By John Angell James, 1822
The institution of the deacon's office arose from a seemingly accidental circumstance which occurred in the church at Jerusalem, the particulars of which are recorded in the 6th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles.* The original design of this office, was to administer the bounty of the church. The first deacons were simply the almoners of their brethren. They dispensed the charities of the rich, for the relief of the poor. And this, whatever has been added by the usages of the churches, must still be considered as its paramount duty. What a lovely and attractive view does it give us of Christianity, and how strikingly characteristic of its merciful nature, to behold it solemnly instituting an office, the chief design of which is, the comfort of its poorer followers! Where shall we find anything analogous to this in other systems? Paganism and Mohammadanism have nothing like it.
* Some people are of opinion that this occurrence was not the origin of the deacon's office, and that the individuals there mentioned, are to be viewed, not as officers of the church—but merely as stewards of a public charity, who were appointed for a special occasion, and not as a general and authoritative precedent. It is said, in support of this opinion, that these individuals are not called deacons by the sacred historian, and that, in consequence, they cannot be proved to have been such. It is also contended, that Paul does not specify, in his epistle to Timothy, the duties of a deacon in such a way as to identify the office with what Luke, in the 6th of Acts, has stated to be the duties of the individuals there selected for the primitive church.
In reply to this, I contend that this was the origin of the deacon's office, and on the following grounds—
1st. Church history informs us, that the office was always considered, from the very earliest ages, as designed for the relief of the poor. If so, how natural is it to trace up its origin to the circumstance alluded to, which so easily accounts for it.
2nd. The solemnity with which the seven people were set apart to their office, that is, with prayer and imposition of hands, looks as if their appointment was to be considered as a standing and authoritative precedent.
3rd. If this be not the origin of the deacon's office, where shall we find the account? and what is still stronger, if this be not the institution, Paul has given directions about an office, the duties of which are, in that case, not mentioned in the Word of God. He has certainly said nothing himself of its design—a circumstance which is strongly presumptive of the truth of my view of the case, since his silence seems to imply that the duties of the deacon were already too well known to need that be should specify them. His very omission is grounded on some previous institution. Where shall we find this—but in Acts 6?
4th. The reason of the appointment in question, is of permanent force, that is, that those who minister in the Word, should not have their attention diverted by temporal concerns; and, therefore, seems as if a permanent office was then established.
5th. I would ask any one who takes a different view from that which I hold, what are the duties of the deacons mentioned by Paul? If he reply, as I think he must, "To attend to the concerns of the poor," I would still inquire how he knows that. If he answers, The testimony of ecclesiastical history—I would still ask, On what is the immemorial usage of the church could be founded, if not on the fact mentioned by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles?
By a reference to the origin of the office, we shall learn how widely some religious communities have departed from the design of this simple, merciful, and useful institution. "Those who perverted all church orders," says Dr. Owen, "took out of the hands and care of the deacons, that work which was committed to them by the Holy Spirit in the apostles, and for which end alone their office was instituted in the church, and assigned other work unto them, whereunto they were not called and appointed. And whereas, when all things were swelling with pride and ambition in the church, no sort of its officers contenting themselves with their primitive institution—but striving by various degrees to be somewhat, in name and thing, that was high and aloft, there arose from the name of this office the meteor of an arch deacon, with strange power and authority never heard of in the church for many ages. But this belongs to the mystery of iniquity, whereunto neither the Scripture nor the practice of the primitive churches, do give the least countenance. But some think it not inconvenient to sport themselves in matters of church order and constitutions." (Owen on Church Government)
The church of England, which retains some of the corruptions of the church of Rome, has imitated her in the total alteration of this office. In that communion, the deacon is not a secular—but a spiritual officer, and his post is considered as the first grade in the ascent to the episcopal throne. He is a preacher, and may baptize—but not administer the eucharist. He is, in fact, half priest, half layman, and does not altogether put off the laic, nor put on the cleric character, until his second ordination to the full orders of the priesthood. The church-warden and the overseer share between them the office of the deacon.
