For example, deacons are mentioned in the Letter to the Philippians, but only in passing, and this is rather typical of the Bible’s treatment of deacons. Paul begins the letter, “Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ” (KJV Phil. 1.1-2). This salutation indicates that, by the time of the letter, “deacon” was an office in the Christian Church, in addition to and perhaps distinct from the other office mentioned, that of “bishop.”
That Philippians mentions two church offices is possibly the most instructive aspect of this greeting. The King James, American Standard, and J.B. Phillips versions, among others, translate these two offices as “bishops” and “deacons.” The English Standard, New International, and Holman Christian Standard versions, among others, use “overseers” and “deacons.” Whatever a deacon is, it seems that a deacon is not a bishop or an overseer.
Despite its lack of detail, the Letter to the Philippians nonetheless is interesting for its mention of deacons. This letter is arguably the earliest Epistle to mention deacons, and it is the only one to mention deacons and bishops as distinct from one another (Fausset Phil. 1.1). This letter may evidence the developing structure of the early church, as the original apostles died and the church became more formalized (Fausset Phil. 1.1).
The office of deacon is described more fully in the First Letter to Timothy. The letter commands, “Likewise must the deacons be grave, not doubletongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre; Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless. Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things. Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus” (KJV 1 Tim. 3.8-13). This list of characteristics could be taken as the qualifications of a deacon candidate. As exhaustively as this passage describes who a deacon is, however, it does not describe what a deacon is supposed to do.
It is nearly impossible to get a complete view of the organization of the New Testament Church. The office of deacon may be one and the same as the office of elder (Henry Phil. 1.1). It may be that different churches, at different times, had different sets of offices, and that the offices had different duties.
Etymology of the Word “Deacon”
In the specific sense of the New Testament, however, diakonos means more than a menial servant. A diakonos also acts as a “teacher and pastor” (Strong 1249). The teaching and pastoring component of diakonos seems not to be a large proportion, however.
Diakonos also appears in the New Testament in places where it is not translated into English as “deacon.” For example, in Jesus’s parable of the the wedding feast, the king’s servants are called diakonos (Matt. 22.13). Similarly, in the wedding at Cana, the host’s servants are also called diakonos (John 2.5, 9). These examples may indicate that deacons are responsible for the “household” of the church, as it were.
Jesus frequently describes his apostles as diakonos. When he instructs them that “the greatest among you shall be your servant,” he uses the word “diakonos” (KJV Matt. 23.11, cf. Mark 9.35, also cf. Mark 10.43, where the word is translated as “minister” rather than “servant”). Jesus appears to use diakonos to refer to humble service to others, in the general sense of putting others first.
Paul also uses diakonos in a number of different senses, in addition to Philippians and First Timothy, where it is translated into English as “deacon.” For instance, Paul often describes Jesus as a diakonos, such as where he describes Jesus as “the minister of God” (KJV Rom. 13.4, cf. “minister of the circumcision” KJV Rom. 15.8, and cf. not “the minister of sin” KJV Gal. 2.17). The description of Jesus as a diakonos seems to emphasize his obedience to God.
Paul’s other uses of the word also primarily describe obedience to God. Paul often uses diakonos to describe himself (1 Cor. 3.5-6, 2 Cor. 6.4, Eph. 3.7, Col. 1.23, 25). Paul, an apostle, describing himself instead as a diakonos, may be employing the term modestly. An apostle may be a servant of God, but not all servants of God have the same rights and responsibilities as apostles.
In like manner, Paul gives the title diakonos to many other individuals in his letters. So, Pheobe (Rom. 16.1, 27), Apollos (1 Cor. 3.5-6), Tychicus (Eph. 6.21, Col. 4.7), Epaphras (Col. 1.7), Timothy (1 Thess. 3.2, 1 Tim. 4.6), even Paul’s opponents in Corinth (2 Cor. 11.23) are diakonos in some fashion. Judging from these individuals’ roles as described in the New Testament, diakonos could embrace just about every activity from secretary and messenger to evangelist and minister.
It may be interesting that none of the other epistle authors use the term diakonos.
Qualifications of Deacons
The English translation of First Timothy seems to suggest that deacons must be married. “Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things” (1 Tim. 3.11). However, this may be a misunderstanding, based upon a mistranslation. It could be that instead Paul was here describing the qualifications of deaconesses, not the wives of deacons (Clarke 1 Tim. 3.11; Fausset 1 Tim. 3:11). There would seem to be no reason why deacons would need to be married to carry out their duties.
Much more important, deacons should also be “holding the mystery of the faith” (1 Tim. 3.9). Deacons can not help others grow in their faith if the deacons themselves are not steadfast in their own faith (Clarke 1 Tim. 3.10). This steadfastness of faith is not a superhuman abundance of faith, however. Adam Clarke formulates this requirement as being a “consistent private member” of the church (Clarke 1 Tim. 3.10). This sureness of faith must be the most necessary character trait listed in First Timothy.
From the particular qualifications listed in First Timothy, one may generalize. Deacons are in a position of trust, so they must be trustworthy (Henry 1 Tim 3.8). They hold the church’s money and property, and they must discharge their duties seriously and prudently (Henry 1 Tim. 3.8). They also to some extent represent the Church in public, so their conduct should not harm the Church’s reputation (Henry, 1 Tim. 3.8). Seen in this light, the qualifications of deacon come down to common sense.
Duties of Deacons
Because the Epistles are so terse in their descriptions of deacons, commentators have looked elsewhere for further guidance. Some have found it in Acts 6.1-6, where the Christian Church elected seven men to be in charge of distributing fairly the gifts to the Hebrew and Gentile widows alike (Easton “Deacon”). Acts 6.1-6 does not describe these men as deacons, but some have argued that was what their office was (Easton “Deacon”). Later, teaching was added to their formerly secular duties (Easton “Deacon”). Whether these seven were known by the title “deacon,” the story of Acts 6.1-6 seems to presage the office that would eventually evolve into deacon.
