Burrus the Deacon and the Meaning of Diakonia in the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch

Burrus the Deacon and the Meaning of Diakonia in the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch

As Ignatius of Antioch made his sunset journey from Antioch to Rome, he passed through the city of Smyrna, stopped in Troas, and continued his journey through Neapolis to Rome. The first four of Ignatius’ letters are the product of the Antiochan overseer’s stay in Smyrna (Ephesians, Magnesians, Trallians, and Romans). The remaining letters were penned in Troas (Philadelphians, Smyrneans, and probably the Letter to Polycarp). Unable to write to all the churches from Troas because of his sudden evacuation to Neapolis, Ignatius implored his friend Polycarp of Smyrna to pass along his instructions to all the churches in the area.[1]

During what must have been a stressful and emotional time for him, the respected leader benefitted from the companionship and ministry of several persons whom he refers to as “deacons.”[2] The stories of these men can be sketched in only the barest detail, their lives being overshadowed by the ponderous events that their paths intersected with, but we must remember that whatever shadows the story of Ignatius casts over the subject matter of this paper, this same dramatic story also provides the light without which our deacons would be completely unknown.

My plan in this paper is to reconstruct the stories of three second-century deacons using the smattering of facts available from the writings of Ignatius. Having established for us a personal connection with the topic of diakonia (“service” or “ministry”), I will go on to treat Ignatius’ more general comments and assumptions regarding deacons and diaconic ministry. In particular, I hope to answer the question, What did mainstream Christianity consider to be appropriate functions for deacons in the decades directly following the era of the apostles?

Three Deacon Stories

Burrus

Of all the deacons mentioned by name in the letters of Ignatius, a man named Burrus receives as much attention as any. We first encounter Burrus in the port city of Smyrna, where Ignatius has temporarily halted his westward death march to make a visit his friend Polycarp, the church overseer in the city. Ephesus, another port city not far from Smyrna, had for whatever reason not received a comparable visit from the soon-to-be martyr, and this, it appears, was the occasion of the Burrus’ presence in Smyrna. As a representative of the Ephesian church, Burrus could give the Ephesians a sense of connection with Ignatius that they could not have had otherwise.[3]

But Burrus the deacon was not the only one from Ephesus who had made the short trip north to Polycarp’s church. In all, Ignatius mentions five individuals “through whom in love I have seen you all” (IgEph 2:1). One of them, in fact, was no less than the overseer of Ephesus, a man by the name of Onesimus.

What is significant, though, is that it is Burrus who remains the longest with Ignatius. As a deacon, he may have been particularly qualified to serve as the church’s official vicarious presence with the important visitor. As the letter to the Ephesians makes clear, Burrus was acting in Smyrna as a representative of the Ephesian church, and so pleased was Ignatius with the service that he requests that Burrus stay on with him longer.[4]

Whenever you see the word diakonos in Ignatius, there is a chance that you will also see one of two other words: syndoulos (“fellow bondslave”) and timē (“honor”). In calling himself a “fellow bondslave” of Burrus,[5] Ignatius shows a level of connection with the deacon that seems strange given that Ignatius himself was no less than an overseer of the important Antiochan church. The service that Burrus renders as the eyes, ears, and hands of the Ephesian church seems to put him on a level with Ignatius as an equal laborer for their common goal.[6]

Timē (“honor”) is what Ignatius says will result if Burrus is allowed to remain in his service—specifically the honor of the Ephesians and of their overseer Onesimus.[7] This could simply mean that when a deacon performs such a service as Burrus was performing, he brings honor to those who sent him. But timē can also imply “payment” or “remuneration,” as when Paul in 1 Timothy says that widows and elders are to be “honored.” In this case the “your honor and that of the deacon” (IgEph 2:1) could conceivably refer to the benefit that the Ephesians will receive as a result of having Burrus deployed to carry back coveted communications from the respected church leader.

We next encounter Burrus at the coastal stop of Troas near ancient Troy, where he had followed Ignatius in the slow port-to-port voyage toward Rome. Unable to compose letters to all the local churches during his stay in Smyrna, Ignatius continued the undertaking from Troas, crafting a letter to the church at Philadelphia. From Troas he also penned final communications to Smyrna and to their leader Polycarp. Both the Philadelphian and the Smyrnean communications were made possible by the Ephesian deacon Burrus, who served either (1) as a scribe in the composition process or (2) as the one by whom the letters were personally delivered. The question of whether Burrus was the scribe or the ambassador for the letter hangs on the meaning of the expression graphein dia tinos (“to write through someone”) as seen in the Philadelphian letter (11:2) and the Smyrnean letter (12:1). The meaning of the idiom bears further investigation, but Burrus’ connection to the Ignatian correspondence is clear.

