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The Diaconate in the Ancient Church

The Diaconate of the Ancient and Medieval ChurchIn The Diaconate of the Ancient and Medieval Church, eminent Wittenberg law professor Caspar Ziegler (1621–90) provides contemporary church workers and students of history with a detailed description of how Christians have shown mercy to a lost and dying world from apostolic times to the Reformation. Ziegler’s detailed study engages at least 500 primary sources to illustrate expertly the life of the Church as recorded and discussed by interpreters of canon law. His research explains the underlying tradition of the Lutheran Confessions and helps answer why and how particular practices and offices developed and changed from the early church through the Reformation era. Indeed, by showing differences between Western and Eastern traditions, Ziegler points out medieval problems that helped lead to the Reformation. Ziegler appraises the Lutheran tradition in light of the greater Western context, resulting in a greater appreciation of both.

Scholars will appreciate the index of Latin and Greek technical terms relating to clergy in general and the diaconate specifically, as well as the hundreds of footnotes drawn extensively from non-English resources in Europe (many opened to English speakers for the first time). The Diaconate of the Ancient and Medieval Church provides the most-detailed resource on the ancient diaconate that can be found in English. It completes the volumes about the diaconate available from Concordia. Jeannine Olson’s Deacons and Deaconesses through the Centuries focuses mainly on trends from the Reformation era to modern times. Cheryl Naumann’s In the Footsteps of Phoebe details the specifics of the diaconate in the LCMS. Together, these three books provide an impressive and authoritative picture of the diaconate in the church.

Praise for The Diaconate of the Ancient and Medieval Church from LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison

The following foreword contributed by Rev. Dr. Harrison to Ziegler’s work introduces both Ziegler and his detailed research to the English-speaking world.

Lutherans are Christians who look to Bible interpretation “by Scripture alone” (sola scriptura) as the final arbiter of doctrine. Indeed, Caspar Ziegler, the law professor who wrote this book, appeals to Scripture at every point where he makes a fundamental claim of doctrine. Yet he does not make extensive appeals to the Book of Concord. He does not use the Lutheran pattern of Scripture, Book of Concord, Luther, and Lutheran theologians that developed after pietism rose to prominence with Philipp Jakob Spener at the university in Halle. This may be jarring to some Lutherans today, but Ziegler appeals extensively to a seemingly unlikely source: the canon law that grew out of the efforts of Roman emperors and clergy in the fourth and fifth centuries AD to define the legal status and life of the established Church. Civil law and canon law continued to influence those lands that were heirs of the Roman Empire of old. The law statutes tell not only how the Church was supposed to live, but they give clues about how Christians actually lived—how they struggled with sin and embraced the gracious gifts of Word and sacraments. Ziegler writes practical theology.

Caspar Ziegler (1621–90) was from a wealthy Leipzig family. During the Thirty Years’ War, his family was pillaged by hostile troops. Nevertheless, his parents provided for his education and he received baccalaureate and master degrees from Leipzig. He attempted to study theology, but switched to law, where he became successful. Eventually he became a law doctor and professor at the University of Wittenberg and served also as Rektor. He wrote about canon law and papal decretals for much of his life, also supervising many dissertations related thereto. He also wrote influential books on poetry and he penned both poems and hymns. One of his hymns (Ich freue mich in dir) became the basis for a Bach cantata (BVW 133, first performed on December 27, 1724).

Why did this staunch Lutheran draw so heavily on canon law—similar to the Catalog of Testimonies in the Book of Concord itself? He was not trying to be Roman Catholic. Indeed, where Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions parted from Rome on celibacy, marriage, and other points, Ziegler stood with the Lutherans. Yet in describing how the Lutherans got where they did, he realized in a manner similar to Restoration Anglicans like John Cosin (1594–1672) that the Church has dealt with many issues during its existence. He saw the Council of Trent as the departure from the long Western tradition. The failure to study the shape and the outcome of past discussions often leads to the repetition of past mistakes and the creation of new ideas that were not helpful in the long run.

This book on deacons and deaconesses—together with a book on the laws, special rights, and the account of the lifestyle of bishops—is one of the later works published by Ziegler. This book talks about why following the example of the apostles as recorded in Scripture is a good thing for the Church. Century by century, it shows the challenges, the victories, and the defeats of the sinner-saints that sit in the pews, preach from the pulpits, and rule from the courts.

