Modern deacons in the church should function like the deacons in the Bible…
The diaconate is an important ministry of the Christian church. The New Testament records its creation, along with the duties deacons are to perform and the qualifications for becoming one.
The definition of deacon comes from the Greek word diakonos, which is a noun that means “servant.” You can use the word generally to mean someone who cares for, or ministers to, the needs of others in an active, practical way.
Jesus used the word in this sense. He said, “But it shall not be this way among you. Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant (diakonos), and whoever wishes to be first among you must be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45).
Jesus did these things personally when He was here. But now He is “ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things” (Eph. 4:10). The Apostle Paul tells us that Jesus intends to “fill all things” by establishing “offices to equip the saints for the work of service, for the building up of the body of Christ” (vs. 12).
Jesus works through His representatives, church officers and church members alike. He gave the office of pastor so that men can carry on His preaching of the Gospel throughout the whole world until the end of time. And it was for carrying out His ministries of mercy and healing for which Jesus created the office of deacon.
What are deacons?
A deacon is an ordained officer in the Christian church who serves as a steward of the church’s charitable wealth. Jesus wants this wealth to be used to break down barriers erected in people’s hearts by sin, hard feelings, personal disasters, financial ruin, betrayal, and broken spirits in order to prepare fertile ground there in which the Word can grow.
Treating material needs like providing food to the hungry, clothing the naked, providing shelter, and showing compassion to the impoverished is a form of healing. Healing temporal, physical problems hints at the promise of eternal salvation. The church’s ability and willingness to heal earthly pains testifies to Jesus’s power and authority to heal the spiritual ones:
What is easier to say to the paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or to say ‘Get up, take up your bed, and walk’? But in order that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” he said to the paralytic, “I say to you, get up, take up your mat, and go to your house.” He got up and immediately took up the mat, and went out of the house in front of everyone, so that they were all amazed and they gave glory to God, and they said, “We never saw anything like this.” (Mark 2:9-12)
The apostles created the office of deacon early in the church’s history. In fact, it is so early that its creation is described in Chapter 6 of Acts, which occurred around 31 AD. This was just about one year after Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension.
Deacons in the New Testament
The deacons were formed to alleviate the burden on the pastors of ministering to physical needs, freeing them instead to focus on the spiritual work of preaching the Word of God to the multitudes. The Book of Acts records the history:
Now in these days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, a complaint by the Grecian Jews began against the Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. Then the twelve called to them the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not right for us to give up the word of God to serve tables. Therefore brothers, choose men of good reputation from among yourselves, seven men full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint over this task. But we will always continue in prayer and in the ministry of the word.” Their statement was pleasing to the whole multitude. (Acts 6:1-5a)
The Bible says the congregation chose those seven men. The first deacons were Stephen, “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte from Antioch.” The Bible explains that the congregation “brought these men before the apostles, and they prayed and placed their hands upon them” (Acts 6:1-6).
Though the Bible does not actually use the word “deacon” when describing these seven men in Acts 6, the church has historically concluded that this really was where the diaconal office originated.
For example, even later in the Bible, years after the events of Acts 6, the Apostle Paul was using the term “deacon” to describe an official church office, such as in his letter to the Philippians: “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all those set apart in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons. May grace be to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:1-2). He also uses the word to establish the qualifications for the office in his first epistle to Timothy (1 Tim. 3:8-13).
“Ordain” means to appoint to an official office by popular vote. In the New Testament, the Apostles established local churches throughout the world (Acts 14:23). When they did, they would appoint elders and deacons. The Greek word for “appoint” (cheirotoneó) means “to vote by stretching out the hand.”
The deacons in the Bible were not picked or installed by apostles, bishops, or preachers. Instead, they were elected by the congregation. Very much like how citizens of a country elect their politicians through the voting process, the members of the New Testament church in the Bible elected the men whom they wanted to serve as deacons in their church.
Civil government works like this, too. For example, the President of the United States appoints certain employees to high governmental office. What this usually means is that the President can nominate candidates to fill positions on, say, the Supreme Court, but they must be confirmed by the Senate. To confirm the President’s nominee, a majority of the Senate must vote to approve the President’s nominee.
Involved in the ordination process is the laying on of hands. In the New Testament, the act of laying on hands was a symbolic act of filling the recipient with the Holy Spirit. In many cases, this was literally true as well (Acts 8:17). Jesus laid his hands on the sick and the lame and healed them (Luke 4:40). In one instance, Paul laid his hands on believers in Ephesus, and we are told that “when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying” (Acts 19:6).
The Old Testament uses the word “ordain,” particularly with the ordination of Aaron and the priesthood: “And you shall put them on Aaron your brother, and on his sons with him, and shall anoint them and ordain them and consecrate them, that they may serve me as priests” (Ex. 28:41). The Hebrew word used for “ordain” means “to fill.” It is the same word used in Genesis 1:28, when God tells mankind to multiply and fill the earth.
When we say that deacons are ordained to an official church office, it means they go through a process: they are first nominated by the congregation, just as the Apostles instructed in Acts 6:3.
