Deacon Ministry

Understanding the Office

Deacons play an important role in a growing, biblical church. In particular, they provide the kind of service that counteracts the attempts of Satan to disrupt unity and peace within a congregation and spoil its public reputation (Acts 6:1). Maintaining unity in a church is essential to accomplishing God’s purpose for the church. In fact, on the night prior to his crucifixion, Christ prayed fervently for unity among believers (John 17:20-23). Today, God continues to answer Christ’s prayer through the service of faithful deacons in churches throughout the world. Therefore, it is necessary to understand and practice what the Bible teaches about this office. Doing so will strengthen any church and prepare it for new growth and expansion.

A Biblical and Historical Role

Deacons are not a modern church innovation. They have served alongside pastors from the outset of church history, appearing first in the Jerusalem congregation not long after Pentecost (Acts 6:1-7). Some years later, Paul specifically mentioned both the pastors and deacons as designated roles in another congregation, this time at Philippi (Phil 1:1). In a letter to Timothy, he mentioned deacons again conjunction with pastors. Only this time he provided a battery of standard qualifications for men who would fill this position (1 Tim 3:8-13). Beyond these references, some suggest that like Paul, Peter also alluded to pastors and deacons respectively as “those who speak” and “those who minister” (1 Pet 4:11). But regardless of whether Peter alluded to pastors and deacons, the clear trail of evidence demonstrates that the role of deacons in a church is both biblical and historical.

A Servant Role

The deacon title derives from a general word that describes the work of a servant (diakonos). Furthermore, it is a different word than the one used for a slave (doulos). In standard usage, it described someone personally devoted to executing the commands, accomplishing the will, or meeting the needs of another person. As an apostle, Paul described himself as a “servant of the Lord” (Rom 1:1; Col 1:25). He also described Apollos, Timothy, and other believers the same way (1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3:4; 1 Thess 3:2). Furthermore, Matthew used this word broadly to describe servants who carried out the orders of a king (Matt 22:13), and John used it to describe waiters who serve food and drink to people at a banquet (John 2:5, 9). Ultimately, Jesus urged his followers to adopt this servant mindset throughout life, being committed to serving others and taking the lowliest position (Matt 20:26, 28; Mark 9:35; Luke 22:26-27). Altogether, this full range of meaning describes the essence of the deacon office in a church. While all Christians should behave like a servant, deacons must devote themselves voluntarily and sacrificially to meet the specific needs of others in a church in an official capacity.

A Strategic Role

Pastors are responsible to administrate the affairs and care for the needs of a congregation. You find the leaders of the church at Jerusalem doing this by distributing financial and material resources to members in need (Acts 4:32-35). But when these pressing nonspiritual needs prevent pastors from giving proper attention to spiritual needs, deacons become necessary (Acts 6:2). Spiritual needs are those needs closely associated with prayer and biblical instruction (Acts 6:4).

Nonspiritual needs then are those of a physical, material, financial, or operational nature. For instance, the word business, duty, or task (chreia) in Acts 6:3 refers either to a pressing need which is lacking or to an activity that needs to be fulfilled. Caring for widows in the church arose as the first such need (Acts 6:1). Similar needs today include visiting shut-ins and hospitals patients and handling and disbursing finances designated for church purposes. By extension, we can conclude that deacons should meet whatever needs – whether physical, material, financial, or operational – are causing unrest in a congregation or inhibiting the pastors from meeting spiritual needs adequately.

A Special Role

Churches easily misconstrue the role of deacons, elevating them to a place of prestige, power, and political clout. Scripture, however, paints the opposite picture. Contrary to prevailing opinion, deacons do not form a governing body. Instead, they carry out delegated instructions and perform routine, mundane tasks. As such, they minister discreetly and without applause. For those who fulfill these duties in a faithful manner, God provides a remarkable commendation.

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, NKJV)

This statement foreshadows two eventual, compelling benefits for those who carry out their duties well. To “serve well” means to fulfill your responsibility in a way that is accurate, right, and good. The result of doing this will be a “good standing” and “great boldness in the faith.”