We must not, however, imagine that Burrus’ sole purpose in traveling with Ignatius was to facilitate communication by letter. Burrus, says Ignatius gratefully, “has in every way refreshed me. I wish that everyone imitated him, for he is an example of godly ministry (theou diakonia)” (IgSmyr 12:1). As a loaned traveling companion, Burrus seem to have allowed the hospitality of the local churches to extend beyond their city limits.

Philon

Philon, unlike Burrus, had apparently been with Ignatius from the beginning of the journey to Rome. A native of Cilicia, in the same general corner of the Mediterranean coast as Ignatius’ home church, the deacon Philon had found time to make an extended journey with the Antiochan overseer, and had at least on one occasion served as Ignatius’ representative to a church that the revered overseer could not personally visit. A few details about this surrogate mission appear in Ignatius’ letter to the Philadelphians (11:1).

Philon’s mission to Philadelphia was not undertaken alone. He was accompanied by a man nicknamed “Goodfoot” (Agathopous, properly Rheus), who was also from somewhere near Antioch.[8] The two probably began the journey together and the letters show that they were sent as a team not only to Philadelphia but also to Smyrna (IgPhilad 11:1; IgSmyr 10:1).

By the time of the composition of the letter to the Philadelphians, which Ignatius composed in Troas, the team of Philon and Rheus had already been to Philadelphia and back, bringing good news about the church there.[9] A likely scenario is that Ignatius had sent them during his visit to Smyrna and had already set sail for Troas before the team got back. Not finding him at Smyrna, they followed him northward to Troas and delivered word about how they had fared in Philadelphia.

Even though Philon and Rheus had already been received hospitably in Philadelphia, Ignatius continues to engage in the ritual of commendation so common for the time and culture. Philon is “a man who has been attested to” (Philad 11:1). Conversely, Philon and Rheus “attest to you” (Philad 11:1). In commending his emissaries to the Philadelphians and acknowledging that his emissaries commend the Philadelphians, Ignatius lingers for a moment over what must have been the essential point of the mission of Philon and Rheus: to establish goodwill and comradeship between elements of the universal church.

The concept of timē occurs here again in connection with Philon the deacon. Just as Burrus the deacon had been sent with Ignatius as a representative of the Ephesians for the honor of the Ephesians (IgEph 2:1), so you might say that Philon the deacon had been sent to the Philadelphians in honor of Ignatius. In light of the connection between these missions and timē (“honor”), it is little wonder that Ignatius can only pray for the souls of those who dishonor his representatives: “As for anyone who would dishonor [Philon and Rheus]—may they find redemption by the grace of Jesus Christ” (IgPhilad 11:1). Dishonoring a representative dishonors the one he represents and opposes the purpose of his mission.

Zotion

The deacon Zotion receives one mention in the Ignatian corpus (IgMag 2:1). A member of the Magnesian church along the same stretch of the Meander River valley that Ephesus inhabited, Zotion joined a contingent of Magnesian leaders that traveled to Smyrna as representatives[10] of the Magnesian church. Four church leaders are mentioned as being part of the posse: the Magnesian overseer Damas, two of the eldership team (Bassus and Apollonius), and Zotion, a deacon. But of the four Ignatius expresses the most connection with the deacon Zotion. Zotion, like Burrus of Ephesus, is Ignatius’ “fellow bondslave” (IgMag 2:1; cf. IgEph 2:1). “I hope to enjoy [him],” says Ignatius, “since he submits to the overseer as to the grace of God and to the presbytery as to the law of Jesus Christ” (IgMag 2:1). In saying that he “hopes to enjoy” the deacon Zotion, Ignatius may be requesting the use of this church officer for another segment of his journey, subject of course to the approval of the overseer and elders of Magnesia.[11] The passage is interesting in that it shows the authority structure of the Magnesian church and tends to confirm our suspicions that deacons were the most suited of the church leaders for longer-term deployment as ambassadors.

