Elders, Deacons and the Church
In our last chapter we talked about the meaning of the word "deacon," how it relates to the work of the church and how this role is different from that of elder. We also reviewed the different words used to describe those who served as leaders in the church. Terms such as elder, bishop or pastor all referred to the same person with each word describing a facet of his character or responsibilities.
I also explained that the word deacon is a transliteration from the Greek word, diakonos, which refers to an attendant or a waiter. In the church, it referred to the men who were chosen to do certain tasks based on their qualifications, experience and approval of the congregation's leaders.
Deacons serve the church under the direction of the elders. They are different from elders in that their main tasks are service-related as opposed to teaching or direction of the assembly. They are selected by the church and are appointed, ordained or commended by the elders based on certain qualifications laid out in Acts 6:1-7; Philippians 1:1; and I Timothy 3:8-12.
In this chapter we're going to look more closely at these passages and see what they say about deacons.
The First Deacons
There are only three places in the New Testament where deacons are referred to and where we can find information about their qualifications.
1Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. 2So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, "It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. 3Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. 4But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word." 5The statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch. 6And these they brought before the apostles; and after praying, they laid their hands on them.
- Acts 6:1-6
Here the term deacon is not found, but the verb describing their work and from which their name would eventually come is used. The church at that time was growing quickly and along with this growth came the responsibility for benevolence, especially the feeding and care of widows. The Hellenistic widows were women who were not from Judea or had originally converted to Judaism before becoming Christians. It seems that they were being neglected in the daily distribution of food (the unspoken charge was that there may have been some discrimination going on because they were not native or cultural Jews) and so a complaint which threatened the unity of the church arose. The Apostles quickly settled the matter by calling for diakonos (serving or waitering to be done in order to care for these women's needs) which the Apostles explained was not their calling. Their ministry was to provide spiritual leadership through their teaching and prayers on behalf of the congregation, not the distribution of food to those in need.
Their response was to advise the church to select certain individuals who could carry out this ministry. The Apostles also established the basic qualifications that these individuals needed to have in order to serve in this capacity:
A. They established a limited number. The Apostles limited the number of individuals assigned to this task to seven. That they assigned this many people, however, suggests that the care of widows was quite an undertaking requiring many people to properly do the job.
B. They were selected by the congregation from among the congregation. Unlike elders who were selected by the evangelist or by other leaders, deacons are first selected by the congregation.
C. They were to be men, not women. Peter specified that these servants were to be males, even though there were surely women who qualified (full of the Spirit and of wisdom). The ministry to widows would have been a natural place for women to serve, but Peter specified that men were to be chosen.
D. They were to have charge or to be appointed over the task. The Apostles were involved in this work before but could no longer carry the burden of it so they gave the charge for this task to others. The mistake we make in the church today is that we give the work to the deacons but not the charge over the work. Once the guidelines were established, the work was in the hands of these men and not the Apostles.
E. The task was singular. These men were chosen for this task and not to be assistants to the Apostles (if this would have been the case, they would have had 12 deacons and not seven). Deacons were the servants of the church, not the Apostles, in carrying out this particular ministry. This is why they were chosen among the brethren and by the brethren because they were to be the servants of the brethren.
F. They had specific qualifications.
- Good reputation - speaks for itself.
- Full of the Spirit - all Christian men have the Holy Spirit, but some demonstrate more "fruit" of the Spirit as they are growing in Christ.
- Full of wisdom - as deacons they also needed particular wisdom or understanding in practical ways.
- In the Old Testament, God filled men with wisdom as artisans, painters or builders in order to build the temple.
- In the New Testament, He still gives men gifts and wisdom to carry out the work of the church in various areas (building, administration, service, giving, etc.).
- People who can take charge - if you are given charge, you have to be one who can take charge and get things done.
There were no further complaints about food, meaning that these seven were able to take care of this problem.
G. They can be different kinds of men. The list of deacons includes Stephen, a Jew; Nicolas, a Gentile convert to Judaism who then became a Christian.