The first result (“good standing”) does not refer to a formal promotion in rank within the church, like “climbing the corporate ladder” in the secular business world. Instead, it most likely refers to developing an excellent reputation among people over time, whether within the church or in the community at large, as they witness your faithful service and a job well done.

“Great boldness in the faith” most likely refers to increased confidence in sharing the gospel with others. Scripture consistently uses boldness to describe confidence in proclaiming one’s faith (Acts 4:13, 29, 31; 9:27, 29; 13:46; 14:3; 18:26; 19:8). Furthermore, two of the original deacons clearly demonstrate this outcome. Stephen, a deacon (Acts 6:5), suffered martyrdom for his courageous witness (Acts 7:1-60). He also influenced the eventual conversion of Paul the apostle (Acts 7:58, cf. 9:5). Then Philip, a deacon (Acts 6:5), shared his faith with confidence in Samaria, and many converted to the faith (Acts 8:5-25). He also witnessed effectively to a foreign government official and evangelized in many other cities (Acts 8:26-40). So effective was his gospel witness that the church eventually recognized him not only as a deacon, but as an evangelist (Acts 21:8). So, recognizing the example of these two deacons, it appears that Paul alluded to this outcome for other faithful deacons as well, even those who serve their churches today (1 Tim 3:13).

Understanding the Qualifications

Not all men in a church are prospective deacons. Scripture, in two places, provides guidelines for selecting new deacon. The first passage names general personal qualities to look for when selecting deacons (Acts 6:3, 5). The second enumerates a series of more specific qualifications (1 Tim 3:8-12). Together, these passages equip congregations to identify potential deacons. They also equip pastors and active deacons to train future deacons. Churches should not appoint men who lack the character and reputation these passages portray.

Essential Personal Qualities (Acts 6:3, 5)

A Good Reputation

Potential deacons must have a good reputation among the congregation and in the community at large. Imagine that you are considering a man in your church to be appointed as a deacon. Before you approach him, you conduct randomized, spontaneous interviews, inside and outside the church, asking people for their candid opinion of this man. If he has a “good reputation,” then you would receive a litany of positive testimonials. If not, then you would receive bad or mixed reviews.

A good reputation is necessary because deacons handle the financial and material matters of the church. They receive funds, manage funds, and distribute them. They must be counted on to handle these affairs with confidentiality, impartiality, and integrity. In the Jerusalem church, for instance, the Hellenist believers (Greek-speaking Jews) worried about favoritism towards the Hebrew-speaking widows. Therefore, it was imperative that they perceive the deacons appointed to resolve this dilemma to be impartial and trustworthy.

Full of the Holy Spirit

Luke mentions twice that a potential deacon must be full of the Holy Spirit, emphasizing the spiritual nature of deacon ministry and striking a contrast with a mere secular approach. The descriptor full describes this man as being permeated by the influence of the Holy Spirit, fully yielded to his control. While it may seem difficult to tell whether a man is yielded to the invisible Spirit, Scripture provides five indicators which may be observed. First, he shares his faith with courage (Acts 2:2, 4; 3:10; 4:8, 31; 5:3, 17, 28; 9:17; 13:9, 45, 52; 14:17; 19:29).

Second, he memorizes and meditates on the Word of God (Col 3:16). Paul equates this characteristic with being filled with the Spirit in a parallel passage (Eph 5:18). This is significant, because a congregation must have confidence that a potential deacon will make decisions guided by the Word of God. Consequently, a man who is filled with the Spirit and the Word will manifest three additional characteristics. He praises God from his heart and willingly participates in congregational singing (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16). Furthermore, he exhibits a thankful spirit (Eph 5:20; Col 3:17). 5), as well as a humble approach to relationships that elevates the needs of others over his own (Eph 5:21).

