Deacons & Deaconesses: Servants of Christ
What did Hilliard Felton and the other deacons do? I had no idea, except that once a quarter the deacons all sat on the front row during the serving of the Lord’s Supper. Beyond that, they were a mysterious presence, a group both frightening and reassuring. Looking back from a distance of nearly 30 years, it strikes me that I remember nothing about Hilliard Felton as a person. I’m sure he must have spoken to me a few times (I know he knew my father very well), but I do not remember it. All I recall is that he was a deacon which made him a very important person at the First Baptist Church.
A second thought comes into my mind as I ponder the subject of deacons. Almost everything I learned about deacons in a practical sense, I learned while growing up. In my college church, we had deacons but they were far removed from me. During seminary the church I attended had 2 elders and 10-12 deacons, but I can’t get a clear picture in my mind about what the deacons did. Still later, I pastored a church in California that had neither elders nor deacons. Then in Texas my church had 7 or 8 elders at one point and maybe 3 deacons.
That brings me to the subject for this study. What does the Bible say about the office of deacon in the local church? What is a deacon? What do deacons do? How do deacons differ from elders? How are deacons chosen? How long should deacons serve? How many deacons does a church need? I believe the Bible offers guidance to answer many of these basic questions.
I. What is a Deacon?
The answer to that question is not difficult to find. A deacon is a servant of Christ. In fact, the word “deacon” is simply a transliteration of the Greek word for “table servant” or “waiter.” Dr. W. A Criswell offers this helpful definition:
The word in the New Testament for “deacon” is diakonos. The word in classic Greek referred to the servant (slave) of a king, especially one who acted in the capacity of a waiter, serving food and drink. Thus in the New Testament the word was used to describe the office of those who cared for the poor in the church and who distributed to them the money collected on their behalf. Criswell’s Guidebook for Pastors, pp. 216-217.
A. Three Crucial Words
1. Diakonos–One who waits on tables. A humble servant. One who performs lowly service on behalf of another. A deacon.
2. Diakonia–The act of waiting on tables. Lowly, menial, behind-the-scenes service. What deacons do.
3. Diakoneo–To serve in a lowly fashion. To wait on tables. To “deacon.”
These three words are used in various forms over 100 times in the New Testament. Most of the time they do not refer to the “office” of deacon. That’s a crucial distinction because it helps us understand that when Paul speaks of “deacons” in I Timothy 3 and Philippians 1:1, he’s not simply talking about an “office” but about the quality of the people who fill the “office.” The word “deacon” simply means a servant. The deacons were the officially-recognized “servants” or “helpers” in the early church.
B. Three Key Scriptures
Consider how the various Greek words mentioned above are applied in the New Testament:
1. Matthew 20:24-28. Jesus discusses leadership with his disciples at the end of his ministry. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” (Literally, “Must be your deacon.” Also, “The son of Man did not come to be served (lit, “to be deaconed unto") but to serve (lit, “to be a deacon").
2. Luke 22:24-27. A similar passage from the Last Supper. Note the closing phrase. “I am among you as one who serves.” (lit, “I am among you as a deacon.")
3. Matthew 25:31-46. Another passage from the Passion Week. This is the story of the judgment of the nations. How will the nations be judged? According to their practical deeds of kindness. “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” In that day we will discover that Jesus considers deeds of kindness done to the needy to have actually been done to him personally! Note the words in verse 44 of those who neglected those duties: “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” The word translated “help” is diakoneo. You could literally translate it, “Lord, when did we see you … and did not deacon unto you?”
That leads me to this crucial question:
Are You a Deacon?
1. Jesus Christ is the model deacon.
2. In the broad sense, all Christians are called to be “deacons” or “servants.”
3. The deacon-spirit of humble service for others should motivate all that we do.
4. From among the congregation, some men and women will be especially recognized for their outstanding servant-spirit. They will be given responsibility to perform particular acts of Christian service in the local church. Such men and women are true “deacons” (or “servants") in both the broad sense and the particular sense.
