post by Josh Fenska
Depending on your church background, you may have different ideas or expectations for deacons. People with a certain Baptist background may think of a board of trustees in which twelve men vote about things like landscaping and the youth pastor’s salary. People from an Anglican background may think of white robes with special sashes. Basketball fans will think of Wake Forest.
So what’s our vision for deacons here at Redeemer, and what are we planning to do about it? We’ll get to that later in our series of blog posts about deacons, but, first, we want to begin with what the Bible says — because that’s most important.
The Bible recognizes a group of church officers called “elders.” The elders are expected to shepherd the flock of God with teaching and oversight (1 Peter 5:1-5).
The Bible also recognizes a group of church officers called “deacons” (see Philippians 1:1). The New Testament says very little about this office (at least when you compare it to how much the New Testament says about elders).
In sum, it seems the Bible presents deacons as church officers with commendable character who administrate servanthood in the church.
Here are three New Testament clues that contribute to that definition:
Clue #1: The New Testament word for deacon (diakonos) is simply the word for a certain kind of household “servant.” So, for example, when Jesus turned water to wine, he directed the household “servants” (or we could literally translate it “deacons”) to go get some jugs of water (John 2:9). Later in his life, Jesus famously gave dignity to the idea of servanthood, saying “The greatest among you shall be your servant [= deacon]” (Matthew 23:11). The title clearly suggests a role related to servanthood.
Clue #2: In the book of Acts, the apostles ran into an administrative challenge related to distributing food to the poor in the church family. Their solution? They asked the church to help select seven reputable and wise men to “serve tables” so that the apostles could devote themselves “to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” In the process, The Seven fostered unity in a potentially divisive situation, and positioned the church for greater fruitfulness of gospel ministry (Acts 6:1-7). Although the noun “deacon” doesn’t appear in the passage, most Christians view Acts 6 as the appointing of the first official deacons in church history, as The Seven used their gifts to administrate servanthood for good of the church body.
Clue #3: Later in the New Testament, as Paul is writing instructions to Timothy to protect and prepare the church in Ephesus for increasing fruitfulness, he includes instructions about finding the right kind of people to serve as deacons. This is by far the most detailed passage about deacons. It doesn’t say a lot about their roles; rather, it emphasizes what kind of character they would need to have. Here are Paul’s words about finding faithful deacons:
“Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.” (1 Tim. 3:8–13)
One of the most striking things about Paul’s list of qualifications for deacons (which is very similar to the list of qualifications Paul gives for elders in the previous paragraph in 1 Timohty) is that deacons are not required to be “apt to teach” (as elders must be, 1 Tim. 3:2). In keeping with other clues, this suggests that the role of a deacon is more a ministry of administration and servanthood, whereas the ministry of elders focuses on shepherding the church through the teaching of the Word.
From the earliest days, churches have commissioned deacons to serve in a variety of ways–from guarding finances, to assisting in preparing for worship services, to managing ministries of mercy, or organizing other church ministries.
Where the New Testament gave few regulations about what exactly deacons are supposed to administrate, churches have found a variety of ways for church members with commendable character to serve for the building up the body of Christ in the power of the Spirit to the glory of God. That seems to be the essence of what the office of deacon is all about.