Qualifications of Deacon
The deacon is required to exhibit Godly qualities fulfilled by living an upright life according to the Bible (1 Tim. 3:8-13). To qualify for deacon, a man must be dignified and keep his word. He is not prohibited from drinking wine, beer, or spirits, but he must not be a drunkard. He also can’t be greedy because deacons have access to the church’s money; to steal from the church is to steal from God, which is a serious crime called sacrilege. Deacons must not be greedy because they shouldn’t be tempted to commit sacrilege. Deacons must also be strong in the basics of the Christian faith. This is because they will have many opportunities while serving the poor and the needy to share the Gospel with them.
Men who fulfill these qualifications are said to be “full of spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3). The elders of their church should examine them and test them to confirm the congregation’s judgement of their qualifications. When they are satisfied, they then put the nominees forward to the congregation for popular vote.
When the deacons are officially ordained after being approved by the congregation, in some churches the elders lay their hands on the men in a small and simple ceremony just as in the New Testament. This symbolizes that these men have now been filled with the Spirit and vested with all the official authority of the church’s office.
We know that church congregations were still electing their own deacons around 150 AD. The Didache (which is Greek for “teaching”), written around 150 AD, calls for churches to elect their own officers. “Appoint therefore for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, meek men, and not lovers of money, and truthful and approved, for they also minister to you the ministry of the prophets and teachers” (15.1). The key is that the congregation chose their own officers, just like in Acts.
Voting for church officers was very much still the process in Augustine’s day. In Letter 213, dated September 26, 426 A.D., Augustine nominated his successor as bishop. The letter is the record of a speech he gave to the church. He wanted to make sure that everyone understood that he was only nominating his successor; he needed the congregation to vote to confirm and appoint him. That’s because that authority is invested in the church as a body, not in individual bishops or elders. The people of the church get to decide who will rule over them and serve them in official capacity. The Bible does not intend for this freedom to be taken away from them.
The man who desires to be elevated in authority to official church office must first serve his church well. They must live a life of obedience to Christ. This is the example Jesus Himself set before His church. He said “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your servant, just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mat. 20:26-28). Jesus was granted all authority in heaven and on earth (Mat. 28:18). The basis for His ascension to power was His service to His heavenly father (Heb. 2:9). This is also the basis for any man’s ascension to church office.
Deacons are responsible for ministering to the physical and material needs of church members. They must distribute the wealth of the church to those in need, including the poor and needy who aren’t Christians but nevertheless come to the church looking for help.
Jesus told His disciples to clothe the naked, feed the poor, care for the sick, and visit those in prison (Mat. 25:40). The deacons are the church’s healing hands which are intended to help the Church serve those important ministries. By ministering to the physical and material needs of the poor and broken-hearted, the deacons testify to the spiritual power of Jesus Christ to heal hearts and save souls.
Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism, summarized the deacons’ responsibilities in his book, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. He wrote: “The diaconate is a ministry, not for reading the gospel or the epistle, as the practice is nowadays, but for distributing the wealth of the Church among the poor, that the priests may be relieved of the burden of temporal things, and may give themselves more freely to prayer and to the word. It was for this purpose, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, that deacons were appointed.”
But the deacons aren’t charged with just taking care of the poor. They are also charged with caring for the church’s property and ensuring that it remains in good repair. The pastors are intended to focus on spiritual ministry, and if the deacons were charged only with caring for the poor, then who would care for the property? This is why, historically, the church’s revenues have been divided into four portions:
- Salaries for the church officers and staff
- Caring for the poor within the church
- Maintenance of the church property
- Caring for the poor outside the church
The deacons collect the tithes and offerings and administer them according to the church’s budget, which is usually established by the pastors and elders. The deacons handle the details.
Deacons in the church serve an important role. The office was formed to alleviate the burden on the apostles and pastors to let them focus on preaching the Gospel and instructing the members in the law of God.
The role of the pastor is largely spiritual, and the role of the deacon is more physical and concerned with the daily goings on of life. The deacons serve and minister to the needs of the poor and weak within the church, especially widows. They administer church wealth and distribute it for charitable purposes. The charity of the deacons is the compassion of Christ. The deacon who serves the poor is expression his church’s love of Christ.
Because it is more physical and temporal, the deacons have historically also been in charge of maintaining church property. But qualified candidates must also be firmly rooted in the Christian faith because they often have the opportunity to share the Gospel when helping those in need. They must be able to explain the Biblical link between sin and God’s curse and dreadful human conditions like poverty, sickness, pain, anguish, sorrow, brokenness, and wickedness. People search for answers to these problems. They want to know why terrible things have happened to them. The deacon will be there to help them in their darkest, most broken days. He must “always be ready to answer everyone who asks him why he has confidence in God” (1 Peter 3:15). The deacon must not let down His Lord and Savior, always presenting Him well to others by presenting himself well to others.
Deacons should be able to paint the picture of hope in salvation in Jesus Christ. Administering charity is only the starting point of the deacon’s work.