Scripture tells us almost nothing about the selection, work, and office of the deacon.
In the early church, deacons were church officers—third to bishops and elders—and they had to be obeyed and respected “as Jesus Christ.” (Tabb, B. J. (2016). Deacon.) Mounce (Pastoral Epistles) points out that at one point the deacon was over the church serving the bishop (Pastoral Epistles, 210) instead of serving the church. Today, a deacon is everything from a trustee to ordained ministers who are a step down from priests.
We need to dig deep.
Diakonos aka Deacons
The word for deacon is used for waiters (John 2:5), a king’s servants (Matt 22:13), the apostles (1 Cor 3:5), and even Christ (Rom 15:8). The root word applies to money collection (2 Cor 9:12-13), being an evangelist (2 Tim 4:5), and serving God and others (Heb 6:10). It’s wide use shows the importance of service in Christianity, a duty and gift for all believers (Luke 22:26; Matt 20:28; Mat 10:45; 1 Cor 12:5; 1 Pet 4:10)
We all serve, but Deacons are The Servants. Something sets them apart.
Acts 6 and The Seven Deacons? No.
People often model the deaconate on the seven in Acts 6 though the passage never calls them deacons. The task of “serving tables” (Acts 6:2) referred to making sure that the overlooked Hellenist widows received their needed portion (Acts 6:1). The seven, which included a miracle worker (Acts 6:8) and an evangelist (Acts 8:5; 21:8), might have had other duties but the passage never says. It doesn’t tell us that the seven are the model for deacons.
The passage does include how these seven were chosen. The twelve apostles summoned the congregation (6:2) and told them to select seven men of good reputation (6:3) who are full of the Spirit and of wisdom while the apostles would devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word (6:4). The congregation chose seven, brought them before the apostles (6:6), who then proceeded to pray and finally lay hands on them.
Is this then process for choosing deacons? If so, deacons are only chosen if there is a pressing need (6:1), dictated by the apostolic office (not elders 6:2), chosen only by the assembly (6:5), only for the task of “serving tables (6:2), based on having a good reputation, the Holy Spirit, and wisdom (6:3) and no further examination needed (6:6). That makes Paul’s later rules odd.
Acts 6 isn’t the place to get our teaching on Deacons. We need to go to 1 Tim 3.
Nine Characteristics of the Deacon
- Dignified 1 Tim 3:8
- Not double-tongued 1 Tim 3:8
- Not a drunk 1 Tim 3:8
- Not greedy 1 Tim 3:8
- Having the right faith and right life 1 Tim 3:9
- Must be examined first and if they’re above reproach they serve 1 Tim 3:10
- Wife is the same ethical makeup 1 Tim 3:11
- He must be faithful to his wife 1 Tim 3:12
- Managerial skills in the home 1 Tim 3:12
Dignity of the Deacon: A First Order Quality
First, deacons are dignified—a quality shared with an overseer (1 Tim 3:4,8; and a good aim for all Christians Phil 4:8) though different since the elder is firstly “above reproach” (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:6). Mounce says it is impossible to find a single English word to illustrate exactly what it means. This is why Paul in Phil 4:3 can encourage believers to think about things that are dignified. It is noble, worthy, esteemed, with a hint of majesty, and awe thus establishing its moral worth (Phil 4:3). It is a character trait that is required of the wives of deacons (1 Tim 3:11) and older men (Titus 2:2) and also sets the deacon apart.
Though Peter mentions a glorious crown in the future for those who willingly shepherd God’s flock (1 Pet 5:2-4), Paul says that good deacons currently obtain a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus (1 Tim 3:13)—this could be before God, the assembly, and the neighborhood.
The Deacon’s Character in His Day-To-Day
A Deacon shares several qualities with an overseer: not a drunkard (1 Tim 3:8), not greedy (1 Tim 3:8), above reproach (1 Tim 3:10), faithful to his wife (1 Tim 3:12), and managerial skills in the home (1 Tim 3:12). I believe this gives us a hint into some of both the elder and deacon duties. Handling money and managing people is going to be key to the task and they need to keep their head, desires, and emotions in check while doing it.
The Deacon also has qualities that are not specifically applied to the overseer that might also tell us something about their work. Surely an elder shouldn’t be double-tonged (3:8) either (controlling the tongue is part of the general call for Christians Prov. 20:19; Eph 4:29; James 1:26; Titus 3:2; Rom 1:29) but here it is a deacon trait. Perhaps the deacon would go from home to home and while discovering the needs of the saints (and in contrast to the idle women in 1 Tim 5:13) they were sincere in their speech and kept quiet about what they heard and saw.
