In a recent blog post, I talked about Bethany Baptist Church’s approach to church polity. In that post, I focused primarily on pastors/elders. Some might wonder how deacons fit into life and ministry at Bethany. This post will serve as an introduction to our view on the office of a deacon.
Deacons in the New Testament
Many believe that the office of a deacon was inaugurated in Acts 6:1-7. This passage reads,
“And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch: Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them. And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.”
It’s important to note that these seven men are never actually called deacons. The closest we get to that is in verse two where the word translated “serve” is diakonein, a derivative of the Greek word for deacon. Regardless of whether are not the Seven were actually deacons, I am confident that they had a deacon-type ministry. Perhaps it is best to see them as “proto-deacons” who fulfilled a similar role to deacons before the office was fully established.
Apparently by the time Paul wrote to the Philippians, the office of deacon was more established and multiple deacons had been appointed at that church (Philippians 1:1). Then when Paul wrote 1 Timothy, he gave very clear guidelines as to what sort of men were to be made deacons. This implies that the office is a perpetual office and normative for every local church. Though originally created to address a very specific problem in the church, the concept of a deacon became a standard practice for all churches.
The role of deacons
So what do deacons actually do? There’s a great deal of confusion on this issue. In some churches, deacons are quasi-elders who act as a decision-making board for the church. In others, they’re essentially a “building and grounds” crew. One our deacons at Bethany has said that when people outside the church discover he’s a deacon, he’s immediately bombarded with preconceived notions and conflicting ideas about what deacons do.
There’s a reason for all this confusion. If we wanted to know the role of elders, there are a myriad of passages that one could turn to that would clearly lay out the duties and responsibilities of a pastor. Oddly enough, there is no such passage for deacons. However, I don’t believe that this means we’re in the dark when it comes to knowing what deacons are called to do. I believe that the Bible gives us at least four clues to determining how deacons are to serve in the church.
Clue #1: The meaning of diakonos
The Greek word translated deacon means, “Servant, minister, a person who renders service and help to others, in some contexts with an implication of lower status: also transliterated as deacon, a trusted officer of helps and service in the local church.” And as a verb it means, “To serve, wait on, help, attend to; this often refers to spirituals and practical ministry in the church. ‘To wait on tables’ (Ac. 6:2) may mean to literally help in serving food, though some believe it refers (also) to the handling of finances.” It can be used generically to refers to any Christian who serves or properly to refer to the office.
What does this clue tell us about a deacon’s role? First, it indicates that a deacon’s role is one of service, not leadership. Second, because all Christians are called to serve, there must be a particular kind of service that deacons are required to render.
Clue #2: Deacons enable elders to fulfill their role
What’s the relationship between elders and deacons? Acts 6 gives us a clue. “Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.” (vs. 2-4)
The apostles had a ministry that centered around the Word of God and prayer. And yet there were needs in the church, such as caring for widows, that went beyond the scope of their role. So the Seven were appointed to take care of widows so that the apostles could spend more time fulfilling their role.
In the same way, elders have a role that centers around the Word of God and prayer (shepherding and overseeing). But there are other ministries in the church that need done and yet fall outside the emphasis of an elder’s role. Deacons fulfill those kind of ministries so that elders are free to do their work.
This is important because in a lot of Baptist deacons have been turned into “quasi-elders”. They do a lot of the overseeing and decision-making work that elders are called to do. In many churches the only difference between elders and deacons is that deacons don’t preach and don’t get paid. Other than that they’re identical.
But the apostles didn’t appoint the Seven to help them do apostolic work. They appointed the Seven to help the apostles by doing non-apostolic ministry. In the same way deacons shouldn’t help elders do elder work. They should help elders by doing non-pastoral work.
Have you ever had a job where you weren’t sure what your role was? Isn’t that a frustrating situation to be in? I believe it’s important to the keep the roles of elders and deacons distinct so that both are free to better fulfill the job God has given them.
Clue #3: The qualifications for deacons make it clear that it’s an important and spiritual role
The qualifications for a deacon are given in Acts 6:3 and 1 Timothy 3:8-12. A few observations can be made from those passages. First, we can notice what is not in the qualifications. Unlike elders, deacons are not required to be “apt to teach” and can apparently be newer believers.
Again, we can draw a few conclusions about a deacons role. The role of a deacon is not a teaching. This is not to say that it’s unacceptable for deacons to preach. The longest sermon in the entire New Testament was preached by a deacon (Acts 7). Phillip, another one of the Seven, was an accomplished church planter and evangelist (Acts 8:4-8, 26-40). Several (but not all) of our deacons at Bethany have taught and preached. However, when deacons preach and teach they do so as involved, spiritual church members, not as deacons per se.
