There are three offices described in the New Testament for a local church: elders, deacons, and members. While most evangelical churches agree on the identification of elders and members, there remains much confusion about deacons.
In some smaller churches, the pastor is considered the elder, and the plurality of godly male leaders who work with the pastor are called deacons. In this sense, the word deacon is used almost synonymously with elder. In other churches, deacons are considered elders-in-training. Future elders are drawn from the deacons, and deacons exercise leadership, just not quite at an elder level. In this context, deacons are like elders-lite. Both of these approaches really miss the biblical model for deacons.
The biblical model of a deacon is simply someone who is recognized as a servant in the church. While all Christians are called to serve the church, some are particularly good at it, and their service rises to the level that recognizing them formally becomes appropriate. By making sure these people are qualified (1 Tim 3:8-13) the church’s reputation is guarded. By identifying them, their service is made practically much easier (Acts 6:1-6).
Why is there so much confusion on this issue? Well, some of it is linguistic. When the King James translators wrestled with a few words that had particular theological significance that was so far afield from their actual etymology, rather than finding a good English word to use they simply transliterated the Greek. So baptizo becomes baptize (rather than immerse), cristo becomes Christ (rather than messiah), and diakonia becomes deacon (rather than servant).
The result is that the word’s connection to service has been lost. What is obvious in Greek (that deacons are servants) is missing in English.
But that is not the only reason for the confusion. Because all Christians are supposed to be deacons in some sense (they are all supposed to serve in the church), yet the NT also recognizes some people specifically as deacons, there is an interpretive issue every time the word diakonia is used. Is a specific use of the word recognizing someone who holds the office of deacon? Or is it the more generic sense of “serving” the church?
Most of the time those questions are easily answered. For example, in Luke 4:39, 10:4, and John 2:25 the word is used, but in those places it is connected to serving food to people. For that reason it is obviously the generic term for serving. In John 12:26, Jesus says that following him is a pre-requisite for serving him, which also seems sufficiently broad enough to entail the generic idea that every Christian should be a servant of Christ.
Then there are the passages where the term is used in a more technical and specific sense to identify those who are serving as deacons in an official capacity. In Ephesians 6:21, Colossians 1:7, 4:7, Romans 16:1, and 1 Corinthians 3:22 individuals are named specifically as deacons. In Philippians 1:1 Paul addressed deacons along side elders (and in contrast to the saints). In all those cases he must certainly be referring to those people who have been specifically recognized as deacons of the church. And even though the term diakonia is not used in Acts 6, by listing the men and laying hands on them, they certainly were set aside for the act of serving in the church in an official capacity.
All of which leads to 1 Timothy 3. If all Christians are supposed to be servants of Christ (John 12:26), and we are all supposed to serve in the church (1 Cor 12:12-14; Gal 5:13), then in what sense can there be any qualifications for deacons other than salvation?
Well in 1 Timothy 3 Paul takes the work of serving in the church (which even a new believer is supposed to do) and elevates it. He codifies a practice that was already put in place in Jerusalem (Acts 6), Philippi (Phil 1:1), and Cenchrea (Rom 16:1). In a healthy church it is going to be necessary to identify those that are serving in an elevated or exceptional way, and let the congregation know that these people have been vetted and approved by the elders. Their lives match their words, and the elders have asked them to do what they are doing. They are serving as servants.
This is why Paul says that before someone can serve as a deacon they must first by tested, presumably by serving (1 Tim 3:10). This care guards the church’s reputation, practically aides ministry, and is a vital part of the ecclesiastical work of “training the saints for the work of the ministry” (Eph 4:12). Oh, and by the way, in Ephesians 4:12 the word rendered in English as “ministry” is actually diakonia—training the saints for the work of serving.
Every church is different, and there is no one way for deacons to be identified and recognized (otherwise the NT would be more clear on the issue). Instead, this is an issue left to the elder’sleadership. But a healthy church should be training people, testing people, and recognizing those who serve exceptionally well as deacons. In so doing they fulfill the model given by Paul in 1 Timothy 3.
What about your church? How do they view deacons?