The term deacon literally means “servant.” It is used throughout the New Testament to denote various kinds of servants. But in addition to its general usage, it is also used to refer to the only office other than elder named in the Bible for the New Testament church. 1 Timothy 3:8-13 describes the qualifications of deacons in the same context as those of elders.
The origin of the office of deacon is not clearly stated in the New Testament. Unlike the office of elder, it lacks precedent in the Jewish community. While it is not universally accepted that the office of deacon originated with the appointment of seven men to serve tables as recorded in Acts 6:1-6, we believe it is best to view those men as the first official deacons.3
History has shown broad diversity in the functions of deacons in local churches. The silence of Scripture leaves room for that diversity. The beginning of this paper outlines how deacons are expected to function within this local church.
The standards are equally high for deacons as for elders, with stronger expressions in certain cases. The primary difference in the qualifications is that the ability to teach, the qualification of hospitality and general contact with others, including “outsiders” are not considered in the case of deacons. This is an indication that those things are not part of the general work of deacons.
Qualifications of Deacons
Dignified requires seriousness of mind and character. Dignity and decorum are important as one serves on behalf of the Lord and His people.
Not double-tongued means he must not tell one person one thing and another something different. Since deacons might know the problems of various members, and since they handle money, this is crucial.
Not addicted to much wine and not fond of sordid gain are stated more strongly for deacons than for elders. This is probably an indication that the original tasks for deacons exposed them to greater temptation in those areas.
Qualifications with respect to the faith are straight-forward:
Holds to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. While he is not required to be able to articulate it as an elder, a deacon must live the truth of the Christian faith. If he is to attend to material things, he must bring the proper spiritual perspective to his work.
He must first be tested, which requires that he not be a new convert, and that he must have demonstrated maturity and faithfulness in whatever service he has undertaken. This phrase is a strong justification for each deacon (and elder) to assume responsibility for training others in their work as they do it.
Deacons must be men with their family life in order.
Husband of one wife and good managers of their children and households are the same as the requirements for elders.
The Responsibilities of Deacons
Based on the New Testament, the role of the deacon is mainly to be a servant. The church needs deacons to provide logistical and material support so that the elders can focus on the teaching of the Word of God and prayer.
The word, diakonos, which is transliterated in our English Bibles, “deacon”, is simply the Greek word “servant.” The New Testament gives examples of both “appointed” servants elected by the church to specific tasks and of “unelected” servants who served the Lord in a general sense in a local church. The noun diakonos is used thirty times in the New Testament and in only five of those does it refer to a specifically appointed servant (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8, 10, 12, 13).
The New Testament does not provide much information concerning the role of deacons. The requirements given in 1 Timothy 3:8-12 focus on the deacon’s character and family life. There are, however, some clues as to the function of deacons when their requirements are compared with those of the elders. Although many of the qualifications are the same or very similar, there are some notable differences.
Perhaps the most noticeable distinction between elders and deacons is that deacons do not need to be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2). Deacons are called to “hold” to the faith with a clear conscience, but they are not called to “teach” that faith (1 Tim. 3:9). This suggests that the deacons do not have an official teaching role in the church.
Like elders, deacons must manage their house and children well (1 Tim. 3:4, 12). But when referring to deacons, Paul omits the section where he compares managing one’s household to taking care of God’s church (1 Tim. 3:5). The reason for this omission is most likely due to the fact that deacons are not given a ruling or leading position in the church – that function belongs to the elders.
Although Paul indicates that a person must be tested before he can hold the office of deacon (1 Tim. 3:10), the requirement that he cannot be a new convert is not included. Paul notes that if an elder is a recent convert “he may become puffed up with conceit” (1 Tim. 3:6). One implication concerning this distinction could be that those who hold the office of elder are more susceptible to pride because they possess leadership over the church. On the contrary, it is not as likely for a deacon, who is in more of a servant role, to fall into this same sin. Finally, the title “overseer” (1 Tim. 3:2) implies general oversight over the spiritual well-being of the congregation, whereas the title “deacon” implies one who has a service-oriented ministry.
