The third and lowest rank in the threefold hierarchy of orders in the Coptic church, being subordinate to the presbyter and the bishop.
The term deacon, derived from the Greek diakonos, meaning “servant,” signified one who performed menial tasks such as waiting at table. It occurs in the New Testament with wider and more comprehensive connotation, including daily ministration to the needy, the service of the Word, as well as serving at table (Acts 6:1, 2, 4). In Saint Paul’s epistles, its usage covers both temporal and spiritual services.
At the beginning of the apostolic age, the apostles realized that the nascent Christian church needed their full attention. So they chose seven men of good reputation and filled with the Spirit to minister at tables, attend to the poor, and distribute alms to widows. These seven were Stephen, who was “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit,” Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus of Antioch (Acts 6:5, 6). Thus the diaconate came into being as a recognized office in the church, to fulfill a secondary, albeit essential, task in the religious life of the community.
The apostles prayed and laid their hands upon them. Soon, some of these seven deacons distinguished themselves in the spiritual sphere. With remarkable evangelistic enthusiasm, Stephen used to reason with others in a spirit of inspired wisdom, performed great miracles, and was eventually destined to be the first Christian martyr (Acts 6 and 7). Philip was active in preaching the Word, proclaiming the Messiah, effecting cures, and accomplishing miracles among the people who listened eagerly to his preaching (Acts 8).
The First Epistle to Timothy (3:8-10) lists the qualities to be expected in candidates for the diaconate. To be admitted, they must be men of high principles, above reproach, not given to hypocrisy or double-talk, not indulging in excessive drinking or amassing of riches. Above all, they must command a firm hold on the basic truths of the Christian faith.
It is noteworthy that these qualities are almost identical with the prerequisites for the episcopate, a fact that reflects the high regard in which the diaconate was held. No less than bishops, deacons must be subjected to a close scrutiny as to their character, and if found faultless, they may be allowed to serve.
Similar to priests, deacons receive their ordination by the imposition of hands from a bishop. According to the Apostolic Canons, “Let a presbyter, deacon, and the rest of the clergy be ordained by one bishop” (Apostolical Canons 2, 1956, p. 594). Likewise, the Apostolic Constitutions stipulate, “Thou shalt ordain a deacon, O bishop, by laying thy hands upon him in the presence of the whole presbytery, and of the deacons, and shalt pray . . .” (Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 8, 1956, p. 492).
The minimum age of a deacon at ordination should be twenty- five years (Canons of the Council of Trullo, 1956, p. 372). Like the presbyter, a deacon is subject, after ordination, to the same rules regarding marriage, according to which digamy is denied to both.
Deacons are, first and foremost, subordinate assistants to priests and bishops, and are not entitled to perform any of the sacramental services that are the prerogatives of the presbytery and the episcopate. They perform essential duties both inside the sanctuary and outside it during the church services:
As to the deacons . . . let some of them attend upon the oblation of the Eucharist, ministering to the Lord’s body with fear. Let others of them watch the multitude, and keep them silent. But let that deacon who is at the high priest’s hand say to the people, let no one have any quarrel against another; let no one come in hypocrisy . . . . Let the deacon pray for the whole church, for the whole world, and for the several parts of it, and the fruits of it, for the priests and the rulers, for the high priest and the king, and the peace of the universe . . . [The Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 7.57, 1951, pp. 421, 422].
Besides making responses to the officiating priest, the main duties of the deacon serving at the altar include the preparation and arrangement of the altar’s vessels and utensils, bringing water for the hands of the celebrant and for washing the chalice, paten, spoon, and asterisk (see EUCHARISTIC VESSELS) after administering Holy Communion, looking after the censer, and using a fan (see LITURGICAL INSTRUMENTS) when necessary to drive insects away from the oblations.
Outside the sanctuary a deacon leads the congregation’s responses during the liturgy. The various lections of the day are read by deacons, unless a priest chooses to read the Gospel. A deacon may also deliver the sermon, if he is particularly endowed with the gift of preaching, subject to permission from the priest or bishop.
A deacon may also be entrusted with the general discipline of the congregation and maintaining order during the service. “Let the deacon be the disposer of the places, that everyone of those that comes in may go to his proper place, and may not sit at the entrance. In like manner, let the deacon oversee the people, that nobody may whisper, nor slumber, nor laugh, nor nod; for all ought in the church to stand wisely, and soberly, and attentively, having their attention fixed upon the word of the Lord” (Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 7.57, 1951, p. 421).
In earlier centuries, the number of deacons was restricted to seven even in the largest metropolis, apparently to conform with the precept set by the apostles: “The deacons ought to be seven in number, according to the canon, even if the city be great. Of this you will be persuaded from the book of the Acts” (Canons of the Holy and Blessed Fathers 15, 1956, p. 86). Together with this limitation in number, they were entrusted with certain administrative and pastoral tasks, such as assisting the bishop and priests during the sessions of ecclesiastical courts, distribution of the funds belonging to widows and orphans, and visiting the sick and those in prison.
It seems, however, that at times some deacons misunderstood these responsibilities and arrogated to themselves powers and authorities beyond what they were entitled to. To stop such irregularities the first ecumenical Council of NICAEA (325) defined their privileges and obligations as follows:
It has come to the knowledge of the holy and great Synod that, in some districts and cities, the deacons administer the Eucharist to the presbyters, whereas neither canon nor custom permits that they who have no right to offer should give the Body of Christ to them that do offer. And this also has been made known, that certain deacons now touch the Eucharist even before the bishops. Let all such practices be utterly done away, and let the deacons remain within their own bounds, knowing that they are the ministers of the bishop and the inferiors of the presbyters. Let them receive the Eucharist according to their order, after the presbyters, and let either the bishop or the presbyter administer to them. Furthermore, let not the deacons sit among the presbyters, for that is contrary to canon and order [The Canons of the Holy Fathers 18, 1956, p. 38].
Deacons who prove genuinely dedicated to the ecclesiastical service may be ordained priests, subject to the general approval of the church congregation.
- Habib Jirjis. Asrar al-Kanisah al-Sab‘ah, 2nd ed., p. 220. Cairo, 1950.
- Ibn al-‘Assal, al-Safi. Kitab al-Qawanin, pp. 63-65. Repr. Cairo, 1927.
- Mikha’il Mina. ‘Ilm Al-Lahut, pp. 543-45. Cairo, 1936.
- William Sulayman Qiladah. Kitab al-Disquliyah, Ta‘alim al-Rusul, pp. 178, 204-205, 836. Cairo, 1979.