Abuses of this office, however, are not confined to the churches of Rome and of England—but may be found in the ecclesiastical polity of those who separate from both. What is the deacon of some of our independent communities? Not simply the laborious, indefatigable, tender-hearted dispenser of the bounty of the church, the inspector of the poor, the comforter of the distressed; no—but "the bible of the minister, the patron of the and the wolf of the flock;" an individual, who, thrusting himself into the seat of government, attempts to lord it over God's heritage, by dictating alike to the pastor and the members; who thinks that, in virtue of his office, his opinion is to be law in all matters of church government, whether temporal or spiritual. This man is almost as distant from the deacon of apostolic times, as the deacon of the Vatican. Such men there have been, whose spirit of domination in the church has produced a kind of diaconophobia in the minds of many ministers.*
* The author writes from observation, not from experience; besides the eight deacons with whom he acts at present, he has already outlived eight more, and both the dead and the living have been his comfort and joy.
I do beseech those who bear this office to look to its origin, and learn that it is an office of service, which gives no authority, or power, or rule in the church, beyond the special work for which it is appointed, and that is, to provide for the comfort of the poorer brethren. This is their business. It is true, that by the usages of our churches, many things have been added to the duties of the office, beyond its original design—but this is mere matter of expediency.
It is often said that the duty of the office is to serve tables; the table of the Lord, the table of the minister, and the table of the poor. If it be meant that this was the design of its appointment, I deny the statement, and affirm that the table of the poor, is the deacon's appropriate and exclusive duty. Whatever is conjoined with this, is extra diaconal service, and vested in the individual, merely for the sake of utility. Such increase of their duties, I admit, is wise and proper. We need people to take care of the comfort of the minister—to provide for the holy feast of the Lord's supper—to direct the arrangements of all matters connected with public worship; and who so proper for this, as the brethren who already fill an office, of which temporalities are the object and design? But these are all additions to the paramount duty of the deacon, which is to take care of the poor.
Let it not be thought, that this is exhibiting the office in a naked, and meager, and degrading point of view; or as shorn of the beams of its brightest glory. What can be a more happy or more honorable employment, that to distribute the alms of the brethren, and visit the habitations of the poor, like angels of mercy, with words of peace upon their lips, and the means of comfort in their hands? A faithful, laborious, affectionate deacon, must necessarily become the object of justly deserved regard in the church, and be looked up to with the esteem and veneration, which are paid by a grateful dependent family to their father. The poor will tell him their wants and woes, spiritual and temporal; and ask his advice with implicit confidence. He will move through the orbit of his duty amid the prayers and praises of his brethren, and in measure may adopt the language of Job, "When the ear heard me, then it blessed me; and when the eye saw me, then it gave witness to me; because I delivered the poor who cried, and the fatherless, and him that had none to help him. The blessing of him that was ready to perish came upon me, and I caused the widow's heart to sing for joy. I was eyes to the blind, and feet was I to the lame. I was a father to the poor, and the cause which I knew not, I searched out."
Surely, surely, here is honor, much pure, legitimate, exalted honor. Such a man must be, and ought to be a person of influence in the society—but it is the influence of character, of goodness, of usefulness. Let him have his periodical visitations of the poor. Let him go and see their wants and woes in their own habitations, as well as bid them come and tell their sorrows in his. Let him be full of compassion and tender hearted; let his eyes drop pity, while his hands dispense bounty; let him be affable and kind as well as attentive. And such a man shall lack neither honor nor power among his brethren; although, at the same time, he is peaceful as a dove, meek as a lamb, and gentle as a little child.
