A Display of God's Glory/Deacons
From Gospel Translations
Let’s begin with one of the most familiar offices in churches today—the deacons. Depending on what kind of church you come from “deacon” may conjure up images of gray-haired bankers sitting around long, highly-varnished tables in opulently appointed church parlors. Or the word could bring to mind earnest servants of the church coordinating needs-based ministries, evangelistic outreach, or pastoral care. This is what deacons are in our churches. What are they in the Bible?
Service in the New Testament World
The New Testament world was similar to our own in the way it viewed servanthood. Service to others was not admired by the Greeks. Instead, they primarily admired the development of one’s own character and personality, always with an eye to maintaining self-respect. Diaconal service to others was seen as what we would describe by the pejorative term “servile.”
Service in the Bible
The Bible, though, presents service quite differently. In our modern translations of the New Testament, the word diakonos is usually translated as “servant,” but sometimes as “minister,” and sometimes it is just transliterated as “deacon.” It can refer to service in general (e.g., Acts 1:17, 25; 19:22; Rom. 12:7; I Cor. 12:5; 16:15; Eph. 4:12; Col. 4:17; II Tim. 1:18; Philemon 13;Heb. 6:10; I Pet 4:10-11; Rev. 2:19), to rulers in particular (e.g., Rom. 13:4), or to caring for physical needs (e.g., Matt. 25:44; Acts 11:29; 12:25; Rom. 15:25, 31; II Cor. 8:4, 19-20; 9:1, 12-13; 11:8). It is clear in the New Testament that women can do at least some of this serving (e.g., Matt. 8:15; Mark 1:31; Luke 4:39; Matt. 27:55; Mark 15:41; cf. Luke 8:3; Luke 10:40; John 12:2; Rom. 16:1). Angels serve in this way. (e.g.,Matt. 4:11;Mark 1:13). It sometimes refers specifically to waiting tables (e.g., Matt. 22:13; Luke 10:40; 17:8; John 2:5, 9; 12:2), and though such service was despised in the Greek world, Jesus regarded it very differently. In John 12:26 Jesus said, “Whoever deacons me must follow me; and where I am, my deacon also will be. My Father will honor the one who deacons me.” Again in Matt. 20:26 (cf.Mark 9:35) Jesus said, “whoever wants to be great, must be your deacon.” And in Matt. 23:11 (cf. Mark 10:43; Luke 22:26-27) he said that “the greatest among you will be your deacon.”
In fact, Jesus even presented himself as a type of deacon (e.g., Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45; Luke 22:26-27; cf. John 13; Luke 12:37; Romans 15:8). Christians are presented as being deacons of Christ or His Gospel. That’s how the apostles are depicted (Acts 6:1-7), and it is certainly how Paul regularly refers to himself and to those who worked with him (e.g., Acts 20:24: I Cor. 3:5; II Cor. 3:3, 6-9; 4:1; 5:18; 6:3- 4; 11:23; Eph. 3:7; Col. 1:23; I Tim. 1:12; II Tim. 4:11). He referred to himself as a deacon among the Gentiles, the particular group he was called specially to serve (Acts 21:19; Rom. 11:13). Paul calls Timothy a deacon of Christ (e.g., I Tim. 4:6; II Tim. 4:5), and Peter says that the Old Testament prophets were deacons to us Christians (I Pet. 1:12). Angels are called deacons (Heb. 1:14), and even Satan, too, has his deacons (II Cor. 3:6-9; 11:15; Gal. 2:17).
