Biblical Eldership/Appendix 2: Deacons

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By John Piper About Eldership
Chapter 10 of the book Biblical Eldership

What Did Deacons Do?

The word "deacon" comes from the Greek word diakonos. It usually has the general meaning, "servant," in a broad range of contexts.

For example:

The servants at the wedding who carried the water containers.

John 2:5, 9

His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you."

Christ is called servant to the circumcision.

Romans 15:8

Christ became a servant to the circumcision to show God's truthfulness.

Paul calls himself a servant (=minister) of the new covenant.

2 Corinthians 3:6

God has qualified us to be ministers of a new covenant.

. . .and of the Gospel

Colossians 1:23

Do not shift from the hope of the Gospel. . . of which I Paul became a minister.

. .and of the church.

Colossians 1:24

I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister.

See also 1 Corinthians 3:5.

Tychicus is called a faithful servant in the Lord.

Ephesians 6:21

Tychicus the beloved brother and faithful minister of the Lord will tell you everything.

Timothy is called God's servant.

1 Thessalonians 3:2

We sent Timothy, our brother and God's servant in the Gospel of Christ.

The disciples are told that if they would be great they must be servants.

Matthew 20:26

Whoever would be great among you must be your servant.

The Greek noun that describes what a diakonos does is diakonia and has meanings just as broad.

Martha is concerned with too much serving (Luke 10:40).

The widows of the Hellenists were being overlooked in the daily distribution(Acts 6:1).

But three verses later (Acts 6:4) Luke refers to the task of the apostles as the ministry of the Word (see Acts 1:17, 25).

The raising of money for the poor saint was called a ministry (Acts 11:29; 12:25; Romans 15:31; 2 Corinthians 8:4; 9:1, 12, 13).

Paul calls his own assignment from the Lord a ministry (Acts 20:24; 21:19; Romans 11:13; 2 Corinthians 4:1; 5:18).

It is listed in the gifts between prophecy and teaching in Romans 12:7. And "various ministries" is listed between "various gifts" and "various workings" in 1 Corinthians 12:5.

The old covenant is called a ministry of death and condemnation as compared to the new covenant which is called a ministry of the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:7, 8, 9).

Pastor/teachers are to equip the saints to do the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:12).

Angels are sent for ministry to saints (Hebrews 1:4).

The verb form of this Greek word is diakoneo. It can also have the broad general meaning of "serve."

Jesus came to serve not be served (Matthew 20:28).

Therefore he taught that a good leader is one who serves (Luke 22:26 ).

Jesus said that if anyone serves him, the Father would honor him (John 12:26).

Timothy and Erastus are described as those who serve Paul (Acts 19:22).

But there is a strong tendency of this verb (diakoneo) to refer to the kind of serving that involves very practical acts of supplying material needs, and literally table-service.

Angels came to serve Jesus in the wilderness, that is, to tend to his needs (Matthew 4:11).

Peter's mother-in-law rose from her sick bed to serve her guests (Matthew 8:15).

The women who followed Jesus served out of their own pockets (Matthew 27:55; Luke 8:3).

Martha served from the kitchen (Luke 10:40; John 12:2).

Paul's carrying money to Jerusalem is doing service (Romans 15:25; 2 Corinthians 8:19).

The serving of Onesiphorus was refreshing to Paul. It was mentioned in connection with his not being ashamed of Paul's chains. This probably implies that he visited him in prison (2 Timothy 1:16-18). In the same vein, Paul wants to keep Onesimus, the converted slave, with him so he can serve him in prison (Philemon 13).

The saints of Hebrews are described as serving the saints in love (6:10), and later they are described as visiting saints in prison (10:32-34).

Speaking and serving are treated separately by Peter (1 Peter 4:10-11), as though there may have been a word ministry (perhaps the teaching of elders) and a non-word-serving ministry (perhaps the service of deacons) .

Matthew 25:44 may be the best summary in the New Testament of the kinds of activities done by one who "serves."

Then they also will answer, "Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not serve thee?"