The apostle is very explicit in his statement of the qualifications which the deacons should possess. "Likewise must the deacons be grave," that is, men of serious and dignified deportment; "not double tongued," that is, sincere, not addicted to duplicity of speech; "not given to much wine; not greedy of filthy lucre; holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience," that is, attached to the doctrines of the gospel, and exhibiting their holy influence in a spotless life; "and let them also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless. Let them be the husband of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well." 1 Tim. 3:8-13.*
*The allusion made to the deacons' wives, appears to me to be a mistranslation, and in the original refers to a class of female office bearers in the primitive church. "Even so the women." As the manners of the Greeks and Romans, and especially of the Asiatics, did not permit men to have much communion with women of character, unless they were relations, it was proper that an order of female assistants should be instituted for visiting and privately instructing the young of their own sex, and for catechizing females of any age. And as the church was then much persecuted, and many of its members were often condemned to languish in a prison, these holy women were, no doubt, peculiarly useful in visiting the captive Christians, and performing for them many kind offices which their sex can best render. Such a one, in all probability, was Phoebe, mentioned Rom. 16:1. Such were the widows spoken of 1 Tim. 5. Such were Euodia and Syntyche, Phil. 4:3. Clement of Alexandria reckons widows among ecclesiastical people. "There are many precepts in Scripture for those who are chosen, some for priests, others for bishops, others for deacons, others for widows." Pliny, in his celebrated Epistle to Trajan, is thought to refer to deaconesses, when, speaking of two female Christians whom he put to the torture, he says, "they were called deaconesses."
Deacons should remember, that all these qualifications should be found embodied, as much as possible, in each individual, holding the office; and not merely some in one and some in another, until the character is formed by the joint number—but not in each member of the deaconry. Some have contended for plurality of elders in a church, because it is impossible to find all the qualifications of a Christian elder stated by the apostle, in one person. We are to look for one excellence in one man, and another in the second, and what is lacking in one will be made up in another, until their defects and attainments are made to unite, like the corresponding parts of a dovetail joint. I confess, however, that this way of making church officers, as it were by patchwork, appears to me a most absurd idea.
The deacons, from their being officers in the church, although their office refers to temporalities, and also from their being generally acquainted with the affairs of the church, will be considered by every wise and prudent minister, as his privy council in his spiritual government, and should be always ready to afford him their advice in a respectful and unobtrusive manner. "Christian brethren," said a preacher on this subject, "give to the minister I love, for a deacon, a man in whose house he may sit down at ease, when he is weary and loaded with care; into whose bosom he may freely pour his sorrows, and by whose lips he may be soothed when he is vexed and perplexed; by whose illuminated mind he may be guided in difficulty; and by whose liberality and cordial cooperation, he may be animated and assisted in every generous undertaking." And I would add, who would do all this in the spirit of humble, modest, and unauthoritative affection.
In the transactions of church business, the deacons should exert no other influence than that which arises from the esteem and affection in which they are held by the people. All personal and official authority should be abstained from. Their opinion should ever be stated with pre-eminent modesty; for if it be a wise one, its wisdom will commend itself to the judgment of the people, whose hearts are already prepared by affection and esteem to yield to its influence. Whereas, the wisest opinion, if delivered dogmatically, will often be resisted, merely because it is attempted to be imposed.
If a man deserves influence, he will be sure to have it without seeking it, or designedly exerting it; if he does not deserve it, and still seeks it, he is sure to be resisted.
The deacon's duty to the people, is to promote, so far as he is able, the happiness of individuals, and the welfare of the church. In his communion with them, he should be firm and unbending in principle—but kind and conciliatory in temper and in manner. In those parts of his office, which are sometimes very irksome and arduous, from the difficulty of serving all according to their wishes, he should guard against everything which even appears to be harsh and unkind. More especially should he do this, when he finds it impossible, in consistency with his duty to others, to fulfill their desires. The apparently insignificant circumstance, which will often occur in our congregations, of being unable to accommodate an individual, or a family, with a seat, may be mentioned with so much kindness, and with such sincere regret that it is so, as to lead the individual, or the family, patiently to wait for a more favorable opportunity; or it may be done, although without design, in a tone of so much indifference, as to lead the disappointed applicant to relinquish the hope of success, and to leave the church. The secret charm by which the deacon's office may be rendered comfortable to himself, and beneficial to others, is that golden precept of inspiration, "Let everything be done with love!" Or, as Doddridge better translates the passage, "Let all your affairs be transacted in love!" 1 Cor. 16:14.