“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many of of myself as well.” The Letter of Paul to the Romans, 16:1-2
According to scripture and Christian tradition, Phoebe may have been a widow and heard the apostle Paul preach at Cenchrae, a town near Corinth. It is significant that Paul states in his letter to the church at Rome that Phoebe is a deacon – in Greek, diakonos, or servant. Some scholars of church history and scripture dismiss the idea that Phoebe was a deacon, or leader in the church at Cenchrae and hold the theory that she was a servant and hence the use of the word ‘diakonos.’ But would Paul use a term so lightly? We would hope not. Phoebe may have been a widow, who after hearing Paul, joined the Jesus movement and used her money and goods to help the church, no doubt opening her home to believers. She is a model for servant ministry; one who serves but is not servile.
The diaconate is an ordained order in the Christian Church; the first, actually. In the Acts of the Apostles, the author in Chapter 7 chronicles the selection of seven men to ‘wait on widows’ so that the apostles could spend more time proselytizing. To wait on widows meant to take care of them by seeing that they were housed, fed and clothed. It became the calling of deacons to minister to the poor, the sick, the friendless, widows and orphans. That is the distinct call of the ministry to this day. Deacons also teach and preach – in fact two of the early deacons, Stephen, the protomartyr, and Laurence, were executed for their firery and passionate defense of the church. Deacons had key roles in the earliest liturgies of the church, and it is still the deacon’s perogative to proclaim (read) the Gospel, invite or bid the prayers of the people, prepare the table for the agape, the communion, administer either a chalice of wine or paten (plate) of bread to communicants during the communion, and dismiss the congregation, sending them forth in peace to love and serve the Lord.
The diaconate is not merely a ‘holding position’ for those seeking holy orders and ordination to the priesthood, and it is unfortunately that the six month diaconate (in most cases) is still observed for candidates to the priesthood. Such a practice demeans both the priesthood and the diaconate, two fully, separate, and distinct orders, because it is seen by some as a stepping stown or an internship.
Deacons are seen as messengers much in the way the archangels were deployed by God: they bring the needs and concerns of the world into the church and bring the Good News, the Gospel, out to the world. It is with a prophetic voice that the deacon proclaims Christ’s words and deeds and strives to live by that example – as we all are invited to do.
You will find us in hospitals, homeless shelters, schools, and in corporate America – yes, most deacons are not salaried and we work in the greater world to earn our bread and board. And wherever you find us know that that is where we are called to be.
Pax et bonum!
Icon written by Ms. Suzanne Schleck and used with permission from the author.
Please visit http://www.johnwalstedicons.com to view more of Ms. Schleck’s ministry.