Often confused with the office of an elder, some congregations may sometimes appoint deacons to a committee that leads and makes decisions for the church. Other churches may ignore it altogether by neglecting to preach about it and prepare men for it. The differing practices demonstrate the need for examining the Bible teaching about the office of deacon. When we consider the New Testament pattern, we find that deacons were great servants of the church, who are needed in every congregation and without whom, a church remains lacking.
In our modern vocabulary, the word "deacon" connotes a specialized office of the church. However, it was not used this way in the original New Testament. The Greek word which is translated deacon, diakonos, actually was a generic word which meant "a servant, attendant, or minister". Using this general meaning, the word was applied to describing: Jesus (Romans 15:8), evangelists (Ephesians 6:21; Colossians 1:7), faithful Christians (John 12:26), the apostles (II Corinthians 3:6), and waiters at feasts (Matthew 22:13).
The Office of Deacon
After observing the many general uses of deacon, some may wonder if an official appointment of deacon exists. This can be answered by observing a greeting by the apostle Paul to the Philippian church:
"Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons" Philippians 1:1
Please notice that after Paul greets all of the saints, or Christians, in the city of Philippi, he recognizes the office of bishop and then the office of deacon. If the word deacon was always used generically to refer to Christians, then why would Paul redundantly reference Christians twice? And why would Paul use the word in parallel with the office of bishops? The only logical answer is that the word for deacons is here used in a specialized sense to refer to an office, just like the word, "bishops" refers to an office. This point becomes even clearer when we realize that the Bible provides a set of qualifications for deacons, similar to the qualifications of bishops.
Qualifications of a Deacon
In I Timothy 3:8-13, Paul gives the qualifications for those who desire to serve as deacons. The first verse in this passage teaches us an important point:
"Likewise deacons must be reverent, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy for money ..." I Timothy 3:8
The first word in this verse, "likewise", is important to properly understanding this passage. In the verses located immediately before this passage (I Timothy 3:1-7), Paul provided the qualifications for the position of bishop . In discussion the qualifications for a bishop, Paul mentions the "office of a bishop" and states that, "A bishop then must be blameless ..." (I Timothy 3:1-2). Just as a "bishop must be ...", a deacon "likewise must be ...". The word "likewise" connects the two as offices that require specific qualifications for appointment. Therefore, just as the word "bishop" denotes a specific office, so does the word "deacon" sometimes denote a specific office, with qualifications listed below:
- reverent, sober
- not double-tongued
- not given (addicted) to much wine
- not greedy for money
- holding the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience
- first be proven (tested)
- husbands of one wife
- ruling their children and their own houses well
The scripture also references that deacons' wives must be: reverent, not slanderers, temperate, and faithful in all things (I Timothy 3:11).
The Work of a Deacon
When compared with the qualifications of an elder, it is apparent that the requirements for a deacon are somewhat more relaxed. This is probably because of the nature of their work. Elders are the spiritual guides who oversee the work of the church, while deacons are servants of the church, who assist with church's more physical needs.
"Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, 'It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.' " Acts 6:1-4
From this passage, we learn two important things about the work and role of deacons. First, we learn that deacons' mission is to "serve tables". They were given this physical task to assist the spiritual leaders of the church and to prevent the apostles' time from being diverted from their spiritual work. Though the required work may vary, the nature of the deacon's work is clear from this passage. It is physical in nature in opposition to the spiritual responsibilities of the elders and apostles. Examples would include directing the church's funds to minister to its needy, taking care of the church building, counting weekly contributions, etc. The question of who selects the specific work and appoints deacons to it is the subject of the next point.
From the above passage, we also learn that deacons are appointed by the spiritual leaders to a given work. Since elders are the spiritual leaders of churches today, elders must appoint deacons and select their tasks. Moreover, deacons assist and submit themselves to the authority of the elders, who were commanded to oversee and watch over the local congregation (I Peter 5:1-5) . Therefore, the authority of deacons falls within the bounds and oversight of the elders. Because of the deacon's dependence on the elders for appointment and direction, a church would necessarily be unable to appoint deacons if it did not have elders to guide and oversee them.
The office of deacon is vital part of a local church. They relieve the spiritually focused elders and evangelist from the routine business and physical needs of the church. Though anyone may serve the church in a general sense, only qualified men may be scripturally appointed to this office. The spiritual overseers of the local church, the elders, are responsible for the final appointment of the deacons. The elders also determine the specific work of deacons, relevant to their local congregation. It is essential that we understand the qualifications and work of a deacon, so that we may properly fill this position with godly men who will assist the church. Perversion of their work or qualifications will only lead to further straying from God's pattern, will, and approval.
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