Looking outside of the New Testament canon, analogues of the office of deacon may also be found in Jewish culture. In the synagogue, young men generally helped prepare the meeting room, served during the worship service, and distributed alms. (Smith “Deacon”). The Christian deacon may be the equivalent of that Jewish office.
If deacons are a Christian analogue to a Jewish office, much more than temporal service would be involved. “Their duty was to read the Scriptures in the Church, to instruct the catechumens in Christian truths, to assist the presbyters at the sacraments, to receive oblations, and to preach and instruct. As the ‘chazzan’ covered and uncovered the ark in the synagogue, containing the law, so the deacon in the ancient Church put the covering on the communion table” (Fausset 1 Tim. 3.8). The Jewish precedent may be where the spiritual aspects of a deacon’s service originate.
Over time, it appears that the office of deacon became more temporal and less spiritual. At Philippians 1.1, the Geneva Bible has a marginal note that reads, “by deacons are meant those that were stewards of the treasury of the Church, and had to look after the poor” (Geneva Phil. 1.1). The Geneva Bible marks an important milestone in the history of the office of deacon. The Geneva Bible was published in the sixteenth century, at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, and it represents more or less the official position of the Calvinist branch of Protestantism. Thus, by the 1500s, the office of deacon was much reduced in responsibility.
However, deacons remained in charge of the church’s treasury, and that duty necessarily included many other, subordinate responsibilities. Holding on to the purse strings necessarily involves maintaining the church building, its furnishings, and paying its ministers (Henry Phil. 1.1). Today, those responsibilities are generally discharged by other offices, and deacons’ responsibility over the treasury is limited to taking up the collections during worship services.
Deacons have also exercised other responsibilities during worship services. In Congregational churches in New England, deacons used to read the psalms aloud as part of the church service (Webster “Deacon”). In Presbyterian and Congregational churches, deacons are in charge of serving communion, as well as being in charge of distributing charity to the poor (Webster “Deacon;” Henry 1 Tim 3.8). Taking part in the service of communion may be the most spiritually significant part of a deacon’s office today.
Deacons can also be defined by what is not in their duties. Deacons are not expected to preach or to baptize (Henry 1 Tim. 3.8).
There have been a number of attempts to define a deacon’s duties in a simple, unified manner. It could be said that deacons look after a church’s external affairs, while bishops look after the church’s internal affairs (Fausset Phil. 1.1). This definition may explain deacons’ involvement in managing the treasury and distributing charity, but it does not explain deacons’ participation in church service through communion and reading the psalms. John Wesley approved of the external/internal division of labor between deacons and bishops/presbyters (Wesley Phil 1.1). However, he noted that “these were not wholly confined to the one, neither those to the other” (Wesley, Phil 1.1). Simple definitions often are not complete, and complete definitions often are not simple.
Another attempt to define “deacon” simply is to say that deacons are in charge of a church’s “temporal affairs,” as opposed to its spiritual affairs (Nave “Deacon”). Being in charge of a church’s treasury, and being in charge of a church’s charitable giving, would fall presumably within the realm of temporal affairs. However, participating in church services, by assisting with communion and reading psalms, seems more spiritual than temporal. Also, the teaching and ministerial duties of deacons is clearly within the spiritual, rather than the temporal, realm. This definition also seems to be more hopeful than useful.
A final attempted dichotomy is to suggest that deacons are the “young men” of the church, as in Acts 6.1-6, and contrasted with the “elders” of the church (Smith “Deacon”). This does suggest the hierarchy, in which deacon is lower than the other offices of the church. It also suggests the progression from deacon to higher office as one gains age and experience. However, age is clearly not always the dividing line between deacons and other officers of the church.
The most accurate definition of a deacon’s duties may be the most general. Since “its original meaning implied a helper, an assistant,” a deacon could be thought of as a kind of dogsbody, or jack-of-all-trades for the church (Smith “Deacon”).
Deacons in Church Hierarchy
As with many other things, different denominations treat the office of deacon differently. In Roman Catholic and Episcopal denominations, deacons are subordinate to priests, and ultimately subordinate to bishops (Webster “Deacon”). In Presbyterian denominations, deacons are subordinate to the minister and the elders instead (Webster “Deacon”). In Congregational churches, deacons are subordinate to the pastor (Webster “Deacon”). In all churches, however, deacon is the lowest office of the church.
Churches across denominations also treat deacons alike in one other regard. In almost every church, it seems that the office of deacon, although the lowest office in church, is seen as a necessary step to higher offices and more responsibility (Henry 1 Tim. 3.13). Of course, not every deacon moves up in church hierarchy, nor necessarily wants to.
There is much about the office of deacon that the New Testament refuses to reveal. What can be said, however, is that the office of deacon was established by the time of the Epistles, and that it may have developed from a similar position in the Jewish synagogue. A deacon is a servant of the congregation, both in temporal and in spiritual things. Because of the trust reposed in deacons, they must be qualified to safeguard that trust. The duties of deacons may have different from time to time and place to place, but they have often been to steward the church’s money, maintain its physical building and furnishings, distribute its charity to the poor, and assist with worship service, particularly with communion. While the deacon is the least office of the church, it also may lead to other offices. Some of the ambiguity of the New Testament in describing deacons may have been beneficial, in that it has allowed the office to evolve with the Christian Church’s changing needs for its service.
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Webster, Noah. Noah Webster’s First Edition of an American Dictionary of the English Language. Anaheim, Calif.: Foundation for American Christian Education, 1967. Print.
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