Maintaining a Distinction Between Deacons and Elders
We should always be careful to maintain a distinction between the ministry of deacons and the ministry of elders. In one sense both elders and deacons are involved in “deaconing,” but that service takes on two very different forms. It is in the first seven verses of Acts 6 that we find the crucial passage where deaconing is divided between traditional deaconing (table-waiting, physical service), and the kind of “deaconing” of the Word to which the apostles (and later, elders) were called. The deacons described in Acts 6 are very much like the church’s waiters, at least in an administrative sense. They are to care for the physical needs of the church. Establishing a group with this particular ministry is important because a failure to do so can result in these two types of deaconing—of the Word (elders) and of tables (deacons)—being confused with one another and one of them thus forgotten. Churches should neglect neither the preaching of the Word, nor the practical care for the members that helps to foster unity and that fills out our duties to love one another. Both of these aspects of a church’s life and ministry are important. In order to assure that we have both kinds of deaconing going on in our churches, we should distinguish the diaconal ministries from the ministry of the elders.
The Early Church
During the time of the apostles, the situation in churches was fairly fluid, though a plurality of elders and a plurality of deacons seem fairly constant. Immediately after New Testament times, these separate offices of elders and deacons continued. The role of elders began to be distinguished between bishops and priests, but deacons continued being always listed with and after the bishops and priests, usually being seen as those who were tasked fundamentally with assisting the bishops or overseers. In the early church, the office generally seems to have been held for life. The functions of the office, however, varied from place to place. Deacons’ duties might include:
Duties of Deacons
- reading or singing Scripture in church,
- receiving the offerings and keeping records of who gave,
- distributing the offerings to the bishops, presbyters, and themselves, to the unmarried women and widows, and to the poor,
- distributing communion,
- leading prayers during service, and giving a signal for
those who were not to take communion to leave before the ordinance was administered.
This would be a pretty good summary of the duties of deacons from the 2nd through the 6th centuries.
The Roman and Greek Churches
As the monarchical episcopate developed, so did a kind of monarchical diaconate beneath it. As the role of bishop developed, so did the role of archdeacon. The archdeacon was the chief deacon of a particular place, and might be described as a deputy concerned with material matters. It is not surprising to note that the archdeacon in Rome became particularly important. Suffice it to say that abuses crept in and that deacons, and especially archdeacons, became quite wealthy. How ironic that those who were meant to serve others instead used others to serve their own desires! For a number of reasons, the deacons’ influence declined in the middle ages. Caring for the poor became more a vehicle for the contributors to gain credit with God in order to, as they conceived it, lessen their time in purgatory.
The Eastern Orthodox church has always kept separate deacons—laymen who served in that capacity. In the west, though, by the late Middle Ages being a deacon had become merely a step on the way to being ordained as a priest, that is, an elder. Deacons in the Roman Catholic and the Episcopalian churches are still just that—trainee ministers who serve as deacons for one year before becoming full-fledged priests. The Second Vatican Council has re-opened the possibility of a different, permanent, more biblical kind of deacon in the Roman Catholic Church.
The Lutheran Church
Luther recovered the church’s responsibility to care physically for the church and especially for the poor in the church, though Lutheran churches didn’t recover the idea of the New Testament deacon. In the Lutheran churches today, practice varies. In some places deacons are unordained, but in other places any ordained assistant minister would be called a deacon, particularly those with responsibilities for pastoral care and evangelism.
Deacons in the Reformation
In many of the more evangelical Protestant churches during the Reformation, the biblical practice of having deacons distinct from elders or pastors was recognized. At the time of the Reformation, some Protestants, like Martin Butzer at Cambridge, urged that the duties of the deacons should be re-established. In each church, they said, the deacons should distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving poor, discretely investigating and quietly caring for the needs of the one and expelling the other from the church. They should also keep written records, as they were able, of funds given by church members.
The Presbyterian Church
In the Presbyterian church, deacons are those who administer the alms and care for the poor and sick (though we might argue that these functions have largely been taken over by the secular state). The deacons are a separate body from the elders and are responsible to them. This is how many Baptist and Congregational churches were once organized. Some still are organized in this way, and most have at least to some degree maintained this structure.
Baptist and Congregational Churches
In many Baptist and Congregational churches, however, more definitely spiritual functions are assigned to the deacons. They assist the pastor in various ways, especially in distributing the elements at the Lord’s Supper, and have evolved into a kind of executive and financial board for the church, particularly in congregations that no longer have boards of elders. Deacons often serve actively for limited periods of time, though the recognition of a person as a deacon is usually considered permanent.
