Despite having a priesthood organization that resembles that of the New Testament church, the latter day church sometimes receives criticism for any perceived changes between then and now. For example, biblical fundamentalists contrast instructions in the pastoral letters that deacons should be husbands of one wife to the current LDS practice of ordaining twelve year old boys.  I am open to hearing arguments of whether that means at least one one wife, exactly one wife, or at most one wife and what the implications are for widowers, divorcees, polygamists, and celibates.

Even Mormon history is susceptible to such critiques as the priesthood has developed to accommodate growth, reassess appropriate qualifications, and delegate duties. David Whitmer was an early such critic, attributing the 1831 introduction [1]  of the offices of bishop and deacon to Sidney Rigdon’s Campbellite [2] influence. The 1830 church, in his view, was patterned after the three offices found in the Book of Mormon [3], that of  elder, priest, and teacher. It is difficult to provide an adequate summary of Whitmer’s later views, but perhaps a general observation will serve, namely that he was opposed to developments that contributed towards a hierarchical organization (such as the 1831 endowment that elevated some elders to the  high priesthood [4]). 

One recurring pattern I see in my study of ancient and modern priesthood is  that when two offices or priesthoods are given overlapping responsibilities, it can create rivalries and turf wars. Some modern scripture was given that anticipates some of these problems. Consider, for example D&C 20 which gives both elders and priests the right to administer the sacrament. I read such passages  in terms of who should preside over or decide who administers the sacrament when only representatives from those two offices are present. The ordinance of the sacrament is equally valid whether a priest or elder actually performs it, the important thing is to remove contention by having a clear hierarchy.

On the other hand, there have been historically been two schools of thought on who should be preferred to actually administer the sacrament if Aaronic priests and MP holders are present. The old school believed that having higher authorities perform the responsibilities gave the sacrament greater dignity. But this was killing off the AP who were stuck only with the most uninspiring tasks like building clean-up. The new school stressed the AP’s role as a training priesthood for young men and for higher authorities to delegate more tasks downward so they can concentrate on their duties that don’t overlap with the AP. Some fascinating history can be found in William G. Hartley’s article From Men to Boys, which contains about everything I would want to say about modern deacons and a rationale for departing from scriptural formulas on age requirements [5]. Please forgive my roundabout way of introducing the article, but ideas about deacons often have to be extracted from studying dynamics between higher offices. The lowly office of deacon doesn’t get a lot of literary or scholarly attention.
A study of deacons might more properly begin by proposing definitions and tackling developments in chronological order starting in the New Testament. So somewhat belatedly, let me use Kevin Barney’s definition:

The English word deacon is simply a transliteration of the Greek noun diakonos, which is derived from the verb diakoneo (a compound of the preposition dia and the verb akoneo). The basic meaning of the verb is to serve, to minister, especially in the sense of to provide the necessities of life. So this verb would be used when talking about one who serves food and drink at table, for instance. It is very appropriate to describe one who passes the emblems of the sacrament. The word can be used in a nontechnical sense, simply one who serves, or in the technical sense of one who holds the priesthood office of a deacon.

One can divide New Testament writing into an early stage and a late stage. Acts contains some useful historical information, but scholars typically call attention to Luke harmonizing early developments in light of later ones. Paul’s letters have also been sorted into early and later periods. It has been noticed that early sources present a threefold ministry of apostles, prophets, and teachers (1 Cor. 12:28-29, Acts 13:1). Later sources expand to a fivefold ministry of apostles, prophets, evangelists (sub-apostolic missionaries?), pastors (presbyter-bishops?), and teachers (Eph. 4:11, 20:17,28 note that “presbyter” is interchangeable with “elder” and “bishop” is interchangeable with “overseer” and Luke may be anachronistically harmonizing elders with bishops. [6]). It is interesting that these lists are presented in greatest to least order as are lists of names in the New Testament. So Acts 13, using the pigeonhole principle, presents Barnabus as a “prophet” and Paul as merely a “teacher.” Acts presents Paul as someone who slowly arose in the ranks under Jerusalem based authorities, despite what Rob Bowman sees in Paul’s letters, mainly that early on Paul claimed to be an apostle equal and independent of the Twelve [7].

