Many local churches across the United States in the last century have either misunderstood the role of deacon or have neglected the role altogether. Church splits, divisions, and pastor burn-out have in many cases been attributed to the work of the dreaded “deacon board”, so much so, that some evangelicals have either diminished the significance of the office or have avoided it altogether. We must not, however, throw out a Biblical concept because of its abuses and distortions. These cases of deacon take-over have been the result of two major faults: 1) deacons have been ordained into office based off of worldly qualifications rather than Biblical ones and 2) the deacon role has been understood to function as a board of decision-makers rather than a cohort of servant-leaders. If we believe that the Word of God is inspired by God and that the apostles were operating under the leadership of the Holy Spirit as they established the offices of the local church, we must allow the Word of God to reform our understanding and our appreciation of those offices. If we believe the Bible to be the Word of God, then deacons are in fact God’s idea. They are a gift of God to his beloved people who will benefit greatly from their ministry within the body of Christ.
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose 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 of Antioch. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. 7 And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith (Acts 6:1-7)
In Acts chapter 6, a dispute arose within the church over the distribution of food to widows who were in need. The twelve apostles recognized the dispute to be a serious matter, but could not devote themselves to the administration it would require without hindering their work of preaching and praying (Acts 6:2). The solution was to pick from among them, men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom whom they could appoint to this task. This situation laid the groundwork for what would become the second of the two offices (Philippians 1:1) within the church – the deacon.
The word deacon is the Greek word for “servant”. We should not assume that their service was limited only to caring for widows as in Acts 6. These servants of the New Testament served the church in a variety of ways that may have included any task necessary for the work of the ministry to carry on.
Deacons Stand for Truth in the Church: Deacons prioritized the centrality of the Word and prayer by serving the congregation in such a way that freed church elders to focus on the task of teaching and prayer. This does not mean that deacons are by definition incapable of teaching nor does it mean that deacons do not pray. Deacons are expected to hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience (1 Timothy 3:9). They had to be full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom in Acts 6. Their ministry was not primarily in teaching the Word like the apostles were doing, but it was the active applying of the Word through the ministry of caring for the widows. Among the seven servants selected in Acts 6, Stephen would go on to preach a mighty sermon in Acts 7.
Serve the Needs in the Church: The office of deacon exists to serve the church in tasks that would otherwise divert the pastors from their primary tasks of teaching the word, prayer, and oversight of the church. Deacons are responsible for disciple-making as are all Christ followers, but they may also serve the church by overseeing a wide variety of tasks. Modern expressions of deaconing may include but are not limited to: welcoming and hospitality ministries, child-care, compassion ministries, building and grounds upkeep, administration, finance, etc. (1 Peter 4:10-11; Acts 6:1-5). Deacons are task-specific servant leaders. Deacons are not automatically ordained just because they have achieved a certain level of godliness. All godly men who meet the qualifications of a deacon should not automatically be ordained into this office as an accolade for their spiritual maturity. They are ordained because there is a particular need in the church to which they commit themselves to.
Seek the Unity of the Church: In addition to their service, deacons are responsible for maintaining unity within the church. When the deacons were called to serve the widows in Acts 6, they were called to an emotionally charged situation. These seven men not only had to develop a system for food distribution, but they had to be peacemakers in the messy conflict that arose between the Greek-speaking windows and the Hebrew-speaking widows. Deacons of the church today must likewise serve as unifiers of the body of Christ. They are as Mark Dever says, “shock absorbers” within the church.
Symbolize Jesus to the Church: In general, deacons are official models of Christ’s servant leadership to the world and to the local church through the use of their God-given gifts. All Christians are called to be servants, but deacons are models of that universal calling as they exercise particular gifts of service (Matthew 20:26-28; Mark 10:45).
The responsibilities of each deacon may differ according to their particular gifting and the ministry in which they are involved. The deacons at our church who possess gifts of service and meet the Biblical qualifications may be charged with oversight over any one of a variety of ministries. Most deacons will serve as volunteers over particular ministries, but others may become paid staff of the church if the ministry in which they oversee requires a special skill set and/or considerable time that may take away from earning income in another way. Deacons may establish and oversee ministry teams of church members to carry out their ministry, but they always do so under the guidance and in partnership with the pastors of the local church.
The Lord has not given the office of deacon to the local church by accident or as an optional addition. Deacons are an essential part of the body of Christ and the mission of God in the world through the church. This is a wonderful gift for pastors who could potentially be overwhelmed with tasks that take away from their ministry of feeding the sheep. Likewise, this is a gift for members who desperately need both the faithful teaching of God’s Word delivered every week and avenues of service coordinated and carried out by faithful deacons. After appointing those first servants in Acts 6, “The Word of God continued to increase and the number of disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great number of the priests became obedient to the faith.” 1 Timothy 3:13 says, “For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.”
By His Grace & For His Glory,
Pastor Brandon Langley
St. Rose Community Church