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The Role of the Deacons in the Church

Theology and Pastoral Practice

Maxim Vasiljevic
Bishop of Los Angles and the Western Diocese

A presentation delivered during the "Diaconate Ministry Formation" course hosted by the Western American Diocese in Los Angeles on March 26, 2024.

“Therefore, brothers, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of Wisdom...” Acts 6:3

Introduction

Welcome to our presentation on the diaconate in the Church: a journey through history, spirituality, and theology. This paper delves into the profound significance of the Church as manifested and understood through the Eucharist—the ultimate expression of the Church's incorporation in Christ across space and time.

Central to our exploration is the unity achieved in the Eucharist, a unity embodied by the bishop's role in persona Christi, who, as the Eucharistic president, is instrumental in constituting the Church's mystery. Through ordination, the bishop distributes the charisms necessary for various Church ministries, among which the ministry of the deacon stands as foundational.

From the earliest days of the Church, as emphasized by St. Ignatius of Antioch toward the end of the first century, the deacon, alongside the bishop and presbyters, has been vital to the Church's structure.

St. Ignatius eloquently articulated the inseparability of these roles from the Church's identity, asserting that a community lacks the essence of Church without the presence of these ordained ministers.

The Church realizes its unity when the community is "with the bishop and the presbyters and the deacons who are with the bishop"; "without these," he writes, "[the community] cannot be called a Church" (To the Trallians 3.1). The deacon's role—closely linked to Christ Himself—is a testament to the belief that all ministries reflect aspects of Christ's service.

Despite its pivotal role, the diaconate has experienced a diminishing of its original stature over the centuries, often being seen merely as a forerunner to the priesthood. However, the fundamental ecclesiastical structure, especially within the Orthodox Church, has remained consistent, emphasizing a community centered around the bishop, supported by presbyters and deacons, and crucially involving the laity.

Our course aims to reacquaint you with the diaconate's indispensable role through a historical, spiritual, and theological lens.

We will mention the early Christian and apostolic periods; then Byzantine times and the present, rediscovering the diaconate's significance and exploring its current challenges and spiritual dimensions.

Despite the wealth of scholarship on the episcopate and presbyterate, the diaconate has been somewhat overlooked. This course fills that gap, offering an examination of the diaconate's evolution, purpose, and continuing importance in the life of the Church today.

So, join us as we uncover the rich canvas of the diaconate's role in the Church's history and its profound implications for contemporary Christian practice and theology.

Christological approach

As we delve into the question of the Church's ministry and the ordination to this sacred service, it is imperative that our exploration begins from a Christological standpoint. This is not merely coincidental; the New Testament is replete with instances where ministerial titles, familiar to the early Church, are directly attributed to Christ Himself.

He is referred to as the Apostle in Hebrews 3:1, the Prophet in Matthew 23:8 and John 18:13, the Priest as seen in Hebrews 5:6, 8:4, 10:21, and 2:17, the Bishop (ἐπίσκοπος) in 1 Peter 2:25, 5:4, and Hebrews 13:13, the Deacon in Romans 15:8 and Luke 22:27, with a reference in Philippians 2:7, amongst others. This attribution underscores the pre-eminence of Christ in everything, as stated in Colossians 1:18.

Furthermore, according to the ancient model practiced by the early Church, the role of deacons was pivotal. They served as a critical liaison or link between the bishop and the people. Their ministry involved bringing the gifts of the people to the bishop and then returning these offerings back to the congregation in the form of the Eucharist.

This symbiotic relationship between the different ministries within the Church highlights the integral role each plays in mirroring the multifaceted ministry of Christ Himself.

Deacons in the καθολικὴ ἐκκλησία

Let's dive into how St. Ignatius of Antioch took a page from Paul's playbook (Pauline ecclesiology) and cranked the volume on linking the Church and the Eucharist.

For Ignatius, this wasn't just about any church gathering around bread and wine; it was about transforming it into the capital-C Church, the whole, united Body of Christ. The Eucharist not only transforms the local catholic community into the Church but also constitutes it as the catholic Church (καθολικὴ ἐκκλησία), representing the complete and unified Body of Christ. Imagine a community coming together, led by the bishop, with the support crew of presbyters and deacons, all in the mix with the congregation. That's what Ignatius called the "catholic Church," where you find the full presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Back in the day, Ignatius was adamant that you couldn't even call it a Church if you didn't have these key players: the bishop, the deacons, and the presbyters. He was basically saying, "No bishop, no deacons, no presbyters? Then, it's not really the Church."

And about the deacons? — Those guys were crucial. They were the go-betweens for the bishop and the people, making sure everything in the community ran smoothly, especially during prayers and communion.

