A Scriptural View of the Role of the Deacon

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Only two passages in the KJV Bible (Php 1:1; 1Tim 3:8-13) contain the word deacon or deacons. However, the Greek word so translated, diakonos, occurs more than thirty times, and is also translated minister and servant. It can mean “an attendant, a servant” or “a waiter (at table or in other menial duties).” Sometimes, as in the above passages, it means “a male Christian serving in a specific function and post (i.e. tending the widows and the poor, teaching, pastoring, etc).”

The deacon office was instituted in Acts 6:1-6, where the church appointed seven men to oversee the distribution of material aid to the widows. although the bible does not call these men deacons, it clearly describes a particular ordained office. The apostles stated the qualifications, the church appointed the men and set them apart for a special work, and the apostles commissioned them through prayer and the laying on of hands.

The work of the seven fit the “table waiter” meaning of diakonos. It involved the daily ministration (diakonia) and relieved the apostles of serving (diakoneo) tables so they could focus on the ministry (diakonia) of the Word. So we believe the seven filled the same office that is later referred to as “deacons.”

From acts 6 and other references, what is the scriptural role of the deacon?

To Resolve Material Disputes in the Church
“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” (Acts 6:1). This dispute, if not settled, could have destroyed the unity of the church and stifled its growth. So the first deacons were appointed to resolve a difference over material aid. evidently their work was effective, as the rapid growth of the church resumed (Acts 6:7).

Because of the peacemaking role of the first deacons, we have this statement in our “Decrees” today: “If difficulties arise in the church, the deacons, upon approval of the ministerial body, shall investigate and endeavor to effect peace and unity.” The deacon charge used in our churches includes a similar statement.

To Facilitate the Ministry of the Word
The apostles said, “It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables…. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.” appointing the deacons over the business of serving physical tables freed the apostles to focus on serving spiritual tables. This division of labor served the church well then, and still does today.

Someone has compared the role of the minister and deacon in the congregation to that of the father and mother in the home. Father’s role is primarily a spiritual leadership ministry; Mother’s role is primarily a physical caring ministry. Their roles are not exclusive; Father is also involved in physical caring, and Mother assists in spiritual leadership. yet their distinct roles enable each to serve more effectively.
To Distribute the Charities of the Church
Beginning with the first seven, the deacons’ job has been to distribute the charities of the church to members in need. Funds are supplied by giving, which the Scriptures teach is to be freewill, motivated by compassion, sacrificial, and as the Lord has prospered (Acts 11:29; 1Cor 16:2;
2Cor 8:1-9; 9:6,7; 1John 3:16-18).

On the deacons’ part, gifts are to be distributed according to need (acts 4:34,35; 20:35; rom 12:13; 15:26). In determining a need, they are to consider whether there is a family to assume responsibility for the needy member (1Tim 5:3,4,16).

Deacons are to be “of honest report” and “not greedy of filthy lucre” so they can be entrusted with others’ money. They also need to be “full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom” in order to evaluate each need compassionately and equitably.

Today this role of the deacon, with the entire biblical pattern of brotherhood sharing, is facing the twin threats of insurance and government aid. For centuries families and churches have shouldered responsibility for the widows, orphans, aged, disabled, sick, handicapped, bereaved, and so on, as well as members suffering from disasters of any sort. In recent years, more and more of these responsibilities have been handed off to insurance companies and government programs. If we want to maintain the deacon role as the Scriptures define it, we must keep the vision for brotherhood assistance alive. God’s way is not obsolete!

To Minister to Individual Needs
This point is an extension of the previous one. To understand the needs of the members they serve, deacons are to be chosen “from among you.” The seven chosen in acts 6:5 had Greek names, suggesting they themselves were Grecians (Greek-speaking Jews), to better serve the Grecian widows who had been neglected.

To best fulfill their caring ministry to the members, deacons must “sit where they sit” and empathize with their needs. This means visiting in their homes. It means checking on them in the hospital and praying with the sick ones. It may mean rushing to the scene of a fire, accident, or death. It may mean accompanying members to a doctor’s office or hospital when they face a medical procedure, giving moral support and sometimes counsel. The needs a deacon is called to serve are not only financial, but also emotional and spiritual as well.

To Preach and Evangelize
Stephen apparently taught in the synagogue (Acts 6:9,10). Philip was an evangelist (Acts 8:26-40; 21:8). Whether the other five preached, the Bible does not tell us. Since their appointment was to free the apostles to minister the Word, preaching was not the deacons’ primary responsibility. “Apt to teach” is included in the bishop’s qualifications (1Tim 3:2) but not in the deacon’s.

From these observations, it is Scriptural for a deacon to preach, although it is not his main calling. In our circles the deacons do preach, but less frequently than the bishops and ministers. Some deacons may be called, as Philip was, to the work of an evangelist, and preach more than other deacons. But regardless of their various gifts, all are to be full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom.

To Assist with Church Administration
Philippians 1:1 mentions deacons along with bishops, including them in the role of church leaders. Having been appointed to take a burden off the other ordained brethren, the deacons’ role includes assisting them in church administration.

This assistant role works out in various ways. Bishops, ministers, and deacons work together as a team in communicating needs to each other and in making administrative decisions. Deacons look out for the needs of the bishops and ministers, to see that their work is not hindered by financial burdens.

Historically, deacons have assisted in administering the ordinances, such as baptism, feet washing, and communion. This is in keeping with their job description as table waiters. The deacon’s work has been summed up as serving three tables: “the table of the Lord, the table of the minister, the table of the poor.”

Someone has observed that deacons have two of the most difficult things to work with: people and money. Much of their work is behind the scenes, yet it is rewarded.

God has a special promise for faithful deacons: “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” (1Tim 3:13). The word degree here literally means “a stair step.” Some have taken this to mean that faithful deacons will be promoted to higher offices in the church. While this may be the case, it seems more likely that the intended meaning is “a good standing.” As deacons serve as channels of God’s blessing to the church, they enjoy the approval of God and the appreciation of the brotherhood. To see their fellow members grow, the church prosper, and the Word go out, is ample reward for all their labors.

At the end of the day, the faithful deacons, along with all faithful servants of Christ, will humbly say, “We are unprofitable servants; we have done that which was our duty to do.” all the glory of the Church will belong to the Servant and Lord of all.

~Amelia, VA
February 2011