconal Ministry roster is an indirect result of this history. Historically the modern rosters are united with their predecessors by their ministries of Word and Service.
Note — a few quick links on the History of the Diaconate:
The Deaconness: A History
From Word and Sacrament
**Disclaimer? — please remember that I am sharing these as first response answers to questions to my Diaconal Ministry Formation Event and not as polished, researched essays. Although I welcome responses, please do keep this in mind when you respond (as well as the fact that my current schedule limits how often I can reply to comments) **