But fast forward to today, and it feels like deacons are more about the ceremony than about being essential to the Eucharist. It's like their once-crucial role has faded into the background. So, the big question Ignatius might throw our way is: "Do we still need deacons for the Eucharist?"  It's a tough one, especially since many might say, "Well, not really."

Yet, back in Ignatius' time, without deacons, you were missing a vital link in the chain connecting the bishop to the people. But, what about the presbyters?

Unus presbyterus nullus presbyterus

Once upon a time, being a presbyter was a team sport; they worked together, especially when it came to the Eucharist. But then, things got a bit solo. Gradually, one presbyter could handle the whole Eucharist gig, stepping into shoes that were once filled by a bishop. However, in the Ignatian scheme: it's like that old saying, "one presbyter alone is practically no presbyter at all." (unus presbyterus nullus presbyterus).

Basically, when the presbyter started doing the bishop's job, it blurred the lines and the special role of presbyters kind of got lost in the mix. The bottom line? The whole setup of the local Church got a bit wobbly.

Here's the thing: bishops, presbyters, deacons, and laypeople—they've all got their own parts to play. The Church isn't a one-man band; it's more like a symphony, with each part essential to the harmony. Even something as simple as the layman's "Amen" has its own place that can't just be filled by anyone else. Each role is unique, and it's all about working together, each contributing their part to the Church's big picture.

Let's get back to the core essence of being a deacon: being the ultimate connector!

Ultimate connectors

Think of deacons as the ultimate connectors, bridging the gap between the bishop and the congregation. As we said, they're not just passing along messages; they're transferring the community's prayers and offerings to God and then bringing back God's gifts to the people through the Eucharist. This role keeps the Church from splitting into two separate groups, clergy and laypeople, blending them into a dynamic, unified community. It's a bit like they're the Church's heartbeat, ensuring everything keeps flowing smoothly between the divine and the everyday.

Deacons are a bit of a theological puzzle. They're ordained, sure, but they don't lead or offer the Eucharist. They hover somewhere between clergy and laypeople, acting as a crucial intermediary. This has been the case since the early Church days, with St. Ignatius of Antioch insisting that a true Church must have bishops, presbyters, deacons, and the people; take one out, and the structure crumbles.

In the Orthodox tradition, where the Eucharist is seen as an icon into the Kingdom of God, these four groups depend on each other. No one group can claim full authority without the others, reinforcing the idea that the Church is a community at its core. The role of the deacon, along with presbyters and bishops, originated from the Eucharistic assembly, making them permanent fixtures in the Church's structure. These roles aren't just about hierarchy; they're about facilitating a connection with the divine, with each ordination happening within the Eucharist itself. This isn't just a custom; it's a profound statement that the Eucharist is the wellspring of the Church's life and structure.

Ordination of deacons

Ordinations to the diaconate sometimes happen during the Liturgy of the Presanctified. This tradition started because the deacon is ordained shortly before Holy Communion in a full Liturgy, and since the Presanctified Liturgy is about receiving Communion, it seemed fitting to include the ordination during this service.

However, this overlooks the deeper significance of ordination within the Eucharist, which symbolizes the Kingdom's image, evident in early Church practices.

Unlike other ordinations that occur outside the Eucharist, at the end of matins, usually (people are “set apart” for all the other orders—subdeacon, reader, etc.), deacon ordinations have always been seen as part of ministries reflecting and constructing the eschatological community.

In some traditions, where the bishop represents the Father deacons symbolize Jesus as the Servant of God or the ministering angels, depending on how the bishop is represented. “Where the bishop represents Christ who occupies the Throne of God, the deacons represent the “ministering spirits sent forth to serve” (Heb. 1:14), the angels, as Byzantine tradition and iconography perceived and described the deacons.

If ordination were simply understood, as outlined in our Dogmatics, as the conveyance of charisma from the bishop to the ordinand through apostolic succession, then, as Metropolitan John of Pergamon once said, the bishop would be able to perform ordinations in his office, at home, or any other location, given that he inherently carries the charisma of apostolic succession everywhere.

Deeper symbolism

Adding to the intricate tapestry of Church functions is the pivotal role of the bishop, who acts as a vital bridge connecting the local with the universal Church.

The bishop is a unique figure within our local community, distinct from presbyters, deacons, and laypeople, not just by the scope of their responsibilities but by the nature of their ordination.

Unlike other roles that are typically ordained by a single bishop, the bishop themselves is ordained by multiple bishops, emphasizing a ministry that extends far beyond the confines of the local community. “In fact, it is the bishop that makes each local Church catholic. And this applies also to the Eucharist.”