II. Acts 6: The First Deacons
Bible scholars are generally agreed that the “office” of deacon finds its roots in Acts 6:1-7, where the early church selected seven men to assist the apostles in caring for the needs of the widows in the early church.
A.The Problem (verse 1)–Greek-speaking Jewish widows being overlooked in the distribution of food.
B.The Priority (verse 2)–The apostles must concentrate on the ministry of the Word.
C.The Solution (verses 3-4)
1. Seven men chosen by the congregation
2. High qualifications–Godly men filled with the Spirit
3. Apostles delegated the problem to the seven “deacons”
4. Apostles kept their priorities intact–The Word and Prayer.
D. The Choice (verse 5)–Seven men chosen
E. The Commissioning (verse 6)–Public recognition by laying on of hands
F. The Result (verse 7)–Word of God spread. Many believed. Church grew.
This passage is exceedingly important because it shows how various levels of leadership work together to meet the needs of the congregation. In any local church, the elders can’t (and shouldn’t) do all the work of the ministry themselves. They will eventually need godly men and women who can come alongside and share the load with them.
III. A Crucial Distinction
That leads us to make crucial distinction between elders and deacons. The very Greek words involved point to the different functions within the body. Elders do one thing; deacons do another.
A. Elders Guide the Church.
B. Deacons Serve the Church.
Note: This does not imply that elders are not also “servants” nor that deacons cannot “lead” the congregation. There is obviously some overlap between the two offices. However, the primary focus is clear: Elders serve as the spiritual leaders of the congregation. They are given oversight over all aspects of church life. As a part of that oversight, the elders are to delegate major areas of responsibility to the deacons so that they (the elders) can maintain their major priorities and not be bogged down in the minutiae of day-to-day church life.
Incidentally, a brief survey of church history shows that the deacons in the early church did function as described above. Key roles included: Visit the sick, care for the needy, handle benevolence, prepare candidates for baptism, assist the elders in behind the scenes ministry.
IV. Deacons: Qualifications and Rewards
I Timothy 3:8-13 lays out the spiritual qualifications for deacons and deaconesses. Verse 13 describes God’s reward for those who serve well in this office.
1. Men worthy of respect–Man of high principle. Serious man of dignity, not a clown. cf. KJV “grave.”
2. Sincere–lit, “Not double-tongued.” Straight shooters. Honest and unhypocritical. Does not bend the truth to fit his audience.
3. Not indulging in much wine–Not a heavy wine-drinker. Moderate in his use of alcohol, if used at all.
4. Not pursuing dishonest gain–Does not use shady or unethical means to gain a financial advantage. Not an embezzler. Financial and business affairs completely above board and beyond all question. Not a money-grubber. Does not crave wealth.
5. Hold deep truths of the faith–Has a sound grasp of essential Bible doctrine.
6. Clear conscience–Nothing in his conduct that is inconsistent with what he professes to believe. A man who believes every word he says.
7. First be tested–Not a novice or a brand-new Christian or new to the congregation. Ability clearly demonstrated over a period of time.
8. Nothing against them–"Free from accusation.” No accusation can successfully be brought against any aspect of his life or conduct. He must be able to pass the test of having the eyes of the entire church rest upon him.
9. Husband of one wife–A “one-woman” man, faithful to his wife. Not flirtatious. Devoted to his wife, having a marriage that models Christian truth.
10. Manage his wife and household well–Able to handle his home life in an admirable fashion. Manages problems from a biblical perspective.
The text mentions two rewards for faithful deacons:
1. Gain an excellent standing–Win the respect of the entire congregation by virtue of his humble, selfless, Christlike service.
2. Great assurance in their faith–Growing sense of personal confidence that comes from serving the church of God. Ability to speak freely and with boldness concerning the Lord Jesus Christ.
Note these conclusions about the ministry of the deacons:
1. The standards are set very high because the servant-work of a deacon is a high-profile ministry that requires spiritual maturity.
