The Work of Deacons
That the organization of the New Testament church includes bishops and deacons is a fact known and accepted by New Testament Christians. Much has been taught concerning the responsibilities of bishops, and their work is fairly well understood, but comparatively little has been taught concerning the work of deacons. As a result, men are appointed deacons, but with little knowledge of their responsibilities, and, if they do know their responsibilities, with little opportunity to fulfill them.
An understanding of the meaning of the designation deacon will do much to help us understand the duties of a deacon. Our English word deacon is from the Greek diakonos, which appears some thirty times in the New Testament. In the King James Version it is translated minister twenty times, servant seven times, and deacon three times. In addition to these three instances, the word deacon also appears in our common English versions two other times, but in these two instances it is part of the translation of the verb diakoneo, rather than of the noun diakonos. However, it is obvious at a glance that the verb and the noun are from the same stem.
The Greek word for deacon refers to "one who exercises the commands of another." Therefore, the word means servant, attendant, minister. (Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon). From this definition, we learn that the sphere of a deacon's work is not to rule, but to serve. He is not an overseer, but a servant. Elders are to rule the church; deacons are to serve.
In giving the qualifications of deacons, Paul says, "Let them serve as deacons." And again, "For they that have served well as deacons gain to themselves a good standing . . ." (I Tim. 3:10, 13). A deacon's work is to serve.
Further insight into the work of deacons may be gained by a study of the appointment of the seven, recorded in Acts 6. It is true that these men are not called deacons, but we are told that they were appointed to be over the "daily ministration" (diakonian) and that they were "to serve (diakoneo) tables" (Acts 6:1, 2). The latter is the same verb that is rendered "serve as deacons" in the two passages previously cited from 1 Timothy 3 (verses 10 and 13). If these men served as deacons, it is proper to call them deacons.
These seven men were appointed because the Grecian widows were neglected in the daily ministration. This daily ministration to the widows was a part of the distribution to the needy that we read about in Acts 4:34, 35, where we learn that "as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto each, according as anyone had need." The seven deacons were appointed to be "over this business," so that the apostles could devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word and so that they would not have to forsake the word of God to serve tables (Acts 6:2-4). Hence, these deacons were appointed to see that the needy widows were properly cared for, and it was their responsibility to see that each widow received her just portion.
Although the neglect of widows was the immediate reason for the appointment of these men, we should not necessarily conclude that this duty was the limit of their official activities. As Robert Milligan stated, "Surely no one would thence infer that they were officially restricted to the particular case which suggested the necessity of their appointment; that in case of further neglect by the congregation it would be necessary to appoint others to feed the Hebrew widows, others to clothe the naked, others to wait on the sick, and others, again to administer to the wants of the superannuated. This would be to multiply offices and officers rather too fast for even the most visionary." (Scheme of Redemption, pp. 340, 341).
However, we do need to caution against one extreme conclusion that some have reached. Because the sphere of the deacons' activities are in the secular realm, some have concluded that deacons are to control the treasury of the church. That this is not so is evident from Acts 11:30; for when the church in Antioch sent relief to the brethren in Judea, they sent it, not to the deacons, but to the elders. Deacons are not to control the treasury; they are to be in charge of the actual distribution to those in need.
Unfortunately, this primary responsibility of deacons to look after the care of the needy is largely overlooked at the present time. One reason for this is that we have institutionalized the care of the needy to such an extent that we have left deacons with little to do in this respect. Rather than use the deacons to see that the needy widows of the church are properly cared for, churches send a donation to some institution for the aged and let them discharge what is the obligation of the church. Why appoint deacons if we are not going to permit them to do the work that God intended for them to do?
Another reason why deacons often have little or nothing to do is that elders do all the work that they should delegate to deacons. When elders tend the flock, exercising the oversight, and when they exhort in the sound doctrine and convict the gainsayers, they will have more than enough to do without personally caring for the needy who are the obligation of the church. Deacons need to let the elders do the ruling, and elders need to let the deacons do the serving, so that elders in turn may devote themselves to their duties, and not be burdened down serving tables. This is God's plan, and it will work if we use it.
Truth Magazine I:9, pp. 6-7