That’s how Christians have done it. Now, do the Scriptures have any word for us by which to reform our practices?
Deacons in Acts 6
As we have seen, the diakonos words appear many times in the New Testament. The clearest picture, though, comes perhaps from Acts 6, where we think the first deacons were set aside. From that account, we may note three aspects of the deacons’ ministry among us.
First, deacons are to care for the physical needs of the church. Read Acts 6:1. Some of the Christians “were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.”We have noted that the root of the word deacon means minister or servant, and particularly was used of table-waiters at the time, or of various types of service, usually either physical or financial. In Acts 6:2, the Apostles characterized this service as “waiting on tables,” or literally “deaconing tables.” They were meeting physical needs. This is the first aspect of this kind of deacon ministry. It is important to note that the deacons in Acts 6 likely didn’t do all the deaconing themselves; rather these few deacons likely organized many other Christians in the church to ensure that the work would be done.
Caring for people, especially for other Christians—and most especially for other members of our own congregation— is important for the physical well-being of those concerned, for their spiritual well-being, as an encouragement to them, as an embodiment of and a reminder of God’s care for them, and as a witness to those outside. What did Jesus say in John 13? “This is how the world will know that you are my disciples, by the love you have for one another.” The physical care presented in this passage demonstrates just that kind of Christ-like love.
Behind this, though, we see that there is a purpose not just for those in need, but for the body as a whole. This is the second aspect of the kind of deacon ministry we see in Acts 6—it is centered on the unity of the body.
Unity of the Body
If you look at this passage in a more abstract way, you could ask, “In caring for these widows, what were they really doing?” They were working to make the food distribution among the widows more equitable. That’s true, but why was that important? Because this physical neglect was causing a spiritual disunity in the body. That’s how the passage begins in 6:1, “In those days, when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against those of the Aramaic-speaking community because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.” One group of Christians was beginning to complain against another group. This seems to be what arrested the attention of the Apostles. They were not merely trying to rectify a problem in the benevolence ministry of the church. They were trying to stop the church’s unity from fracturing and being broken up, and that in a particularly dangerous way: along traditional cultural lines of division. The deacons were appointed to head off disunity in the church.
The Goal of Spiritual Gifts
Really, this is the goal for all the gifts that God’s Spirit gives to His church—to build one another up and encourage each other (e.g., Rom. 1:11-12). Paul says to the Corinthians that God’s gifts are “for the common good,” (I Cor. 12:4-7, 12). He exhorts these early Christians, “Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church,” (I Cor. 12:12). So Paul says in I Cor. 14:26, “all must be done for strengthening.” As John Calvin said, commenting on I Cor. 14:12, “The more anxious a person is to devote himself to upbuilding, the more highly Paul wishes him to be regarded.” So Peter wrote, “Each should use whatever gift he has received to serve others administering God’s grace,” (I Pet. 4:10).
No Small-mindedness in Deacons
Edifying and uniting the church is especially the ministry of the deacons as we see it in Acts 6. Therefore, we cannot have people serve us well as deacons who are unhappy with the church. The deacons are not those in the church who are complaining the loudest or jarring the church with their actions or attitudes. Quite the opposite! The deacons are to be the mufflers, the shock-absorbers.
Support of the Ministry of the Word
Therefore, among those who would serve a church as a deacon there must be no small-mindedness. Such members must not be given to “turfiness”—caring about their area, their rights and prerogatives in that area, or even quietly resenting service by others who would interlope into their sphere! Deacons are not set apart to advocate their cause, or argue for their corners like representatives or lobbyists. Instead, they are to come on behalf of the whole—to serve particular needs, yes—but with a sense of the whole, a sense that their work contributes to the health of the whole. Even more, they are to be able to help others come to understand this particular ministry as a part of the uniting and edifying of the church as a whole. They are to be builders of the church by being servants who help to bind us together with cords of kindness and of loving service. At still another level, these men were appointed to support the ministry of the apostles. In Acts 6:3, the Apostles seem to acknowledge that caring for physical needs was a responsibility that the church, and therefore in some sense they themselves, had. But they said in 6:3 that they would turn this responsibility over to another group within the church. In that sense, these deacons were not only helping the body as a whole, but by so doing, they were helping to support these apostles/elders, whose main obligations lay elsewhere.
