Specific Functions of Ordained Clergy

The main task of the bishop was to preside at the altar—giving voice to the people and to the royal priesthood by offering the prayers of the Church. He was surrounded by his fellow-presbyters1 as they all prayed the anaphoral eucharistic prayer together, but it was his voice that was heard by the faithful and his voice to which the people responded with the liturgical “Amen,” sealing his prayer, and making it the prayer of the Church. The prayers of the other presbyters were offered silently; it was the bishop who presided.

As the local leader and main shepherd for the community, he was also the one who baptized, who excommunicated from the assembly those whose sins merited such expulsion and received them back into the Eucharistic fellowship once they repented. That is, he was their local pastor.

We see these functions delineated in the document known as the Apostolic Tradition,2 which represented the liturgical praxis of Rome in the early third century. The ordination prayer for the bishop mentions his function of “propitiating (God’s) countenance and to offer the gifts of (His) holy church”— to preside at the Eucharist; his function of “having the power to forgive sins”— to receive the penitent back to communion, through what would later be called the sacrament of confession; his function of conferring orders”— to ordain presbyters and deacons and other ranks and orders; and his function of “loosening every bond”— to exorcise in baptism and to heal.3 Though assisted by others, such as presbyters and deacons, as the president at the Eucharist, he was the main liturgist and celebrant for the community.

As the local leader, he was also the main teacher, since it was his teaching that was reflected in the anaphoral prayer. His teaching was therefore the teaching and doctrine of the local church; its orthodoxy of doctrine depended entirely upon his own. That is the reason that a bishop and his community would break communion with another bishop and community if their doctrine diverged significantly. The unity of the Church depended upon the unity of the bishops with one another, and their mutual recognition of each as holding the same faith. The bishops defined the faith of their community, and they were therefore the glue which held the universal Church together.

This centrality of the bishop, to provide the doctrinal norm for the community, is expressed during the consecration of bishops in the Orthodox Church. That is, they are ordained during the Divine Liturgy in time for them to give the homily—to exercise their office as teacher.

The main task of the presbyter4 was to exercise authority as one of the rulers of the local church. The presbyters as a group, along with their leader, the bishop, made decisions regarding the governance of the local church—for example, who to appoint as reader. Thus, when Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, appointed a subdeacon and a reader in the absence of his presbyters, he felt he had to justify his actions to them, explaining that it was necessary at the time and assuring them that the men were worthy.5 Similarly, when Bishop Alexander of Alexandria wanted to depose his presbyter Arius, he had to call his other presbyters to do this.6 The presbyteral council had local power, exercised in conjunction with the bishop.

It was natural, therefore, that when all the faithful could not gather in the same place for the Eucharist under the presidency of the bishop, that he would appoint one of his presbyters to serve the “overflow” congregation elsewhere. This arrangement was at least as old of St. Ignatius in the early second century, who wrote that a Eucharist was valid if it was presided over by a bishop “or one to whom he shall have committed it.”7

Very soon, in fact, the Church grew to such proportions that many Eucharists were presided over by presbyters, and not by the bishop, though the bishop remained the local leader throughout the city, village, or hamlet over which he presided, and arranged for all the baptisms there. In the present day, with our large dioceses where the bishops must provide administrative leadership over many cities, villages, and hamlets, the normal president at the Eucharist is always a presbyter, the bishop being rarely seen. Almost all the episcopal, pastoral, and liturgical functions have devolved upon the presbyters, ordination being the sole exception.

The main task of the deacon was one of financial service and pastoral aid. Deacons were the institutional servants of the Church, responsible for the exercise of the congregation’s diakonia. Indeed, the word “deacon” means “servant”, and diakonia means “service”. But not just any service—service to the poor.

Thus, in Acts 6:1 Luke states that the Hellenistic widows of Jerusalem were overlooked in the “daily serving of food”—in Greek, the daily diakonia. In Acts 11:29, when the faithful in Antioch collected money to send to the Christian poor in Judea, this relief money is described again by Luke as diakonia. In Romans 15:31, Paul also describes the money he had collected for the poor in the mother church as “my diakonia for Jerusalem.” Thus, the word diakonia often meant “money”; the diakonos or “deacon” was the one locally responsible for it.

