Deacons in the Local Assembly

When it comes to the exposition of the Scriptures, there are some subjects upon which an author can embark in the assurance that, while everyone might not agree with him, the overwhelming preponderance of his readers will. Then there are other subjects on which he ventures into print in the knowledge that almost everyone will disagree with some – if not all – of what he has written. The subject of deacons falls firmly into the second category. The scriptural data are so relatively sparse and the layers of tradition so thick that, if you were to ask any three people what they thought about deacons, you might very well end up with four different responses.

This being so, it behooves us to approach this subject with considerable care and the minimum of dogmatism, to speak where the Scriptures speak and to extrapolate from them as little as possible. With this aim in view, we will proceed by examining the scriptural references to deacons to see what sort of picture they give us of this role and of the individuals who fill it.

This approach, however, is complicated by the fact that the Greek word diakonos, like the English word servant which translates it, can cover a wide range of meanings. In secular usage, it could refer to service in a range of different spheres, though it always includes the idea of service carried out by the commission and with the authority of a superior.[1] So, in the New Testament, the word is sometimes used of domestic servants, without any spiritual context being implied. In John 2, for instance, it is used of the servants at the marriage feast in Cana (vv5,9), and in Matthew 22:13, of the servants of the king, who are commanded to eject the unworthy guest. Diakonia, or ministry, is used of Martha’s “much serving” in Luke 10:40.

More commonly, though, the NT uses deacon words of those who serve in a spiritual sense. In Romans 13:4, deacon language is used of secular rulers: “The power … is the minister of God to thee for good.”[2] It is used of every believer to describe our service to Christ and to each other (Joh 12:26; Mat 23:11-12; Mar 9:35). It is used of Christ, Paul, Timothy, Epaphroditus, the household of Stephanus, Archippus and John Mark (see, inter alia, Mar 10:45; Luk 22:27; Act 12:25; 20:24; 21:19; Rom 11:13; 15:8; 1Co 16:15; Gal 2:17; Col 4:17; 2Ti 4:5,11). The word diakonia (ministry) is used of the service of the apostles (see Act 1:17,25; 20:24; Rom 11:13) and of the missionary work of Paul and Barnabas (Act 12:25). It is used of the gospel in 2 Corinthians 3 and 4 and of the work of meeting the material needs of saints (Act 6:1; 11:29; Rom 15:31; 2Co 8:4; 9:1,12,13). All of these usages have in view a particular and specific undertaking or task – Paul’s special responsibility to minister the gospel, for example, or the work involved in bringing the gift for the saints to Jerusalem. In each context, there is the concept, not just of a specific task, but of specific individuals who have been commissioned to carry out that task. In each of these contexts, “ministry” is a term heavy with a sense of dignity and responsibility. And while the administration of financial resources is involved in some of these passages, it is by no means the case that all, or even most, of them are concerned with the handling of material things.

This is clear in Acts 6. This passage has played an important part in discussions about deacons. Often, a good deal of weight has been placed on this passage in a way that seems inherently problematic, given how unusual the circumstances were in Jerusalem and how little evidence there is in the NT, more widely, that the pattern of Acts 6 was to be understood as normative. This is especially so, given how much of the material recorded in the opening chapters of Acts is transitional in nature. We are wise to seek confirmation from the epistles before we attempt to use the events of the early Acts as a template for assembly life.

Even if we do regard Acts 6 as a template, however, we should note that it still does not support the idea that the work of the deacon relates specifically to material or financial responsibility. In the first place, the “seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom” (v3) that are put in charge of the daily ministration (diakonia) are never referred to as deacons. More significant, however, are the words of the apostles as they addressed the situation that had arisen in Jerusalem: “Then the twelve … said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve [diakoneō] tables. … We will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry [diakonia] of the word” (vv2-4). The passage presents not one but two different forms of deacon work: service of tables and service of the Word. There is no suggestion that these were mutually exclusive; indeed, the example of Stephen demonstrates that they were not. Rather, this was a division of labor that allowed the work of God, in all its aspects, to make orderly progress. Nor would it be correct to describe one service as spiritual and the other as material; the requirement that these seven men be “full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom” makes that about as clear as it could be. And, as in the passages mentioned above, there is a clear sense of commissioning (and of the necessity of suitable qualification for that commissioning) as well as a clear and identifiable responsibility.

It remains to be considered what deacon service looks like in the context of a local assembly, for, while the principles outlined above are undoubtedly important for our understanding of what deacons are and do, it must be acknowledged that the specifics of passages like Acts 6 or 2 Corinthians 3 and 4 are not directly replicated in the context of twenty-first-century local church testimony.

