The Work of Deacons
Jeff S. Smith
Paul directed his letter to the church at Philippi specifically "to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons." From its contextual proximity to the office of bishop, the reader can ascertain that Paul is addressing a group of people serving in the office of deacon. They are not merely servants as all Christians are commanded to be, but fill that special office of deacon assigned by the Holy Spirit to qualified men thus appointed. It is our aim to discern what is the work of the deacons within the church of Jesus Christ. Because the mission of the office is somewhat obscure, various denominations have evidently mutated the office and actually elevated it above that of bishop. It would be a mistake to consider the modern deacon tradition among artificial religions to be indicative of the Bible mandate for the office. Instead, we search the scriptures and find three distinct lines of reasoning to guide our quest:
Our English word "deacon" is derived from the Greek diakonos, defined by Thayer as "one who executes the commands of another, esp. Of a master; a servant, attendant, minister." The Greek word diakonos can have a common or official usage, dependent upon the context. Both usages, however, are closely related, and distinguished by whether one's service is done in an official capacity as appointed by the bishops of a local congregation. It is translated into the common word "servant" 25 times in the New Testament, being rendered the official word "deacon" on only five appearances.
English translators have generally rendered the common usage of diakonos by the word "servant" instead of "deacon," so as to make clear that only those properly qualified and appointed are deacons in the official sense of the word. The word is commonly used of the king's servants in Matthew 23:13 and of a servant of the church in Colossians 1:25. Just as one can be an elder in a common sense - any older person - or in the official sense - a duly qualified and appointed church officer, so may one be a deacon in the common sense - any person engaged in the service of another - or the official sense - a duly qualified and appointed church officer.
Just as the reader may discern the basic nature of the work of elders from the very word itself, so he may learn of the general nature of the deacon's work through understanding the meaning of diakonos. The concept of oversight is built into the Greek word episkopos, translated bishop or elder. Inherent in diakonos is the concept of service.
The relationship of these properly defined terms and the offices themselves teaches plainly that the elders serve in a higher capacity than the deacons. The bishops have the oversight of the flock among them, including its work. The deacons serve to carry out that program of work at the direction of the bishops.
Modern religious organizations in which a Board of Deacons oversees the church's work and treasury, including its often singular "bishop" or pastor, are perverting God's organization of the local congregation. Instead the presbytery, or eldership, should take the lead and direct the deacons in their work.
Paul follows the qualification of bishops with those of deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. This process of qualifying and selecting certain members of the church to serve an appointment as deacons marks the clear distinction again between general servants and those holding the office of deacon.
The qualifications are similar to those of elders, but recognized as slightly less strict. This is due to the fact that deacons may be younger and less experienced than their counterparts in the presbytery.
Verse eight of this passage demands that candidates for deacon be trustworthy with money, not like Judas Iscariot, who robbed his own Lord. In carrying out the elders' instructions, they must be above suspicion.
Likewise, verse 10 demands that candidates first be tested or proven and then appointed only if they are found blameless. The members of the church they will serve must examine them and determine that they are fit to become deacons. Accusations against them should be investigated and resolved immediately, both in the interest of their soul's salvation and that of their appointment to this office. If the candidate is proven blameless - that is, no evil report against them is upheld - then they are qualified to serve, provided they meet the other requirements.
For one, the office of deacon can only be filled by a man. In this modern age of feminism and gender equity, many wonder if this requirement should be enforced. If it is not, then no other passage of scripture is safe from reinterpretation either. When God demands that every elder be the husband of one wife, it necessarily eliminates the possibility of a woman serving in the office of deacon. Some may infer from the King James Version that Phoebe of Cenchrea served in the office of deacon. Although the word diakonon is attached honorably to her record, only the common usage of the word can be harmonized with the requirement that official deacons be the husbands of one wife. While we assign the common usage of diakonon to Phoebe, we pause to note that her service was quite extraordinary, so that the Holy Spirit recorded her name for all time upon the pages of the New Testament. She is the mother of all godly women who serve their brethren with diligence and love in a number of ways.
It is also obvious from this passage that the office of deacon is one of great labor. It must never be conferred as an honorary title to a man with no ability or intention of carrying out the duty the office implies. "For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a good standing and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus" (verse 13).
The need for deacons in the church arose very quickly in the city of Jerusalem. Despite the presence of living apostles, the church became troubled and nearly divided over a physical concern that threatened to distract the spiritual nature of these leaders' work and doctrine.
"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" (Acts 6:1). We learn that the membership of the Jerusalem church was extremely large and consisted of many widows that required daily attention. Perhaps they were such as could be called widows indeed and added to a list of continuous benevolence. In any event, it appears that some of these believing widows were finding their physical need for assistance being neglected.
"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'" (Acts 6:2). The apostles recognized that their work was primarily to teach the word of God as the Holy Spirit was revealing it to them, according to Christ's prophecy. To put the Spirit on hold in order to serve and clear tables was unthinkable, especially when there were so many other saints who could easily minister to the needy widows. The service of these tables and widows is expressed with the word diakonos. Whomever would take this responsibility would be a servant of the Jerusalem church in some capacity.
"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 the ministry of the word" (Acts 6:3-4). Thus the apostles required that those selected to serve be men and also proven by the Jerusalem church to be worthy of the work. They would serve with the consent and appointment of the apostles by relieving them of physical tasks in favor of spiritual ones. Seven men were likely chosen because this was the ideal number to do the work efficiently. Two of the greatest saints of the New Testament were chosen: Stephen the first martyr and Philip the compassionate evangelist.
Were these seven men deacons in the official sense of the word, as seen in 1 Timothy 3? It would be impossible to prove, but it can safely be inferred that their work and appointment were prototypical of the office of deacon, in that they were set apart from other servants of the church.
The duties of the deacons, then, are determined by the elders who oversee the congregation and direct its program of evangelism, edification and benevolence. Their work will be primarily to see to the physical needs of the church, especially of the needy. Although deacons may also preach God's word, such is not necessary to fulfilling their office.
A deacon's place is in submission to the eldership, like any other member of a local church (Heb. 13:17). They are not to take the oversight of the church upon themselves or to institute any effort without the consent of their overseers. They will regularly meet with the elders in the process of their service together, and may often make suggestions as to what is needed and how various initiatives might best be accomplished, but they will never step out of their role as servants to become shepherds (1 Peter 5:2).
Without the understanding that the work of the seven men in Acts 6 is typical, or at least prototypical, of the work of deacons, the scriptures would provide very little instruction on their work. Clearly they were servants, proven by the church and appointed according to the will of God. We can glean from this that the deacons are responsible for ministering to the physical needs of the church so that her bishops and teachers might remain focused upon the spiritual ministry of the word. As Acts 6 makes plain, physical concerns can cripple a church and taint its sense of family; the deacons' work is to ensure that no one is neglected or left to suffer in need.
Perhaps the following tasks could reasonably be assigned to deacons:
No doubt the reader can think of many other duties that belong to deacons. So long as they fit the qualifications of the office and the nature of serving Christ's church, they should prove scripturally sound. Let deacons resist the temptation to take more upon them than is right or to operate outside the oversight of the bishops. Then they will truly obtain a good standing in the kingdom.
e-mail this author at SmithJeffS@aol.com
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