A deacon (Greek diakonos a servant who waits on the table of his master) is a member of the clerical order next below that of a priest in hierarchical Christian churches. In non-hierarchical churches, a deacon is a layman, one of a group (called the Board of Deacons) varying from one to five percent of the church membership, charged with the day-to-day management of the church and the occasional provision of church-member services.
In the early church
In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, "It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word." Acts 6:1-4 (NIV)
Thus originally, a deacon was not a preacher but rather was a minister charged with being a church social worker, a treasurer, and a business functionary. It is known that deacons were, in the first several centuries of Christian Church history, key advisors to the bishops. That role has now mainly passed to the priests.
Toward the end of his ministry and life, Saint Paul set forth specific qualifications for the office of deacon. These qualifications extended even to the sort of wife that a deacon ought to have, and a declaration that man and wife both ought to conduct themselves in a manner not deserving of reproach.
The Roman Catholic Church
During the reign of the Emperor Constantine, the Christian Church established itself legally. It had a hierarchy of clergy in some ways similar to that of the old polytheistic Roman state religion. All of the levels of ordained ministers that the various Christian churches of the time depended upon are, however, identified in the New Testament and were functioning long before the time of Constantine.
In the Western section of the Roman Empire, the Church developed a multitiered order of ministers, with the Pope (essentially a renamed Pontifex Maximus, hence the nickname "pontiff" often applied to the papal office), at its head. The Eastern Churches, now called Eastern Orthodox, did not accept the claims to universal jurisdiction made by the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. In 1054, the polarized views of East and West finally resulted in the a formal break between the two, a separation that exists until the present.
There were Archbishops (literally, "lead overseers"), who led the Church in the most important cities of the Empire, then ordinary bishops, then priests, and finally the lowest order, the deacons. From that day to now, in the Roman Catholic and certain other churches, a deacon is usually a seminary-trained individual and a type of apprentice to the pastor (called vicar or rector in the Church of England and other Anglican churches).
The Protestant churches
In the Reformed and Presbyterian churches—representing the second largest branch of the continental Reformation after the Lutherans—deacons were retained as ministers performing much the same role as in the more traditionally hierarchical churches. Reformed Theology holds that the ministry is not a singular office, but that there is a multiplicity of clergy. Teachers, Deacons, Trustees, and Pastors, are all ordained, although only the pastor is customarily addressed as "Reverend."
In contrast, the Anabaptist movement disdained the hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran churches, and the Anglican Church. In that movement, a deacon remained a lay social worker, treasurer, and eventually a building-and-grounds manager (not actually a sexton, who actually did the physical labor of building and groundskeeping, but perhaps one who hired the sexton and gave him his day-to-day orders and instructions). The modern Baptist Church retains none of the historic hierarchy, considering the pastor alone to be a clergyman.
These two different understandings of the office of deacon persist today. The Church of England retained most of the hierarchical system known to the Roman Catholic Church from which it had broken away. It did not, of course, retain the position of Pope or Cardinal (the bishops who elect the Pope in the Roman Catholic Church). If an Anglican deacon is expected to be in that position for only six months to a year prior to being ordained a priest, he is styled a "transitional" deacon. If that is not the church's expectation, he is termed a "perpetual" deacon.
Thus only the hierarchical churches continue to have the Apostolic position known as the "diaconate," i.e. the order of deacons. Yet all these churches recognize the need for the functions performed by deacons, whether the particular church body considers them to be ordained clergy or laymen.
Election and term of office
How deacons are nominated and elected, and for how long they serve, depends on the denomination and the individual congregation.
In the Anglican churches, these boards of control exist, though under a different name—the vestry. An individual belonging to the vestry is called a vestryman (or a vestry-woman). The vestry typically has a senior warden as its head and often a junior warden as deputy to the senior warden. They play a role, with the bishop of the diocese, in calling pastors and, if need be, deacons. Somewhat different terminology is used in the other hierarchical churches.
In the Baptist churches, a pastor or a committee of long-standing members answering to the pastor (or in some cases members of the congregation), will nominate deacons who shall take office upon confirmation by election of the membership. Depending on the congregation they may serve for a period of time then rotate off active duty, or may serve continuously until death, retirement/resignation, or are found to be disqualified from the office. They are considered laymen (though there is no prohibition against a minister holding the office). The more conservative Baptist churches/denominations hold to a strict interpretation of I Timothy 3 in terms of eligibility -- a deacon must be male and married/widowed (never married or divorced men are ineligible); more liberal ones allow women to be deaconesses (common among African-American denominations).
Church of Christ congregations operate similar to conservative Baptists in terms of eligibility: only married men are eligible (some even require the deacon to have children and that all the children must be active Christians). As the eligibility is similar to that for elders, it is common for a deacon to become an elder after a period of service.
Deacons in non-hierarchical churches perform the duties that vestrymen in the Anglican churches perform. They generally handle all the "business" functions of the church. These may include:
- The treasury.
- The roll of members.
- Building and grounds keeping.
- Member social services. This function might include disbursement of charitable funds to members having especially severe financial needs
- Pastoral and other staff salaries. (Deacons normally serve without salary.)
- Paying the equivalent of honoraria to guest speakers. The members usually fund such honoraria through "designated love offerings."
- Direct support of missionaries, in addition to such support as an individual member might provide.
- Capital improvements, including the construction or expansion of a building or buildings.
- Educational functions. These include adult and children's education on Sundays ("Sunday school") in matters of faith and might include keeping a day school for the children of members or other residents in the community.
- Pastoral vacancies. Whenever the office of pastor falls vacant, the Board of Deacons is primarily responsible for filling that vacancy. It may do so directly, by advertising the vacant position and inviting interested applicants for interviews, or it may seat a special search committee to which this responsibility is given. In either case, the deacons in those churches have the sole power of "impeachment" (and removal) of a pastor.
In the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, and Reformed churches, where the deacon is ordained and therefore is not a layman, the function of deacons has become mainly liturgical, i.e. helping to conduct public worship services and the administration of the sacraments. Deacons in these churches do, however, continue to help and counsel the parish's poor and sick, as in antiquity.