June 24, 2015

What exactly is a deacon?

by Jesse Johnson

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.

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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?

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Roger Burns

    Spot on! This is how we view this office as well; with the emphasis on “vetted servant.” Having the members and deacons see it this way is useful when handling finances and serving in areas which requires discretion and sensitivity.

  • pearlbaker

    Jesse, have you ever heard the distinction made for elders and deacons by the type of service they render? What I mean by this is, elders serving primarily as providing guidance of a more elevated spiritual nature, such as counseling and biblical training, and deacons providing services of a more practical nature, such as providing or procuring some material necessity. What do you think of the office of deaconess, which some churches have?

    • Sure. But I’d underline the words in Acts 6–its not right for us to leave study of God’s word for serving. Elders lead, teach, and shepherd. Deacons serve in variety of ways. I do like they way your wording stresses that all are servants though.

  • Randy Hic

    I may be a bit off topic but I am wondering if there are any positions within a church that a divorced man could be considered for. I don’t mean to start a battle here but only seek a little clarification. Personally I would be willing to serve my church in any capacity needed but feel that I would automatically be disqualified for any “official” role and to even mention it would only cause those in these roles to feel a bit uneasy about discussing it so I never consider it. However the flip side is that it is a bit “calming” knowing that I will not have any “real” responsibility other than that of Church membership, which is enough.

    • There are a lot of variables. Every situation is different, but a lot depends on the circumstances of the divorce/remarriage, when you were saved, etc. The answer will vary church to church. Probably best to talk to the elders and see what they say.

  • Brad Lemler

    How does your church handle the “office” of Sunday school teacher? (I guess small group leaders would also fit within the question.) A Sunday school teacher needs to be able to effectively handle the Word and shepherd the members of his class, so in those senses a Sunday school teacher is similar to an Elder. My experience over the years is that the vetting of Sunday school teachers is less involved than the vetting of either Elders or Deacons. Yet, there are some settings where the teaching time in Sunday school is longer than the time available for the Sunday morning message, so Sunday school teachers could end up with more teaching minutes than the Pastor. Thanks.

    • Good question. My church only uses the term “office” to refer to elders, deacons, and members. Those seem to be the 3 catagories the NT uses, so we dont’ refer to sunday school teachers as their own “office.”
      But, depending on the kind of sunday school, teachers are vetted and trained. We have a teacher training for our kids sunday school, and our adult sunday school teachers would all start in smaller settings (small groups, home bible studies, etc.) and work their way up, so to speak.

      • Archepoimen follower

        Jesse,
        So how do you define the pastors and teachers of Ephesians 4, if offices are not in view? Giftedness?

        Tim

        • Good question. I think the offices are in view there, but that the offices flow out of the work. You recognize those as leaders who are leading, in other words. Or you recognize those are servants who are serving well.

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