Wednesday 25 June 2014

The Diaconate in the Orthodox Church - Part 1

It might be tempting to begin a study of the diaconate with the canons of the councils and Fathers, or the history of the development of its various ranks. But this would seem to me to be a great mistake. Before considering the duties and categories of the diaconate it is surely necessary to consider the character and substance required in those called to such ministry. We must ask what sort of person a deacon, both male and female, should be, before we ask what they should do.

The basis of the Christian diaconate is to be found in the Gospels, in the life and teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ, and in that life by the Holy Spirit which he calls all to participate in. There is a great danger in focusing on those things which we expect deacons of various ranks to do, rather than on that life which all deacons, and indeed all Christians, are called to live out. To have the rank and name of deacon, but to fail to live out that servant life in the Holy Spirit which is the very meaning of the diaconate is an hypocrisy indeed. This becomes possible when we begin and end our view of the deacon as merely having a list of technical duties at the altar, rather than as being a witness to the Christian life of self-sacrifice and service.

The word deacon is of Greek origin and not being part of our ordinary vocabulary in English it has tended to take on always the character of a rank or order in the Church, rather obscuring the meaning which the word is used to convey. This underlying meaning comes out especially when we find it used by our Lord Jesus Christ of Himself.

As a first example, in the Gospel of St Matthew 20:25-28, it is written,

But Jesus called them unto him, and said, You know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.

We see here that our Lord Jesus Christ describes how in the pagan world around them there was an exercise of domination, one person over the other. To be great in this pagan world it was necessary to have authority over others. But what does our Lord say it should be like among his own followers? He says clearly - it shall not be so among you. In the community of Christ there is not to be this competing of jurisdiction and power, and to be great in the community of Christ is not made manifest in power at all.

Who will be great in the Christian community? Not one who exercises power, but the one who ministers. That word minister in the King James Version is a translation or diakonos or servant. The one who is to be considered important is the one who is a servant. Here in this passage we are not to think of the rank of deacon at all, rather our thoughts should be filled with the understanding that it is service of others which counts.

Indeed even more than that, our Lord Jesus Christ says that whoever wants to be considered the chief, or the first, must become the slave of all. There is no mention here of ordination to a rank, but of behaviour and attitude. If we wish to be considered to have begun to succeed in the Christian life then we must be and become the servant and slave of all. We must do the work and live the life of a servant and slave, having no thought to ourselves but only having in mind the service of others.

This word is not spoken to those who are becoming members of the various ranks of our developed diaconate, but to us all, to all those who consider themselves to be part of the community of Christ. Nor should we consider this some special ministry which only a few might be called to. It is the very life of Christ Himself, and if we say that we are united to Him then we must surely participate in the same life which He lived and now gives us.

It is said by our Lord Jesus Christ of Himself that He came not to be ministered unto but to minister. These words are various forms of that Greek word diakoneo. What is our Lord saying? He is instructing us, if we belong to Him, that the Christian life is not one of having others deacon or serve us, but of each one of us deaconing or serving others. There are no vestments or titles in this manner of life to which we are all called. It is the humble and silent ministry of the servant, or even of the slave of all.

Our Lord has become a deacon, a servant, or each one of us. And this is the basis of the deaconate in the Church. It is not a matter of authority or dominion. It is a matter of self-sacrifice to all others. Nor is it limited in this most important sense to any category of persons in the Church.

It is the Lord Himself who calls us all, men and women, old and young, to this servant lifestyle. It is not glamorous, it is the ministry of a slave. There is no other service that is not hypocrisy and pride if we have not learned to share in this ministry of Christ Himself. It requires no title. It requires no authority. It requires only the heart of a servant, the heart of a slave of all, the heart of Christ Himself, the gift and life of the Holy Spirit, who Himself became the servant of all.

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