Servant of the Lord, Servant of the Church

ByBro. Leonard Castañeda

Servant of the Lord, Servant of the Church

What is a deacon? Often, much attention has been given to the office of the elder / pastor, and we are left with a vague idea of what a deacon is, or should be. In other churches, the office is either discarded, or those who practically serve as deacons (e.g. ministry heads) are no longer examined according to the qualifications of Scripture, or given responsibilities that overlap with that of elders.

The first mention of deacons that imply a separate office or function is in Acts 6:1-6:

6 Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.(Acts 6:1-6)

Here, an issue regarding food distribution was threatening to divide the infant church. Apparently, the widows among the “Hellenists,” that is, Jews that were not native to Israel, or who were more heavily influenced by Greek culture, were being discriminated against by the “Hebrews,” who were the native residents of the area in the distribution of food.[1]This was a major concern for the church, and to ensure that the matter was addressed equitably, the apostles called for seven men to handle the food distribution. They were not formally called deacons then, though their service was described using the word διακονέω(diakoneō) in verse 2[2].

The apostles instructed the church to choose from among themselves (pick out from among you, v.3), after describing the desired qualifications (of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom,v.3), and consequently, seven men were chosen. Having been chosen, the apostles then prayed and laid their hands on them(v.6), indicating that their service to the church was dedicated to God.

Nothing more is known of most of them, except Stephen, whose bold testimony caused him to be the first Christian martyr (Acts 6-8), and Philip, who was a gifted evangelist (Acts 21:8), and who proclaimed the gospel to the Samaritans (Acts 8:4-25) and who also brought the gospel to an Ethiopian eunuch and official of their kingdom (Acts 8:26-40)

The next mention of deacons imply an office, as found in Philippians 1:1:

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons:

Here a distinction is made, between the congregation (all the saints), the elders or overseers[3], and the deacons of the church, however, no description is made until we encounter the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:8-13.

Qualifications of deacons[4]

Paul’s letter to Timothy contains the following description:

Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. 9 They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. 11 Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. 12 Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. 13 For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus. (1 Timothy 3:8-13)

Note that the word likewise (or in the same manner[5]) takes off after the description of the qualifications of elders, showing a close relationship between them[6], particularly in terms of character. According to this text, a deacon must be:

a.) dignified, that is, he must be honorable and worthy of respect in his demeanor and character[7];

b.) not double-tongued – the term could mean “tale-bearer” or gossip, or mean two-faced, where he says one thing to one person and another thing to another.[8] Both character flaws could be severely damaging to the local church, given the service of a deacon in visitation and other ministry functions;

c.) not addicted to much wine – literally, not a drunkard, since this indicates a lack of self-discipline;

d.) not greedy for dishonest gain – that is, trustworthy and dependable, considering that the performance of ministry duties may involve handling the finances of the church. As Paul also warns us: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” (1 Timothy 6:1)[9];

e.) They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience – this implies that not only do they understand the doctrines of Christianity, but they believe it, uphold it, and seek to apply it in their lives[10].

f.) And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless – The testing here is regarded as necessary and must be understood as an examination of the required qualities than as a period of probation,[11] although some commentators see that the probationary period is implied.[12]

g.) Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things – there is some disagreement whether this refers to wives of deacons, which is unusual, since no qualifications are made for wives of elders, or to women, since the word γυνή, gynē can be translated as either wives or women.[13] Noteworthy, however, is how these characteristics parallel the preceding descriptions of a deacon[14].

h.) Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. – as in the case of elders, one’s leadership in the household and one’s faithfulness to his spouse are indispensable qualities of both elders and deacons, since they reflect one’s character. One cannot be expected to serve faithfully in the church if the person has not demonstrated the same qualities in his own family. This is a matter of personal integrity, that is, one’s public life and private life must not show a variance in a person’s character.

The main difference between elders and deacons

Comparing the qualifications of both offices, one would note that the main differences is that an elder is expected to be able to teach (1 Timothy 3:2) and must not be a recent convert (1 Timothy 3:6). An elder is required to be able to instruct others in the faith, but this in no way restricts the teaching (and therefore preaching) ministry to elders only, considering the examples shown by Stephen and Philip in Acts 6. It only shows that to serve as a deacon, the teaching ability is not a requirement, but would nonetheless be a welcome addition, if the person demonstrates the gifts, skills and aptitude of a teacher. In the same manner, not all who can teach are automatically qualified to serve as elders.