In the early church, he was charged with oversight for the church’s charitable work, and for such pastoral tasks as taking Holy Communion to those who were absent from the Liturgy.8 The deacon functioned as a liturgical assistant to the presiding clergy in the Liturgy, offering the laity’s prayers in the litanies because of his pastoral ministry to the laity throughout the week. Nowadays it is customary to regard the deacon merely as a liturgical ornament to the bishop—nice to have, but distinctly superfluous. Indeed, many Orthodox congregations do not have deacons. This would have been unthinkable in the early church. Deacons were essential to each congregation because deacons were the embodiment and institutionalization of their local ministry to the poor. How, they would have asked, could the local church fulfill its diakonia to the poor without its diakonos?

Because of their liturgical role as assistant in the Liturgy, deacons are ordained at the place in the service which best reveals their role as assistant—that is, they are ordained after consecration of the Eucharistic gifts, but before their distribution, so that they can help to distribute Holy Communion. Even now, at every Liturgy, the deacon is the one bringing out the Chalice and inviting the faithful to come forward.

All these offices are required for the healthy functioning of the Church, for the life in the local church includes the proclamation of the Gospel, the teaching of the Scriptures, the ordering of a governed and disciplined life, and the works of mercy to the poor and needy.

The bishops, presbyters, and deacons, though ordained with public prayer by the laying on of hands, were not the only ordained offices in the Church. Other offices, involving public authority over others, also required public ordination and recognition. These included those doing several necessary tasks, sometimes called “the minor orders” to distinguish them from the “major orders” of bishop, presbyter, and deacon.

One minor order was the subdeacon, whose task it was to aid the deacon in the service of the altar, ensuring that all functioned smoothly. The present Orthodox prayer ordaining a subdeacon prays that he may “stand before the doors of Your holy temple and kindle the lamps in the tabernacle of Your glory”—do all the hidden labour necessary at the Liturgy.

Another office was that of the reader, whose task it was to read the lessons at the liturgical assembly. This was a key role, since not everyone could read well in those early days. Moreover, it was the responsibility of the readers to keep custody of the books,9 which were very expensive.

Other ancient clerical orders have fallen in abeyance, since the need for them no longer exists. In ancient days, there was the office of the doorkeeper, who functioned as a kind of security in the days when Christian assembly was illegal.

There was the office of exorcist, responsible for saying the regular prayers of exorcism in the days when there were many adult converts requiring days of exorcism leading up to their baptism.

There was formerly the office of deaconess. A deaconess was required in the days when candidates for baptism were baptized naked, and a woman was required to descend into the water with the naked female candidate to anoint her. Obviously (some felt) this task could only be performed by a woman, and so deaconesses were ordained to fulfill this work. Deaconesses were required to be single and at least 40 years of age.10 With the eventual lapse of an effective catechumenate and the predominance of infant baptism, her work was no longer required, and the title became merely honorary as the office died out.


  1. See 1 Peter 5:1, where Peter refers to himself as a “fellow-presbyter” (Greek συμπρεσβυτερος sumpresbyteros).

  2. Hippolytus, On the Apostolic Tradition, Popular Patristics Series (Crestwood: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2001).

  3. Hippolytus, On the Apostolic Tradition, chapter 3.

  4. Today usually called “priest”. The two terms are different: a πρεσβύτερος, presbyteros was an elder, originally an old man. A priest (ιερεύς, iereus) was someone who offered sacrifices. Only gradually did the term come to be applied to the presbyters after they came to preside more often at the Eucharist.

  5. Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 23, “To the Clergy, on the Letters Sent to Rome, and About the Appointment of Saturus as Reader, and Optatus as Sub-Deacon.” A.D. 250.

  6. Gregory Dix, Jurisdiction in the Early Church: Episcopal and Papal (London: Faith House, 1975), 40–42.

  7. St. Ignatius of Antioch, The Letter to the Smyrneans, chapter 8, v.1.

  8. Justin Martyr, The First Apology, chapter 65.

  9. Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (Westminster: Dacre Press, 1949), 25.

  10. See Canon 15 of the Council of Chalcedon.