After discussing the responsibilities and qualifications of elders, we now move on to the second office within the church: deacons. The ideas and traditions behind the roles and responsibilities of deacons are vast, diverse, and unfortunately often unbiblical. Much of this comes from the Bible’s implicit, rather than explicit, teaching on deacons; even so, the Scriptures remain clear about the deacons’ responsibilities.
COMMON, HISTORIC, BUT UNBIBLICAL BELIEFS
Before diving into the text, I think it would be helpful to briefly examine three of the most popular, yet unbiblical, roles of deacons both today and throughout church history. Like most things in life, these views on the deaconate lean toward extremes. Two of them diminish the office, while the third exalts it above the biblical presentation. We must fight extremes and walk down the narrow path to which the LORD has called us. We do an injustice to deacons and the entire church when we deviate from our biblical model.
Deacons: Elders in Training
This first false view of deacons is, to my knowledge, not as common today as it was during the early centuries of the church. Alexander Strauch gives a great history of this view in the endnotes of The New Testament Deacon. He says that “For over a thousand years the Roman Catholic Church relegated the position of deacon to an apprenticeship to the priesthood. The deaconate was an ordained position in the clerical hierarchy, but it was only a transitional step to the higher order of priesthood. Its significance was largely ceremonial” (160). Deacons, therefore, were often considered little more than elders in training. The great defender of Christ’s divinity, Athanasius, is one such example.
Deacons: Pastoral Assistants
Another prevalent view throughout history, that is still popular in some circles today, is the idea of deacons being assistants to the elders. This idea goes all the way back to Hippolytus, who wrote in the early 200s, “In the ordination of a deacon, the bishop alone shall lay on hands, because he is not being ordained to the priesthood, but to the service of the bishop, to do what is ordered by him. For he does not share in the counsel of the presbyterate but administers and informs the bishop of what is fitting” (13). Within this function, deacons both fell in authority and grew in it. In some places, the deacons were seen as almost more authoritative than even the elders because the deacons essentially functioned as their representatives. But in other places, the deacons were used for little more than serving the bread and wine during the Lord’s Supper.
Deacons: Ruling Executives
This appears to be the most prevalent view of deacons in the present day. Most often this is expressed in deacons who perform a mix of the functions between elders and deacons, both exercising oversight and serving. Unfortunately, there are also cases where “deacons have assumed the role of being supervisors of the staff and pastor” (Platt, 60-61). Platt’s assessment is that “this is not biblical” (61). Strauch agrees, “In many churches, deacons act more like corporation executives than ministering servants. In direct contradiction to the explicit teaching of the New Testament and the very meaning of the name deacon, which is “servant” (diakonos), deacons have been made the governing officials of the church” (9).
These roles are not biblical and, therefore, do not ultimately benefit the church. Having now glanced at incorrect views, let us dive into the Scripture that we might observe the correct view.
CHOOSING THE FIRST SEVEN DEACONS // ACTS 6:1-6
In studying these verses, we will first do an exegetical walk-through in order to get the overall message and intent of the passage. Then we will step back and create a biblical portrait of the responsibilities of deacons from what we see presented in these verses.
In verse 1, we find the setting of the scene for our text. In these days references back to everything that has been occurring in Acts thus far. These includes the receiving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (2:1-4), the salvation of three thousand people (2:41), public healings (3:1-10), persecution (4:1-22), signs and wonders that led to multitudes coming to the faith (5:12-17), and even more persecution (5:17-42). Indeed the disciples were increasing in number and doing so quite rapidly.
But with this rapid and supernatural growth also came conflict. Hellenistic Jews (that is, Jews that spoke Greek instead of Hebrew) began to complain that the Hebrews’ widows were being favored in the distribution of food, while their widows were being neglected. Thus, a crack begins to form in the newfound community, a crack that if not dealt with would destroy the early church’s unity. Unfortunately, this pattern is still true today. Most church conflicts and divisions are rarely doctrinal; they are ministerial and practical. We fail to serve people as they are meant to be served, and division is the result. How then are the apostles going to resolve the problem and keep the church united?
