Deacon, a direct derivative of the New Testament Greek word diakonos meaning minister or servant, used in Philippians 1:1, and 1 Timothy 3:8-13, where Paul states the qualifications for the office. Although Acts 6:2-5 does not use the title of deacon, it marks the beginning of the office of deacon in the early church. In later church history and modern Protestantism, particularly in the Anglican and other hierarchical churches, the office often became merely the lowest order of the clergy, whereas in the Anabaptist-Mennonite groups of both Swiss and Dutch origin the office was primarily one of caring for the poor and needy of the congregation and had to do largely with the material side. Hence the titles have been Armendiener or (Dutch) Armendienaer (minister to the poor), and Almosenpfleger (keeper of the alms). In Reformation times, however, both Lutheran and Reformed movements established the office of deacon as that of minister to the poor, the needy, and often the sick as well.
The early Anabaptist-Mennonite movement universally established the office of deacon as an important ordained office and thus created a threefold ministerial order; namely, bishop or elder, preacher or minister, and deacon. This threefold ministry has been maintained by all the groups in Europe except in Holland and Northwest Germany, as well as by the more conservative groups in America, particularly the Mennonite Church (MC) (until the 1960s or so), the Amish groups of all kinds, the conservative groups of Russian extraction, and the German-speaking groups of the General Conference. In the General Conference (GCM) English-speaking churches, the Mennonite Brethren of both English and German language usage, and the smaller groups such as Evangelical Mennonites, Evangelical Mennonite Brethren, and Krimmer Mennonite Brethren, the pattern of the one-pastor, one-order ministry has gradually been established. In Northwest Germany (Hamburg, Krefeld, Emden, etc.) the one-order ministry has long been established, and the deacon office dropped; but here in compensation the unordained office of Vorsteher (chairman of the congregation) has become very important.
The Concept of Cologne (1591) states: "According to the example of the apostolic congregations, deacons are also to be chosen, to whom the care of the needy is entrusted. They are to distribute the gifts donated for those in need in such a manner that the distributions also remain confidential, according to the teachings of Christ " Other Anabaptist-Mennonite confessions always mention and emphasize the office of deacon, down to modern times. For instance, the West Prussian Confession of 1895 says: "We also hold fast to the Apostolic arrangement according to which, along side of elders and preachers, deacons or alms-keepers (Almosenpfleger) are maintained in the church, who support the peer through the alms which are given by generous hearts, supply the wants of needy members, practice mercy with gladness, and otherwise lend a helping hand in the church in order that it may be well administered." The catechism (Lehrbüchlein, 1878) of the Badischer Verband makes similar statements about the deacon office and adds that he is to support the elders and preachers in their work and to share with them in the discipline (Zucht and Ordnung) of the church.
In the Netherlands the development of the deacon's office was as follows: The Waterlanders decided in 1568 (DB 1877, 71) that the preachers (vermaner) should also take care of the poor, but the deacons, if they should have the gift of speaking, should also preach, while the preachers should be chosen from among the deacons. Thus by 1568 the threefold ministry no longer existed in its strictest sense among the Waterlanders. In the 17th century it was not maintained by any of the Dutch Mennonites, except among the most conservative Jan Jacobs group and the Groningen and Danzig Old Flemish, among whom it lasted until the middle of the 18th century. In both Lamist and Zonist congregations all members of the church board were called deacons (diaken), and the care of the poor has generally been a matter to be discussed and resolved by the entire church board, except in a few larger congregations like Haarlem and Amsterdam. By the 1950s in only a limited number of congregations were the deacon's funds separately administered; in most congregations there was only one treasury, from which all expenses of the church, such as the minister's salary, repair of the meetinghouse, etc., were paid, as well as the payments to the poor.
Conservative North American Mennonite groups officially maintain the office of deacon, though not every congregation actually has a deacon. Most acculturated Mennonite groups by 2000 no longer used the term, though the functions may be assigned to an office within the congregation.
Earlier all deacons were ordained, and served for life, the number of deacons varying with the size of the congregation. By the 1950s, particularly in the General Conference (GCM) congregations, deacons were elected for short terms, and not ordained, and several (often three) served together. The Central Conference (formerly Central Illinois), which merged with the General Conference in 1949, always had only elected deacons, usually three in number.
The work of the deacon was much the same in all groups and includes (1) service to the poor and needy members, including usually the administration of the poor fund or alms monies; (2) assisting the bishop or pastor in the administration of the ordinances of baptism and communion (the deacon usually provided the bread and wine or grape juice), as well as providing the arrangements for feet-washing, if practiced; (3) assisting the bishop or pastor in visiting the sick and erring members, as well as helping to overcome or arbitrate difficulties between members, serving on the ministerial council of the congregation in matters of church activities and discipline; (4) reading the opening Scripture lesson and offering the opening prayer at the regular worship services, as may be directed by the minister in charge, and having charge of the entire service in the absence of the minister. Among the Old Order Amish as well as certain other groups of Amish background the deacon may preach on invitation, and frequently does, but in most groups he is not allowed to preach. In the eastern conferences of the Mennonite (MC) Church, the deacon was often a very influential and weighty official, where it was commonly held that the bishop and deacon would take care of church discipline, while the preachers only preached. In some congregations the deacon maintained the church membership record. In many groups the office of deacon has been in transition, and frequently no longer exists under that term.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, p. 21-22. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Neff, Christian and Harold S. Bender. "Deacon." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1955. Web. 19 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/D34.html.
APA style: Neff, Christian and Harold S. Bender. (1955). Deacon. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 19 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/D34.html.