Question & Answer Forum

What does the New Testament teach that a deacon is?

Among a number of New Testament words that describe servants, deacon emphasizes the servant’s personal responsibility to serve. In Luke 17:7-10 the Lord speaks of a bondservant instructed to prepare his lord’s food and to serve him as a deacon. He is both a bondservant (verse 7) and deacon (verse 8), the one emphasizing his lowly place and the other his personal responsibility to serve food to his lord. Rulers are ministers (deacons) of God (Romans 13:6) in that they have a responsibility entrusted to them. This thought seems to be consistent in New Testament usage.

New Testament deacons serve in at least three spheres. Rulers are deacons, responsible before God for service in the secular sphere. Phebe (Romans 16:1) and the seven who took care of feeding the widows (Acts 6:1-6) offered charitable and profitable service in a Christian sphere. Some individuals had a responsibility to serve others with divine truth in a spiritual sphere (2 Corinthians 3:6; 6:4; Ephesians 6:21; Philippians 1:1). This latter group is the subject of 1 Timothy 3:8-13. They had a responsibility for “the mystery of the faith” (verse 9). Someone in an assembly (or maybe someone who is not even saved) may have the responsibility for cutting the grass outside the building where the believers meet. He could be called a deacon, but that is not the deacon service addressed in 1 Timothy 3.

Deacons did not have an office or official status, but they had a defined spiritual work for which they were responsible.

D. Oliver

How does a deacon differ from an elder?

Paul addressed both bishops (elders) and deacons in the Philippian epistle (1:1). In his writing to these believers, he is concerned that the assembly is endangered and needs to be saved from the spiritual condition of “murmurings and disputings” (2:12-14). By addressing the bishops and deacons, he seems to imply that together they carry a responsibility for the assembly’s spiritual condition. The elders are responsible to care for the condition of the sheep, while the deacons were to communicate healthy food for the spiritual strengthening of the believers.

Although someone observing our usual practice might not think we believe this, but not all elders are deacons and not all deacons are elders. Elders are responsible to the Lord for the guidance of the assembly (Hebrews 13:17) and for the state of the flock (Acts 20:28). They guide the assembly to recognize the capabilities of certain individuals and they entrust spiritual responsibility to them. Those to whom they entrust such responsibilities are deacons, serving the Lord and the assembly and they are accountable to those elders.

D. Oliver

What are some examples of deacon work?

Those whom the Lord calls to preach His word are deacons (Acts 12:25). Those who have regular responsibility to preach the gospel or arrange the speakers for assembly gospel meetings are deacons. Those who have primary responsibility to open and teach the believers in assembly Bible Readings are doing deacon work. A man entrusted with the responsibility of superintending an assembly’s Sunday School work serves as a deacon. Sunday School teachers have a spiritual responsibility for imparting divine truth to young people (as do the children’s mother and father), but the structure of the Sunday School is more like an extension of the home than an assembly meeting, so I question if Sunday School teachers are deacons in the spiritual sphere addressed in 1 Timothy 3. A brother or sister may be entrusted with the responsibility of arranging a dinner to take care of believers attending an assembly gathering. In that case, they are deacons in the Christian sphere, as was Phebe, but not in the sphere described in 1 Timothy 3.

D. Oliver

What is the meaning of blameless as related to deacons?

While our AV reads “blameless” in the requirements for both the overseers (1 Timothy 3:2) and the deacons (verse 10), the words are slightly different. For overseers, being blameless means that no one can sustain an accusation against their character. Deacons are blameless in a different sense. They have experience in their spiritual work before being entrusted with deacon responsibility. Having proven themselves by doing that work in a way that no one could even raise an accusation against their conduct, they then serve as deacons. Deacons need moral characteristics for their work, but “being found blameless” seems to emphasize the way they handle lesser responsibilities, as their conduct and capability gain the confidence of their fellow-believers. “And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless.”

D. Oliver

If overseers entrust deacon work to a person who is not “blameless,” what can other believers do?

This question is similar to one answered in this past January’s magazine (question 3). If a believer knows of something that disqualifies an individual from doing a work entrusted to him, tell the elders courteously. They may not be aware of what others have observed. Having fulfilled his responsibility regarding the overseers’ decision, the dissenting believer should further fulfill his responsibility to submit to his guides (Hebrews 13:8).

D. Oliver