These men had to be examined (1 Tim 3:10) and then, only after establishing that they are above reproach, they serve as Deacons. This requirement might also apply to elders (since Paul says “let these also first be tested”) except for the fact that the elder already has a strong reputation (1 Tim 3:7 rather like the Seven in Acts 6, frankly, but even so, Paul warns about being careful with these decisions 1 Tim 5:22).
The Deaconess or The Deacon’s Wife
This might also explain why Paul cuts in to speak about wives of (or women) deacons in 1 Tim 3:11 which is something he doesn’t do for elders. Spending time in the homes of single women could be a problem for a married man, even in terms of reputation, so his wife might join him or carry out the visitation in his place. It is necessary that she be made of the same ethical stuff: dignified and not a malicious gossip, but rather temperate in all things.
This could be why Phoebe is called a deaconess (Rom 16:1,2). She might not hold an office but rather is the type of person who has a servant ministry in the church of Cenchrea (Rom 16:1,2). I know plenty of women like this.
Faith, Teaching and Deacons
The elders are required to be able to teach (1 Tim 3:2), “take care of the church of God” (1 Tim 3:5), and can work hard at preaching and teaching (1 Tim 5:17):no such requirement is levied against the deacon. Even so, Paul does make a point to highlight that this person does have the right faith and the right practice.
A deacon must hold firmly to the “mystery of the faith with a clear conscience”. Enough time must have passed to be able to identify the deacon’s character (1 Tim 5:22) but here we see that his grip on the gospel is firm and his heart is so affected the he is not knowingly sinning as he acts: his conscience is clear.
What About Deacons Today?
Maybe the assembly identifies the candidates and the elders vet them? Perhaps elders do the picking and the entire assembly (including elders) the testing? Or it’s just a long test resulting in roles? There is freedom as to the method but not the fact that the candidate and, if married, his wife must be examined before performing the role.
As to their work, I don’t think it’s easy to draw a line between temporal and spiritual service (note the interplay in Eph 6:7; Col 3:23; Mat 5:16; 1Cor 10:31; Rom 12:1). That sort of division can have weird results (like the assembly having two groups of leaders: the guys who pray and the guys who pay) but some things needs to be thought through.
For instance, the elder must teach in the local assembly. Not outsourcing his teaching. Nor side-stepping it. Or being elsewhere. Doing it. If elders are involved in activities that take away time from their core work in the assembly, they shouldn’t be performing those activities. Visitations, except for James 5 cases, might be a great area where deacons and their wives could be actively ministering to the assembly and its elders.
Also, remember, it is not the responsibility of deacons to rule well (1 Tim 5:17) or rebuke others (Titus 1:13) as the stewards of God (Titus 1:7). That is not to say that they don’t have a general Christian onus to correct others in love and gentleness (1 Tim 5:1-2; Jude 3; Gal 6:1), but elders must answer for this duty (Heb 13:17) as under-shepherds of the Chief Shepherd (1 Pet 5:1-4)—not deacons. Therefore, the deacons should help in areas that would allow elders to do their mandated duties well. That could be making sure the work on the boiler or roof is done, but it could also include selecting Sunday School materials that need to be reviewed by the elders. It might include painting the hallways, or setting up a ministry for picking up the elderly to make it to church on Sundays.
Also, although there is an office of deacon, I do think the Church needs to further consider the servant work apart from the office holders, especially in regard to women. It is good to have people that are recognized by the assembly as servants but this doesn’t mean that those Deacons are the ones who do every act of service within the local assembly. Maintaining a list of true widows is a good thing (1 Tim 5:9) but that may not mean that the Deacons are the ones writing the vetted names. Perhaps there are some women in the assembly who have a robust ministry of serving others and they work with the deacons on keeping that list updated. Other examples abound.
Of course, wisdom and oversight must be employed. A Deacon can’t simply outsource service to those who haven’t first been tested. It might be an opportunity to team up with someone to maintain proper oversight and service while actively testing for deacon qualities. Even if it means working with a person gifted in administrative duties who can help locate professionals.
Don’t neglect the role of the deacon, nor render it a mere trustee in charge of building needs, but rather dig in to its full Scriptural potential.