Full of Wisdom

Luke teaches that a prospective deacon must be full of wisdom, emphasizing an ability to make skillful, prudent choices. Deacons make regular choices that require thoughtfulness, maturity, and a commitment to biblical principle, especially when their decisions and tasks intersect with human feelings, finances, and other sensitive factors. This wisdom must be more than common business savvy (Jam 3:14-16). It must be biblical in content and spiritual in nature (Jam 3:13, 17-18). Such wisdom can only be learned through personal study of the Word of God and humble, prayerful reliance upon God (2 Chron 1:10; Prov 2:1-5; Jam 1:5).

Full of Faith

Luke teaches that a prospective deacon must be full of wisdom. To describe a man as “permeated with faith” implies firm confidence in the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith, unrelenting reliance on God, and faithful obedience to Scripture. In the most evident sense, such a man would be willing to share his faith and identify with Christ, even when confronted with martyrdom like Stephen (Acts 7:54-60).

Essential Testimony Qualifications (1 Tim 3:8-12)

As churches multiplied, the need for a more specific list of deacon qualifications developed. So, in a letter to Timothy that provided instructions for proper church protocol, Paul provided such a list. This list continues to serve as a standard set of essential testimony qualifications for deacons today, enabling congregations to recognize qualified men in an objective manner. These qualifications do not replace the initial qualities given to the church at Jerusalem, but they elucidate and expand them instead.

A Man

Men certainly qualify to hold this office (Acts 6:3; 1 Tim 3:8-9). However, some propose that women may also do so, and not without warrant. For instance, Paul names a lady, Phoebe, as a “a servant of the church at Cenchrea” (Rom 16:1). Furthermore, the word that our English translations render as the “wives” of deacons may easily be translated as “women in general” (1 Tim 3:11). On this basis, some churches appoint both men and women as deacons.

Nevertheless, it seems more probable that the office of deacon may be occupied only by men, since they are required to be the “husbands of one wife” and “ruling their children and household affairs well” (1 Tim 3:12). Moreover, if Paul intended to distinguish female deacons, he could have used the word for a deacon, diakonos, accompanied by a feminine article, tas, which would translate as “female deacons.” But Paul used the generic word for women and wives instead, gynaikos. So as with pastors, deacons must also be men. Furthermore, if a deacon is married, his wife must meet biblical qualifications.

Reverent

This qualification suggests that a prospective deacon must be a serious-minded man who approaches life and ministry in a dignified, purposeful way. He should be neither frivolous nor aloof, but earnest and winsome in his interaction with others. His lifestyle should be worthy of respect and emulation. His worship should be wholehearted and sincere.

Not Double-tongued

Deacons interact with people throughout a church and community, in homes and elsewhere. In doing so, they intercept many sentiments and perspectives. Therefore, it is imperative that they do not say one thing to one person and another thing to someone else. They must be counted on to relay accurate information between parties and to sincerely express their own perspective. A “single-tongued” deacon strengthens the unity of a church, while a double-tongued deacon spreads discord and division.

Not Given to Much Wine

Deacons must be men who give no attention to intoxicating beverages. This principle applies to other mind-altering substances as well. Deacons must be disciplined men who think clearly and rationally. In fact, Paul depicts being influenced by intoxicating drink as the direct opposite of being filled with the Spirit, a crucial quality for deacons (Eph 5:18). Ultimately, this commitment to abstinence guards both a man’s public reputation and his ability to make sound decisions on behalf of the church (Eph 5:17).

Not Greedy for Money

Deacons handle the financial affairs of a church firsthand by receiving, allocating, and disbursing the funds and will be tempted to use their office for personal advantage. This requires the absence of any personal conflicts of interest regarding financial gain. No prospective deacon should manifest a tendency, desire, or need to improve his own financial standing or meet his own financial needs through his position as a deacon. Evidences of such a conflict include: 1) excessive debt, 2) wasteful spending, 3) extravagant living, 4) workaholism, 5) financial dependency, 6) unemployment due to laziness, 7) gambling and playing the lottery, 7) tax evasion, and 8) questionable business practices. Prospective deacons should be faithful, content, and impartial stewards in the financial realm.

