- The office of deacon is common to most churches, tracing back to the early church at Jerusalem. Acts 6:1-6 describes their role as providing for the widows and managing the communal meals, freeing the elders for their ministerial duties - prayer, teaching, preaching.Deacons over the ages were usually seen as practical assistants to the priests in the sacraments, especially baptism and the Eucharist. It evolved into an order of the ordained ministry, used primarily as a step toward becoming a priest. Within the Catholic Church, the office of permanent lay deacon was reestablished during Vatican II (1962-65). Catholic lay deacons may marry.The office of deacon was accepted by Protestants. Among Anglicans (and later Methodists) the role remained close to the Roman tradition.Deacons are primarily ordained as a step toward a second ordination as priest (Anglican) or elder (Methodist). In each case, the deacon receives his/her orders from the bishop by the laying on of hands.John Calvin included the office of deacon when he reappraised church order. In the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition, deacons serve alongside the elders. Their duties include (but are not limited to) helping members in need, distributing gifts of money, food, clothing, and so forth, and training members in stewardship. Deacons operate primarily at the local church level.Within the Lutheran Church, deacons are primarily members of a congregation who assist the pastor(s) to lead worship. They may also extend their duties to assist in matters of instruction, finance, visitation, and support for members and others with any physical or emotional distress.The Free Church tradition radically reassessed the office of deacon. In the Anabaptist tradition, the deacon operates primarily in the local church. Duties include receiving church alms for distribution to the needy; helping any estranged members to return to full fellowship; and assisting ministers in administering the ordinances. If no minister is present for a worship service, it may fall upon the deacon to preach.Baptists put particular emphasis on the office of deacon. At first, deacons' primary function was to oversee the benevolent activity (charity) in the local congregation. As the Baptist movement spread in the 18th century, they assumed additional duties as local church administrators. In the 19th century, when pastoral leadership was often uncertain and sporadic, deacons (organized into a board) won a considerable amount of power in running a local congregation. The churches of the Restoration movement (Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ) follow a very similar pattern.In late 19th-century Protestantism, the issue of women's ministry began to effect the concept of deacon. As far back as 1745, the MoravianChurch had instituted a deaconess order. In 1836, Pastor Theodor Fliedner (1800-64) of Kaiserswerth, Germany, founded a hospital and deaconess training center, which became the Rhenish-Westphalian Deaconess Society. Fliedner was joined by a nurse, Gertrude Reichardt. From their efforts, the modern deaconess movement in the Lutheran and Methodist churches emerged.In the 1990s, the United Methodist Church moved to establish the ministry of nonordained deacons (full-time salaried lay ministers) as an important part of church life.Further reading:■ James D. Bales, The Deacon and His Work. (Shreveport, La.: Lambert, 1967)■ Gunnel Borgegârd, and Christine Hall, eds, The Ministry of the Deacon, 2 vols., Anglican-Lutheran Perspectives (uppsala, sweden: Nordic Ecumenical Council 1999, 2000)■ John N. Collins, Diakonia. Reinterpreting the Ancient Sources (New York: Oxford University Press 1990)■ Charles W. Deweese, The Emerging Role of Deacons (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1979)■ Ben L. Hartley and Paul E. Van Buren, The Deacon. Ministry Through Words of Faith and Acts of Love (Nashville, Tenn.: General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, United Methodists, 1999).
Encyclopedia of Protestantism. Gordon Melton. 2005.