The basic meaning of the diakon-word group is apparently practical, active, helping with respect to the basic necessities of life.

From Matthew 25:44, we could include dire needs arising from hunger, thirst, alienation, nakedness, sickness, imprisonment. That would imply that the basic notion of "serving" in the sense of being a deacon is to help meet needs for:

Probably the term is applied to ministries of the Word and apostleship and Christ's own ministry to show that they are to be done humbly and in compassion and for the benefit of others. But when Jesus says in Luke 22:26 that the leader should become as one who serves (as he did!), he does not mean that there are no differences between a leader and a non-leader. He means that the lowliness that is natural for a table waiter should also characterize those in positions of leadership. So even though the highest offices (apostle, for example) are called "ministry" or "service," this does not mean that there is no office in the church with a special focus on practical and more material needs.

It appears that the deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8-13 and Philippians 1:1 were that kind of officers.

Were Women Deacons?

Probably yes. There are four observations that incline me to think that this office was held by both men and women.

1. The Greek word for deacon can be masculine or feminine in the same form. So the word itself does not settle the issue.

2. In the middle of the qualifications for deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8-13 Paul says, "The women likewise must be serious, no slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things." This could be the wives of the deacons, but could also be the women deacons. The latter is suggested by the fact that no reference to women is made in 3:1-7. Since women were not candidates for the eldership in the New Testament (1 Timothy 2:12-13) because of its authoritative function in teaching and oversight, the absence of the reference to women in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 would be expected. But this confirms the probability that the reference to women in 3:11 is to women deacons, not merely to wives of deacons.

3. The deacons were distinguished from the elders in that they were not the governing body in the church nor were they charged with the duty of authoritative teaching. So the role of deacon seems not to involve anything that Paul taught in1 Timothy 2:12 (or anywhere else) which is inappropriate for women to perform in the church.

4. In Romans 16:1, Phoebe is very probably called a deacon. "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon(ess) of the church at Cenchreae, that you may receive her in the Lord as befits the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a helper of many and of myself as well."

It appears then that the role of deacon is of such a nature that nothing stands in the way of women's full participation in it. Within the deaconate itself, the way the men and women relate to each other would be guided by the sense of appropriateness, growing out of the Biblical teaching of male and female complementarity.

Qualifications of Deacons (1 Timothy 3:8-13)

3:8 "Deacons likewise must be serious. . ."

Serious, Earnest, Honorable (semnous)

The idea of "serious" by itself seems inadequate. This would be an unsatisfactory translation of Philippians 4:8: “Think on these things . . . whatever is true, whatever is honorable. . ." "Serious" is morally neutral. But this word isn't. The person should not be flippant, but earnest about life.

3:8 ". . . not double-tongued. . ."

Genuine, Authentic (me dilogous)

"Double-tongued" implies saying one thing to be true here and another thing to be true there, according to what people would think. So it implies a lack of love for truth and a fear of human disapproval and a general instability.

3:8 ". . . not addicted to much wine. . ."

Temperate (me oino pollo prosechontas)

Prosechontas implies "to concern oneself with" or "to give attention to" or "to turn one's mind toward." So there should be a freedom from drink, and presumably from all substances that would be harmful if taken too freely.

The picture is of a person under control, not carried along 1) by the opinions of others (genuine, authentic) or 2) by his appetites (temperate) or 3) by levity (serious, honorable).

3:8 ". . . not greedy for gain. . ."

Content with simplicity (me aischrokerdeis)

This word is used in Titus 1:7 of elders and in adverb form of elders in 1 Peter 5:2. It corresponds to aphilargon (not a lover of money) in 1 Timothy 3:3.

It seems to be a fourth dimension of freedom (see "temperate" above for the first three), freedom from the pull of money. Other motives should drive him. There should be a contentment in God and a heavenly mindedness.

3:9 "...having the mystery of the faith in a clean conscience."

Deep Convictions Concerning The Faith

The issue of conscience does not appear to be the general issue as in 1:5; 4:2; 2 Timothy 1:3; Titus 1:15. But 1:19 is a very close connection: "holding faith and a good conscience."