Committed to a Pure Conscience

Paul teaches that deacons should “hold the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience” (1 Tim 3:9). Mystery means a secret that has been revealed. The faith refers to the content of the Christian faith, especially the truth about Jesus Christ revealed in the gospel (1 Tim 3:16). So, a prospective deacon must be a man who applies the truth of the gospel consistently and conscientiously to all aspects of his life, morally and otherwise. To do this, he allows the gospel to train every aspect of his conscience so that the choices he makes in daily life correspond to the kind of genuine, godliness revealed in Christ (1 Tim 1:5, 19; 4:2; 2 Tim 1:3; Titus 1:15). Deacons must be men who cherish the gospel and reject worldliness, believing that the gospel is both a hallowed message and a holy calling. They do not separate their lives into separate compartments, secular and sacred. They believe that all of life is sacred and must be governed by the gospel. Their lifestyle matches their beliefs.

Proven

A church should not appoint a new convert to the office of a deacon, nor should they appoint a man with whom they are not familiar. We learn the importance of this by noticing the word first. Paul said that prospective deacons must “first be tested.” So, before a church appoints a man as deacon, they must test him first, verifying his character. To rush forward and disregard this stipulation will lead to unfortunate results. Too often, such a man will either hurt the church that appointed him or become hurt himself. Over time, churches should train and mentor men to fulfill deacon qualifications. When the need for new deacons arises, they should select from among those men who have proven themselves to be reliable over time in an unofficial capacity.

Good Family Relationships

This qualification encompasses the domestic reputation of a prospective deacon, as a husband and a father. Though this does not require a deacon to be married or to have children, this domestic experience certainly gives a man an advantage of increased perspective, experience, and maturity. That being said, it is also true that unmarried men are more available to do the work of the Lord in an undistracted way (1 Cor 7:32).

Regarding marriage, a prospective deacon must be “a one-woman man.” This requirement prohibits both polygamy and divorce, along with any other marital infidelity of record. Though divorce does not disqualify a Christian from faithful, fruitful service in the church, it provides onlookers with a public, permanent target for accusation. For this reason, at the very least, deacons should be free of this accusation. They should also be free from a reputation of immorality.

The nature of a deacon’s ministry requires that his wife also exhibit certain qualities of a godly woman and helpmate. Like her husband, she must be reverent and serious-minded about life and ministry. She should be free from any tendency towards gossip, insulting language, false accusations, and hurtful speech. Furthermore, she should conduct her life in a balanced way that demonstrates clear thinking, emotional stability, self-control, and freedom from intoxicants like alcohol. Altogether, she should be reliable and trustworthy in every way.

In addition to his marriage, a prospective deacon should demonstrate competency as a father, if he has children living under his care at home. He should guide his family in such a way that his children respect his leadership and follow his instructions. This qualification is especially important because the home provides the truest test of a man’s character.

Essential Clarifications

Not Necessarily Able to Teach

Having considered the qualifications for prospective deacons, churches should also recognize one noteworthy quality that Scripture does not require. They must not be required to demonstrate an aptitude for teaching ministry. Scripture requires a noticeable teaching ability of pastors, but not of deacons (1 Tim 3:2). Though a deacon may certainly be able to teach, this ability is not required. Churches should remember this when they select new deacons. If they do not, they will overlook God-given, qualified men.

Not Perfect

Altogether, the deacon qualities and qualifications may be combined and summarized as being “blameless” (1 Tim 3:10). This does not mean perfection, or no men could ever serve as deacons. What this means instead is that no one should be able to accuse a prospective deacon of noteworthy misconduct or inconsistency. From a theological standpoint, we know that every Christian is blameless before God. Paul tells us that Christ will present every genuine believer blameless before God (Col 1:22-23). This is encouraging news!

But the matter of a deacon’s blameless reputation concerns something else. It concerns the accusations of people around us and not our gracious, forgiving God. It especially concerns the accusations of unsaved people (1 Tim 3:7). Whereas brothers and sisters in Christ will generally be forgiving towards one another, the unsaved often look for opportunities to point fingers at the church and the gospel she represents. For this reason, prospective deacons should not carry with them any valid charge of known wrongdoing.