The Role of Deacons

Additional intriguing clues about the function of deacons in the early second century appear in the Ignatian correspondence. Our investigation is helped along by the fact that church leadership is a thematic element in the exhortations of Ignatius.

Deacons Becoming Ambassadors

Church tradition holds that Ignatius was the direct successor of the apostle Peter in the job of overseer of the Antioch church.[12] In filling the position of the man to whom Jesus said, “Feed my sheep,”[13] and who instructed church leaders to “shepherd the flock of God among you,”[14] Ignatius must have felt the need to be a consummate pastor to the famous church of Antioch. Indeed, in almost every letter Ignatius makes some mention of his home church which was about to become leaderless.

In his letter to the Philadelphian church, Ignatius explains that he had heard news of his flock in Antioch, and that it was good news. Not content with this, however, Ignatius urges the Philadelphians to “appoint a deacon [diakonos] who can be an ambassador of God there, so that you can rejoice with them, being together in the same place, and can glorify the Name” (IgPhilad 10:2). Ignatius goes on to pronounce a blessing on the one who will be chosen for this “ministry” (diakonia), and says that it should not be too much of a hardship for the church at Philadelphia to send a deacon all that way, since the churches closer to Antioch had gone so far as to send overseers and elders as well as deacons (IgPhilad 10:2).

The mindset of Ignatius seems to be at once pastoral and strategic when he makes this request. Ignatius, on his way to Rome to die, believes that Antioch will soon be soon be mourning the loss on its overseer. By sending representatives and rallying around their sister church in Syria, the churches of Asia Minor can be of assistance in multiple ways.

This passage in Ignatius to the Philadelphians (10:1-2) serves to reinforce a basic thesis of this paper, which is that (1) in early Christianity, a high priority was placed on sending representatives between churches, and (2) deacons were the churches’ most available candidates to carry out these missions.

Deacons, the Mystery, and Evangelism

One of the frustrating things about the NT treatment of deacons is that little is said about what deacons actually do, and most of the attention is focused on how deacons need to maintain an irreproachable life.[15] Like the apostles of a generation earlier, Ignatius insists that a deacon must have high character. But what is interesting is that he goes into more detail than the apostles did about why a blameless life is important for a person carrying out the duties of a deacon. In other words, Ignatius looks at the job description of a deacon and explains that such a job description requires a person with a blameless life. Consider the following passage from Ignatius’ letter to the Trallians:

Those who are deacons of the mysteries of Jesus Christ must give satisfaction in every way to everyone. For they are not deacons of food and drink, but are servants (hyperetai) of the church of God. It is necessary therefore for them to guard against accusations like fire. (IgTrall 2:3)

From this passage one might conjecture that Greco-Roman households of the period sometimes had a servant called a diakonos who would act as a kind of waiter, serving food and drink. Ignatius implies that if church-appointed deacons were just table-servers, then their character would not matter much. After all, what does it matter whether your server at a restaurant has a blameless life or not? He will still serve you the same food. But Ignatius is saying that church deacons are something either much more than or completely different from household table-waiters.

The passage is interesting in light of the one portion of the NT that Christians tend to use to establish the function of deacons. I am speaking, of course, of the first verses of Acts 6, where food and drink are front and center. Unfortunately, the noun diakonos (“deacon”/”minister”) is not used in Acts 6:1-7, but the noun diakonia (“ministry”) is, as is the verb diaknonein (“to minister”). The story is familiar to us: the Greek-speaking widows “were being overlooked in the daily ministry [he diakonia he kathēmerinē]” (Acts 6:1). The twelve apostles, apparently finding that managing a complex food pantry was distracting them from their calling to proclaim the gospel, assembled their Christian brothers and said, “It is not good for us to forsake the word of God in order to minister [diakonein] tables” (6:2). They suggested that certain qualified men be appointed to take over this physical task, leaving the apostles free to “devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry [diakonia] of the word” (6:3).

For modern readers interested in discovering what the role of deacons was in the early church, the Acts passage presents a basic interpretive challenge. The passage presents not one but two groups of people who engage in an activity called diakonia, and it is not clear which of the two groups (if either of them) serves as a prototype for deacons in the church. On the one hand, the men appointed to handle the distribution of food engage in a physical type of diakonia. Their role as table-waiters reminds us of Ignatius’ phrase “deacons of food and drink” (IgTrall 2:3). On the other hand, the apostles, freed from the physical hassles of food-service, are able to devote themselves to the service (diakonia) of the word—that is, the presentation of the message of Jesus. So the apostles, for their part, are deacons of a message on behalf of the church.