But it should also be noticed that the qualifications for deacons are very high. There are very spiritual and moral qualifications that demand that deacons be godly men of exemplary character. These qualifications would be ridiculously over-the-top if deacons were merely janitors and landscapers. Though it’s possible that building maintenance falls under a deacon’s purview, it’s impossible, in the light of the qualification texts, to suggest that this is the sum total of their role.
Another thing that’s worth noting is that deacon’s wives are mentioned in 1 Timothy 3:11. Oddly enough, elders’ wives are never mentioned. Without taking away from the incredible ministry of pastors’ wives, the direct work of pastoring is not appropriate for women to participate in. A pastor’s wife can’t write her husband’s sermon or sit on the elder board. The very nature of eldership prohibits women from directly participating in it (1 Timothy 2:8-3:2).
Apparently, this is not the case for deacons. Whatever their role is, it is something that their wives can be directly involved in. Again, this would exclude teaching and governance (1 Timothy 2:11-12) but could include a number of other important roles.
Clue #4: The Seven in Acts 6 administered the ministries of mercy
The specific problem being addressed in Acts 6 was unequal distribution of the “benevolence fund” (Acts 2:44-45, 6:1). Certain church members felt that they were treated unfairly. The apostles’ solution was to appoint “deacons”. These deacons would manage the distribution of the church’s charitable funds. Significantly, they didn’t take care of the widows themselves or fork over all the money to take care of them. They managed the church’s collective efforts to take care of the needy in the church. They cooperated with the apostles and later the elders but were distinct in their role (Philippians 1:1). This frees the elders to concentrate on the Word of God and prayer (Acts 6:4).
I believe this passage serves as a basic model for deacons. Deacons are to manage the church’s ministries of mercy and material affairs. I believe seeing the deacon’s role this way best makes sense of all the evidence. It clarifies what the special service is that they render the church. It distinguishes them from elders. It also explains the high qualifications required of the role. And I believe it fits what’s going on in Acts 6.
Our culture is different from First Century Jerusalem. We don’t have a widows who are solely supported by the church. But we do have other situations that require the attention of the church, but don’t really fit under the job description of an elder. The elders could do those things, but it would take away from their specific role. I think it’s more true to the pattern of the New Testament to allow deacons to manage the material affairs of the church.
Three cheers for deacons!
In many churches, deacons have become the forgotten office. Pastors are upfront and so they tend to get most the attention (good and bad). Elders (even elders who don’t preach every week) make more of the public decisions of the church. Deacons do a lot behind the scenes that never gets noticed. Thus, there are often ignored. I think that’s a shame.
The Bible presents a very positive view of the office of a deacon. In Acts 6, the great progress that the church had experienced on the day of Pentecost was nearly stifled by the in-strife that pitted the Hellenists against the Jewish Christians. The creation of the office of deacon averted that crisis. Look at the result: “And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.” (Acts 6:7)
Deacons aren’t a “tack-on” office that exist to the keep the building in one piece. They’re actually a key part of the mission of the church. By meeting the physical needs of the church, the deacons enable the apporatice of the church to operate smoothly and efficiently. This allows the Gospel to go forth and disciples to be taught more effectively than they otherwise could have. So deacons are extremely important to the mission of the church.
On a personal level, deacons can embrace their role with confidence knowing that it is a worthwhile task. After giving the qualifications for a deacon, Pauls says, “For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.” (1 Timothy 3:13)
Deacons who are faithful to the role they’ve been given obtain a high standing; certainly a high standing in the eyes of God and I would hope that His church would be faithful to also acknowledge and honor a deacon who uses his office well.
God has blessed His churches by giving them the office of a deacon. Deacons can embrace this role with confidence, knowing that it is a valuable role that pleases God.
There is controversy about whether these are deacons’ wives or female deacons (deaconesses). Without being too dogmatic, I do think that it’s best to see 1 Timothy 3:11 as referring to the wives of deacons. Here are some reasons: (1) Verse 10 and verse 12 both give qualifications for deacons. It would be very odd for Paul to be talking about male deacons, switch to deaconesses, and then switch back to male deacons. (2) The very meager list of qualifications given for deaconesses (if that’s what they are) would be out of place for church officers, especially in light of the extensive qualifications for elders and (male) deacons. It would be peculiar for female deacons to be held to a far lower standard than their male counterparts. (3) There’s slim evidence from either the New Testament or Church history that deaconesses existed in the early Church. (4) There are no scriptural guidelines for what these deaconesses ought to do in the church.