H. They were ordained, commended. Some people incorrectly think that everybody is a deacon, or question what makes a deacon a special service or role. The fact that one is chosen by one's peers based on specific qualifications and then approved by a leadership is what makes a role or service separate and apart.
Deacons have a special and separate role from elders, preachers and saints, by virtue of their qualifications, selection and commendation.
The second passage that mentions deacons and the first that actually refers to them as such is:
Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons...
- Philippians 1:1
Here Paul greets the entire church as a whole (the saints) and then those who have a special role of responsibility and service within that body: the elders and the deacons.
There are not many references to deacons in the New Testament, but from the first two that we have looked at we can conclude several things about them:
- They are men who are spiritually mature that use their particular talents in special service to the church aside from the ministry of the Word. The ministry or service of the Word is that of elders and preachers; the work of deacons permits elders and preachers to concentrate on their ministry. This does not mean that deacons cannot teach or preach (Stephen was very eloquent) but they are chosen as deacons for the other services they render.
- They are selected by the congregation from the congregation for service to the congregation and commended or ordained by the leaders (the elders).
- Their leadership or authority is connected to the accomplishing of their tasks. They have charge over their ministry once it is defined by the elders (i.e. in the case of these seven men, their charge was to organize and maintain the benevolent ministry of food distribution to the widows in the church).
- There are no deacons without specific tasks. Since the word and the context refer to the one who does a specific job, when there is no job, there is no deacon. However, a deacon can be given charge over a small task and still be a deacon (for example, counting the collection, cleaning an area, etc.). What determines the office are the qualifications of the man, his choice by the congregation, confirmation by the elders and the fact that he has a specific job to do. A congregation can have 20 deacons so long as they qualify and have work to do.
- They constitute no authority as individuals nor as a group within the church. They are neither a committee nor a lobby; they are servants with a specific task. We do not hear them speak in the New Testament when matters are discussed or decided (Acts 15:1-ff).
Let us examine a final passage of Scripture regarding deacons.
I Timothy 3:8-13
This passage gives us some insight as to the basic qualifications necessary to be considered for this role as well as their standing in the body and how they were chosen.
- Vs. 1-7 - Paul has outlined the basic qualifications for elders in the Lord's church. He immediately follows with qualifications for deacons.
- Vs. 8
8Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain,
Insofar as character is concerned, deacons are to resemble the elders ("likewise"). The term "must" means that there is no question about the need to be strict in requiring these qualifications for this role.
- Men of dignity or "grave" signifies a man who is respected, not flippant or coarse.
- Double-tongued refers to one who is a hypocrite, insincere, talking behind other people's back.
- Not given to much wine, sober, not a brawler. Moderation in the use of wine as it was consumed at that time:
- Mixed water with wine.
- Drank low alcohol content.
- Moderate drinking would not produce drunkenness.
- These were not moderate "social" drinkers. They drank wine as their primary drink and had to be careful not to let it lead to drunkenness.
- Fond of sordid gain. In the original context, this expression meant a person who earned a living in a sordid or unclean way: gambling, prostitution, stealing or cheating, any way which is shameful as a Christian, also people who liked this type of living (e.g. grifters).
9but holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.
- The mystery of the faith is the gospel. The way people were to be saved was a mystery that no one knew until Christ came and revealed it (Romans 16:25-26).
- Men who are able to believe and practice their faith with a clear conscience (not undignified, hypocritical, drunken, impure or greedy). Some believe the mystery but do not act like they do. Deacons believe and their actions demonstrate this.
10These men must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach.
- Deacons are to have proven that they are qualified before they are appointed. The church will choose a man they see doing the work and living a good Christian life long before he is appointed as a deacon. I Timothy 5:22 warns against being too quick in appointing elders or deacons less they fail and the negative effects of their failure be blamed on the evangelist or elders.
- When Paul says, "also," he is saying that this period of testing is also required for elders. Men who are not already providing leadership, service and living holy lives should not be appointed as elders or deacons.
11Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things.
- This verse has been used to suggest that women should also be appointed as deacons (deaconesses) in the church. The arguments for this are as follows:
- The term woman can either mean "wives" as in wives of deacons or "women" as in deaconesses or servants of the church.