2. The qualifications especially stress honesty and family life.
3. The qualifications, while high, are not as high as those for elder because more is required of those who would serve in the highest levels of leadership.
4. Since elder and deacon are significantly different positions, men who serve effectively in one position may very well not serve effectively inthe other position.The positions are not interchangeable although one person may serve first as a deacon and then later as an elder.
V. What About Deaconesses?
1 Timothy 3:11 lists qualifications for a group of godly women serving in the church:
1. Women worthy of respect–Serious, dignified, not a clown or a frivolous person.
2. Not malicious talkers–Not given to gossip or spreading rumors. Able to keep a secret told in confidence. Not a tale-bearer. Not a chatter-box. Chooses not to speak evil of others.
3. Temperate–Sober. Self-controlled. Not emotionally unstable. Not swayed by sudden impulses. Reliable. A woman of discretion and self-control.
4. Trustworthy in everything–Faithful in all her relationships. Someone who keeps her word. Not a flighty person.
Is Paul thinking of a group of godly deaconesses?
A. A Definition
The word “deaconess” is not found in the New Testament. A “deaconess” is either a woman deacon or any godly woman filling a recognized position of service in the local church.
B. Key Passages
Four passages are usually mentioned in connection with deaconesses. 1 Timothy 3:11 sets the qualifications for certain “women.” Romans 16:1-2 describes Phoebe as a “deacon” or “servant” who assisted Paul in his ministry. Titus 2:4 directs the older women to teach and minister to the younger women. 1 Timothy 5:3-16 sets forth Paul’s teaching concerning widows.
The key question concerns 1 Timothy 3:11. Who are the “women” Paul is describing? Three interpretations are popular: A. The “women” are the wives of the deacons B. The “women” are all Christian women in general C. The “women” are deaconesses. Either A or C are most likely. But if Paul is talking about the wives of deacons, why does he single them out and not the wives of the elders? Although the “wives of deacons” view is quite popular, I lean to the view that Paul is describing a third category of leadership in 1 Timothy 3–Elders (3:1-7), Deacons (3:8-10, 12), Deaconesses (3:11).
C. Church History
The concept of women serving as deaconesses appears very early in church. The deaconesses were often connected with the widows whose role was prayer and acts of godly service. They also ministered directly to other women–in evangelism, teaching, preparation for baptism and general discipleship. Since men and women were often separated in the early church (following the pattern of the synagogue), deaconesses were needed to minister in ways that would not be appropriate for male elders.
Deaconesses were never a universally established order. They appear in the eastern churches, but not in the western ones. In the same way, some denominations have maintained an order of deaconesses to the present day,while others have chosen not to. The historical record thus reflects the ambiguity of the New Testament in this area.
1. It is impossible to escape the fact that the New Testament is not entirely clear on the question of deaconesses. The passages cited above do not conclusively establish a role or office called deaconess.
2. These passages (and many others that could be cited) do clearly establish the vital role women played in the life of the early church. They also hint at some kind of formal recognition.
3. In my opinion, we would be well within the bounds of the New Testament if we recognized certain godly women as deaconesses. They would serve alongside the deacons in various crucial areas of leadership under the general oversight of the elders of the church.
VI. Some Final Conclusions
1. In the broad sense, all Christians are called to be “deacons.”
2. Being a deacon is a high calling because it means becoming like the Lord Jesus Christ himself.
3. The deacon spirit should manifest itself in all our service for Christ.
4. Some men and women may be especially recognized and set apart as deacons and deaconesses. Their calling is to perform special service to the body of Christ.
5. Those men and women must meet the high standards of I Timothy 3:8-13.
6. They also deserve our highest respect because they represent the Lord Jesus Christ in our midst.
7. Happy is the church that has a great corps of godly deacons and deaconesses for that church will be filled with the servant-spirit of Jesus.
8. Let us earnestly pray for God to raise up such godly men and women so that we may properly recognize them as true deacons–servants–of the Lord Jesus Christ.
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