Who's Who in Church Leadership: Deacons

Every year or so, a list of names appears in the Sunday bulletin at church. The names are those of the people nominated by other people in the congregation to serve in the capacity of a deacon.

The presence of those names leads many people to ask a few questions: What is a deacon? Why are deacons necessary? and Who qualifies to serve as a deacon?

First, What is a deacon?
The term "deacon" comes from the Greek noun diakonos, which is commonly translated "servant" or "minister." So we read of the instructions to Timothy to be a good "servant" (ESV) or "minister" (NIV). The word translated as "servant" and "minister" is diakonos.

Philippians 1:1b (ESV) brings the 3 groups of church-people together in one compact salutatory statement: "To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the overseers and deacons..." Here we have "saints" (Greek: hagios), "overseers"(Greek: episkopos), and "deacons" (Greek: diakonos). On this verse, New Testament scholar Gordon Fee explains, "The word deacon, which means 'servant,' is most commonly used by Paul to designate those who serve others..."[1]. So the church, I believe, is comprised of the Saints who constitute the Priesthood of Believers, the Elders/Overseers who provide oversight, and the Deacons who serve in accordance with the initiatives and values of the Elders.

Second, Why are deacons necessary?
Simply put, deacons are necessary because the tasks of the church are too many and too great to have only Elders and Saints. I think it was out of expediency and practicality, therefore, that the role of deacons took shape in the churches in the early decades of the Christian movement.

On that shape, N.T. Wright notes that, "[A]ll Christians are called to serve one another, and this applies especially to those in leadership positions. But from very early on (the story is told in Acts 6), the church appointed some people to organize and administer the practical details of daily living within the renewed people of God"[2].

The reference to Acts 6 is a passage (vv. 1-6) about the proper distribution of food and resources to people who needed them. The Hellenist (Greek-speaking) widows said they had been neglected in the daily distribution of food so the first apostles (messengers of the gospel appointed/authorized by Jesus himself) called a church meeting to discuss the situation. The apostles decided that their calling was to devote themselves to "prayer" and "the ministry of the word," so they instructed the congregants to pick out seven men from among them to perform the duty of "serving tables." Ben Merkle writes, "Although it is difficult to prove that the origin of the diaconate is found in the choosing of the seven in Acts 6:1-6, since the noun diakonos is not used, it is reasonable to believe that these seven leaders were at least the prototypes of the first deacons"[3].

Third, Who qualifies to serve as a deacon?
The selected people cannot be just anyone who is willing. As with the elders/overseers, character and competency matters. So we read in Acts 6:3 that the seven men should have a good reputation, be full of the Holy Spirit, and possess wisdom.

More qualifications are also listed in 1 Timothy 3:8-13 (on the heels of the qualifications for Overseers). Here we see several criteria that can help to either confirm or deny the status of deacon on the nominees. Selecting deacons is not a popularity contest, it's a decision to select the people who will lead the church by example and initiative in acts of service and ministry. Therefore the criteria range from public reputation to personal faith, and from married life to business affairs. Wright is helpful again here. He says, "The main point of the passage is the series of tests the church should run on a person's character before he or she is allowed to hold office, like the airline pilot running tests on all the systems prior to take-off...Dismissing an office-holder is difficult, and sends nasty shock waves through the whole community. Much better to find out in advance if there are residual weaknesses which need to be addressed"[4].

[1] Gordon D. Fee, Philippians (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 42.
[2] N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Pastoral Letters (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 33.
[3] Ben L. Merkle, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 399.
[4] Wright, 34.

Related Posts:
Who's Who in Church Leadership: Elders
Working (and Praying) Through the Psalms


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