Verse 2 reveals the apostles’ plan. They gather together the full number of disciples, meaning every believer in Jesus as Christ was gathered to hear the plan of the Twelve. They begin by guarding their main responsibility: the preaching of the Word. Of course, overseeing the food distribution would not have kept them from preaching entirely, but it would have severely cut into their time to preach. Therefore, they knew from Jesus the danger of neglecting what is best in order to do what is good.
Verse 3 begins their solution to the problem. They tell the church to choose seven men to be appointed to this duty. There are many thoughts to point out in this verse.
First, the word duty is elsewhere used in the New Testament to mean a need or a necessity. The apostles, therefore, are not denying the necessity of having a food distribution plan. They just know that they cannot give their time to doing that work.
Second, they tell the church to pick seven men to meet this need. Because these men are the first deacons, we can conclude that deacons should be both chosen and approved by the congregation. Elders, on the other hand, were chosen by apostles and other elders (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5) and then approved by the congregation.
Third, the men must be of good repute and full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will return to these two qualifications next week.
Verse 4 reestablishes the apostles’ priorities: prayer and the ministry of the Word. Just to reiterate, their commitment to these two tasks was not a belittlement of the food distribution ministry. The apostles simply understood the responsibilities given to them. Wiersbe sums up this thought well:
The Apostles studied the situation and concluded that they were to blame: they were so busy serving tables that they were neglecting prayer and the ministry of the Word of God. They had created their own problem because they were trying to do too much. Even today, some pastors are so busy with secondary tasks that they fail to spend adequate time in study and in prayer. This creates a “spiritual deficiency” in the church that makes it easy for problems to develop. (429)
Verses 5-6 tells us the seven men who were appointed to lead the food distribution needs of the church. Little is known about most of these men, but Acts 7 describes Stephen’s arrest, only recorded sermon, and martyrdom. Acts 8 also describes the missionary activities of Philip. They are chosen by the congregation, set before the apostles, prayed over, and laid hands upon, thus commissioning them into the ministry. The authoritative appointing was necessary because these seven men could not meet the needs alone. They were commissioned to lead and organize the distribution ministry, not simply do the work themselves.
Beyond the exploits of Stephen and Philip, we also know that these men came to be called the Seven in a similar manner to the apostles being called the Twelve (21:8). This is significant language because within this text we have the prototype for the two offices of the church. In Acts 6, the church had yet to spread beyond the walls of Jerusalem; therefore, the apostles acted as elders of the fledgling congregation. As the church spread from city to city, it became clear that the apostles could not directly lead every congregation, so they created the office of elders to continue the shepherding work of prayer and the ministry of the Word (14:23). Therefore, in a sense, elders are the successors to the apostles in responsibility but not authority. Today, the authority of the church comes from the Scriptures, which were written by the apostles, but the responsibility of the apostles to shepherd the church was transferred to elders even in their day. This transition is seen in the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. In the meeting to decide whether Gentile Christians needed to be circumcised, we are told that “the apostles and elders were gathered together to consider this matter” (15:6). Furthermore, both Peter and John, although apostles, call themselves elders within their letters (1 Peter 5:1; 2 John 1:1; 3 John 1:1).
Since the apostles here are acting as the prototype for church elders, it also stands to reason that the Seven are the prototype for deacons. A few theologians (though I have not found many) argue that these men cannot be considered deacons because the title of deacon is not used. Yet the duty given to these men of serving tables is the verb form of deacon (diakoneo). Therefore, most theologians agree that these seven men were the first deacons appointed in the church.
THE BIBLICAL PORTRAIT
Since we have now walk-through the passage of Scripture before us and we know the historical appointing of the first deacons, let us now take a step back to ask the question: What are deacons responsible for the church? We know that elders are responsible for exercising oversight of the church, primarily through prayer and the ministry of the Word. But what about the deacons? What functions are they biblically supposed to play in the church? Below are insights that we can glean from our passage of study.
Deacons are servants.
This one should go without saying because the term deacon means servant. But clarification is required. Another word commonly translated as servant is doulos, which Paul is fond of calling himself at the beginning of his letters. Doulos, however, might better be translated as slave because it referred to servants who were the property of another person. Diakonos, on the other hand, is a servant for hire. Jesus’ statement that He came not to be served but to serve uses the verb of deacon (Mark 10:45). In John 12:26, Jesus uses the same word as both a noun and verb to describe following Him: “If any man serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.” Jesus, therefore, came to deacon us, and now calls to be His deacons by following Him. All Christian, then, are deacons in a general sense, but what about those in the office of deacon.