- In Romans 16:1, Paul commends Phoebe, a servant, or diakonos of the church.
- There are some early writings that suggest that women served in this capacity.
- The arguments against are as follows:
- Paul does not use the term deaconess here, only a word that means wives or can be interpreted as women. Had he used the term deaconess, there would be no confusion.
- The context of this passage is a list of qualifications for men as deacons and this reference to wives would seem natural as instruction to the wives of not only deacons but elders as well. The wives of these men would be involved with people and the work of their husbands and so their character and conduct had to be above reproach as well (he lists elders and deacons and then the women or wives of these men).
The only examples that we have of deacons doing their work shows that men were doing it. Acts 6:1-6 sees the Apostles specifying men to be selected. Here we have two opportunities by different Apostles to establish women in the role of deacon, but both times Peter and Paul specify men.
- What we do see in the New Testament, however, are women serving, diakonosing (waitering) in a variety of ways:
- Women supporting Jesus' ministry - Luke 8:3
- Women praying in the upper room - Acts 1
- Dorcas making clothing for the poor - Acts 9
- Mary the mother of Mark offering her home as a meeting place for the Apostles - Acts 12
- Lydia offering hospitality to Paul - Acts 16
- Priscilla offering her house to Paul and along with her husband, Aquila, having a Bible study with Apollos - Acts 18
- Phoebe delivering a letter to Paul in Rome - Romans 16:1 (Here the Greek word diakonos is used in its "messenger" sense).
Women, therefore, are not among those chosen by the church and set before the leadership to be appointed as deacons. On the other hand, there are many men who serve in a variety of ways at different times also, but not all of them are set forth as deacons either.
The point here is this:
- All Christians, men and women, serve; they all waiter, take messages, work on behalf of the body.
- Only some of the men who are qualified are chosen by the church and appointed by the elders to be responsible for certain tasks, and these are referred to as deacons.
In the verse we are considering (vs. 11), I believe Paul refers to the wives of deacons and he says that as wives of deacons they also must:
- Be dignified (same as deacon).
- Not malicious gossips. It is never acceptable to be a gossip, but a deacon's wife must especially be careful in this regard since she, through her husband, is involved with many areas of the work and people in the church.
- Temperate - sober, sober-minded, not easily carried away by emotion, arguments or strife.
- Faithful as a general rule: in the faith especially, but also in service, marriage and friendship. She is a trustworthy person in general.
12Deacons must be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households.
Paul lists the same qualifications previously mentioned for elders.
That no matter what his marital status - first and only marriage; widower; divorced; former polygamist. Now as a Christian he is a "one-woman" man. He is exclusively faithful to his wife. It is his "attitude" Paul is referring to. Other women feel comfortable and confident around him with never any question about his fidelity to his wife. Also, he must be a good manager of his home.
- If deacons cannot manage and care for their families (too busy, too lazy, too selfish or immature) how will they be able to manage the affairs and the work of the church?
A man's home and family says a lot about the man himself.
13For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus
Paul describes the reward for those who do a good job as church deacons.
- Increased measure and confidence in their faith concerning Christ Jesus.
- Serving well re-affirms one's faith and strengthens a person's confidence in salvation, in God's care and in one's hope of heaven.
Have you ever noticed that the more you serve, the more you give and the more you sacrifice, the stronger your faith becomes? Stronger faith produces peace of mind, a joyful heart and a greater intimacy with God.
If this is the type of reward that comes with service to God, imagine the blessings on deacons and their wives who are officially appointed to service in the Lord's body?
This ends the section on special servants in the church. In the next section we will finish the chapter and see why Paul has written this letter in the first place.
- Summarize the situation that led to the first deacons being appointed and what were the results (Acts 6:1-7 see also Acts 2:42-47).
- What are the qualifications of deacons as listed in the following passages and how does this generally describe them?
- How does Paul describe the reward for deacons who serve well and why is this appropriate?
- Defend the Bible's teaching that women cannot serve or be appointed as deacons (deaconesses).
- How can you use this lesson to grow spiritually and help others come into a relationship with Jesus?