This book speaks about works of mercy. Deacons and deaconesses were the first healthcare workers. They were the first social workers. They were the first welfare agents. They helped bury the dead. They were God’s hands that helped to mend broken lives. The poor learned from deacons that bread could be found where the Bread of Life was proclaimed by the pastor or bishop. Deacons read the Scriptures, announced the prayers, dismissed the grades of proselytes before the Eucharist, and assisted the pastors and bishops with the communion.

Deaconesses were the first women’s health specialists. They were the representatives of the bishop or pastor in cases where a man’s presence was inappropriate. They could bring the Gospel to the gynaeceum, the protected innermost part of a Graeco-Roman house that held the women and children. They helped to maintain order among women during public worship and had honor in doing so. The early Church affirmed their special role. In turn, they did not seek to usurp the pastoral ministry.

Ziegler shows how the Church dealt with sensitive cultural issues and even differences in cross-cultural issues. We see that clergy garb has changed over time, yet there has always been something that the Church has understood to be clergy garb, a uniform of the servants. We see bishops and politicians doing the right thing. Then again, we see the same sort of people doing the wrong thing. We learn all too well that the Church is full of sinners whose mistakes have multiplied through the centuries and whose errors have damaged formerly good offices and practices in the Church. From celibacy to usury, from abuse of power to the use of clergy as warriors, we see how canon law has pointed out what is bad, and how sometimes it has failed to correct that evil.

This book is not a list of things that Lutherans ought to do. It is not a prescriptive theology of the diaconate as such. It is, however, a careful study of what happens when the secular powers have interfered with the Church for good or ill, and the grave errors that people make when they set aside the divine commands and the apostolic practices. Jesus actually knew what He was talking about. For all their failings as human beings, the apostles still were those men who had sat at Jesus’ feet and to whom He had opened Scripture. Be it ordination, churchly offices, a designated uniform, or expectations of service—one does not lightly cast the apostolic witness aside. The history of the Church painfully shows that those who have sought their own bright future often have found only darkness and error.

This book covers a number of major categories literally year by year, country by country, verse by verse and line by line. Those interested in Church history will read in depth what they may have only heard about in passing.

Here we read the words and opinions of around 500 people, including emperors, scholars, lawyers, theologians, popes, patriarchs, bishops, abbots, deacons, and deaconesses. It reveals the challenges they faced, the solutions they found, and the long-term success and failure of their efforts. It helps us understand the rationale of what we call “Church” and suggests ways of making wise choices. Just how Ziegler got on top of all the literature referenced in this comparatively small volume boggles the mind.

It shows Latin as a common language for law, theology, and learned culture. This book is cross-cultural. The ideas and opinions of Englishmen, Germans, French, Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Croats, Poles, and others are all represented here as part of the life and dialogue of the Church in its broad sense of the Western tradition. It engages Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and general Protestants in a manner that looks beyond a mere sectarianism. It calls us to dialogue with those not like us, to defend our beliefs and practices with Scripture, and to listen to our partners in a manner that may teach us about our own strengths and weaknesses.

This book is about Witness, the speaking of the Word by deacons and deaconesses as a special extension of the apostolic ministry dedicated to specific roles that helped the pastors and bishops do what they do best: study, teach, and preach the Word of God.

This book is about Mercy, about the healing hands of the diaconate binding wounds, nursing the sick, serving the poor, helping foreigners, and even burying the dead. It is about a service in the Church specifically dedicated to bringing the kingdom of God to people in physical ways here and now.

This book is about Life Together, the public reading of Scripture, public prayer, and assisting in the Eucharist that speaks to the unique confessional position of Christians as the people of God in pure worship. Witness and Mercy draw the proselytes into that deeper, clearer relationship.


From The Diaconate of the Ancient and Medieval Church © 2014 Concordia Publishing House, www.cph.org.
Contact CPH for permission to reproduce this material.

Written by


Dawn Mirly Weinstock has been with Concordia Publishing House for 25 years and has served as a production editor for professional and academic books for more than 10 years. Her projects have included Luther's Works, Johann Gerhard’s Theological Commonplaces, and the writings of Hermann Sasse, C. F. W. Walther, and many others.


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