Teachings from the Ancient Church Fathers


The purpose of this study is NOT to prove one point or disprove another. Rather, as the apostles left them writings which proved authoritative, they also left behind practices which were preserved by the ancient church and which, therefore, should be as authoritative as the writings they left behind. The particular study focuses on deacons, especially on their roles in the early church.

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes come from the AnteNicene/Nicene Fathers, volume, page #'s and section (if applicable). PN refers to the Post Nicene Fathers.


Apostolic creation/sanction of deacons and bishops:

Clement (Pope: 92-101)

    "The apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ . . . And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first-fruits [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterward believe. Nor was this any new thing, since indeed many ages before it was written concerning bishops and deacons. For thus saith the Scripture in a certain place, 'I will appoint their bishops in righteousness, and their deacons in faith'" (Clement, 42 or 1:16:42).

    "they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry" (Clement, 44 or 1:17:44).

Ambrose of Milan (333-397): "'If any man be without reproach the husband of one wife.' So then he who is without blame the husband of one wife comes within the rule for undertaking the priestly office; he, however, who has married agin has no guilt of pollution, but is disqualified for the priestly prerogative" (Letters LXIII:63 or PN10:466:63).

Jerome (347-420):

    "1. . . .I am told that some one has been mad enough to put deacons before presbyters, that is, before bishops. For when the apostle clearly teaches that presbyters are the same as bishops, must not a mere server of tables and of widows be insane to set himself up arrogantly over men through whose prayers the body and blood of Christ are produced? . . .And lest any should in a spirit of contention argue that here must then have been more bishops than one in a single church, there is the following passage which clearly proves a bishop and a presbyter to be the same. Writing in Titus the apostle says: 'For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain presbyters in every city, as I had appointed thee: if any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. For a bishop must be blameless as the steward of God.' And to Timothy he says: 'Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of hands of the presbytery.' Peter also says in his first epistle: 'The presbyters which are among you I exhort, who am your fellow-presbyter and a witness of the sufferings of Christ and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: feed the flock of Christ . . . taking the oversight thereof not by constraint by willing, according unto God.' In the Greek the meaning is still plainer, for the word used is episkopountes, that is to say, overseeing, and this is the origin of the name overseer or bishop. . . . When subsequently one presbyter was chosen to preside over the rest, this was done to remedy schism and to prevent each indiviaul from rending the church of Christ by drawing it to himself. For even at Alexandria from the time of Mark the Evangelist until the episcopates of Heraclas and Dionysius the presbyters always named as bishop, one of their own bumber chosen by themselves and set in a more exalted position, just as an army elects a general, or as deacons appoint one of themselves whom they know to be diligent and call him archdeacon. . . . Wherever there is a bishop, whether it be at Rome or at Enguhium, whether it be at Constantinople or at Rhegium, whether it be at Alexandria or at Zoan, his dignity is one and his priesthood is one. Neither the command of wealth nor the lowliness of poverty makes him more a bishop or less a bishop. All alike are successors of the apostles.

    2. . . . Why do you bring forward A CUSTOM WHICH EXISTS IN ONE CITY ONLY? Why do you oppose to the laws of the Church a paltry exception which has given rise to arrogance and pride? The rarer anything is the more it is sought after. . . . They must consider the reasons which led to the appointment of the deacons at the beginning. They must read the Acts of the Apostles and bear in mind their true position.

    Of the names presbyter and bishop the first denotes age, the second rank. . . . the word bishops includes presbyters also." Letters CXLVI 1, 2 or PN6:288-289:CXLVI 1, 2.

    "Now again, he compares monogamy with digamy, and as he [Paul] had subordinated marriage to virginity, so he makes second marriages inferior to first . . . He allows second marriages, but to such persons as wish for them and are not able to contain . . . For it is better to know a single husband, though he be a second or third, than to have many paramours; that is, it is more tolerable for a woman to prostitute herself to one man than to many. . . . For where there are more husbands than one the proper idea of a husband, who is a single person, is destroyed. . . . What the holiness of second marriage is, appears from this--that a person twice married cannot be enrolled in the ranks of the clergy, and as to Apostle tells Timothy, 'Let none be enrolled as a widow under threescore years old, having been the wife of one man,' . . . And at the same time, consider that she who has had two husbands, even though she be a widow, decrepit, and in want, is not a worthy recipient of the Church's funds. . . . The first Adam was married once: the second was unmarried. Let he supporters of second marriages shew us as their leader a third Adam who was twice married. . .. The Apostle was forced to choose many things which he did not lie. He circumcised Timothy, and shaved his own head, practiced going barefoot" (Against Jovinianus Book I, 14 or PN6:358-359:I:14).

Leo the Great (440-461):
    "For it is well known that the husbands of widows have attained to the priesthood: certain, too, who have had several wives, and have led a life given up to all licentiousness, have had all facilities put in their way, and been admitted to the Sacred Order, contrary to that utterance of the blessed Apostle, in which he proclaims and says to such, 'the husband of one wife' and contrary to that precept of the ancient law which says by way of caution: 'Let the priest take a virgin to wife, not a widow, not a divorced woman'" (Lev. 21:13, 14). Literal Latin words: unius uxoris virum (LettersIV:III or PH12:3:IV:III; see also notes 9 and 1.)

