The Role and Work of Deacons
So far we have talked about elders and their wives, and the great responsibility they have in their respective roles:
- The elders protect against false teaching, promote good teaching and good works, and provide an example of faithfulness as mature Christian leaders to the congregation.
- The elder's wife supports her husband with servant-heart behavior, and instruction to younger women concerning good conduct, good home management and service to the church and community.
Blessed is the church that has such elders. Hopefully those that do will not make the job unpleasant for them but support and encourage them with their obedience and prayers.
Deacons: Word and Meaning
Twenty-five percent of the English language is from the Greek language in which the New Testament was originally written. When translated into English, some Greek words were not translated but merely anglicized or transliterated. The word deacon was such a word. The original Greek word was "diakonos" and was transliterated into the English as the word "deacon." The word meant servant.
In the Greek world there were many slaves, and so there were many words used to describe this class of people. For example:
Bondslaves were slaves considered as property. They were the lowest class of slaves.
"For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave;
For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed.
- Luke 1:48
Boyslaves were like family. The centurion whose slave was sick, and sent for Jesus to heal him used this term for slave (Luke 7:2-10). They served as domestics.
No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."
- Luke 16:13
Subordinate officials served kings and high officials.
Some began to spit at Him, and to blindfold Him, and to beat Him with their fists, and to say to Him, "Prophesy!" And the officers received Him with slaps in the face.
- Mark 14:65
The word deacon, however, did not refer to a bondslave, boyslave or official. The word described a servant who was a waiter, an attendant or courier. For example, in Luke 10:40 Martha complained that she had to "serve" the guests alone. In other words she had to "waiter" alone. This passage uses the word "diakonos."
In Acts 6, when they chose men to serve the food to the widows, the word for the work of serving food was "diakonos," to waiter the food.
In Romans 13:4 the word is used in its courier sense: the authority of government is the messenger or courier of God (diakonos of God).
for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.
- Romans 13:4
In Romans 16:1 Phoebe is referred to as a diakonos because she brings a message. The word is used in its courier sense here as well.
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea;
- Romans 16:1
The Holy Spirit selects this particular word that describes a servant who serves as a personal attendant or messenger, and uses it in a Christian context of ministry within the church.
The point is that before Christianity, the word simply referred to a particular type of servant who had particular duties that involved serving food and running errands.
The New Testament writers, however, began using this word to refer to a particular person in the church who did a particular work. Since the word referred to a servant and his relationship to a task, it was well suited to describe the role we now refer to as "deacon."
The First Deacons
There are only three places in the New Testament where deacons are referred to and what we know about their qualifications and work are drawn from these.
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 used, but the verb describing their work and where this name would come from is used.
At that time the church was growing quickly and along with it the responsibility for benevolence. Some felt neglected in the distribution of food for widows, and thus a complaint that threatened the unity of the church arose. The Apostles settled the matter by calling for "diakonos," serving or waitering, a task that was not part of their calling. Their job was to teach and pray, not distribute food. In order to meet this need the Apostles established a role and qualifications for those who would serve in this way:
- They establish a limited number. I do not know why this particular number was needed, other than seven was a significant number in Jewish numerology. It could also be that this many men were required for the task at hand.
- They were selected by the congregation from the congregation. Unlike elders who are selected by an evangelist or other leaders.
- They were to be men, not women. Peter specifies males, yet there were women who qualified as far as being full of the Spirit and wisdom.
- They were to have charge or be appointed over the task. Before, the Apostles carried out this task but could no longer do so. After the deacons were selected, they gave charge for this work to them. 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 the deacons, not the Apostles.
- The task was singular. These men were chosen for this task, and not to be the Apostles' assistants at large (if this would have been the case they would have had twelve deacons not seven). Deacons were the servants of the church and assisted the church, not the Apostles. This is why they were chosen by the brethren from among the brethren.
- They had specific qualifications.
- Good reputation. Speaks for itself.
- Full of spirit. All Christians 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 etc. 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.
- They can be different kinds of men. The list of deacons includes Stephen, a Jew; and Nicolas, a Gentile convert to Judaism who became a Jew.
- They were ordained or commended. People say that everybody is a deacon, or what makes it 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 are 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 in Philippians 1:1.
Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons:
Here Paul greets the entire church as a whole (saints) and then a special word to those who have a special role of responsibility and service within that body (elders and deacons).
There are not many references to deacons in the New Testament, but in the first two that we have looked at we can conclude several things about them:
- They are men who are spiritually mature and use their particular talents in special service to the church. The ministry or service of the word is that of elders and preachers, however the work of deacons permits elders and preachers to concentrate on their ministry. This does not mean deacons cannot teach or preach (Stephen, a deacon, 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 (elders).
- Their leadership or authority is connected to the accomplishing of their task. They have charge over their ministry once it is defined by the elders.
- There are no deacons without specific tasks. Since the word and context describing their role 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 (i.e. counting the collection or cleaning a specific area). What determines if a man can serve in this office are his qualifications and the fact that he has a job to do. It is acceptable to have many deacons so long as they qualify and are assigned various tasks.
- They have no authority as individuals or as a group within the church. They are not a committee or a lobby; they are servants with specific tasks. We do not hear them speak in the New Testament when matters are discussed (Acts 15:1-77).
- What is the meaning of the word deacon as transliterated from Greek and what is the significance of this designation?
- What is your perception of the role of deacons?
- Read Acts 6:1-6 and answer the following questions:
- Summarize the appointment of the men in Acts 6:16 including why they were needed?
- Has the role of deacons changed from this initial need and if so, how?
- How is the charge for all to serve different than someone specified to serve as a deacon?
- How can you use this lesson to grow spiritually and help others come into a relationship with Jesus?