Our blessed Lord enumerated among the evidences of his divine mission, the interesting and instructive fact, that "the poor have the Gospel preached unto them." There is much in the promises which it discloses, and the hopes which it inspires, to claim the attention of those upon whom the blight of poverty has fallen. It is not surprising, therefore, that a large proportion of the early converts to the Christian faith, were drawn from the humbler walks of life. In consequence of such an accession to the community of the disciples, a new sphere of labor was demanded; since, in addition to the care of their souls, some consideration was due to their physical necessities. To have left them to endure the pressure of poverty, without any attempt, on the part of their brethren, to lessen its burden, would have been a reproach to the benevolent spirit of the new religion. Hence provision was made for their relief and support.
Whilst the number of the disciples in Jerusalem was small, the apostles could perform all the duties which the care of the Churches imposed on them. But when, in consequence of the rapid progress of the Gospel, the Church was greatly enlarged, a division of labor became necessary; and they requested the brethren to select suitable persons to attend to the disbursement of their charities. The reason assigned by them for instituting this new office was, "It is not reason that we should leave the word of God [the preaching of the Gospel] and serve tables."154 A separation was thus effected between the spiritual and the temporal affairs of the church; and the supervision of the latter was entrusted to a body of officers denominated deacons.
This term, which is now appropriated exclusively to a particular officer of the Church, means a minister or servant; and was, originally, applied to servants of all classes, whether their department were temporal or spiritual. But as each of the other classes of servants was distinguished by some more specific appellation, the term deacon was afterwards employed to designate a particular officer of the Church, to whom the charge of its temporalities was committed. Hence it is the appropriate business of the deacons, to serve tables. The distribution of the bread and and wine at the Lord?s Supper, in which they are now employed, is a mere matter of custom or convenience, and forms no part of the original design of the office.
The nature of the deaconship is thus defined, by the history of the origin of the office. The official duties of the deacons, are the opposite of those which are assigned to ministers; and the very object contemplated in the institution of the order, was to relieve preachers of the Gospel from the management of secular interests, by placing them under the direction of others. If, therefore, the deacon is also a preacher, as some contend, the matter rests precisely where it did before his appointment; and those who give themselves "to prayer and to the ministry of the word," are employed in serving tables contrary to the "reason" and practice of the apostles. It is, indeed, objected that Philip, "one of the seven," did preach and baptize; but this does not affect the argument; for as a deacon, he had no right to do either. The only legitimate inference from the facts of the case is, that he preached as a minister of the word, after he had ceased to be a deacon, and had been ordained an evangelist.155 The two offices are incompatible. He could not have filled both at the same time."156
As the deaconship was not designed to meet a temporary exigency, but is suited to a state of affairs which must subsist as long as there is a Church upon the earth, it is a permanent institution. The reason of the office remaining unchanged, the office itself must be equally immutable. Every Church must have a place of worship, a pastor to be supported, and poor members who need assistance. It is the duty of every Church to contribute to the spread of the gospel, at home and abroad. For all these purposes, money is needed; and it is the duty of the deacons to collect and disburse it. In many churches, the deacons neglect altogether the appropriate duties of their station, and satisfy their consciences with the discharge of an extra-official matter with which they have no special concern; the distribution of the elements at the Lord?s Supper?as if the solemn ordination of men of rare qualifications, by the imposition of hands, contemplated no higher object than the handing round of bread and wine; a service which any member of the Church is competent to perform. This lamentable defection from the order established by the apostles has rendered the office of deacon, in many of our Churches, a mere nullity, if not a grievous incumbrance.
In the primitive Churches, the peculiarities of Eastern manners and customs157 rendered necessary the employment of females in services similar to those of the deacons. These were styled deaconesses. They were aged women, usually widows. To these females reference is made in 1 Tim. 5: 9, 10. "Let not a widow be taken into the number (that is of deaconesses) under three score years old," &c. Their qualifications are specified by the apostle in connection with those of deacons. 1 Tim. 3: 11, "Even so must their wives be grave," &c. The Greek term which our translators have rendered "wives," is supposed by the best interpreters to refer to deaconesses, and should have been rendered "the females."158 The expression cannot refer to the wives of deacons or of ministers, because they do not stand in any official relation to the Church.159
In occidental countries where no such restriction is imposed upon the intercourse of the sexes, this class of servants is unnecessary. Hence it has fallen into desuetude. "Morinus offers several reasons for the abrogating of this office in Syria, which were briefly, that the services of the women became less important after the cessation of the agapae of the primitive Church,?that the care of the sick and the poor, which had devolved upon the Church was in the time of Constantine assumed by the State,?that after the introduction of infant baptism, their attendance at this ordinance became of less importance?and finally, that they, in their turn, became troublesome aspirants after the prerogatives of office; in a word, the order was abolished because it was no longer neccessary."160 These helps were needed only for a time. The circumstances which required them have passed away; and as they sustained no official relation to the Church and were not embraced in its regular and permanent organization, no such class exists at the present day.161
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