Many churches have members appointed to an office or wearing a title called “deacon.” These churches have their own concept of what these individuals are and what they are supposed to be doing. In some churches deacons are the decision makers. In other churches deacons are nothing more than figureheads. The preacher is doing the work of the elders, the elders are doing the work of deacons, and the deacons are doing nothing.
Deacons have an important role to play in the Lord’s church. We know that God has set the church in order. He has put every part in its proper place. To understand what a deacon is, and what he is to do, we must understand what the Bible says about deacons.
“Deacon” – Special Use of a Generic Word
In the English language there are many words that are used in a general sense most of the time, but in some contexts they become technical terms for specific things, positions, or offices. For instance, the term “manager” is a generic work. Everyone is a manager in some sense. Mothers manage the home, the boss manages his business, and people manage their time and money. However, on a baseball team the ordinary use of the word “manager” becomes an official title for the man who is in charge of the team. For instance, Dusty Baker is the Manager of the Cincinnati Reds.
The Bible uses words in the same way. The word “elder” commonly refers to older people, but the Bible uses the word to refer to men who have been appointed to the oversight of the local church (Acts 20:17). Likewise, the Greek word diakonos is an ordinary word for servant. It appears in the New Testament thirty times. It is translated with the generic words “servant” or “minister” 27 times (KJV), but three times it is transliterated with the word “deacon.” In the general sense the term diakonos could be applied to anyone who serves in some capacity. However, in three places in the New Testament, diakonos is clearly used in a specific or technical sense to refer to an office in the local church (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:10, 13).
Deacons Are Not Rulers
By definition, a deacon is one who serves, carrying out another’s command. This means that a deacon’s work is not to rule, but to serve. He is not an overseer, but is in a subordinate position of service. Elders rule the local church, and deacons serve under their rule.
Several things in the Bible indicate the fact that deacons are under the rule of elders. When they are listed together, the elders are always listed first (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3). There are references to the elders of a church without any reference to deacons (Acts 11:30, 15:2, 20:17), but there is never a reference to deacons without elders. The Bible also mentions the appointment of elders in each church without the mention of deacons (Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5).
These facts help us understand that elders are over the deacons. The deacons exercised no authority in the local church other than authority given to them by the elders to carry out their specific responsibilities.
Qualifications of a Deacon
For one to serve as a deacon in the Lord’s church, he must first meet qualifications that are set forth in First Timothy 3:8-13 and Acts 6:3.
Reverent – a deacon must be an honorable man, noted and respected for his good character. He must be serious, trustworthy, and dignified.
Not double-tongued – these men must be trusted to tell the truth and to be honest with others.
Not given to much wine – the literal meaning of this phrase in the Greek is “not addicted to much wine.” This qualification stresses a man’s ability to practice self-control.
Not greedy for money – a deacon cannot be a man who would use his office as a means of personal profit. Those who desire to be rich will not have the heart or the time to serve properly as a deacon.
The qualifications go on to indicate that a deacon must be a strong Christian, must have a good reputation or “track record,” and must be a good husband and father (thus, a deacon must be a man).
In considering the qualifications set forth by the apostles in Acts 6:3, a deacon must have a good reputation, must walk by the teachings of the Holy Spirit, and must be full of wisdom.
The deacon’s wife must also meet qualifications (1 Timothy 3:11). She cannot be a slanderer, but must be reverent, temperate, and faithful in all things.
Deacons Are Servants
As we have observed, the term “deacon” is transliterated from the Greek word diakonos, which designates a servant. Thayer defines this term as “one who executes the commands of another, especially of a master; a sergeant, attendant, minister” (138). Therefore, the word means servant, attendant, or minister.
The primary function of deacons is spelled out in their qualifications. Paul says of these men, “then let them serve as deacons…” and “For those who have served well as deacons…” (1 Tim. 3:10, 13; emphasis mine – HR). In Acts 6:3, seven men were appointed “over this business.” Thus, they had a work to do. Taking care of the “business” of “serving tables” (v. 2) was their work and responsibility.
Extent of their Work
Every Christian is to be a servant, but there is something special about the service that deacons render to the church. Although the Bible tells us that the nature of a deacon’s work is to serve, we are not told the specific work that is to be done by deacons. God’s wisdom is seen in allowing each local eldership to assess the needs of the congregation and thus assign the work that needs to be done to the deacons.
Although the men who were chosen to serve in Acts 6 were not called “deacons,” the passage probably sheds more light on the work to be done by deacons than any other passage.
1. They relieve the elders. It is not desirable that elders leave their spiritual work of overseeing the souls of the congregation and shepherding the flock to serve the congregation in a physical way. Much effort goes into the work of the church. Deacons help the elders by taking on the tasks that are more of a physical nature, allowing elders to handle work that is more of a spiritual nature. When the elders are busy doing the work of deacons, then the work of the elders is left undone while the deacons are left with no work to do.
2. Their work is primarily of a physical nature. Two of the seven men from Acts 6 were capable preachers (Stephen and Philip). Serving as a deacon does not exclude one from a teaching role, however their work as deacons will be primarily physical in nature. This work can fall into the following categories.
- Benevolence – the “business” of these seven men was to take care of the needy widows of the church.
- Physical needs of members – assist members who need help, inform the elders when a member falls into need, assist when baptisms take place, etc.
- Prepare building for services – unlock doors, turn on lights, make sure furnace and air conditioner are serviced, etc.
- Prepare for worship – usher, prepare duty roster, etc.
- Building maintenance and repair – order supplies, help with repairs and maintenance, etc.
- Bookwork – treasurer, attendance records, etc.
Conclusion: A deacon has no authority to oversee the church, neither is he just a figurehead. The office of a deacon is not a stepping stone into the eldership. Deacons are special servants of the church who relieve the elders so they can do their work more effectively.
“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” (1 Timothy 3:13). The work of a deacon is vital to the work of the local church. Those who serve the church well as deacons are worthy of a good standing among the brethren, and through experience gain a strong faith with which the can continue to serve God and their brethren.