Origin and development
The word deacon is derived from the Greek word diákonos (διάκονος), which is a standard ancient Greek word meaning "servant", "waiting-man", "minister", or "messenger".
It is generally assumed that the office of deacon originated in the selection of seven men by the apostles, among them Stephen, to assist with the charitable work of the early church as recorded in Acts 6.
The title deaconess (διακόνισσα diakónissa) is not found in the Bible. However, one woman, Phoebe, is mentioned at Romans 16:1–2 as a deacon (διάκονος diákonos) of the church in Cenchreae. Nothing more specific is said about her duties or authority, although it is assumed she carried Paul's Letter to the Romans. The exact relationship between male and female deacons varies. In some traditions, the title "deaconess" was also sometimes given to the wife of a deacon.
Female deacons are mentioned by Pliny the Younger in a letter to the emperor Trajan dated c. 112.
“I believed it was necessary to find out from two female slaves (ex duabus ancillis) who were called deacons (ministrae), what was true—and to find out through torture (per tormenta)”
This is the earliest Latin text that appears to refer to female deacons as a distinct category of Christian minister.
A biblical description of the qualities required of a deacon, and of his household, can be found in 1 Timothy 3:1–13.
Among the more prominent deacons in history are Stephen, the first Christian martyr (the "protomartyr"); Philip, whose baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch is recounted in Acts 8:26–40; St. Phoebe, who is mentioned in the letter to the Romans; Saint Lawrence, an early Roman martyr; Saint Vincent of Saragossa, protomartyr of Spain; Saint Francis of Assisi, founder of the mendicant Franciscans; Saint Ephrem the Syrian; and Saint Romanos the Melodist, a prominent early hymnographer. Prominent historical figures who played major roles as deacons and went on to higher office include Athanasius of Alexandria, Thomas Becket, and Reginald Pole. On June 8, 536, a serving Roman deacon was raised to Pope, Silverius.
The diaconate has been retained as a separate vocation in Eastern Christianity, while in Western Christianity it was largely used in cathedrals and as a temporary step along the path toward priestly ordination. In the 20th century, the diaconate was restored as a vocational order in many Western churches, most notably in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, and the United Methodist Church.