10 Things You Should Know about Deacons in the New Testament1
As we are in the process of building a diaconate at Bridgeway, I thought it would be helpful to mention a few important things to keep in mind.
(1) The English word deacon is the translation of the Greek word diakonos which appears 29x in the NT. However, only four of those twenty-nine occurrences refer to a person who holds the office of deacon (Rom. 16:1; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8, 12). The other instances of the word simply mean servant or messenger or one who ministers for the sake of others (see Luke 22:26-27; John 12:26; Eph. 3:7; 1 Tim. 4:6). In Acts 6, the passage most often associated with the office of deacon, the noun itself nowhere appears. But the verb to serve or to minister, diakoneo, is found in Acts 6:2.
(2) The need for some who could serve came as a result of ever-increasing church growth. Widows, as well as those with special physical (financial? food?) problems alerted the apostles to the urgency of this ministry. Although serving others was not “beneath the dignity” of the apostles, they concluded that their efforts should be devoted to “preaching the word of God” and to “prayer” (Acts 6:2, 4). They decided that seven men should be appointed “to this duty” (Acts 6:3). To qualify for this office, one must be “of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3).
(3) It should be noted that nothing is said in Acts 6 about an “office” of deacon. Furthermore, it is the apostles, not local church elders, who made this decision that would free their time to spend in the Word and in prayer. Nevertheless, most agree that this passage provides us with a model for the office of deacon that would later be articulated by Paul in 1 Timothy 3.
(4) Romans 16:1-2 is a crucial text. There Paul says: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant [diakonos] of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well” (Rom. 16:1-2). Some argue that Phoebe was merely a “servant” but did not hold the office of a deacon. Paul also applies the term to Apollos (1 Cor. 3:5), Tychicus (Eph. 6:21; Col. 4:7), Epaphras (Col. 1:7), and Timothy (1 Tim. 4:6). Although others hold a different opinion, it seems to me that the primary reason they resist speaking of Phoebe as an office-holder is the prior conviction that the role of deacon is gender specific, that is, it is restricted to males. It may well be that there is an element of fear operative in this as well. In other words, some fear that to open the office of Deacon to women is to empower them to rule or exercise authority over men in a way that would violate Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 2. Or they fear that to make women Deacons is a “slippery slope” on the path to appointing them as Elders.
(5) Paul opens his letter to the Philippians with this address: “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers [lit., bishops, elders] and deacons” (Phil. 1:1). It seems clear that Paul envisions two “offices” in the local church: (1) Elders/Bishops/Overseers, and (2) Deacons.
(6) The only other two occurrences of the term are found in 1 Timothy 3:8 and 12 where Paul lists the qualifications of those who fill this office:
“Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 3:8-13).
(7) There are differences between Elders and Deacons. The Elder has ruling authority. He holds the office of “overseer” (1 Tim. 3:1). Other texts point to the governing authority of Elders (1 Thess. 5:12-13; 1 Tim. 3:4-5; 5:17-18; Titus 1:5-9; Heb. 13:17; 1 Peter 5:1-4). Deacons, on the other hand, are never described as exercising this sort of ruling or governing authority. They are servants.
Whereas Elders must be able “to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2) and “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9), Deacons are never said to be people who are able to teach. Although “they must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience” (1 Tim. 3:9), nowhere does the NT say they must be able or gifted or qualified to teach doctrine.
A comparison of the qualifications for both the office of Elder and Deacon indicates that the latter must meet virtually the same moral and spiritual standards as the former. In other words, the “bar” is set just as high for Deacons as for Elders when it comes to spiritual maturity in Christ.
(8) An interesting qualification for the office of Deacon is stated in 1 Timothy 3:10 – “And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless.” The nature of this “testing” is not specified, but it must surely include an examination of one’s character, history of service within the church, reputation among others, and one’s theological convictions.
(9) Nowhere outside of the book of Acts are the duties and responsibilities of a deacon mentioned. Twice Paul describes them as “serving”, but never provides content or structure to what this means. Most believe this is because the early church looked to the portrayal of deacons in Acts 6 as providing the nature of this office and the sort of “service” or “ministry” they would provide. The most that we might say with confidence is that “Deacons are needed in the church to provide logistical and material support so that the elders can concentrate their efforts on the Word of God and prayer” (Ben Merkle, 238).
(10) Given the lack of specified content as to the duties of a deacon, it seems to me that each church should retain the freedom to determine the extent of responsibility delegated to those who are appointed to this office. In other words, each church must decide for itself what are the needs that require the input and oversight of deacons. This will likely vary from church to church. What are some duties that deacons might be responsible for today? They would likely take on any tasks not directly related to teaching or ruling the local church. Ben Merkle lists the following areas of ministry appropriate to the office of Deacon:
Facilities. The deacons could be responsible for the basic management of the church property. This would include making sure the place of worship is prepared for the worship service. Other items may include cleanup, sound system, etc.
Benevolence. Similar to what took place in Acts 6 with the daily distribution to the widows, the deacons should be involved in administrating funds for the needy.
Finances. Some believe that matters of finance should be handled by the elders since the famine-relief money brought by Paul and Barnabas was delivered to the elders (Acts 11:30). But while the elders can oversee the financial business of the church, it is probably best left to the deacons to handle the day-to-day matters. This would include collecting and counting the offering, record keeping, helping to set the church budget, etc.
Ushers. The deacons could be responsible for distributing bulletins, seating the congregation, preparing the elements for communion, etc.
Logistics. Deacons should be available to help in a variety of ways so that the elders are able to concentrate on teaching and shepherding the church (Merkle, 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons, 241).
In addition to the above, the deacons might serve in what may be called a global diaconate. This ministry is designed to mobilize members of the church and the broader community to respond to natural disasters wherever they may occur. The earthquake in Haiti, the tsunami in Japan, the hurricanes in Texas and Florida, are just a few examples of hard-hit areas that call for immediate assistance. The global diaconate would stand ready at all times to do whatever can be done in terms of providing on-site assistance as well as financial support to the most needy of the world. One might also envision deacons interviewing candidates for baptism, administrating and leading prayer meetings, planning retreats and conferences, etc.
In the next “10 Things” article we’ll look at the question of whether or not women can serve as deacons. Just to let you know in advance where I land on that issue: my answer is Yes!