While there are many spiritual gifts, the offices of the bishop and of the deacon are the two official offices that exist in the biblically defined New Testament church for leadership and operation under the authority of the Holy Spirit (1 Timothy 3:1, 8).
The office of the bishop is synonymous in scripture with that of the elder and is a term to denote the called and qualified preachers of the Word of God. There are many proofs that bishops and elders were the same, and it was not until the apostasy of the Roman Catholic Church that a distinction was created.
The second office is that of the deacon. Deacons are those that minister the temporal affairs of the church and assist the elders. The required qualifications of a deacon are similar to those of a bishop with the exception of “apt to teach.” It is a divinely appointed office and should only be filled by spiritually qualified people.
The biblical study of the office of the diaconate can be difficult and somewhat elusive as the Bible clearly teaches the office and its qualifications but does not spell out in detail all the duties or administration of the office. God cares more about the character of the deacon than the job description. It is of utmost importance that the two offices be understood in balance without creating a hierarchy of administration beyond what was exemplified in the apostolic church. Hence, it is important to carefully study what is written in the Bible and analyze it in light of history and with consideration of the practical spiritual and temporal needs of a congregation.
Deacon is translated from the Greek word diakonos and means an attendant, a waiter of tables, a minister, a servant (Strong’s Dictionary/Thayer’s Greek Definitions). The word diakonos is used at least 30 times throughout the New Testament and is translated differently depending on the context. Rarely is it used to denote the official office of the deacon. Consider a few scriptures for illustrative purposes. Matthew 20:26 reads, “Whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister [diakonos/deacon].” Romans 13:4 refers to governmental rulers as ministers [diakonos/deacons]. Paul spoke as being “made a minister [diakonos/deacon], according to the gift of the grace of God” (Ephesians 3:7). Diakonos is translated “servant” in various passages. “He that is greatest among you shall be your servant [diakonos/deacon]” (Matthew 23:11). Literal servants of the king, waiters of tables, were referred to as diakonos/deacons in both Matthew 22:13 and John 2:9. Clearly, diakonos was used to denote different kinds of service and ministry; and saints are called to be ministers and servants in various capacities.
Office of a Deacon
Diakonos took on further technical significance when Paul addressed the church at Philippi around 62 AD. “To all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons [diakonos]” (Philippians 1:1). Paul addresses the saints and specifies the two distinct offices in the church, the bishops (elders) and deacons. This greeting is vital to understanding the organization and officers in the early Christian churches. Further credence and recognition are given to the office of deacons when Paul specifically gave the qualifications of these two distinct offices in 1 Timothy 3. “If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. A bishop then must be blameless…. Likewise must the deacons [diakonos] be….” By the time of Paul’s writing, it is evident that there was a distinct and recognized office and position of a deacon that meant more than simple service in the body.
Necessity of the Office
With the foundation now laid that deacons existed in the operation of the apostolic church, the question remains, “What is the purpose of the deacon?” While the scripture does not specify all the particulars, information is gleaned from scriptural examples. The primary call of Christ was to preach the gospel, but He also taught His disciples to serve the poor and minister physically to the needy. Jesus and the disciples were financially supported at least in part by donations (Luke 8:3). There was a need for someone to manage the finances and giving. It appears that Judas carried the common purse that contained the money (John 12:4-6) and was responsible for buying supplies and giving to the poor (John 13:29). This simply reveals the practical need of someone to oversee the administration of general funds.
Chosen to Serve
After the day of Pentecost, the church grew very rapidly, and the apostles not only ministered the gospel but also handled the finances of the church. What is detailed in Acts 6:1-6 was most likely what led to the eventual development of the office of the deacon.
And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration [diakonia/deaconship]. Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve [diakoneo/deacon] tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry [diakonia/deaconship] of the word. And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch: Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them.
These seven men were designated to wait tables, or rather, to be stewards of the financial and temporal needs of the burgeoning congregation at Jerusalem. While early writings referred to them as the first deacons (i.e. Irenaeus of the second century), Luke’s writing in the book of Acts never specifically refers to the seven as deacons. Hence, there continues to be historical and theological controversy on this point. It is noteworthy that the church was in a state of growth. The situation in Acts 6 highlights at minimum the infancy of the office and need of the deacon, which would be further developed by the time Paul wrote 1 Timothy.
