Jeannine Olson has written1 of the history of deacons in general terms as (a) first a body through whom charity and benevolence were dispensed, (b) then a body that became increasingly associated with church office and, in the Catholic church, a body that became a stepping stone to the priesthood, and (c) a body that, in the Reformation, returned in various ways to its original mission of caring for the needy. This, of course, is a major oversimplification of a two millennia history, but, pertaining to deacon involvement in benevolence ministries, it is not far off. Olson summarizes:
Deacons evolved considerably since New Testament times, a time when they were key figures in charitable work. They began in the first century with little, if any, obvious place in the liturgy and a large role in providing for the poor. Gradually, as assistants to the bishops, deacons and the widows assumed some importance in the liturgy alongside their role in social welfare . . . Deacons retained a role in social welfare and property management at least into the fourth and fifth centuries . . .
By the fifteenth century, deacons had moved into a role that was almost exclusively liturgical. The diaconate prepared men for the priesthood. For most clergymen, it was an apprenticeship through which one passed on the way to higher office.
The reformers of the sixteenth century would find the diaconate ripe for reform on the model of the early church.
Olson then offers some very interesting examples of how deacons were reformed back to serving “The Table of the Poor” in the years of Reformation. For instance:
In the church order for Braunschweig (1528), Bugenhagen’s first and an example for the rest, there were at least two differences from the church order in Wittenberg: (1) The people who were doing the work of deacons were called deacons; and (2) there were two common chests recommended for large parishes rather than one. The first chest was the poor chest for the those in need; a second chest, the church chest, provided for church supplies and repairs; the salaries of preachers, sacristans, and organists; and housing for preachers and schoolmasters. Deacons chosen by the council and members of the commune were in charge of the chests. There were to be three deacons for the poor chest and four for the church chest. Both sets of deacons had similar responsibilities for money, record keeping, and accountability to an “Honorable Council” and the “Ten Men.” The sets of deacons differed because the four deacons of the church chest had “authority from the commune in company with the council to appoint a preacher.” The deacons of the church chest also were referred to as treasurers and overseers. One of the deacons of the church chest had to be a member of the council.
Deacons of the poor chest were to meet once a week to deliberate, determine who could be on the poor rolls, and distribute aid. The poor chest was to be funded from bequests, freewill offerings put in the chest (located in the church), offerings previously made for the dead or at weddings, fees for ringing the bells when someone died (above what was owed to the sexton), collections taken by the deacons after the sermon in bags to which a bell was attached, and whatever else people could devise to fund the chest. If the deacons ran short, they were to alert the preacher, who was to appeal to the people. There was to be a reserve for emergencies, such as an outbreak of the plague or a need to buy grain.
If you read this carefully you might note an early move toward what Baptists called “The Three Tables” in the Reformers’ “two chests.”
- “the poor chest”: The Table of the Poor
- “the church chest”: The Table of the Lord and The Table of the Pastor
The roots of The Three Tables go deep and are grounded not only in the New Testament but also in the Reformation reclaiming of this ministry.
1 Jeannine Olson, Deacons and Deaconesses Through the Centuries, Kindle Locations 1988–2001, 2796–2809.