What Is A Deacon?

By Phil Roberts

Everybody is a manager of some sort. Mothers manage the home, the boss manages his employees, and everyone manages his time. But on a professional baseball team that ordinary word “manager” becomes the official title of the head man. Tommy Lasorda is not just a manager in a general sense; he is the Manager of the Dodgers. In every language there are many words that are used in a quite general sense most of the time, but which are, in some context, used as technical terms for very specific positions or offices.

In the Bible several words for the leaders of God’s people were of such a nature. “Elder” (presbuteros) was obviously the common word for older people. But it was also the technical term for people appointed to the office of “Elder.” Likewise, diakonos was just an ordinary Greek word for “servant,” and it is usually translated that way in the Bible. But it was also the technical term for those appointed to the office of “Servant.” Modern translations, however, usually use the transliterated term “Deacon” when the term is being used in its technical sense to refer to the office.

In its general sense the term diakonos could be applied to just about anyone to whom we might apply the English term “servant” today, from household slaves to government officials. Because of the connotation of service on behalf of others, the word was especially suitable for use by NT Christians to describe their work, not only as servants of God, but also as servants of each other. Jesus described his own work as one of service to others (Matt. 20:28), and he admonished his disciples that, if any of them would be first, they must become a servant of all (Lk. 22:26). Thus, in the general sense, every Christian is (indeed must be) a servant, and almost every act in which one engages as a Christian can be described as a service, either to God or to man.

But in two places in the NT diakonos is clearly used in the technical sense of “Servant” (or “Deacon” if we prefer). Those two places are Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8,12. The context clearly indicates the technical use in both cases. In 1 Timothy 3:8-13 the technical use is indicated by the list of qualifications which must be met by those who would aspire to the position, which is in turn tied to the similar list of qualifications for those who would aspire to the office of Elders (or Bishop). In Philippians 1:1 the technical use is likewise marked by the link with the Bishops as the leaders of the church at Philippi.

[This word diakonos belongs to a group of three related words. The other two are diakonia and diakoneo. These three words correspond almost exactly with our word group, “servant” (diakonos), “service” (diakonia), and “serve” (diakoneo). But it was especially the first of these three (diakonos) that was used as a technical term for the church office of “Servant” or “Deacon.” Some lexicons do treat the use of the verb diakoneo in 1 Timothy 3:10 as a technical reference to discharging duties of the office of a Deacon, and some suggest that the noun diakonia (service) in Romans 12:7 refers specifically to the service of Deacons, though I am personally doubtful that Paul is referring specifically to Deacons there. With these possible exceptions, however, these two related words always mean nothing more or less than ” service ” or ” serve. “]

Observing the above distinction between the technical and the general use of diakonos has important implications in at least four areas.

First, some having noted that diakonos (servant) can be applied to many different people in the NT church, have concluded that there was no such thing as an office of Deacon – only a general service participated in by all. This argument is usually made to support the larger idea that were no offices at all in local churches in the NT, nor even any official organization to such local churches. But this approach is no more legitimate than collecting a lot of general uses of the word “manage” and trying to prove from them that there is no official position of “Manager” on a baseball team.

Others have suggested that the term Deacon was more of an honorary title for those who had distinguished themselves in their service to God and their brethren. But this interpretation ignores the clear implications of the requirements listed in 1 Timothy 3:8-13 (not greedy of dishonest gain; having already proved themselves; ruling their own house and children well; etc.), as well as the express statement that they are being appointed specifically to “serve” (v. 10). Moreover, the idea that we have here only a sort of honorary title of distinction is contrary to the very spirit of the N.T. Where does God give titles merely for the purpose of honoring distinguished service?

But I fear that we who recognize the official nature of the office of Deacon may, at times, allow the office of deacons to function as little more than an honorary position. Sometimes if a fellow has been a faithful member for many years he will almost automatically be appointed a Deacon for no apparent reason other than a desire to acknowledge his long-term faithful membership. On other occasions I have heard brethren discuss the possibility of appointing a younger man as a Deacon to make him feel a part of the work, or to get him more involved. We should remember that the position is one of active service, and those who do not want to give themselves in that service should not be appointed for some other reasons.

A second implication can be drawn from taking note of the fact that in both cases where diakonos is clearly used in the technical sense of “Deacon” it is also linked with the office of Elder (or Bishop). And in both cases the Deacons are mentioned after the Elders, implying the subordination of the office of Deacon to that of the Elder. This subordination, though never expressly stated in the NT, is likewise clearly of the Deacons consists, indicated (1) by the terms used for the offices (Elders . . . essentially in that are both “elders” and (“overseers”); (2) by the which the Elders delegate to differing qualifications (the list for Elders is more extensive and includes such matters as “not a novice”); on behalf of their brethren and (3) the fact that we often find reference to the Elders of a church without any reference to Deacons (e.g. Acts 11:30; 15:2; 20:17), but never do we find any reference to Deacons apart from Elders; and (4) a priority attached to getting Elders appointed in each church (Acts 14:23; Tit. 1:5). Apparently the office of Elder could exist and function without the subordinate office of Deacon, but not vice versa.

I believe the above facts help us better understand the authority or extent of oversight which pertains to the office of Deacon. More properly, they help us understand the limitations of the authority and oversight of the office. Unlike the position of Elder, the position of Deacon is not identified as one of ruling or oversight in the NT. It is essentially a subordinate position of service. The authority and oversight of the Deacons consists, I believe, essentially in that which the Elders delegate to them in their work of service on behalf of their brethren and the gospel.

A third implication pertains to the use of the seven in Acts 6 as a case example of the appointment and work more of deacons. The use of the seven as examples of Deacons is usually based on the fact that the words diakonia (service) and diakoneo (serve) are used to describe their work in caring for the widows. But there is no indication that these words are being used in a technical sense here. In deed, in the very same passage diakonia is also used to describe the work of the apostles: the seven will attend to the daily service of the widows (v. 1) so that the apostles can continue in the service of the word (v. 4). But there are other indicators that we should be cautious in appealing to the case of these seven to define the office and work of Deacons. Note that the need that prompted their appointment was the neglect of the Grecian (i.e., Greek speaking) widows in the Jerusalem church. It can hardly be an accident that the names of all seven men are Greek. Contrast the case with that of the apostles, where only two of the twelve names are Greek. Clearly the seven were chosen from a particular segment of the church (the Greek speaking segment) to attend to the particular problem in that segment of the church (the neglect of the Greek speaking widows).

I would suggest that the Jerusalem church, at that infant stage, had neither elders nor deacons as yet, but was still being overseen directly by the apostles. And the case of the seven is primarily an example of a church selecting a group of particularly qualified men to attend to a particular problem.

If this assessment of the role of the seven is correct, then we should be careful about appealing to Acts 6:2 for a precise or limiting definition of the work of Deacons. I do not believe we should use this passage to limit the work of Deacons to “benevolence” or even to the “material” matters of the work of the church, though it would probably be fair to say that the work being attended to there by the seven is a good example of at least one type of work that might later be attended to by Deacons.

A fourth implication of the above distinction between the general and the technical use of diakonos pertains to the case of Phoebe in Romans 16:1. Though some have appealed to this as a third instance of the technical use of diakonos, I believe it is, like almost all other cases, only the general use. Paul describes here as a servant of the church in Cenchrea just as he describes himself elsewhere as a servant of the church in general (Col. 1:25). This matter will, however, be dealt with in more depth elsewhere in this issue.

Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 22, pp. 678-679
November 16, 1989