Duties and Responsibilities
Simply, deacons are spiritually called and qualified servants of the church. Historian and theologian Adam Clarke wrote concerning deacons: “The office of a deacon, in the primitive Church, was to serve in the agapae, or love feasts, to distribute the bread and wine to the communicants; to proclaim different parts and times of worship in the churches; and to take care of the widows, orphans, prisoners, and sick, who were provided for out of the revenues of the Church….They had the care of the poor, and preached occasionally” (Adam Clarke Commentary, Matthew 20:26).
Steward of Temporal Matters
That one of the primary duties of the deacon is to be a steward of church funds is without controversy. “In the ancient synagogues of the Jews there were three men to whom was entrusted the care of the poor….From these officers the apostles took the idea probably of appointing deacons in the Christian church, and doubtless intended that their duties should be the same” (Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible,
In the beginning, the seven men were given responsibility of overseeing food distribution to the poor and handling the money of the church. Other responsibilities grew with time as the office of the deacon evolved throughout history in both the Catholic and Protestant fellowship, often in sectarian and carnal ways. Bro. Ed Wilson, a Church of God elder, wrote: “It isn’t necessary to provide precise distinctions of duties and permitted activities; the functions of spiritual and temporal ministry overlap freely and without conflict because all the activities flow from pure hearts whose greatest aim is service—of any and every sort.” Great caution should be exercised in outlining other responsibilities, but there are intuitive and practical aspects of the office that, while not spelled out in the Bible, are in keeping with the tenor of the scripture.
The office of deacon is service-oriented, and there are many temporal duties on a weekly basis that need oversight in a congregation (i.e. care of chapel facilities, janitor work, sound system, etc.). These duties may be and often are taken care of by lay members, but they easily fall under the purview of a deacon. It is the function of the deacons to manage the finances and benevolent giving of the congregation. The deacons should communicate needs with the congregation and ensure that offerings are taken regularly for general expenses, charity, and the support of the ministry. All funds should be distributed fairly and honestly. Many a pastor and congregation have suffered because the deacons have not been faithful to their responsibilities.
Assistants of the Ministry
It is important to note that the seven men of Acts 6 were chosen by the congregation, confirmed by the apostles, and selected for the purpose of assisting and relieving the apostles of some of their duties. With that as a model or precedent, it is clear why deacons’ responsibilities historically have gone beyond temporal duties. A true deacon not only serves in temporal matters but is the right hand of the ministry, assisting however necessary.
Faithful, Spiritual Leadership
Due to their high spiritual qualifications and confidence of the people, deacons provide not only temporal but also spiritual leadership in the church. In the pastor’s absence, a deacon is one upon whom he can rely. Deacons are spiritually qualified to lead services and help keep order in a congregation when necessary. They help organize and facilitate meetings and serve as a bridge between the elders and congregation. Adam Clarke made the interesting observation concerning deacons that they “occasionally preach.” Some deacons may also minister the Word as did Stephen and Philip in the book of Acts. Faithful deacons stand in the gap when a congregation is without a pastor and implicitly would be responsible for ensuring that truth and holiness are taught by the elders.
The office of deacon was secularized and politicized with the rise of the Catholic church. It is interesting to note that the early Catholic church forbade deacons from giving communion but allowed them to baptize in the absence of an elder or in “grave necessity.” It is the understanding and opinion of this writer that among the saints of God, deacons have and may assist with either baptism or the administration of the Lord’s supper when an elder requests the help. It is the primary responsibility of ministers to perform these functions, but they can be assisted by deacons (who are servants) when necessary.
All the saints are called to spend and be spent for the gospel in a life of service. However, a deacon has a special call and place to fill in the body of Christ. It is not about titles or prestige but about seeking to please God through sacrificial service to His people. A faithful, reliable deacon is invaluable as an assistant to the ministry and as a servant to the Church of God. ■