Beyond what we can glean from these differences in qualifications, the Bible does not clearly indicate the function of deacons. Yet based on the pattern established in Acts 6 with the apostles and the seven, it seems best to view deacons as servants who do whatever is necessary to allow the elders to accomplish their God-given calling of shepherding and teaching the church. Just as the apostles delegated administrative responsibilities to the seven, so the elders are to delegate certain responsibilities to the deacons so that the elders can focus their efforts elsewhere. As a result, each local church is free to define the tasks of deacons based on their particular needs.
Whereas the Bible charges elders with the tasks of teaching and leading the church, the deacons’ role is more service-oriented. That is, they are to care for the physical or temporal concerns of the church as instructed and lead by the elders. By handling such matters, deacons free up the elders to focus on shepherding the spiritual needs of the congregation. The responsibilities of the deacons are not specifically listed in scripture because they will vary from church to church. As seen in the book of Acts, their main purpose was to provide relief to the elders from various responsibilities as deemed necessary by the elders, enabling them to focus on the other aspects of ministry.
Though deacons are not the congregation’s spiritual leaders, their character is of utmost importance, which is why deacons should be examined and held to the biblical qualifications laid down in 1 Timothy 3.
Number of Elders and Deacons and Terms of Office
All the evidence in the New Testament is for a plurality of elders in each church. Each time the word appears in reference to a local congregation it is plural. Saucy points out that this was also true in early church literature and that it was not until the second century that the concept arose of a single bishop, elder, or pastor in a local church.4 Similarly, all the New Testament evidence on the number of deacons is for a plurality. No fixed number is indicated for either office.
Several reasons for a plurality of leaders can be suggested in addition to the biblical evidence: The impact of the sinfulness of man is best minimized in leadership when there are several leaders accountable to one another. The incomplete knowledge and wisdom of an individual is best overcome when there are several mature leaders praying and studying an issue before a decision is made. A plurality of leaders (ideally, even teachers) is better able to edify the body through a diversity of spiritual gifts and emphases in ministry. Finally, shared leadership responsibility minimizes autonomy and undue responsibility on the part of any individual.
The New Testament is silent on the term of office. We believe that once a man is qualified, he is to be regarded as an elder or deacon unless he becomes disqualified. Term of office on boards of this church is two years.
Selection of Elders and Deacons
The selection process begins with the Board of Elders soliciting recommendations from the congregation along with their own recommendations. The reason for this is that those men most qualified will currently be serving, either in an official or unofficial role in the body of Christ, and that those whom these men serve should be given the opportunity to recognize this service in the form of a recommendation for office.
The current Boards of Elders and Deacons will then review the qualifications of the individuals to be considered, verifying that each is a voting member and evaluating their worthiness as outlined in 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5. It should be noted that not every man who meets the biblical qualifications will necessarily be selected for confirmation by the congregation. The elders and deacons will also take into consideration unity and personal circumstances. In the area of unity, he must agree with the current spiritual direction of the church and be able to work with others in an understanding way. Personal circumstances may include his physical or mental health or his ability to meet on a regular basis.
Confirmation of Board Members
One month prior to the confirmation of these men by the elder and deacon boards, the elders will provide a list of men whom they recommend as those who meet the above requirements for either elder or deacon. The purpose of this is twofold: 1) it is a time for the congregation to get to know any of these men they may not already know, 2) it is a time for those in the congregation who know these men well to consider if they meet the biblical qualifications mentioned in scripture. If anyone in the congregation has a biblical concern about a particular man, it is their responsibility as a member of the church to present their concern to a current elder or deacon. The purpose of this is to ensure that we are not placing any man in a position of leadership that would both hurt the church and his own walk with the Lord. If it is an issue of sin, then it becomes the perfect opportunity to win a brother back into fellowship with the Lord and his church. If it is an issue of need, then it becomes a great opportunity to meet this need.
At the end of one month, the Elder and Deacon Boards will meet to confirm each man to his position. A list of the confirmed elders and deacons will then be distributed to the congregation.