It seems that the conscience bears directly on the "faith in good conscience." This inclines me to think that the issue is the sincerity of the faith. Do the deacons really have faith rooted in their hearts or are there sneaking doubts? Are their consciences clear when they make a public profession of their faith?

3:10 "And let them also be tested first. . ."

Tested (dokimazesthosan)

The test is not specified, but it is to precede the work as deacons. The test would be two-fold: the life they have lived and the assessment of it by those who know them and by some appropriate body of the church.

This would surely apply to all the leaders including elders and deacons.

I see three usual steps in the testing and selection of leaders.

1. The elders would take responsibility to see that the testing and approval is done in accord with Biblical criteria since they are responsible for the general oversight of the church and for the doctrinal purity of the leadership.

2. They may need to involve representatives of the congregation who have a wider knowledge of some people than they do.

3. The congregation itself would be the final test of approval, as they are the last court of appeal in matters of church discipline (Matthew 18:17; 1 Corinthians 5:4). Therefore, all would be approved by the church as the final step of "testing" and "approval."

3:10 ". . . then if they prove themselves blameless let them serve as deacons."

Blameless (anegkletoi)

Blameless in the sense that no blame is discovered that has not been settled in a Biblical way. It does not mean perfect, but free from ongoing guilt for some unsettled wrong.

3:11 We will come back to this verse.

3:12 "Let the deacons be the husband of one wife. . ."

One Woman’s Husband

(See section on 1 Timothy 3:2)

3:12 ". . . and let them manage their children and their households well." This would seem to imply some measure of administrative ability, but note well, unlike the case with the elders in 3:5, it does not say, "for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he care for God's church?" General oversight does not appear to be in view as with the "overseers" of 3:1-7.

Rather, the point is probably the general truth that much of a man's true character and gifts come out in the way he leads his family. Something is significantly wrong if the man appears religious and able at church but has a disorderly home.

Again the home is the proving ground for all fitness for leadership in the church.

3:13 "For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith which is in Christ Jesus."

This is not a qualification but a promise of what comes with the faithful execution of the diaconate.

A good standing for themselves may mean a respectable place in the Christian community or a safe place in the last Day of Judgment as in 6:19.

And great confidence is the subjective boldness that rises with the faithful performance of duty.

(Now back to 3:11 and the question of the women.)

3:11 "Likewise the women. . ."

Is this a reference to the wives of the deacons or a reference to women who were deaconesses? See pages 56-57 for a slightly fuller treatment of this issue.

In Favor of "Deaconesses":

  1. The use of "likewise" to introduce the group in the same way the deacons were introduced in verse 8 suggests a new order, namely, deaconesses.
  2. The women are not mentioned in verses 1-7 where overseers are being discussed. If wives are in view, you would expect that they would be. But if women as a distinct order are in view, you would not, because the elders are given responsibilities which Paul says women should not assume. So the absence of women among the overseers and the presence of the women among the deacons suggests an order, not wives.
  3. Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2 appears to be a deaconess.
  4. The deacons are not charged with any duties that in themselves would contradict what Paul says is appropriate for women to do in the church.

In Favor of “Wives”:

  1. You would expect that they would be called "deaconesses" instead of women or wives.
  2. Paul returns to the qualifications of deacons in the next verse, which seems strange if he had begun to discuss a new order.

It seems that the decision will not be made with confidence simply from this text alone but will be made on the basis of the wider considerations of what is appropriate for women to do according to all the New Testament teachings.

3:11 ". . . must be serious. . ."

See above on 3:8,Serious, Earnest, Honorable.

3:11 ". . . no slanderers. . ."

Not Slanderers, Gossips (me diabolous)

A woman who has itchy ears and a loose tongue will not be a good deaconess. Her words must build up. She must keep confidences and not be addicted to scuttlebutt.

3:11 ". . .temperate. . ."

See above on 3:2, Temperate.

3:11 ". . . faithful in all things."

Honest, Trustworthy, Reliable, Loyal (pistas in pasin)

See above on Titus 1:6, Honest.

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