Servants of God, servants of the church

A deacon’s role is vital in the health and life of the church. They serve the body by allowing the elders to focus on their particular ministry of preaching, teaching and prayer (again this does not imply that only elders should pray for the church), and they serve the members of the church in various ministry avenues. The deaconate also serves as an ideal training and testing ground for elders, although this is not strictly required in Scripture. It also serves as an avenue for exercising one’s gifts, to glorify God and build up the local body of Christ.

13 For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus. (1 Timothy 8:13)

Soli Deo Gloria!


[1] Luke notes the church’s continued numerical growth as the apostles faithfully teach and evangelize (5:42). This success leads to an overload for the apostles in their administration of the common fund for the poor (4:35, 37; 5:1; compare Deut 1:9-10). As a result, the Grecian Jewish widows are being overlooked in the daily food distribution. The resulting complaints (compare Num 17:5) threaten to destroy the church’s unity…Hebraic Jews had a prejudicial sense of superiority over Grecian Jews, because of their own birthplace and language. Lack of communication between the groups also fostered suspicion. In fact, human diversity will always bring with it opportunities for prejudicial division and injustice. (IVP New Testament Commentary, Acts, on biblegateway.org)

[2]Although the verb ‘serve’ comes from the same root as the noun which is rendered into English as ‘deacon’, it is noteworthy that Luke does not refer to the Seven as deacons; their task has no formal name. (I. Howard Marshall, Acts, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries)

[3]There is a separate article about elders.

[4] New Testament texts use the term translated “deacon” in several ways. It usually means a servant-minister, generally a minister of the word, like Paul. But sometimes it is an office distinguished from “overseers” (Phil 1:1), possibly similar to the office of the chazan in the synagogue. This synagogue attendant was responsible for the synagogue building, so an analogous role could have been filled by the owner of the home in which a house synagogue or church met. Unlike elders (3:2), this sort of “deacon” may have fulfilled an administrative function without as much public teaching. (Keener, IVP Bible Background Commentary, New Testament)

[5] ὡσαύτως, hōsautōs – literally, in like manner

[6]The list of qualities is closely akin to the preceding, but there are significant variations. (Guthrie, The Pastoral Epistles, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries)

[7] σεμνός, semnos. “worthy of respect (NIV)” describes a person of dignity, who both gives and receives appropriate respect (Liefed, NIV Application Commentary, 1&2 Timothy, Titus)

[8] δίλογος, dilogos -double in speech, saying one thing with one person another with another (with the intent to deceive)

[9] deacons must have self-mastery. Four words in verse 8 seem to form a natural grouping—men worthy of respect (‘men’ is not in the Greek sentence), sincere (mē dilogos), literally ‘not double-tongued’, ‘not indulging in double-talk’ (REB) or, as we might say, ‘not speaking out of both sides of their mouth’, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain, ‘with no squalid greed for money’ (JB). Thus in these four areas, in their behaviour, speech, use of alcohol and attitude to money, candidates for the diaconate are to have control of themselves. (John Stott, 1 Timothy & Titus, The Bible Speaks Today)

[10] It is difficult to see how anyone can hold these deep truths with a clear conscience without any understanding of what this is about…The whole phrase might mean (a) the mystery, the substance of which is the Christian faith (the use of the article supports this); or (b) the mystery appropriated by faith. (Guthrie, The Pastoral Epistles, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries)

[11] Guthrie, The Pastoral Epistles, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries

[12] Stott, for example, writes, “In addition to the selection procedure Paul has been outlining, there needs to be a period of probation, in which the congregation may assess the character, beliefs and gifts of the candidates for the diaconate. It is right that in this way the congregation is given a share in the testing of potential deacons.”(John Stott, 1 Timothy & Titus, The Bible Speaks Today)

[13] Commentators are still divided on this question. One or two suggest that it could be a reference to both, since wives and deaconesses could share in assisting the deacons in their ministry. In either case, these women are to be worthy of respect (semnos), like the deacons in verse 8, not malicious talkers but, having control of their tongue, temperate (nephalios), like the presbyters in verse 2, and trustworthy in everything (11). .”(John Stott, 1 Timothy & Titus, The Bible Speaks Today)

[14]The author personally believes in the office of a deaconess, that is, female deacons (who not necessarily wives of deacons). Of note here is Romans 16:1, where Phoebe is described as a servant (diakonos) of the church in Cenchreae.

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