It is a outside the scope of this blog to try to figure out if and where the seventy, patriarchs, Aaronic priests, or Mechizedek high priests fit into the threefold or fivefold schema. Feel free to speculate in the comments. A deacon was primarily considered a bishop’s helper, so we have to consider the adapting role of a bishop in early Christianity to understand deacons. Nibley, in Apostles and Bishops, provides a useful classification that might correspond roughly with our division of responsibilities we see between the Melchizedek and Aaronic priesthood, although these categories should not be taken as mutually exclusive.

This classification is between traveling and stationary authorities (p. 19-21), especially drawing from the Didache(and the analysis done by influential scholar Adolf von Harnack), a document contemporary with some of the later New Testament writings. (I lean towards the scholarly consensus that date the final version of letters to Timothy and Titus very much after Paul’s death, even though that puts me somewhat in unorthodox territory.) The Didache clearly shows travelling prophets and apostles as the superiors of local bishops and elders[8]. However it provides tests that local officials can submit to “wandering prophets” to determine their legitimacy. Another test is given in John’s contemporaneous epistles, which ironically may have been used–inappropriately of course –when a local official would no longer receive John.

With apologies to Scott Petersen, one might amend his book’s title to “Where have all the traveling prophets gone?” A traditional explanation has been that apostles and prophets were merely supposed to lay the foundation of the Church, and founding time eventually expired [9]. The apostolic charge of missionary work given in Matthew 28:19 became regarded as sufficiently accomplished[10]. Historically we see the role of general leadership being absorbed by letter writing campaigns led by bishops of secularly prominent cities and local bishops meeting in territorial councils. In voicing his suspicion that leadership of the church passed from travelling authorities to stationary ones is an historical dark spot, Nibley foreshadowed his future studies [11] about “When the Lights Went Out.”

A relatively recent scholar, David Horrell [12], noted that nobody since Harnack has tried to explain the transition in any detail. He utilized a household development model for the rise of bishops that Nibley did not. Basically this model has bishops arising out of the family patriarchs that often hosted church services. Early Christians were frequently cast out of synagogues, and initially having no dedicated buildings of their own, were forced to meet in the homes of the more wealthy patrons. These wealthy patriarchs would naturally be called to positions of responsibility and leadership in the local church. The qualifications for bishops and deacons in Timothy and Titus resemble “household codes” or societal rules for running a respectable household in a community.

These codes tended to further elevate the position of the hosting male leader in comparison to his wife, children, servants, slaves, and guests. One sees the hint of a class warfare problem that could emerge between wealthy local leaders and the poor travelling leaders that depended upon (and could be accused of abusing in the Didache) a host’s generosity. Horrell’s model also has the benefit of explaining the decline in prominence of women in the early church. Women like Junia and Priscilla were mentioned in the same breath as evangelizing apostles, but the pastoral letters effectively silenced such activity. You heard it here first, but the a priori rejection of female prophetic ability seems to have been an early sign of the apostasy.

The main idea I want to get across is that the pastoral letters impose the same requirements on deacons as they do on bishops. Furthermore, these requirements regarding marriage were cultural expediencies and not necessarily regarded as revelation. According to Helmut Koester, a factor in the canonization of Paul’s (and deutero-Pauline) writings was the political stability they ensured and not any claim to inspiration (which was often detrimental for canon selection, consider the controversy over the book of Revelation, for instance) [13].

Much more can be said about the development of the office of a deacon drawing on patristic sources, Nibley, and other scholars. However, I have already greatly exceeded the length of an ideal blog entry (3 paragraphs and the truth!).

Notes and References 

[1] Recommended treatments of early Mormon priesthood developments are John Tvedtnes’ Organize My Kingdom and Gregory Prince’s Power from on High.

[2] For a good introduction to Campbellite restoration thought see Kevin Barney in A Tale of Two Restorations:

[3]  One might profitably ask why there was a difference in the priesthood organization in between the old world and the new world in ancient times.