Deacons Are Not a Second House of the Legislature
So the deacons were not a separate power block in the church. They were not a second house of the legislature, through which bills needed to be passed. They were servants who served the church as a whole by helping with the responsibilities that the main teachers could not perform. Deacons supported the teachers of the Word in their ministry. They were fundamentally encouragers and supporters of the ministry of the elders. If this is the case, then it is the most supportive people in the church who should serve the church as the deacons. We should look for gifts of encouragement, so that more, not fewer, people will be blessed by their service.
Deacons Coordinate Particular Ministries
At our church in Washington, D.C., we recognize our deacons not as a deliberative body, but rather as those people in our church who coordinate particular needed ministries in the church. What we hope and pray is that each one of those who serve as deacons will help to unify us through various ministries, helping individuals, helping the body, and glorifying God in it all. We have a deacon who supervises our ministry of hospitality, another who coordinates our ministry through the radio and website, another who handles our sound system, and another for member care. At this writing we have fourteen different deacons serving us in diaconal positions. We regularly retire positions that no longer seem to need coordination, and split burgeoning ones into two, or even create new ones as needs and opportunities in the body become apparent to us.
We hope that these deacons will be some of the leading utilizers of the church’s human resources. We hope that they will be diligent in praying for us, in getting to know the whole body, in seeing how the services that they coordinate can forward the ministry of the church as a whole. We recognize that this service that they perform for us is costly. They must understand their deaconship as their main ministry in the church while they serve in that position. But what a blessing such servants are to us as they develop hearts of service in other brothers and sisters, training them to see the role of this or that particular ministry in building up the church! Through their activity and creativity, our deacons will bless our church for far longer than they have the actual responsibility to coordinate the particular ministry in which they now work.
Qualifications of Deacons
1 Timothy 3
In I Timothy 3:8-13, Paul spells out to Timothy, the pastor of the church in Ephesus, what these deacons should be like. Combining the characteristics listed there with the qualities of those selected in Acts 6, we can certainly say that those who serve us as deacons should be known to be full of the Holy Spirit (because though concerned with physical things, theirs is certainly a spiritual ministry). These deacons should be known to be full of wisdom. They should be chosen by the congregation, with the congregation’s confidence. They should willingly and diligently take on the responsibility for the particular needs their ministry is meant to serve. They should be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, not pursuing dishonest gain, keeping hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience, tested and approved servants who are the husband of but one wife and who manage their own children and household well.
Women as Deacons
That deacons are commanded to be the “husband of one wife” does not preclude the service of women in diaconal positions. The example of Phoebe in Romans 16:1, the use of the deacon words elsewhere of women in the Scriptures, and to a lesser degree, the long history of deaconnesses in Baptist churches, has led our own church happily to embrace the ministry of women serving us as deacons. Yet because of I Timothy 2 and of the larger Biblical picture of male headship, we would discourage churches from recognizing women as deacons if their office was confused with that of the elders (as deacons are in so many churches today). It is our clarity about the distinct role of elders, and the fact that those elders must be males, that enables us to encourage freely the service of our sisters as deacons or deaconesses recognized by the church.
In summary, the New Testament would seem to bring together the three aspects of deacon ministry that we’ve noted in Acts 6—care for physical needs to the end of uniting the Body under the ministers of the Word. Deacons are to support the ministry of the elders, unite the Body, and care for the needy. They are to be encouragers, peace-makers and servants. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The church does not need brilliant personalities but faithful servants of Jesus and the brethren,” (Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 109).