The Elder Board has been working to put together a deacon board. In conjunction with that, I have put together a brief description on the role of deacon.
The New Testament speaks of two primary ministry roles in the church: elder (or overseer) and deacon (1 Tim. 3). I will focus exclusively on the role of deacon in this post. There are several primary to address, three being quite basic and the forth is often asked: 1) What is a deacon? 2) What does a deacon do? 3) Who can be a deacon? 4) Can women be deacons?
The word group associated with deacon (diakonos, diakoneo, and diakonia) is very common in the New Testament (100x). These words can be translated as serve, servant, assistant, ministry, office, helper, or deacon. The ESV translates the word diakonos as deacon, only four times (Rom. 16:1; 1 Tim. 3:10, 12, 13). It is most often rendered servant and at other times as minister. In Greek culture it was mostly used for a waiter or waitress, which was a job for a slave but not fitting for a free man. Interestingly, the word is not used much in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (aka LXX). Meaning, there is something different that happens as a result of the New Covenant inaugurated by Christ. The service one does is not only to meet another’s needs (1 Cor. 16:15; Acts 11:29) but for the proclamation of the gospel (2 Tim. 4:11) and for all gifts of the body of Christ (Eph. 4:12). This word group is different from doulos (bond-servant, slave, servant) in that doulos is the Christian’s utter subjection to Christ. Diakonos is to the church, family, and fellow-man. A Christian is a servant of Christ, serving others on Christ’s behalf and in Christ’s name.
It is apparent than that the decisive shift happens as a result of the ministry of Jesus. Consider how diakoneo is used in Mark 10:45 (par. Matt 20:28; Lk. 18:26) –– “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” What is important to understand is that the word itself and especially in the Bible, conveys not just the idea of humble service for the benefit of someone else, but that such service is voluntary. What is remarkably counter-cultural is that such service is not just done for superiors but for people deemed inferior - sinners, the poor, the widows, and the orphans. If the Son of God who came from heaven served us, then no one is beneath our service. It is no surprise then that this becomes Paul’s favorite term to describe Christian ministry.
So it is clear a deacon is about serving, especially in aiding the needy. But why does it get singled out as a formal position? There is the general sense of a deacon as any Christian serving God, the church, and their neighbor. But there is also a special sense of a Christian holding the office of deacon. This is when a few people are singled out as full of the Spirit and wisdom for the edification of the body and proclamation of the gospel (Acts. 6:3). This distinction is often referred to as the general office vs. the special office. Those who hold the special office have been called by Christ and recognized by the body as having a high degree of gifting for serving the church.
What does a deacon do? Deacons are people who serve the poor (Stephen in Acts 6) and attend to bodily needs, but also spiritual ones as ministers of the Word. Often deacons have assisted with the administration of churches and sometimes deacons have become elders. So there is no strict limitation to what they can do. But most of the stress is on the fact that deacons are people who serve the body, tending to the physical needs, in particular of the poor and widows. The other primary distinction between an elder and deacon in 1 Timothy 3 is that an elder is “able to teach.” On a very basic level, deacons are better servants than speakers. An analogy can be made that they are diligent managers but not visionary executives.
But who can be a deacon? 1 Timothy 3:8-13 is the primary passage to examine. The list of qualities mostly entails being firm in one’s conviction of the truth of the Christian faith and living a lifestyle of sufficient Christian character which is demonstrated in their fidelity to their family and treatment of their children (if relevant). A deacon is to be tested and this probably means that enough is known that they can complete the tasks to which they are trusted. The last piece may be a little more obscure and controversial to some. That is, does 1 Timothy 3:8-13 prohibit women from being deacons (aka deaconness)?
There are two main passages of note: Romans 16:1 and 1 Timothy 3:11. A cursory reading of the NT shows that both Jesus and Paul worked with women in their ministries and to a degree that was counter-cultural to the people of their day. Most notable for the role of deacon though is that Paul mentions “Pheobe, a servant” in Romans 16:1 (the ESV includes a footnote that servant could be translated “deaconness”). Indeed it is the word diakonos that appears here. The form of the word and the syntax of the sentence is consistent with her possessing the formal office of deacon and not a mere helper of some generic kind. It is quite clear she served in an official capacity.
There are three exegetical arguments that argue against a reading of 1 Timothy 3:11 that excludes women. One, there is no “their” in the greek text. It literally reads, “likewise wives/women must be,” (ESV and NIV84 footnote that wives can also be rendered women). It has been translated with the possessive pronoun their because it can be inferred from the context, and because in English translations it has traditionally been rendered that way. The verse without the pronoun serves to both stress the conduct of a male deacon’s wife, and a female deaconness. Two, likewise is often used to introduce instructions to a different group of people (cf. 1 Tim. 3:8; 1Pet. 2:13-3:7). So it is more natural to assume it is including female deacons. Three, the admonitions to wives is remarkably similar to those given to deacons in vv. 8-10. If male deacons are only in view, it seems redundant if it is not also addressing female deacons before moving on to more instructions to men and the general charge to all deacons.
In conclusion, a deacon is a servant of God for the benefit of the body of Christ. This includes the general call of all Christians to serve each other with the ministry of the word or of deed. It also means the special office of deacon when the church singles out a particular individual with a higher degree of gifting and character in order to serve the needs of the body. It is common for the office of deacon to be focused on physical needs of people in and out of the church. But this does not exclude administrative or teaching gifts. Character is the primary test for the qualifications of a deacon, particularly demonstrated in how their care for their family. They should be a mature believer who has demonstrated character and competency.