Not Equal by Comparison

As a church learns to identify potential deacons, they also should not expect every candidate to exhibit necessary qualities to the same degree. While all candidates should exhibit the qualities prescribed by Scripture, some will do so more distinctly. Luke hints at this by the way he lists the men chosen by the Jerusalem church. He names Stephen first, then mentions some of his personal qualities immediately afterward. By doing this, he does not imply that Stephen was the only deacon who possessed these qualities. Instead, he indicates that while these qualities described all seven men, they described Stephen in a very distinct way. In fact, Luke reiterates his outstanding testimony in subsequent statements (Acts 6:8, 10; 7:55). Knowing this, congregations should refrain from comparing deacons, whether active or prospective, against one another (2 Cor 10:12). Though some candidates will exhibit certain qualities more distinctly than others, none will do so perfectly or to the same degree.

Understanding the Responsibilities

A Ministry of Benevolent Care

The need for deacons initially arose to ensure that widows received proper care in the church at Jerusalem (Acts 6:1). This benevolent activity for those in need is at the heart of Christian duty and devotion (Jam 1:27). For a church to do this in a biblical manner requires proper attention and oversight, which deacons can facilitate.

First, they should determine which widows require church assistance. A widow having close family members, especially believing ones, does not require church benevolence; deacons should encourage their close family to care for her instead (1 Tim 5:4, 8, 16). Second, she should be past the age of marriage and unable to provide income for herself (1 Tim 5:9, 11-12, 14). Third, she should demonstrate exemplary Christian character (1 Tim 5:3). An exemplary widow should manage her finances in a frugal, sacrificial, faith-based manner, being a good steward of the resources God provides for her (Luke 21:2-3). In contrast, she should not spend her resources frivolously on pleasure (1 Tim 5:6). Furthermore, she should engage in regular prayer as a habit of life, using discretionary time to intercede for her needs and the needs of the church (Luke 2:36-38; 1 Tim 5:5). She should not engage in gossip, but should involve herself in whatever church ministry venues and good works she able to perform (1 Tim 5:1-10).

Widows who meet these qualifications should be accounted for by the church (1 Tim 5:9). The biblical phrase “taken into the number” means “to enroll, or to put on a list.” Who should manage this list and care for the widows on it? Ideally, the deacons will perform this function. This benevolent care ministry requires financial allocation and disbursement in responsible ways. It also requires visits to the homes and hospitals to maintain contact with these widows. These visits should include prayer, Bible study, patient listening, assessing needs, and providing help beyond money, such as necessary transportation, house projects, and other helpful errands.

Beyond this ministry to the godly widows in a church, deacons should also be assigned oversight of other needs for benevolent care that may diminish the ability of the pastors to focus on prayer and Bible teaching. This breadth of responsibility overlaps with another aspect of deacon ministry.

A Ministry of Financial Stewardship

As widow-care ministry demonstrates, deacons play a vital role in managing church finances. As God’s people follow biblical principles of financial stewardship and give personal funds to support the ministry of the church, deacons should take responsibility to ensure that these funds are managed and distributed properly, not only to deserving widows.

Biblical examples of assessing financial needs and meeting them with church funds extends to a variety of objectives. Churches should provide well-serving pastors with necessary financial support (Gal. 6:6; 1 Tim. 5:17-18). Paul teaches this by alluding to the way that a farmer provides food and housing for the animals that plow his fields and the way that Temple proceeds provided for the material and financial needs of the priests (1 Cor. 9:7-14). Churches should receive, set aside, and distribute offerings to meet one-time, occasional needs of other members, faithful church servants, missionaries, and churches in need (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-35; 11:29-30; Rom 15:25; 1 Cor 16:1-4; 2 Cor 9:1-15; 11:7-9; Phil 4:16-19). Furthermore, churches should ensure proper compliance to taxation and employment laws which do not violate God’s commands (Rom 13:1-7; cf. Acts 5:29). By logical extension, the stewardship of church resources extends beyond finances to other categories of stewardship as well, such as building and property maintenance, mail and correspondence, and legal engagement.

