There is a growing interest in the office of deacon in today's Lutheran Church. Much of the interest is terribly misguided, however, and in need of correction. It is misguided into more than one wrong direction. With some correction, and with renewed emphasis and study, I am confident that a wholesome and lively interest in the office of deacon will grow among us, and bear much good fruit. To that end, I will be exploring in some depth the office of deacon, as it could and should be conceived and employed in Christ's holy Church in the modern age. Just what exactly is a deacon? This is the basic question, the exploration of which can open up great vistas of discussion.
It will help, however, to first establish what a deacon is not. That is what I would like to discuss today. There are two basic ways of looking at the deacon which need to be critiqued and condemned in Christian faith and love. And unfortunately both are more common in today's Missouri Synod than are the proper ways of seeing the deacon. So let us jump right into some controversy, why don't we.
First, the deacon is not merely a layman who fills a role of helping like unto that of the so called deaconess. Such a statement might bring the inference by some that I do not view the deacon as one who helps and serves. Trust me, I will treat at length the diaconal role of the deacon, so to speak. It must be established first, however, especially in today's milieu, that the deacon is not basically a male version of the deaconess. One of the problems with the modern Missouri Synod deaconess situation is that, in being so much more prominent and trendy than even the talk of a deacon program, it has led many to view the deaconess as the prototype, the paradigm, through which the deacon is viewed. Perhaps this is partly caused by nomenclature, that is, by the very use of the term deaconess, which is not wrong in itself, but might, I wonder, contribute to confusion in an age wherein the vocations of priest, deacon, hearer, and various helpers, are far less properly understood and distinguished than in the age of the venerable Wilhelm Loehe, who gave modern Lutheranism the deaconess. (Nothing like a quasi-Proustian sentence to wake a reader up.)
My intent is not to condemn the deaconess program, though it is not without need of critique. I aim here merely to point out that it is improper and dangerous to think of the deaconess as more needed than the deacon, which the synod obviously does today, and that it is improper and dangerous to view the deacon as merely an analogue to the deaconess. The Missouri Synod seminary, an inherently masculine institution, whose very name signifies a seedbed of the Church's sacred ministry, has become just as co-ed as the seminaries of the mainline churches, where women who will have "calls" and "ministries" are sitting in some of the very same classes as men studying for the holy priesthood. Indeed, they cohabit in a certain but very real sense. That is, they sleep, eat, study, and live together in the insular world of a seminary campus. Whereas the seminarian in a previous age had to get official permission to get betrothed, today even dating goes on among these students. Such things are open secrets and in some cases openly encouraged. There have been deaconess students who have argued that since they are students at the seminary, they are "seminary students," and even "seminarians." As I say, this is not a rant on the deaconess program, though I have included a minor rant of a few aspects of the seminary versions of this program. I reiterate that I do not condemn the synod deaconess program per se, but that it is in real need of critique, which will merit a separate discussion. I make these observations in order to make the point that there is great confusion in today's deaconess "ministry," which does harm not only to a healthy view of deaconesses, but also to all other roles in the Church, including that of the traditional and venerable office of deacon.
Second, the deacon is not equal to the presbyteral office. He is not a pastor or priest. This is a very common problem in the practice, even officially endorsed practice, of today's Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. It seems to have started at least as far back as the 1980s, and then in 1989 the Synod itself began to officially promote the improper and scandalous intrusion of "deacons" into the priestly functions of the Church. Right here in Milwaukee there is at least one parish staffed by a deacon who is playing pastor, right in the open and with the approval of the system. He is playing pastor, and he is playing church.
A layman celebrating the Sacrament of the Altar is an inherent impossibility. Today, however, the Missouri Synod pretends that it has the power to make such a thing happen just by granting official approval for it. Furthermore, such "Word and Sacrament ministries" are rationalized by the claim that they are needed, and that they are unusual and rare. Of course a wrongful and illicit thing can never really be needful. Nor can a practice be justified by being unusual. Nor, I would add, is it as unusual or rare as some think. It is happening in a city near you, and it is being increasingly celebrated at all levels of ecclesial bureaucracy.
What is the need, by the way, for additional pastors in a church that has many good, qualified men languishing on CRM (or whatever they call it these days), that is, ordained men qualified for placement but denied it? Some of these men would do better in other areas of ministry than as head pastor of a parish, but there are many possibilities which can be explored, other than merely abandoning these men, and refusing to even show any interest in taking care of them. And in light of such ranks of ordained men suffering for a living without a Call, the "ministry" of these "Word and Sacrament" deacons is all the more scandalous.
The deacon, then, ought in no way be seen as someone who can take care of a parish, with its vital and weighty sacramental needs. Only a priest can say Mass. Only a priest can hear Confession. Lutherans love to speak of the possibility of lay Baptism, yet we must make a couple of qualifications for this. One is that it ought never be done if a priest can be found. Another is that it is for truly emergency situations. Another is that it must be done by a Christian. Another is that the Church must be notified as soon as possible to the circumstances, and given opportunity to approve, and then publicly affirm such Baptism. Such considerations are out the window with many of today's deacon situations. Regarding preaching, I would argue that there are a couple of circumstances where preaching would be appropriate for a deacon, but they are truly irregular, unlike today's "Word and Sacrament ministries" where preaching is the centerpiece and indeed expected. Those circumstances are the following: 1. a transitional deacon, who is being formed for the priesthood; such would be ideally the last stage of seminary study, and 2. a situation where there is a deacon who is well trained and qualified for preaching, and who once in a while is needed by his bishop for this task. Neither of these situations are the same as the play pastor "deacons" out there today, some of whom are given added "legitimacy" by being enrolled in DELTO or SMP courses, thereby bringing the seminaries themselves into complicity and culpability with these open violations of the Confessions (CA XIV).
The deacon is not a male deaconess. The deacon is not a pastor, and ought in no way be allowed to operate as such. Such negatives are very important to establish in a discussion on the diaconate. Such ideas are like brush and bramble in a field that is not only annoying, but dangerous fire hazards. It must be cleared away, so that a proper foundation can be built for a wholesome and evangelical diaconate in the tradition of the Church.