    "For as the Apostle says that among other rules for election he shall be ordained bishop who is known to have been or to be 'the husband of one wife,' this command was always held so sacred that the same condition was understood as necessary to be observed even in the wife of the priest-elect: lest she should happen to have been married to another man before she entered into wedlock with him, even though her himself had had no other wife. . . . the statutes of God's law as well, whereby it is clearly laid down that a priest is to marry a virgin, and that she who is to be the wife of a priest is not to know another husband? For even then in the priests was prefigured the Spirit marriage of Christ and His Church: so that since 'the man is the head of the woman,' the spouses of the Word may learn to know no other man but Christ, who did rightly choose her only, loves her only, and takes none but her into His alliance. If then even in teh Old Testament this kind of marriage among preists is adhered to, how much more ought we who are placed under the grace of the Gospel to conform to the Apostle's precepts: so that though a man be found endowed with good character, and furnished with holy works, he may nevertheless in no wise ascend either to the grade of deacon, or the dignity of the presbytery, or to the highest rank of the bishopric, if it has been spread abroad either that he himself is not the husband of one wife, or that his wife is not the wife of one husband" (Letters, XII:III or PN12:13:XII:III).


Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon (135-202):

    the deacon body has its origins in the 7 of Acts 6: "The Nicolaitanes are the followers of that Nicolas who was one of the seven first ordained to the diaconate by the apostles" (Against HeresiesI:26:3 or 1:352:3).

    "And still further, Stephen, who was chosen the first deacon by the apostles" (Against Heresies III:12:10 or 1:434:10).

    "Stephen, who was the first elected into the diaconate by the apostles" (Against Heresies IV:15:1 or 1:480:1). Affirmed by Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (248-258): Epistles 64:3 oe 5:366:LXIV.


Cyprian (200-258): "But deacons ought to remember that the Lord chose apostles, that is, bishops and overseers; while apostles appointed for themselves deacons after the ascent of the Lord into heaven, as ministers of their episcopacy and of the Church." He goes on to stress the submission of deacons to the bishops for the express purpose of maintaining harmony in the Church (The Epistles of Cyprian, LXIV or 5:366:LXIV).


Ignatius of Antioch (35-112):

    "See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God" (Letter to Smyrnaeans, chap. 8 or 1:89:8).

    "My soul be for theirs that are submissive to the bishop, to the presbyters, and to the deacons" (Letter to Polycarp 6 or 1:95:6).


Julian, Bishop of Neapollis/Apostolic Constitutions (381-394):

    "Concerning the ordination of deacons, I Philip make this constitution: Thou shalt ordain a deacon, O bishop, by laying thy hands upon him in the presence of the whole presbytery, and of the deacons, and shalt pray, and say:--" followed by the prayer to be offered over the deacons at the time of the ordination (AC section II, xvii or 7:492:xvii.

    "As to the deacons, after the prayer is over, let some of them attend upon the oblation of the Eucharist, ministering to the Lord's body with fear" (AC section VII, lvii or 421:VII:lxii.

    "Neither do we permit the laity to perform any of the offices belong to the priesthood; as, for instance, neither the sacrifice, nor baptism, nor the laying on of hands, nor the blessing, whether the smaller or the greater; for 'no one taketh this honour to himself, but he that is called of God.' [Heb. 5:4.] For such sacred offices are conferred by the laying on of the hands of the bishop. But a person to whom such an office is not committed, but he seizes upon it for himself, he shall undergo the punishment of Uzziah" (AC section I, x or 7:429:I:x).

    "But we do not permit any one of the clergy to take to wife either a courtesan, or a servant, or a widow, or one that is divorced, as also the law says. Let the deaconess be a pure virgin; or, at the least, a widow who has been but once married, faithful; and well esteemed" (Section III, xvii or 7:III:xvii).

    "He who has been twice married after his baptism, or has had a concubine, cannot be made a bishop, or presbyter, or deacon, or indeed any one of teh sacerdotal catalogue" (Ecclesiastical Canons of the AC, section XLVII, 17 or 7:501:XLVII:17).


Clement of Alexandria (150-215): "'Moreover let the deacons of the church, going about with intelligence, be as eyes to the bishop, carefully inquiring into the doings of each member of the church, ascertaining who is about to sin, in order that, being arrested with admonition by the president, he may haply not accomplish the sin. Let them check the disorderly, that they may not desist from assembling to hear the discourses, so that they may be able to counteract by the word of truth those anxieties that fall upon the heart from every side, by means of worldly casualties and evil communications; for if they long remain fallow, they become fuel for the fire. And let them learn who are suffering under bodily disease, and let them bring them to the notice of the multitude who do not know of them, that they may visit them, and supply their wants according to the judgment of the president" (Epistle of Clement to James chap. XII or 8:220:chap. XII).

Athanasius (295-373): "But the cup which belongs to the mysteries, and which if it be broken intentionally, makes the perpetrator of the deed an impious person, is found only among those who lawfully preside. . . . this belongs only to those who preside over the Catholic Church, for to you only it appertains to administer the Blood of Christ, and to none besides. But as he who breaks the cup belong to the mysteries is an impious person, much more impious is he who treats the Blood of Christ with contumely; . . . he was not even numbered amongst them; and therefore did not receive ordination even from that quarter" (Defence Against the Arians 4:106-107).


Synod of Laodicea (343-381): A subdeacon may not give the bread and the cup. . . . "The deacon then gave the chalice with the words: 'the Blood of Christ, the chalice of life,' and the recipient again answered, 'Amen' (Canon XXV or PN14:147:XXV).