Let's dive into the heart of the Liturgy, where the Divine Eucharist isn't just an item but a dynamic action—think of it as the ultimate spiritual event. This isn't just about allegory; it's about being part of a living, moving picture that represents something much bigger. From the early Church thinkers like St. Maximus to Nicholas Cabasilas, the Divine Eucharist is seen as a gathering, a liturgy, where everything and everyone symbolizes something from the Kingdom of God.

Imagine the church as a mini-kingdom, with Christ the King at the center, the bishop as Christ's stand-in, priests as the Apostles, deacons as angels— who, as “ministering spirits sent forth to serve” (Heb. 1:14), move between the people and the clergy—and the congregation bringing gifts symbolizing the unity and offering of God's people.

This iconic symbolism isn't just for show; it represents the journey of salvation across time. The bishop's entrance isn't just an entrance; it symbolizes Christ coming into the world, His first and second coming, welcomed by all as we would welcome Christ Himself. Every part of the Liturgy, from the readings to the peace kiss, mirrors the future Kingdom, our eternal gratitude, and the unity of souls in heaven.

Over time, interpretations evolved, with some focusing more on Christ's life on earth and others on the ultimate salvation story. But the essence remains: the Liturgy is a living image of the Kingdom to come, shaped significantly by Ignatius of Antioch. He taught that true spiritual life comes from being part of this eucharistic community, led by the bishop, with every faithful soul intertwined in this divine gathering. So, what does this mean for us today? It challenges us to see beyond the rituals to the profound communal and spiritual journey they represent, connecting us directly to the early Church and the eternal Kingdom of God.

Angelic ministry

Let's bridge the gap between deacons and angels for a moment. Picture angels as these incredible, celestial beings whose main gig is to constantly shower God with praises, belting out "Holy, holy, holy Lord of hosts" and living to glorify Him. That's their eternal mission, and it's pretty awe-inspiring. Now, these heavenly ministers don't just hang out in the divine realm; they're believed to join us right here during the most sacred moments of worship, like the Divine Eucharist or Liturgy.

Think it sounds a bit out there? Well, it's actually deeply rooted in our traditions. Just take a glance at Byzantine art, where deacons are often depicted with a hint of the angelic about them. That's because, in the grand scheme of things, deacons play a similar role to angels, serving the bishop and priests, acting as earthly echoes of these heavenly ministers.

So, when we gather for the Liturgy, it's not just us in the room; it's believed that angels are right there with us, participating in this slice of eternity. It's like our worship here mirrors the grand, cosmic Liturgy that's always unfolding around God's throne. In this way, deacons, with their liturgical duties, link us directly to the angels, making them our partners in praising the divine. It's a beautiful thought—our very own liturgical spirits, bridging heaven and earth.

Conclusion

In this presentation we have tried to illuminate the profound significance of the diaconate in the Church’s theology and pastoral practice. From its origins in the early Church to its evolving role in contemporary worship, the deacon’s ministry remains essential for maintaining the Church’s unity and sacramental life. Through theological exploration and historical analysis, we tried to reaffirm the integral nature of ordained ministries within the ecclesiastical structure. The role of the deacon as a bridge between clergy and laity, mirroring Christ's servanthood, has been underscored throughout our discussion. As we navigate the complexities of modern worship, it is imperative to recognize and uphold the vital contributions of deacons to the Church's spiritual vitality and communal cohesion. Ultimately, the diaconate stands as a timeless symbol of Christ's selfless love and servant leadership, guiding the faithful in their journey towards unity with God and one another.


SA

 

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Bogdan Denitch

Bogdan Denitch (born August 9, 1929) is an American sociologist of Yugoslav origin who is an emeritus professor at the City University of New York (CUNY). He is a leading authority on the political sociology of the former Yugoslavia. Active in democratic left politics, Denitch is an honorary chairman of the Democratic Socialists of America, and has served as its representative to the Socialist International. From 1983 through 2004 he organized the annual Socialist Scholars Conference in New York. Since the 1990s he has been an advocate for human rights and an opponent of nationalism in the former Yugoslavia.

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Савремени еклисиолошки подсетник о Дијаспори

Историја и анализа тзв. „Америчког раскола“ (1963-1992) и предлози за његово превазилажење

Епископ Атанасије (Јевтић)

У издању Севастијан преса из Лос Анђелеса и Братства Св. Симона Мироточивог из Врњачке Бање, недавно је изашла нова књига Атанасија (Јевтића), умировљеног Владике херцеговачког, Савремени еклисиолошки подсетник о Дијаспори - Историја и анализа тзв. „Америчког раскола“ (1963-1992) и предлози за његово превазилажење.

