[By Alexander Campbell, with emphasis added in bold by Scott Shifferd Jr, who is not in perfect agreement with the assertions of this article.]
THE time once was that every Christian congregation had a treasury. In those days they required a steward, a treasurer or a deacon, or more than one, as the exigencies demanded. For, although the terms steward, treasurer, almoner, and deacon, are not perfectly synonymous, they nevertheless express the office and duty of the scriptural deacon. The term deacon, as all know, is equivalent to the English word servant, but the word servant is a very general term, and in the state signifies every public officer, from the President down to the constable. They are all servants of the state. So the apostles, evangelists, prophets, and bishops were all servants of the Lord and of the church. But there was one set of servants in the apostolic churches who were emphatically the servants of the church in its temporal concerns. These were the deacons, or stewards, or treasurers of the church. For as the deacon’s office had respect to the temporalities of the church, and as these are in general some way connected with pecuniary matters, the office of treasurer and almoner is identified with, or is the same as that of deacon; so much so that some translators have, out of regard more to the application than to the literal import of the term διακονος, uniformly translated it almoner.
The plain and simple state of the case is this: Christian congregations in primitive times, had need of money or earthly things as well as we. They had rich and poor members. Their poor were such as could not, either through bodily infirmities, or through the inadequate proceeds of their labor in times of embarrassment, furnish their own tables. Those who had to spare were then called upon to supply their wants. And in many instances they not only contributed to the wants of their own poor, but to the wants of those of remote christian communities, in times of general scarcity or pecuniary difficulties. Contributions, generally called the fellowship, were statedly attended to in all their meetings. So Paul gave directions to all the churches in Galatia and elsewhere to replenish the treasury every first day, as the Lord had prospered them in their temporal avocations. A deacon or deacons had the charge of this treasury, and were ex-officio treasurers; but this was not all. They were not only to take care of the contributions, but to dispense or appropriate them according to the directions of the brethren. Thus they were stewards. And as the poor were those in whose behalf this fund was created, and as the deacons dispensed to them, they became ex-officio almoners of the poor.
As they had not in those days of primitive simplicity so many different sorts of funds and officers as we have in this age of complexity; the deacons attended to all pecuniary matters, and out of the same fund three set of tables were furnished. These were the Lord’s table, the bishop’s table, and the poor’s table. A plurality of deacons was in most instances necessary because of the attention required from them and the trust reposed in them. It was not so much per annum to the bishop, nor so much per annum to the poor, nor so much per annum to the Lord’s table; but according to the exigencies of each and the ability to contribute, was the extent of the treasury and the distributions of the stewards or deacons of the congregation. In this state of things the deacons had something to do. They were intimately acquainted with the families and wants of the brethren, and in paying a christian regard to these and the duties of their office they obtained an honorable rank and great boldness in the faith, or fluency in the doctrine of Christ. Conversant with the sick and the poor, intimate with the rich and more affluent brethren, familiar with all, and devoted to the Lord in all their services, they became eminent for their piety and charity, and of high reputation amongst their brethren. Once every week these contributions were made, and as often were the appropriations made in times and circumstances that required them. Out of the church’s treasury, then, the poor and distressed widow above three score, or the sick and afflicted disciple was relieved. The Lord’s table was continually furnished with bread and wine. The bishops’ also, according to their labors and their need, were supplied. And thus every thing was promptly attended to in the Lord’s institution which could afford spiritual and temporal comfort to all the subjects of his kingdom.
Amongst the Greeks who paid so much regard to differences of sex, female deacons, or deaconesses, were appointed to visit and wait upon the sisters. Of this sort was Phebe of Cenchrea, and other persons mentioned in the New Testament, who labored in the gospel. The seven persons mentioned and appointed to the service of tables, Acts vi. though not so denominated, were nevertheless invested with and fully possessed of this office. The treasury was entrusted to them–the widows’ tables, and every table which required service was attended by them. The direction given to the Corinthians respecting the treasury, and the instructions to Timothy and Titus concerning the choice of deacons, also concerning the support of widows and bishops, all concur in furnishing the above views of this office and work.
But how has it degenerated in modern times into a frivolous and unmeaning carrying about a plate once a quarter, in all the meager pomp of a vain world!–a mere pompous etiquette, without use or meaning. Often we find the office of treasurer and deacon contradistinguished, as that of moderator and bishop in the same congregation. It is a scriptural insult to appoint a moderator where there is a bishop, and the same to appoint a treasurer where there is a deacon. The deacon is, ex officio, treasurer, and the bishop, ex officio moderator or president. To appoint a president in any meeting where there is an appointed bishop, it is in effect saying that the bishop is not qualified to keep order; and to appoint a treasurer where there is a deacon, it is in effect saying he is not to be trusted, or not qualified for his office. The office itself suggests the propriety of those directions and qualifications laid down for both the deacons and deaconesses in Paul’s letters before mentioned. What a wise, benevolent, and independent institution, a christian congregation is! Nothing is left out of view which can contribute to the temporal and spiritual weal of the brotherhood. They meet in full assembly once every week to remember, praise, and adore the Lord; to share in the participation of his favors. The temporal state of the brotherhood is not overlooked in these meetings. Contributions are made for the necessities of saints. The deacons are acquainted, and, through them, the whole fraternity, with the circumstances of all. Under its wise and wholesome discipline care is taken that every member capable of labor, work with his own hands, diligently at some honest calling. The contracting of heavy and oppressive debts is proscribed. No brother is allowed to enthrall himself or others in any sort of worldly speculations which incur either anxiety on his part or inconvenience to others. The aged, feeble, and helpless are taken care of by the brethren. The indolent, slothful, and bad economists are censured, admonished, and reformed, or excluded. The Lord’s table is constantly furnished. The bishops’ wants and necessities always supplied, and no one deprived of any necessary good. There are persons fitted for every service; and those who attend continually on this good service, become eminent in the faith, and after refreshing others are again in turn refreshed themselves. In this view of the deacon’s office, we cannot but concur with the sayings and views of the primitive fathers who considered the deacons as the treasurers of the congregation, and as appointed to the service of tables, viz. the Lord’s table, the poor’s table, and the bishop’s table.