Two passages are relevant to this question: Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8-13. The reference to deacons in Philippians 1:1 is glancing: “Paul and Timotheus … to all the saints … at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.” Why Paul should here, uniquely amongst all his epistles, address the deacons is an interesting question; the answer probably lies in the epistle’s emphasis on the unity of the assembly as well as in its foregrounding of the importance of service. What is notable for our present purposes, however, is that the deacons in Philippi were, just like the elders, an identifiable group of men; when Paul addressed them, everyone knew who they were. This suggests that, just as the elders had been formally recognized, so too had the deacons.

That impression is strengthened by the more extensive discussion of deacons in 1 Timothy 3. Here, too, the paralleling of deacons with elders is significant; deacons and elders are clearly not the same thing, but it is equally clear that they are the same sort of thing. Moreover, the detailed criteria for deacons, while they are undoubtedly important for an individual who is exercised about service to consider, are best understood as setting the standard for those who are to be recognized as deacons. And, while “let them use the office of a deacon” (v10) is an unhelpful rendering of what is really just the verb “to deacon” (diakoneō), the instruction, “let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless” (ESV), clearly contemplates a process of probation followed by recognition of qualified deacons by the assembly.

The criteria are detailed and searching, and, like those that apply to the elder, have much to do with character, reputation and the moral authority to lead God’s people. As is the case with the requirements for elders, there is nothing here that would not be expected of all believers; they are essential for deacons. But, though it is clear what a deacon must be like, Paul is not explicit about what he is to do. The only indication of the sort of responsibility that a deacon might have occurs in verse 9: “Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience.” Here “the mystery of the faith” summarizes truth that has been revealed and is believed; it is one of the near synonyms that the pastoral epistles use for the truth of Scripture. The deacon must hold this revelation fast; that is, he must take possession of it for himself and preserve it against all attacks. And he must do this “in a pure conscience”; unlike the false teachers of whom Paul warns in this epistle, his life is to be in accordance with the message. Of course, every believer should hold fast the mystery of the faith. But that it is stressed here suggests that the role that Paul envisages for the deacon is primarily and predominantly one of teaching. That is confirmed by the promise of recompense in verse 13: those who “deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.” That is, their faithful discharge of deacon duty will give them a good standing among God’s people; they will be known and respected for their diligence in teaching the Word of God. And as they teach, they will achieve “great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.” This is probably not saying that their own faith will be strengthened, but rather that as they teach “the mystery of the faith” their assurance about what they teach will increase. While we cannot rule out the possibility that some of these deacons handled material or financial responsibilities, these responsibilities are not primarily in view here.

One of the clear implications of these verses is that deacons are to be men. This is clear, notwithstanding egalitarian commentators’ fondness for suggesting that verse 11 refers to women (and thus female deacons) rather than wives. While the Greek word for woman and wife are the same, the immediate context here makes this reading improbable and the requirements of verse 12 make it impossible. This does not contradict Paul’s commendation of “Phebe our sister, which is a servant [diakonos] of the church which is at Cenchrea” in Romans 16:1. As we have seen, the term deacon is a flexible one, and Paul here could mean that Phebe was generally a servant to the believers in Cenchrea or that she was carrying out some task – perhaps carrying a message – on their behalf. The verse provides no more support for women having some sort of official deacon office in the local assembly than Romans 13:4 does for the president or prime minister having one.

The scriptural teaching on deacons in the local assembly, then, stresses character and qualification. It requires that the deacons in a church should be identifiable. While their responsibilities will be primarily spiritual, and while they must always be spiritual men, the fact that Scripture does not definitively pin down their role does give us the flexibility to apply these principles to a variety of areas of assembly life. Historically, the implementation of these teachings has veered between two extremes. Most often, perhaps, and in common with the fate of other roles in the local church, the scriptural teaching has been lost, and the idea of a deacon has been transformed into an office to be filled rather than a work to be done. On the other extreme, and oftentimes driven by a healthy distaste for established ecclesiastical practice, the role of the deacon has been de-emphasized almost into non-existence. Neither extreme is scriptural, and we have much to gain as companies of the Lord’s people from the NT teaching about deacons in the local assembly.

[1] See John N. Collins, Diakonia: Re-Interpreting the Ancient Sources (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990) for a comprehensive discussion of the background to the concept of deacon service. He demonstrates that diakonos could be involved in a range of activities, including conveying messages, carrying out errands, and communicating words of information or exhortation. See also the discussion in Clarence DeWitt Agan III, “Deacons, deaconesses, and denominational discussions: Romans 16:1 as a test case,” Presbyterion 34/2 (2008), 93-108.

[2] Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.