Текст ове књиге је написан сада већ далеке 1990.године, и до данас био необјављен будући да је само за Синодске Оце Архијереје био намењен ради превазилажења тзв. „Америчког раскола“. Данас, када је тај српски раскол литургијски и административно превазиђен, сасвим је разумљиво и пожељно било да се овај текст предочи јавности.

На молбу Светог Архијерејског Синода, ондашњи јеромонах Атанасије је сва питања везана за болни раскол у српској дијаспори ставио под светлост православне Еклисиологије и Предања, што је био једини начин за њихово суочавање како би се дошло што ближе до зацељивања раскола. Читалац ће приметити како је он савесно и непристрасно проанализирао цело питање раскола и дао целисходне икономијске предлоге за његово решење. Ова књига је резултат његовог савесног христољубивог и црквољубивог рада.

Конкретан резултат Атанасијевог еклисиолошког предлога била је обнова евхаристијског општења и помирења које је постигнуто на празник Сретења Господњег, 15. фебруара 1992. године у Саборној Цркви у Београду, када су Српски Патријарх Павле и чланови Светог Архијерејског Сабора служили са Митрополитом Иринејем (Ковачевићем), дотадашњим епископом у расколу. Коначно, 21. маја 2009. године, Свети Архијерејски Сабор је донео одлуку и о коначном административном јединству Српске Цркве у Северној и Јужној Америци.

Истовремено, ова књига осветљава битно питање Дијаспоре. Дијаспора је пред Православну Цркву поставила два битна проблема: питање провере исправности нашег схватања Цркве, оног које се у последњим вековима код многих од нас усталило, и питање мисије Цркве у свету.

Књига је изашла са благословом Епископа новограчаничког и средњезападноамеричког Лонгина и Епископа западноамеричког Максима.

Књигу можете наручити по цени од $15 код:
Western American Diocese
1621 West Garvey Avenue Alhambra CA, 91803
847 571-3600, 626 289 9061, 626 284 1484 (fax), Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Visit our online store at http://westsrbdio.org/en/sebastian-press/sebastian-press-publications


Contemporary Ecclesiological Reminderon the Diaspora:
History and analysis of so called “American schism” (1963-1992) and recommendations for its overcoming

by Bishop Athanasius (Yevtich)

Recently, a new book by Athanasius (Yevtich), retired Bishop of Herzegovina, was published in Serbian by Sebastian Press of Los Angeles in cooperation with St. Simeon the Myrrh-streaming of Vrnjacka Banja.

This book was written in a now already distant year of 1990. This is its first publishing since the original intent was to have it available only for the hierarchs of the Holy Synod for the purpose of overcoming the so-called “American schism” within the Serbian diaspora. Presently, as the Serbian schism has been liturgically and administratively vanquished, it is understandable and desirable to have this valuable research available to the public.

At the request of the Holy Synod, back then hieromonk Atanasije acceded to collect all relevant documents in reference to painful schism in Serbian Diaspora, placing them in the light of Orthodox Ecclesiology and Holy Tradition, which was the only way to face it properly and bring it closer to healing.The readers will notice how Bishop Atanasije analyzed responsibly, and impartially the whole question of schism, and at the same time provided comprehensive, integral and thorough ecclesial economy, recomendations for solutions.This book is the result of his Christ-loving and Church-loving labor.

A tangible result of Atanasije's ecclesiological recommendation was the Eucharistic renewal, communion, and reconciliation which was established on the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple, February 15, 1992. At the Cathedral in Belgrade, His Holiness Patriarch Paul and hierarchs of the Holy Episcopal Assembly celebrated for the first time together since the schism, with Metropolitan Iriney (Kovacevic), up until then, schismatic bishop in Diaspora.Finally, on May 21, 2009, the Holy Assembly made a decission about conclusive administrative unity of the Serbian Orthodox Church in North and South America.

In the same time this book reveals crucial question regarding Diaspora, because ecclesial organization of the Orthodox Church abroad presents itself with at least two problems: a) a check-up of our interpretation and comprehension of the Church, especifically of the last couple of centuries existing convictions, and b) a question of the Church mission in the World.

This book is published with the blessings of His Grace, Bishop Longin of New Gracanica - Midwestern America, and His Grace, Bishop Maxim of Western American Diocese, of the Serbian Orthodox Church for North and South America.

Price $15

Call us today with your order!
Western American Diocese
1621West Garvey Avenue Alhambra CA, 91803
847 571-3600, 626 289 9061, 626 284 1484 (fax), Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Visit our online store at http://westsrbdio.org/en/sebastian-press/sebastian-press-publications