Ignatius, in asserting that deacons are “not deacons of food and drink but are servants of the church of God” (IgTrall 2:3), opens the door for the intriguing possibility that it is the apostles in Acts 6 who serve as the true prototype for the office of deacon in the church, rather than the seven men chosen to meet physical needs. In short, the possibility presents itself that in Ignatius’ mind a deacon of the church is a minister of the word rather than a minister of tables.

As we mentioned above, the passage in Ignatius to the Trallians suggests that character is especially important for a deacon because of a deacon’s role. Ignatius hints at the role of deacons in two ways in the passage. We have dealt first with Ignatius’ assertion that a deacon is not a minister of food and drink, but is a servant of the church of God. Now we will look at how Ignatius hints at the role of deacons by qualifying them as “deacons of the mysteries of Jesus Christ” (IgTrall 2:3).

This phrase “deacons of the mysteries of Jesus Christ” (IgTrall 2:3) is reminiscent of Paul’s assertion that deacons should be “holding the mystery of the faith with a clean conscience” (1 Tim 3:9). The connection between deacons and the Christian mystery might be dismissed as incidental if all you have is the Pauline passage, but the Ignatian phrase suggests that mystery may have had a central place in the deaconal role.

To shed light on what the phrase “deacons of the mysteries of Jesus Christ” might mean, we turn to Paul’s use of the word “mystery.” Two examples from Ephesians are sufficient to show that for Paul, mystery has to do with what was hidden in the past but has become revealed with the coming of the Christ. In Ephesians 3 Paul explains, in an enthusiastic and winding sentence structure, that he has special insight into a mystery which was “was not made known to the sons of men in other generations” (v. 5) and was “hidden from the ages” (v. 9), but has now been revealed to the apostles. The mystery appears to have much to do with the gospel and the participation of the non-Jewish nations in the gospel plan, and Paul incidentally here calls himself a diakonos of the gospel for the purpose of making the mystery known (vv. 7-9). Likewise, in Ephesians 5, Paul explains that marriage is a mystery that has been revealed as referring to Christ and the church.

The strange thing that comes out of this investigation is the discovery that if anyone fits the Ignatian phrase “deacon of the mysteries of Jesus Christ,” it is Paul the apostle. Paul describes himself as a diakonos of the gospel (Eph 3:7) in the context of his drive to make the mystery of Christ known, so that diakonos for him becomes almost an evangelistic or missional term. The spirit of it is similar to what the apostles express in Acts 6, where they are so anxious to devote themselves to the “diakonia of the word” (Acts 6:3).

The Ignatian phrase “deacons of the mysteries of Jesus Christ” (IgTrall 2:3) takes on an interesting shade of meaning if we adopt the Pauline definition of mystery. In the case of Ignatius, one has to be open to the possibility that deacons are at times evangelistic ministers, men who are suited not only to act as ambassadors between Christians, but who also can serve out the gospel mysteries about Jesus to whoever will listen. Rather than serving tables, they may well serve a message, following in the deaconic footsteps of the apostles of Acts 6.

A Note About the Rank of Deacons

In the Ignatian leadership scheme, deacons rank below overseers and elders, but above the ordinary church member. This ranking pattern comes clear in Ignatius’ statements about respect, authority, and submission.

The evidence is abundant that Ignatius views deacons as holding an official church leadership position, just as overseers and elders do. Very often Ignatius will list three leadership positions in the same breath, namely, overseer, elder, deacon.[16]

The placement of deacons last in the triad (overseer, elder, deacon) suggests that Ignatius sees deacons as subordinate to overseers and elders, and this suspicion is confirmed by the language Ignatius uses for Zotion the deacon, who “submits to the overseer as to the grace of God and to the presbytery as to the law of Jesus Christ” (IgMag 2:1).

