In recent centuries, the diaconate has only enjoyed a symbolical or transitional role in the church. Parish clergy are ordained to the priesthood after serving only briefly as deacons. It is as if they are expected to “move on!” or “move up!” The diaconate has been reduced to little more than a preparation or stepping-stone for the priesthood or episcopate. The latter two stages are often considered more significant for the ordained ministry, whereas the diaconate resembles a kind of sub-priesthood, rarely perceived as a lifelong or permanent office.
But this was not always the case—together with bishop and presbyters, deacons were regarded by Ignatius of Antioch toward the end of the first century as an essential part of the structure of the church, which realizes its unity—most completely and comprehensively—when the community is “with the bishop and the presbyters and the deacons who are with the bishop . . . Without these,” St. Ignatius adds, “[the community] cannot be called a church” (Letter to the Trallians).
St. John Chrysostom reminds us of how the early church perceived deacons when he remarks, “even bishops are called deacons” (Homilies on Philippians 1). Indeed, in the time of the apostles, there is no implication or indication that deacons were a condition or requirement for elevation to priesthood. This is why it is my conviction that there can be no clear understanding of the priesthood—or even of the episcopate—unless we first properly apprehend and appreciate the diaconate in and of itself. So in the early seventh century, Isidore of Seville would boldly state that without the ministry of deacons, the priest has the name but not the office—the priest consecrates, prays, and sanctifies; but the deacon dispenses, recites, and shares (De Ecclesciasticis Officiis).
A fuller vision of the ordained ministry should recognize the role of the bishop as the bond of unity and spokesman for doctrine; likewise, it should respect the role of the presbyter for celebrating the presence of Christ in the local community. Yet it should also realize the role of the deacon as servant in completing and complementing this circle of unity and community in the local church. Service by deacons goes beyond liturgics and reaches the community with gifts such as administration, education, pastoral and spiritual counseling, and youth work. And, in my opinion, these roles may just as easily be fulfilled by men and women alike.
Our theology of the priesthood—presently viewed as a pyramid with the episcopate at the top—should be turned upside-down, beginning not from the top down, but springing from the elementary and essential notion of diakonia, reflecting the one who “came not to be served, but to serve and give his life” (Mark 10.45), without whose service and sacrifice none of the priestly orders make any sense whatsoever. Any revolution in our appreciation and application of the priesthood, in all its breadth and diversity, will ultimately come from the bottom upward, from the grass roots. It is there that our faithful know what matters and what works in the church; it is also there that our faithful perceive the broader dimensions and implications of pastoral ministry. This is why it is crucial for a revitalization of the diaconate to occur, both for a reorientation of our ordained ministry as well as for a reinvigoration of our pastoral ministry.
Now, along with maintaining a sense of symmetry within the priesthood, the diaconate also maintains a balance of power in the church. And here, I believe, is where the heart of the problem lies. For the church fiercely resists any challenge to its current institutional authority. We must learn to pursue an attitude of humility and not of power, to practice ecclesial forms impregnated by simplicity and not ceremony, to retain a vision of transforming the church as an organization of hierarchy into a community of service without nostalgia for the past but with openness toward the kingdom.
Without deacons, a parish becomes progressively insular rather than catholic, increasingly parochial rather than global. Deacons ensure the universal dimension of the church. In many ways, deacons are the missing link in preserving the fullness of church doctrine or, at the very least, in preventing a form of “monophysitism” in the institutional church. You see, the church preaches a God perceived as Trinity and a church conceived as conciliarity and community.
If we properly understand the diaconate, then we will also better understand the other orders of the priesthood. We will understand why and how women can quite naturally—by which I mean traditionally, rather than exceptionally—participate in the diaconate without triggering fears of ordination to the presbyterate or foregoing theological discussion about the male priesthood. Candid conversation about the priesthood can only enrich our appreciation of both the ordained ministry and the royal priesthood. And “if this idea or exercise is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, no one will be able to overthrow it” (Acts 5.38-39).
In this way, the diaconate will be expanded and enhanced to reflect a modern ministerial expression, even while being rooted in the historical apostolic experience. After all, beyond administration and authority in the church, there is service and . . . serving. Beyond observing liturgy and sacraments, there is attending to people as the living altar on the body of Christ. Perhaps deacons will gradually awaken other, fresh ministries, not restricted to traditional roles and expectations. A creative revival of the diaconate for men and women in our age can become the source of resurrection for the ordained ministry as a whole, thereby playing a crucial role in the broader mission of the church. In this respect, the restoration of the diaconate may well prove both timely and vital.
Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis is a deacon of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
This essay is part of a series on the diaconate in the Orthodox Church derived from talks delivered at the St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess “Renewing the Male and Female Diaconate in the Orthodox Church Conference” in Irvine, California in October 2017.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.