What is this business about Deacons
Donald L. Norbie, Greeley, Colorado, USA [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
There seems to be a flurry of interest lately, in the office of deacons. Books are being written and articles published. Some churches are wondering if they are scriptural if they do not have deacons. Others that have deacons wonder if they even know what they should be doing.
First of all, it should be emphasized that elders are essential as an assembly matures and God raises up men with a shepherd‘s heart for the sheep. These should be recognized as leaders of God‘s people and allowed to make decisions for the flock. A scriptural assembly is not a pure democracy with all having an equal voice in decisions affecting God‘s people. It is fitting that the most godly, mature, spiritual men lead God‘s people. Because of this the apostles ‘appointed elders in every church‘, Acts 14. 23. NKJ. Not to have elders in an assembly is to be ‘lacking’, Titus 1. 5.
There was no clergy-laity system with the elders divided into ‘teaching’ and ‘ruling‘ elders. All elders were on the same footing and all were expected to exercise their gifts and to be ‘able to teach’, 1 Tim. 3. 2. A full-time worker while working with an assembly to build it up would be viewed as one of the elders, not as a minister over them, cf. 1 Pet. 5. 1. The local elders would be expected to earn their own living. The commended worker would be supported by gifts from various churches and individuals, Phil. 4. 15-16. Peter recognized the tremendous need of churches to have godly elders, 1 Pet. 5. 1-4.
But what about ‘deacons’? There is no mention in the book of Acts about the apostles appointing deacons in their missionary travels. In fact, if it were not for their mention in Philippians 1. 1, and 1 Timothy 3, we would not even be aware that such a work existed. Because in these passages they are mentioned alongside the elders, it is obvious that at least in some of the assemblies deacons existed.
First, we need to define our terms. The Greek word ‘diakonos’ is defined as a ‘servant of someone‘, a ‘helper‘ or a ‘deacon as an official of the church‘. (p. 183, Arndt and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature).
The verb form ‘diakonew‘ is translated ‘to wait on someone‘, ‘to serve‘, ‘to care for‘, ‘to help‘, and ‘to serve as a deacon‘. The term ‘deacon‘ then is not a translation of the original but a transliteration. The Greek word was imported into the English language and became a part of ecclesiastical terminology in the Church of England. The King James translation therefore used the noun as ‘minister‘ or ‘servant‘ twenty-seven times and as ‘deacon‘ three times. The verb form was translated forty times and usually as ‘to serve‘ or ‘to minister‘. In 1 Timothy 3 it was translated four times as serving in ‘the office of a deacon’.
The Greek noun ‘doulos’, is translated a ‘slave‘ and emphasizes the relationship to the master and owner. The noun ‘diakonos’ focuses upon the activity of serving another. While the English word ‘minister‘ does have in its origin the thought of ‘servant‘ today it is used often to denote an office, such as the minister of a department of government or the minister of a church. The word in itself carries no such connotation.
Acts 6 is often used as giving the origin of the office of deacon. But this may be saying too much. The seven are never called deacons, although they were certainly appointed to relieve the elders of some of the mundane details of church life. In so far as they were helpers of the elders they were servants of the church. At least one might suggest that their work as helping the elders was typical of those who later were called ‘servants‘ or ‘deacons‘ of the church.
The work and appointment arose out or a current need. Hence Scripture is vague about the duties of deacons. The needs of churches vary according to the local situation. In fact, in the beginning of an assembly there may be no special needs that require such an appointment.
However, as time goes on and a fellowship grows, a building may be acquired. This will require maintenance and care. The elders will need helpers to relieve them of such duties. They need to give themselves to the word, to prayer and to the spiritual needs of the flock.
The assembly may have a list of widows that are helped by the church, 1 Tim. 5. 9-10. These will require ‘servants‘ to help meet their physical needs. This may involve home-repairs, the buying of groceries and transportation. There may be others who are sickly or handicapped. These too need the practical support of God‘s people.
However, to limit the work of these servants or deacons to helping the widows or sickly is not wise. Scripture nowhere delineates the precise duties of deacons. They are helpers to the elders. Let the elders then, with the fellowship of the congregation, appoint godly men to assist in the details of church life as the need arises. Such men should prove themselves first by their godly, consistent lives, 1 Tim. 3. 8-12. Faithfulness in these responsibilities will qualify them for greater work later, 1 Tim. 3. 13. Stephen served the church faithfully, exercised his spiritual gifts and was a powerful witness for the Lord Jesus. May all deacons follow his example, Acts 6 and 7.
AUTHOR PROFILE: Donald Norbie is in fellowship with the assembly in Greeley, Colorado, and is a commended full-time worker. A regular contributor to Precious Seed and other assembly magazines his ministry is widely appeciated throughout N. America and the UK.