The Role of the Deacon
- Thursday, December 11, 2003
The exact nature and duties of the New Testament deacon are not systematically described anywhere in Scripture. The origin of the office is still being debated; however, the traditional view is that it had its beginning in the appointment of the seven (Acts 6), although they are not specifically called deacons.26 This view is widely held because the seven were elected to serve (diakoneo) tables (6:3), and were instructed to serve as deacons (1 Tim. 3:10, diakoneo). Their ministry was intended to aid the apostles by taking care of some of the physical needs of the congregation. Otherwise the apostles would have to "lay down the word of God" in order to serve tables (Acts 6:2).
The close connection of the qualifications for deacons and the qualifications of pastor-elders in 1 Timothy 3 also suggests the same arrangement. The deacons were to assist the
elders (who replaced the apostles as the spiritual leaders of the church) with the physical needs of the church.
The qualifications in 1 Timothy imply this supporting role for deacons in two ways. Deacons are not required to have the "ability to teach," although this does not preclude
them from doing so. At least two of the seven in Acts, Stephen and Philip, were very active in preaching and evangelism (Acts 7-8). In addition, the qualifications are not quite as rigorous for deacons as they are for pastor-elders.
The role of the seven in Acts is clearly spelled out. They were to be in charge of the "daily serving of food" (NASB) to the widows. The church inherited this charitable practice from the Jews. The synagogue had a regular organization to help those in need. They preferred to give their alms for the poor through the synagogue rather than doing
it individually. Barclay describes this practice:
Each Friday in every community two official collectors went round the markets and called on each house, collecting donations for the poor and needy in money and goods. This material so collected was distributed to those in need by a committee . . .
The poor of the community were given enough food for fourteen meals, that is for two meals a day for the week. But no one could receive any donation from this fund if he already possessed a week's food in the house. This fund . . . was called the kuppah, or the basket. In addition, there was a daily collection of food from house to house for those who were actually in emergency need for the day. This fund was called the tamhui or the tray.27
It was this practice that the first deacons inherited and performed. At first the money for the poor had been administered or at least supervised by the apostles (Acts 4:35), but when the number of the disciples grew to five thousand men (Acts 4:4), the job became too much for them, and deacons were elected to help.
Another indication of the deacon's role is inherent in the name itself: "servant." Just as the title bishop carries with it the job description of "overseer" and the title pastor means a "shepherd," one who takes care of the flock, the title deacon refers to one who serves. This does not mean that it is a lowly or unimportant office. The qualifications are quite high. They indicate that the deacon must be morally pure, spiritually mature, doctrinally strong, and able to handle money responsibly. In addition, he must be a good example in his family life and his deportment in the community. He is one to be respected in the church.
No other directions are given in Scripture concerning the work of the deacon. One thing is clear: it is not the job of the deacon to rule the church. Just as there is no such thing in Scripture as a board of elders, there is no such thing as a board of deacons. Authority in the church comes from the Lord to the congregation. Deacons may be authorized by the congregation to serve the church in various ways, but these should be under the same headings found in Scripture. They should help the pastor or pastors with their ministry and help meet the physical needs of the congregation.
Lea and Griffin conclude from 1 Timothy 3:8-13 that "deacons likely served in an undefined way to assist the overseer, but they may not have been deeply involved in church financial affairs."28 The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church of the USA defines the role of the deacon more broadly. It says that the deacon: "shall minister to those in need, to the sick, to the friendless, and to any who may be in distress . . . To this board may be delegated . . . responsibilities relating to the oversight of members, to the finances and properties of the church, and to its evangelistic, missionary, and educational
Deacons may be involved properly in all of these ministries as appointed by the church, but Strauch is correct when he says that "deacons are the church's ministers of
mercy."30 Whatever else they do in serving God and His church, they should be careful not to neglect their primary ministry of service to the needy. No spiritual gifts are listed
in the qualifications for deacons, but it seems reasonable that a deacon's gifts should be appropriate for his ministry.
If that be the case, then the church should look for those who have the gift of "helping" (1 Cor. 12:28) or the gift of "showing mercy" (Rom. 12:8). Without these gifts deacons
will not be as effective in fulfilling the ministry to which God has appointed them.
Number of Deacons
The New Testament does not give any directions concerning the number of deacons a church should have.
Perhaps no fixed number is given because churches of different sizes with differing conditions have very different needs for the deacons' ministry. The Jerusalem church consisted of five thousand men and perhaps as many as twenty thousand believers (Acts 4:4) at the time they chose seven to be deacons. That was a ratio of almost three thousand people per deacon. Using these figures, one could conclude that most churches have too many deacons.
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