In general, the deacons are examples and leaders in serving to the congregation. They are appointed to lead and meet the physical needs of the church, allowing elders to focus on spiritual needs. Alexander Strauch fittingly calls deacons “ministers of mercy.” Elders are called to ensure that sound doctrine is fed to the church, while deacons are called to ensure that church members do not go hungry for lack of food. Strauch has this to say about the importance of deacons as servants:
The laying on of hands, along with the early appearance of this account in Acts, indicates the significance and necessity of the Seven’s task. Some people might find it hard to believe that appointing men to care for poor widows and handle money would require the laying on of the apostles’ hands. Those who don’t understand why the apostles took this matter so seriously don’t understand how important the care of the poor is in God’s eyes. (40)
Deacons are ministers.
Minister is a common title for pastors. In fact, when doing my taxes, I find much “ministerial” language being used. While the title is not incorrect since elders are ministers of the Word, minister as an official title is better placed upon deacons, especially since the word is often translated as minister.
From these verses, we see that deacons are given leadership authority within the church. However, unlike elders, deacons have ministry-specific authority, not church-wide authority. Deacons are church officers, but they are not elders. Therefore, they should not function as elders. They must function as deacons, ministers who are tasked with areas of focus and responsibility. Gregg Allison provides a small list of these areas of ministry:
Practically speaking, deacons and deaconesses engage in men’s ministries, women’s ministries, youth ministries, children’s ministries, worship ministries, evangelism and missions, bereavement ministries, seniors ministries, singles ministries, sports ministries, fine arts ministries, mercy ministries (e.g., food, clothing, tutoring, medical aid), and the like. Because these ministries flow out of the office of deacon, those who serve in that office as deacons and deaconesses must possess and exercise the requisite authority to carry out their ministries. (247)
This authority to lead and organize ministries also makes deacons key disciple-makers within the church. As noted earlier, the seven original deacons could not meet the needs of the food distribution ministry alone. By necessity, they must have led others to serve the widows and orphans of the church. Likewise, deacons need not, and should not, fulfill their responsibilities alone; rather, they should train and disciple others to do the work as well. The work of discipleship is for every Christian, but elders and deacons as leaders must lead in discipleship. 1 Peter 4:10-11 tells us that we should use our varied gifts to the glory of God, speaking the oracles of God and serving by God’s strength. Elders are charged to disciple how to speak the oracles of God, and deacons are charged to disciple how to serve “by the strength that God supplies.”
Deacons are guardians of church unity.
This is an overlooked aspect of the deaconate, but the preservation of church unity was the very reason that these first seven deacons were chosen. Physical need led to cracks in the church’s unity, and the deacons were appointed to mend those needs. Anyabwile says that “Deacons were the early church’s “shock absorbers.” They absorbed complaints and concerns, resolved them in godliness, and so preserved the unity and witness of the saints” (21). Just as elders are guardians of the church’s doctrine, deacons are guardians of the church’s unity, which Paul describes as a primary characteristic of being the church (Ephesians 4).
What are the responsibilities and functions of deacons then?
Deacons are servants, modeling for the entire congregation how we all should serve one another.
Deacons are ministers, leading and guiding certain ministries within the church and discipling others in the process.
Deacons are also guardians of church unity, cutting off potential divisions at the source.
THE FRUIT OF BIBLICAL POLITY // ACTS 6:7
To close, we return to the final verse of our text, which reveals the outcome of the situation: God’s Word continued to increase, the disciples multiplied, and even the Jewish priests began to follow Christ. These descriptions are the opposite of the initial problem. An argument had threatened the foundation of the church, but the apostles’ Spirit-led structuring of the church resolved the disagreement. That is the fruit of biblical polity, a church structure where elders and deacons lead and serve together. While deacons may not be directly responsible for the ministry of the Word, their service to the congregation’s physical needs sowed the ground for the Word to flourish. Their lives display the Word proclaimed by the elders.
May God give us grace to obey the Scriptures, that the Word of God would continue to increase and the number of our disciples be multiplied!