There seems to be a
flurry of interest lately, in the office of deacons. Books are being
written and articles published. Some churches are wondering if they are
scriptural if they do not have deacons. Others that have deacons wonder
if they even know what they should be doing.
First of all, it should be emphasized that elders are essential as
an assembly matures and God raises up men with a shepherd‘s heart for
the sheep. These should be recognized as leaders of God‘s people and
allowed to make decisions for the flock. A scriptural assembly is not a
pure democracy with all having an equal voice in decisions affecting
God‘s people. It is fitting that the most godly, mature, spiritual men
lead God‘s people. Because of this the apostles ‘appointed elders in
every church‘, Acts 14. 23. NKJ. Not to have elders in an assembly is
to be ‘lacking’, Titus 1. 5.
There was no clergy-laity system with the elders divided into
‘teaching’ and ‘ruling‘ elders. All elders were on the same footing and
all were expected to exercise their gifts and to be ‘able to teach’, 1
Tim. 3. 2. A full-time worker while working with an assembly to build
it up would be viewed as one of the elders, not as a minister over
them, cf. 1 Pet. 5. 1. The local elders would be expected to earn their
own living. The commended worker would be supported by gifts from
various churches and individuals, Phil. 4. 15-16. Peter recognized the
tremendous need of churches to have godly elders, 1 Pet. 5. 1-4.
But what about ‘deacons’? There is no mention in the book of Acts
about the apostles appointing deacons in their missionary travels. In
fact, if it were not for their mention in Philippians 1. 1, and 1
Timothy 3, we would not even be aware that such a work existed. Because
in these passages they are mentioned alongside the elders, it is
obvious that at least in some of the assemblies deacons existed.
First, we need to define our terms. The Greek word ‘diakonos’ is
defined as a ‘servant of someone‘, a ‘helper‘ or a ‘deacon as an
official of the church‘. (p. 183, Arndt and Gingrich, A Greek-English
Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature).
The verb form ‘diakonew‘ is translated ‘to wait on someone‘, ‘to
serve‘, ‘to care for‘, ‘to help‘, and ‘to serve as a deacon‘. The term
‘deacon‘ then is not a translation of the original but a
transliteration. The Greek word was imported into the English language
and became a part of ecclesiastical terminology in the Church of
England. The King James translation therefore used the noun as
‘minister‘ or ‘servant‘ twenty-seven times and as ‘deacon‘ three times.
The verb form was translated forty times and usually as ‘to serve‘ or
‘to minister‘. In 1 Timothy 3 it was translated four times as serving
in ‘the office of a deacon’.
The Greek noun ‘doulos’, is translated a ‘slave‘ and emphasizes the
relationship to the master and owner. The noun ‘diakonos’ focuses upon
the activity of serving another. While the English word ‘minister‘ does
have in its origin the thought of ‘servant‘ today it is used often to
denote an office, such as the minister of a department of government or
the minister of a church. The word in itself carries no such
Acts 6 is often used as giving the origin of the office of deacon.
But this may be saying too much. The seven are never called deacons,
although they were certainly appointed to relieve the elders of some of
the mundane details of church life. In so far as they were helpers of
the elders they were servants of the church. At least one might suggest
that their work as helping the elders was typical of those who later
were called ‘servants‘ or ‘deacons‘ of the church.
The work and appointment arose out or a current need. Hence
Scripture is vague about the duties of deacons. The needs of churches
vary according to the local situation. In fact, in the beginning of an
assembly there may be no special needs that require such an appointment.
However, as time goes on and a fellowship grows, a building may be
acquired. This will require maintenance and care. The elders will need
helpers to relieve them of such duties. They need to give themselves to
the word, to prayer and to the spiritual needs of the flock.
The assembly may have a list of widows that are helped by the
church, 1 Tim. 5. 9-10. These will require ‘servants‘ to help meet
their physical needs. This may involve home-repairs, the buying of
groceries and transportation. There may be others who are sickly or
handicapped. These too need the practical support of God‘s people.
However, to limit the work of these servants or deacons to helping
the widows or sickly is not wise. Scripture nowhere delineates the
precise duties of deacons. They are helpers to the elders. Let the
elders then, with the fellowship of the congregation, appoint godly men
to assist in the details of church life as the need arises. Such men
should prove themselves first by their godly, consistent lives, 1 Tim.
3. 8-12. Faithfulness in these responsibilities will qualify them for
greater work later, 1 Tim. 3. 13. Stephen served the church faithfully,
exercised his spiritual gifts and was a powerful witness for the Lord
Jesus. May all deacons follow his example, Acts 6 and 7.