By James E. Cooper
The fact that Paul addresses the saints in the congregation at Philippi “with the bishops and deacons” (Phil. 1:1) leaves no doubt that there was a special group of men in that congregation who were set apart to do a particular work. Further, at Ephesus, Timothy was instructed that those selected for the work must meet certain qualifications (1 Tim. 3:13). These examples, along with Acts 14:23, would indicate that selecting elders and deacons was a common practice among the churches of the first century.
The Meaning of the Word “Deacon”
Our English word “deacon” can be traced back to a sound-alike word in the Greek language. The Greek word diakonos [“deacon”] appears some 30 times in the New Testament, and is used both in the technical and nontechnical sense.
Souter defines the word: “a waiter, servant: thus of any one who performs any service, an administrater, etc.” (Pocket Lexicon).
W.E. Vine says it “primarily denotes a servant, whether as doing servile work, or as an attendant rendering free service, without reference to character. . . . Diakonos is, generally speaking, to be distinguished from doulos, a bond servant, slave; diakonos views a servant in relationship to his work; doulos views him in relationship to his master” (Expository Dictionary of N. T. Words).
Deacon In a Non-Technical Sense
We can come to a better understanding of the function of the diakonos by looking at various passages in which it occurs. In some passages it is translated “servant” and used in a non-technical way to describe various types of people who serve others:
- The servants of the king (Matt. 22:13) at the wedding feast of his son. [The word douloi, “bond servants” is used in the same context; cf. verses 3,4,6,8,10].
- Household servants at the wedding at Cana of Galilee (Jn. 2:5,9).
- Jesus is called “a servant to the circumcision” (Rom. 15:8, NKJ).
- Any man who is a servant of Jesus Christ (Jn. 12:26).
- He who will be greatest among you “will be your servant ” (Matt. 23:11).
- Phoebe, a servant [fem. of diakonos] of the church in Cenchrea (Rom. 16:1).
The word diakonos is translated “minister” in several passages, and is still used in a non-technical sense. The New Testament knows of no such person as “the Minister.” The idea of service is still predominant.
- Christ is not “a minister of sin” (Gal. 2:17).
- The officer of the civil government is “God’s minister to you” (Rom. 13:4).
- Jesus said, “Whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant” (NKJV; “minister, KJV, Matt. 20:26).
- Preachers of the gospel. Paul became “a minister according to the gift of the grace of God” (Eph. 3:7). The Corinthians are reminded that preachers are but “ministers through whom ye believed” (1 Cor. 3:5). Others called ministers are Tychicus (Eph. 6:21; Col. 4:7), Epaphras (Col. 1:7) and Timothy (1 Thess. 3:2; 1 Tim. 4:6).
- False teachers are called Satan’s “ministers (who) transform themselves into ministers of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11:15).
“Deacon” in a Technical Sense
In Philippians 1:1, “deacons” are distinguished from the “elders” and the other “saints.” The fact that the translators only transliterated the Greek word diakonoi, indicates that they apparently recognized a technical use of the word in this passage.
That deacons must meet certain specified qualifications (1 Tim. 3:8-13) indicates a technical use of the term. Like the overseers, those who act in an “official” capacity on behalf of the church should be men of sterling character. All Christians should be willing to serve in whatever capacity they can, but those selected by the church to serve on behalf of the church must meet the stipulated qualifications.
Although the seven men in Acts 6:1-6 are not specifically called “deacons” in the English text, a form of the word for deacon appears three different times in the Greek. The Hellenistic widows were “neglected in the daily distribution” (v. 1), and the apostles said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables” (v. 2). The seven were to be appointed in order that the apostles could give themselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (v. 4). Notice that a contrast is drawn between the service that is to be rendered by the seven and that which is rendered by the apostles.
The Nature of Their Work
The precise duties of deacons are not as clearly defined as those of bishops, but sufficient information is provided to enable us to understand their function. The word deacon itself indicates that they constitute a special class of servants in the church. They are not the overseers of the church; they have no more voice in determining policy than any other member. Deacons must be willing to accept the role of a servant. Not all men will do this. Some want to be masters. If they can’t be overseers, they won’t work. But deacons must honor and respect the elders, accept the duties assigned to them, and be content to work under the general oversight of the eldership.
The nature of their work is illustrated by the function of the six men chosen to provide for the needs of the Hellenistic widows in the church at Jerusalem (Acts 6:1-7). Apparently, “everybody’s business became nobody’s business,” and these particular widows were being neglected in the daily ministration. [Were the Hebrews negligent because of cultural snobbery?] Even though the apostles recognized the need and importance of providing for all the widows, they said it was not proper for them to “leave the word of God and serve tables.” They were primarily concerned about the spiritual, not social, welfare of the saints. Today this must continue to be the prime concern of the elders of the local church.
The “multitude of the disciples” was instructed to select men of proper qualifications to be “appointed over this business” so that the apostles could “give themselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” This suggests that the work of deacons has the effect of allowing the overseers time and energy to deal with spiritual matters. That they were selected by the “multitude of the disciples” indicates that the church should select its own servants. That they were to be appointed “over this business” indicates that they were given the authority to act, and to make decisions with regard to the specific details involved in discharging their duties. Some elders today apparently are afraid to give deacons the authority to be over anything, and so involve themselves in the work which deacons should be doing that deacons become mere figureheads and the spiritual work of elders remains undone.
Kinds of Service Deacons May Perform
What kinds of service can deacons render for the church? Opportunities for deacons can be found on every hand. It is not necessary for deacons themselves to perform every task, but they should be placed “over the business” of the following areas of work. When their assignments have been made, the elders should be able to depend upon them for their assignments to be carried out.
Benevolence. One obvious area would be in the realm of benevolence, as indicated by the example of the Jerusalem church in Acts 6:1-6. Deacons should be placed “over the business” of seeing to it that proper assistance is rendered to any widows or other needy for whom the church is responsible (cf. 1 Tim. 5:3-16). But it should be obvious that there are other areas in which deacons may serve the church.
Caretakers. Deacons may be placed “over the business” of making sure that all necessary preparations for Bible Study and Worship have been completed. They can see to it that the building is clean and that songbooks and tracts are in their proper place. They should be responsible for seeing that the communion service has been prepared. And they should make sure that the baptistry is properly maintained. They should make sure that the lawn and parking areas around the building are properly maintained. When any function at the meeting house is over, they should make sure that the building is properly secured.
Ushers. Deacons should be placed “over the business” of ushering. They may both serve and select others to be ushers at each service, and make sure that all newcomers and visitors are made to feel welcome. Make sure that visitors receive a copy of the bulletin, and that they receive a Visitor’s Registration Card to fill out. They should remember that they have an opportunity to make a wonderful “first impression” upon any visitor who might attend.
Treasurers. Deacons may be placed “over the business” of keeping up with the treasury. A good man is needed by every church to make sure the bills are paid, and that the income and expenses of the church are accounted for properly. Regular reports concerning his stewardship of this work should be made to the congregation.
While teaching was not necessarily involved in the work of deacons, two outstanding teachers came out of the group of seven men in Jerusalem. Both Stephen and Philip were noted preachers of the word (cf. Acts 7-8; 21:8). Paul observed that “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 Tim. 3:13).
The work of deacons is a responsible job in the local church, and responsible and willing people are needed to fill the positions. As we strive to abide in the doctrine of Christ, let us abide in this teaching also.
Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 22, pp. 684-685
November 16, 1989