What Is a Deacon and What Is Their Role?
- Gerald Cowen
- 2003 11 Dec
The church has many different traditions that span over hundreds of denominations. The role of a deacon is one traditional area that has had seen many changes over the years. Let's study from Scripture what a deacon is, what their role is and how many the church should have.
What Is a Deacon?
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.
What Is the Role of a Deacon?
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 programs."29
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.
There is another practical consideration. When handling money, it should be required that at least two deacons are involved. This was required by the Jews of those who collected money for the poor. It does two things. (1) It removes the temptation to take money from the collection for personal matters. (2) It removes any cause for accusation against the deacon if there is ever a problem because there are witnesses to his faithfulness. It is good to do these things openly so there is no question about honesty or unfairness with the use of church funds.
Finally, a church should have no more deacons than there are men qualified to serve. One of the most serious problems a church can have is deacons or a pastor-elder who does not meet the qualifications set forth in Scripture.
This is a form of disobedience to God in electing the unqualified or not taking seriously the dictates of Scripture in these matters. It results in at least two problems. (1) It is a bad example to the younger members. Disregarding Scripture in this way says to them that it is not really important to obey Scripture in other ways. (2) It results in weak spiritual leadership for the church. If the church has mediocre leaders, it will become a mediocre church. The requirements for a deacon are very demanding because God wants the church to be a "holy nation" (1 Pet. 2:9), ones who have "purified your souls in obeying the truth" (1 Pet. 1:22).
Deacons have a very important role in the church. Although they are "servants" and their ministry is a ministry of service, the fact that they have been chosen demonstrates they are respected by the brethren. Their role is second in importance only to the pastor-elders. The pastor(s) are given by the Lord the responsibility of teaching the Word. Without this ministry the church will not prosper spiritually. Part of the duty of the deacons is to relieve the pastor-elders of responsibilities that would keep them from doing their best in studying the Word, spending time alone with God in prayer, and teaching the Word effectively. This is the reason the first deacons were chosen (Acts 6). Deacons still need to work closely with the pastor-elder(s) to make sure that this problem does not arise.
Many churches are hampered in their spiritual development because the pastor-elder has "laid down" the Word of God to do other things.
The deacon is not described as a "ruler" in the church. However, as one who assists the "overseers" of the church and is appointed by the church to fulfill specific ministries, the deacon is by virtue of his office a leader of the church.
His value to the church is in his service. He is not to be the pastor-elder's supervisor but his helper. Deacons are not to form a board to rule the church; that is not their job description. They are to lead the church in ministry.
Churches who have such deacons will be blessed indeed. Pastors who have such deacons to help them will be better pastors because of it. Deacons who serve well "obtain for themselves a good standing and great boldness in the faith" (1 Tim. 3:13).
Used by permission of Broadman & Holman Publishers. Excerpted from the book "Who Rules the Church," Copyright 2003 by Gerald Cowen.
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