In the new world, some Nephites held the Melchizedek Priesthood (MP) from the time of Lehi to the Nephi that was contemporary with Jesus. One could make the argument that the Nephites, who were not descendants of Aaron or Levi, only ever held the MP.  When the Book of Mormon talks about priests and teachers, it is probably describing MP priests and teachers before and after Christ’s appearance. To read further about Book of Mormon priesthood concepts, see Dan Peterson’s article

In the Old World it is apparent that nobody was considered to hold the MP in the time immediately before Christ. I recently wrote a piece that I hope will appear in Mormon Times, answering the related question of when Christ was ordained to the priesthood. The gist of my response was that Christ was expected to restore that missing authority especially in light of Hebrews 5. Putting these examples together, one might say that in the presence of the MP, the AP might seem to be optional or unnecessary. Still there might be good reasons in the NT and in our modern dispensation for keeping the AP around for practical reasons:

  1. Together the two priesthoods teach sound organizational principles, exalting the spiritual over the temporal.
  2. The AP can act like a training priesthood for the MP.
  3. During a transistion period the AP can act like a forerunner for the restoration of the MP much like John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus.
  4. In times of partial apostasy, the Lord may choose to leave a lesser priesthood functioning while removing the MP from a more active role.

The last point  this was arguably the impetus behind ordaining Aaron to begin with, due to the rebellion at Mount Sinai.  A second century writing, The Shepherd of Hermas, describes the diminishing of Christ’s church, albeit in allegorical terms. Nibley argues that after apostles died out, the would be successors (the bishops) were  primarily considered Aaronic in nature in his book Apostles and Bishops in Early Christianity.  Even in our dispensation Bishops have strong temporal duties and ties to the AP, even though they have also been given MP responsibilities and are not primarily identified as a descendent of Aaron or Levi.  After Moses set up the AP,  the MP was not entirely taken from Israel.  For example, I regard Samuel, David, Solomon, Elijah, and Lehi as MP holders. It appears that MP holders and AP holders at times in the OT had somewhat of rivalry (see the Two High Priesthoods by David Larsen  [parts 1,2,3] for details. 

So I would speculate that it would not have made much sense for Christ to give the Nephites the AP as well, because they did not inherit a strong AP tradition to begin with and couldn’t wait to scrap parts of the Law of Moses. The Jerusalem converts had a stronger attachment to the Law of Moses and retaining the AP probably made for a smother transistion. As a restoration of all things, it makes sense for our dispensation to inherit from both traditions, even though things have been adapted for our needs.

[4] See John Tvedtnes in The Evolution of the Term “Priesthood” for a good response to David Whitmer. Above, I infer Whitmer’s position on bishops and deacons from his reaction to high priests.

[5] I also like how Louis Midgley addressed these issues in a response to an inquiry to the FAIR list. He wrote:

But there is another side to this issue. I believe that when I teach in or for the Church, I am functioning as a Teacher. When I tidy up the chapel or set up or take down chairs tables, shovel snow, serve food at a dinner or a host of other similar or related things, I am acting as a Deacon. Much if noteven most of what gets done in the typical LDS congregation–Branch or Ward and also Stake–is Aaronic Priesthood stuff. We should always keep in mind that a Bishop is essentially in charge of the Aaronic Priesthood. His role as watchman on the tower is to keep an eye on all those basic things that threaten and afflict the community of Saints, and most of these are matters of serving tables, teaching and blessing others in various ways–hence Aaronic priesthood stuff. I do not believe that here below we ever really outgrow those basic and pedestrian commissions except by our own omissions.
In addition, in order for the proper training of our dispositions–that is, the formation of certain secondary though essential virtues–we must all start at an early age. Hence we all need to begin with very basic, easy, routine, familiar things and then work up to those matters that involve the mysteries of true holiness.
The movement towards ordaining young kids to the Priesthood was driven, it seems to me, by the need to get the attention of young boys and train them for basic service in the Kingdom and ready them as much as possible to serve teach and bless. If there is something anomalous about young boys being Deacons, one need also look at have tens of thousands of young fellows trying hard to be Elders by carrying that name in the world as missionaries.
There is even something stunning about identifying ourselves as Saints, since many in the Church hardly begin to qualify for that exalted title. So much of what we do can be described as now, but also not quite yet–that is, we are striving for something always beyond our reach. This is, perhaps, why one of the three Christian virtues is hope, which points us to the future in anticipation of wonders we can now hardly grasp.

