Alongside of pastors, Christ gives to his church deacons. What is a deacon? The answer is quite simple, he is a servant. The term is used frequently in the New Testament, but most of the time it does not refer to this office in the church. Notice for example that Paul calls himself a ‘deacon’ in Col. 1:25, Timothy is exhorted about the means by which he might be a good ‘deacon’ (1 Tim. 4:6), and Jesus uses the word to describe all of his followers in John 12:26. They are all servants, i.e. ‘deacons.’ In fact what the New Testament does is take a common word, and invest it with a technical meaning when applied to a special circumstance.
We may notice its meaning in several passages. In Matt. 22:13 the term is used of someone appointed to the service of the king, subject to his orders. We find it employed in John 2:5&9 to describe the waiters at the wedding at Cana. They were distinct from the guests, and expected to provide them with all their needs. Commonly, the word referred to a person who lived with the responsibility of performing specific tasks for the sake of others. A servant never, in his official capacity, did things for himself, only for the master and his guests, whether the master was a king or merely the headwaiter at a wedding. With this meaning, it is easy to see how the term can be applied to Paul, or Timothy, or all believers. We are God’s servants, assigned the task of waiting on him and each other. In the same way, it is plain to see how appropriate this word was for the serving office in the church. Philippians 1:1 plainly infers that there are Deacons in the church, as well as for those who are not Deacons, though they are deacons.
From the meaning of the word, the nature of the office is quite plain: it is a serving office. Only one picture is given in the Word of God, that of a servant. It is never stated in the New Testament that this office is one of ruling and teaching; it is always presented as a position of serving the church in the capacity of helping others. This does not mean that Deacons can’t be preachers or teachers-Phillip and Steven both demonstrate that this is a false conclusion. The point is simply that the office of deacon in itself is not a preaching/ruling office, somehow equivalent to elder/pastor.
Acts 6:1-6 bears this out. It records the institution of the office and details its nature. The apostles were overburdened with work and were faced with a difficult situation. It was necessary to sort out priorities; while the temporal needs were important, and could not be neglected, they could not lay aside their duties in the Word of God. Their proposed remedy was very simple. They charged the church with the task of choosing trustworthy men, able to fulfill the task. These were the first deacons, given the responsibility of administering this temporal distribution after they were ordained into office by the apostles.
We need to make several important points. 1. The apostles recognized aspects of their own duty other than the ministry of the word, but could not perform them because of human limitations. 2. They expected the congregation of disciples to choose the seven men who would meet the qualifications and perform the task well. 3. The apostles did not relinquish their responsibility, only delegate it; i.e. they did not establish a group of men to be overseers of the temporal things of the church, as a separate and equal entity. Rather they established a group of men who would perform this function in subjection to them. From its beginning, this office was intended by the apostles to be a serving office under the authority of the spiritual office in the church. Deacons are never rulers, but always servants.
The responsibilities of this office are basically two: the first is to carry out the benevolence work of the church. In vs. 1, this was the original circumstance which brought about the institution of the office; meeting the daily needs of widows out of the finances of the church. Benevolence is primary. Notice that the deacons did not set policy, only carried it out. At the discretion of the spiritual leaders, they performed this necessary task-they were the hands of the apostles in helping those who were suffering.
Their second task is to manage and implement the temporal business affairs of the church: finances, building maintenance, local ordinances, etc. Too often, this is viewed as the primary function of deacons, but it is not. It is important, but ought not to displace benevolence.
These are the gifts given by our Lord Jesus Christ to his beloved church. Let us receive them with thanksgiving, praying that these men might serve Christ and his church well.