Although Ignatius saw it as appropriate for deacons to submit to their overseers and elders, he also firmly believed that deacons were in a position of authority relative to the rank and file church member. “Let everyone show respect to [entrepesthō] the deacons as to Jesus Christ,” he instructs the Trallians (IgTrall 3:1). “Show respect to the deacons as to the law of God.” Most striking is Ignatius’ account of how he once felt led to cry out in the middle of the assembly of Philadelphian believers: “Heed the overseer and the presbytery and the deacons!” (IgPhilad 7:1). Only by being in line with the leadership of the church, Ignatius felt, could Christians hope to find unity against erroneous teachings. Deacons, like overseers and elders, formed part of the leadership bulwark that stood against error.[17]

Conclusion

The letters of Ignatius of Antioch offer an intriguing glimpse into how mainstream Christianity viewed the office of deacon in the immediate aftermath of the apostolic era. The stories of deacons like Burrus, Philon, and Zotion combined with the comments of Ignatius on church leadership suggest that the earliest post-apostolic deacons may not have been defined by a role of attending to physical needs. Instead, a picture emerges in which deacons were well suited to travel as representatives of a sending church, to carry messages between Christian churches and individuals, and perhaps even to be entrusted with the mysteries of Jesus Christ in an evangelistic role.



[1] Ignatius to Polycarp 8:1.

[2] IgEph 2:1; IgPhilad 11:1.

[3] That Burrus was sent by the Ephesian church is made clear by the fact that it is the Ephesians to whom Ignatius turns to ask for the extended use of Burrus (IgEph 2:1). However, it appears that the Smyrneans also had some authority over Burrus’ movements, since Ignatius credits both the Ephesians and the Smyrneans with sending Burrus along with him to Troas (IgPhilad 11:2; IgSmyr 12:1). One can theorize that as a deacon Burrus had often made the relatively short trip from Ephesus to Smyrna as an ambassador, and in this sense he was felt to be the servant of both churches.

[4] “Concerning my fellow bondslave Burrus, your godly deacon who is in all things blessed, I ask that he remain for the honor of you and your overseer” (IgEph 2:1).

[5] IgEph 2:1.

[6] Other references in which Ignatius refers to deacons as syndouloi (“fellow bondslaves”) are IgSmyr 12:2; IgPhilad 4:1; IgMag 2:1. Two times Ignatius refers to deacons who accompanied him as “fellow bondslaves” (Burrus and Zotion) and two times he applies the designation to deacons of a church to which he is writing (IgPhilad 4:1 and IgSmyr 12:2).

[7] See also IgPhilad 11:2, where Burrus’ mission is described as a logos timēs. Perhaps playing on words, Ignatius asserts that in return Jesus will recompense (timēsei) the those who sent the deacon. Thus the honor that the Ephesians and Smyrnean paid to Ignatius in sending him help is worthy of a return honor.

[8] IgPhilad 11:1.

[9] Ignatius asserts that Philon and Rheus “testify to you,” and that he is glad that “you received them” (IgPhilad 11:1). This obviously implies that they had been to Philadelphia and now had caught up with Ignatius at his current location in Troas. That Philon was in Troas with Ignatius is made clear from IgSmyr 13:1, in which Ignatius writes from Troas that “Philon, who is with me, greets you.”

[10] The language of vicarious representation  is clear here. “I have been counted worthy to see you through [Damas, Bassus, Apollonius, and Zotion]” (IgMag 2:1). In seeing these particular Magnesians, Ignatius considers that he has in a manner of speaking experienced the presence of the entire Magnesian church.

[11] One is reminded of Paul’s use of the expression “hope to enjoy” (onaimēn) with regard to Onesimus, whom he hoped to retain the services of (see Paul’s letter to Philemon).

[12] Eusebius designates Ignatius as “the second after Peter to obtain the overseership of the line of succession in Antioch” (Ecclesiastical History 3.36.2). He in turn was succeeded in Antioch by a man named Heros (EcclHist 3.36.15).

[13] John 21:17.

[14] 1 Peter 2.

[15] Consider, for instance, Paul’s list of qualifications for deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8-13.

[16] A good example is IgPhilad 4:1, which says, “There is . . . one cup for the unity of his blood, one altar, just as there is one overseer, along with the presbytery and the deacons.” See also IgMag 13:1; IgPhilad 1:1, 7:1; IgSmyr 8:1; 12:2; IgTrall 2:2-3; Ignatius to Polycarp 6:1. The opening greeting of Ignatius to the Philadelphians in particular shows that deacons, like elders and presumably overseers, are “chosen according to the decree of Jesus Christ” and thus inhabit an official church leadership position.

[17] See also Ignatius to Polycarp 6:1 where Ignatius expresses his solidarity with “those who submit to the overseers, presbytery, deacons.”