[6] Such commentary on Acts 20 can be found in many sources. See for instance Catholic scholar Francis A. Sullivan, From Apostles to Bishops (2001) p. 64

Needless to say, this speech was composed by Luke, who in this respect followed the practice of ancient historians. In it, Paul warns his hearers about what will happen in the future, when he is no longer with them. Written some twenty-five years after Paul’s death, this more likely reflects the situation ofthe writer’s time than of Paul’s. For this reason, scholars bdieve that it tells us more about local ministry in Pauline churches during the subapostolic period than about the church of Paul’s own time.

[7] I began a critique of Bowman’s series against Mormon interpretations of priesthood activity in the New Testament in an earlier post Bowman on Ordination. See the link there in to see Bowman’s actual positions. I really don’t have much to say about his take on Paul other than to re-assert Griggs’ position, which I can easily find support (and differences of opinion as well) for among non-Mormon scholars.

[8] For an alternative view of the Didache see John Meier, Antioch and Rome (1984) p. 81-84. His position is that by the time the document was written, the big cities like Antioch were already self sufficient upon local leaders and that the instructions in the Didache applied only to rural areas.

[9] I would like to quote an articulate argument on this, not because my fellow Mormons will agree, but in hopes that it will raise the bar in discussions that take place with other Christians. On p. 24, Sullivan (2001) writes:

 The role of the Twelve as symnbolizing the twelve patriarchs of Israel meant that they had a unique role to play, precisely as a group of twelve, in the very origin of the church. This called for the choice of a twelfth man to take the place of Judas, prior to Pentecost so that on that day Peter “stood up with the Eleven” (Acts 2:14) when he gave his first witness to the risen Christ. On the other hand, some years later, when James, the son of Zebedee and brother of John was put to death by Herod (Acts 12:2), there was no question of again completing the number of the Twelve. By then the initial “foundation time” was completed.

[10] Nibley(2005) had a little bit of fun with an argument that the apostles almost instantaneously fulfilled their Great Commission on p. 7

[Giovanni Battista Pighi] quotes John Chrysostom to prove this, forgetting the worried conclusion that Chrysostom draws from this interesting premise: “If that is so, then the end should have come long ago, since it was explicitly stated that when the apostles had once preached to all nations, then would the end come.” Chrysostom’s only possible conclusion, which he swallows with a wry face, is that the apostles cannot have accomplished their mission after all, since the church is still on the earth.

[11] The Editor’s Postscript to Nibley’s book does a great job tying in this early study to his later work.  See page 40 and 85-86 for Nibley’s discussion of the lights going out when a “traveling apostalate” ceased to exist.

[12] David Horrell, Leadership Patterns and the Development of Ideology in Early Christianity  Sociology of Religion v58 p323-41 Winter ‘97

The focus of this paper is the distinction between two forms of leadership which also contrast and conflict in important ways in early Christianity, namely itinerant leadership and resident leadership (that is, leadership from those who are located in a particular community, over which they exercise leadership). I will argue that there are important distinctions to be drawn between these two patterns of leadership, that in general it is legitimate to speak of a development or transformation from itinerant to resident leadership in early Christianity, that there is evidence which reflects the tensions and difficulties which the diverse patterns of leadership caused, and that the transference of power from itinerant to resident leadership is a sociologically significant transformation which may be
connected with the development of more socially conservative patterns of ethical instruction (especially the “household codes.”)

[13]Helmut Koester, “Writings and the Spirit: Authority and Politics in Ancient Christianity,” HTR 84 (1991)353-72. While I am not entirely comfortable with Koester’s views, I am comfortable with calling the marriage requirement for deacons a cultural or political preference.

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