Q: Is the office of deacon recognized within the Lutheran church? Is the lay minister equated with such an office?
A: Deacons are recognized and hold office within parts of the Lutheran Church. However, Lutherans don’t have a standardized formal training program or set of qualifications that are the same everywhere. Within the LCMS, we have a special training and certification process for deaconesses. However, there is no directly corresponding office for men.
Some equate lay ministers with deacons but I think the term “lay minister” is self-contradictory. If you are a “layman,” you hold no formal ministerial office. If you receive a divine call as minister of the Gospel, receive the laying on of hands, and enter the pastoral office, you are no longer part of the laity. Lay ministers cannot be both; many would argue that the office is neither “lay” nor “ministerial.” Some in the Lutheran Church are encouraging a new study on what the deacons are according to Scripture. They want a Bible-based, apostolically-rooted office that doesn’t work parallel to or instead of the Office of the Holy Ministry. Rather, they want deacons to assist pastors hand-in-hand.
If we wish to follow the apostolic, early Church model from Acts, we might have a different type of congregational governance. Deacons would be chosen from among the learned and godly men of the congregation or the Church at large and placed in permanent helping offices. They would take care of the physical and fiscal needs of congregations and their members. They would aid pastor in tending to the flocks’ spiritual well-being. They might also receive training in other areas, such as the public reading of Scripture, teaching, or assisting in leading worship. This seems to me to be in line with what the apostles established in the Jerusalem Church and how events played out.
The main duties of the first deacons revolved around works of charity in the church, freeing the apostles and subsequent pastors so that their preaching, teaching, praying, and administering the Sacraments could continue without interruption. Acts 6:2-4 says, “The twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’”
I am firmly convinced that the best continuation of the office of deacon would follow the pattern established by the Church in her earliest days. Some congregations seem to be in agreement and have reverted to the pattern set in Acts. Often these deacons are robed and vested when assisting ministers in corporate worship, usually borrowing the vestments common in bodies having an organized deaconate. This may include wearing a diagonal stole and, at times, a dalmatic or tunicle instead of the draped yoke-type stole and chasuble common to many pastors in liturgical church bodies.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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