A Ministry of Voluntary Activity

In contrast to the pastoral office, there is no biblical evidence to suggest that deacons received remuneration for the services they rendered to the church. However, it is important to provide them with the necessary freedom and resources to complete the tasks assigned to them by the church, without encumbrance. Though pastors should provide general leadership and take ultimate responsibility for the services that deacons provide, they should clearly define such duties and then refrain from micromanaging these affairs. Failure to interact with deacons in this way will undermine the fundamental function of deacons, which is freeing up the pastors from over-involvement in the financial and material affairs of the church.

Understanding the Process

Apart from the character qualifications we’ve already considered, the only place in Scripture that provides insight into appointing new deacons is Acts 6:1-6. Since no subsequent teaching in Acts or the NT epistles alters or annuls this example, it is fitting to view this scenario as a biblical case study for appointing deacons in a church. In this example, we find harmonious cooperation between the pastoral leadership and the congregation.

First, pastors recognize a need within the congregation.

As the pastors of the growing church at Jerusalem discipled new converts and mingled with people throughout the church, they intercepted a growing criticism (Acts 6:1). Greek-speaking Jewish converts complained that widows in Hebrew-speaking families were receiving preferred treatment, while other widows were being neglected. The pastors agreed that this unintended problem needed to be resolved, providing all widows with proper care and guarding the church from division. However, they recognized that resolving this logistical problem themselves would diminish their ability to meet necessary spiritual needs in the congregation (Acts 6:2, 4).

Then, pastors define the need, outline the qualifications, then request recommendations from the congregation.

The pastors of the church at Jerusalem did not personally select and appoint men to meet this need. Instead, they instructed the congregation to recommend an appropriate number of men from within the congregation for this purpose (Acts 6:3). Doing this ensured the church would appoint men whom the congregation trusted and respected, encouraging transparency and enabling proper representation. Furthermore, the pastors required a plurality of deacons. In fact, as with pastors, the NT always refers to deacons as a plurality (Phil 1:1). Multiple deacons ensure proper accountability and necessary camaraderie to fulfill their tasks. For selecting these men, the pastors provided basic guidelines for the spiritual and personal character required to serve in this capacity (Acts 6:3, 5). Several years later, Paul provided more detailed requirements (1 Tim 3:8-13).

Finally, pastors confirm the candidates.

Once the congregation had selected seven candidates with unanimous consent, they presented the names to the pastors of the church. After affirming that these men met the necessary requirements, the pastors prayerfully and officially appointed these men to meet the needs of the widows in the church. It is instructive to note that this appointing process, whereby the people receiving representation nominate representatives, but leadership appoints them appears in the significant OT counterpart to NT deacon delegation. In this scenario, Moses instructed the congregation of Israel to select men to represent them, having specified qualifications (Exo 18:21). He said, “You choose them and I will appoint them, so long as they meet the qualifications” (Deut 1:13). This is the same pattern followed by the church at Jerusalem in selecting and appointing deacons.

Conclusion

In summary, God intends for churches to appoint deacons who will relieve the pastors of a growing congregation from many of these duties. This enables pastors to devote more continual effort to prayer, meditation, counseling, teaching, mentoring, sermon preparation, and other forms of Bible study that will meet the spiritual needs of the church (Acts 6:4; 1 Tim 4:13-16). Following this God-ordained strategy of delegation yields optimal results. In this arrangement, not only do pastors strengthen their focus and become more effective at meeting the spiritual needs of the congregation, but members also receive more efficient care of other important needs at the same time. This comprehensive increase of efficiency boosts morale, accelerates personal growth, and improves ministry preparedness throughout the congregation (Eph 4:11-16). Beyond this internal upside, there is an external upside as well. This pastor-deacon arrangement improves the reputation of the church in the surrounding community and expands gospel outreach possibilities and effectiveness.

Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:7)

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