As Holy Week looms large on the horizon, I’m thinking out loud a question I have thought to myself for years:
Were the Apostles really the first Deacons in the Church? Did the Apostles institute the Diaconate, or did Jesus at the Last Supper?
I believe that a scriptural case may be made for the Apostles being the first deacons. To begin, we all know that the Last Supper was the moment where Jesus instituted His Priesthood, conforming His apostles to himself as Priest when He commanded them:
“Whenever you do this, do this in remembrance of me.”
In that moment, with that command, Jesus conformed His Apostles to Himself as Priest. The Church teaches that at the moment of ordination to the priesthood, the very nature of the man is changed forever. A priest is a priest forever.
The Church also teaches that when a man is ordained to the diaconate he undergoes a change in his very nature, that he is a deacon forever. He is conformed to Christ the Servant, and theirs is a ministry of service. (It is important to note that every priest remains a deacon, forever.)
We are also taught, in Acts, that the Apostles selected and ordained the first deacons, conforming them to Christ the Servant:
1 About this time, when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenists made a complaint against the Hebrews: in the daily distribution their own widows were being overlooked.
2 So the Twelve called a full meeting of the disciples and addressed them, ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the word of God so as to give out food;
3 you, brothers, must select from among yourselves seven men of good reputation, filled with the Spirit and with wisdom, to whom we can hand over this duty.
4 We ourselves will continue to devote ourselves to prayer and to the service of the word.’
5 The whole assembly approved of this proposal and elected Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus of Antioch, a convert to Judaism.
6 They presented these to the apostles, and after prayer they laid their hands on them.
A proper understanding of this passage in Acts requires a return to the Last Supper in John 13:
Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father. He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end. The devil had already induced Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, to hand him over. So, during supper, fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God,he rose from supper and took off his outer garments. He took a towel and tied it around his waist.
Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel around his waist. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Master, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus answered and said to him, “What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later.”
Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.”
Simon Peter said to him, “Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.”
Jesus said to him, “Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed, for he is clean all over; so you are clean, but not all.”
For he knew who would betray him; for this reason, he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
So when he had washed their feet (and) put his garments back on and reclined at table again, he said to them,
“Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. Amen, amen, I say to you, no slave is greater than his master nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you understand this, blessed are you if you do it.”
“If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
With those words, Jesus conformed His apostles to Himself as servants, and this before He instituted the Eucharist. Going ahead to the dilemma of the Apostles in Acts, we see them exercising their ministry of service until the growth of the Church placed too many demands on them. When they laid hands on the seven they were transmitting what had been given to them at the Last Supper, namely, the ministry of service.
The Apostles realized that the ministry of service was suffering because of the constraints of time upon them, and so it was that they safeguarded the integrity of this ministry that Jesus conferred on them by ordaining men to that ministry alone while the Apostles pursued the ministry of the Word.
But note: The ministry of service was the province of the Apostles, and they created deacons in response to that ministry suffering for want of time.
As I read the Last Supper narratives, there were two ordinations:
Jesus conforming the Apostles to Himself as servants.
Jesus conforming the Apostles to Himself as priests.
The institution of the priesthood tends to overshadow the institution of the diaconate for many obvious reasons, but this has serious ramifications for those in Holy Orders in the Twenty-first Century.
The Apostles functioned as both deacons and priests until the demands of leadership forced the issue. However, many of the problems stemming from priestly clericalism, even the clericalism itself often arises when a priest forgets that he is also a deacon forever, that he was first conformed to Christ the Servant before he was conformed to Christ the Priest. It is even worse in priests who disparage the Permanent Diaconate, but that is a topic for another day.
Every priest, every bishop today is also a deacon. So, too, does it appear from John and Luke (Acts), were the Apostles.