A Deeper Dig on Deacons

 

Over the past several years I have heard of a concerning number of Baptist churches who intentionally do not have deacons. I have heard some Baptist pastors boast that their respective churches do not have deacons as if deacons were a hinderance to God’s plan for gospel advance. I find this to be very problematic since God’s inerrant Word provides the office of deacon and reveals that New Testament churches had deacons. God did not make a mistake when He divinely guided the Apostles to direct local churches to select deacons from among their numbers. Biblical faithfulness rather than pragmatism must guide church order and structure. Or do we think we know better than God?

In the past, the church in which I pastor did not have deacons. By God’s grace, we now have three faithful, Biblical deacons who are serving God and His people for His glory to the advance of the gospel. On the evening I am writing this post, I was privileged to hear one of our deacons share about the opportunity that God had given him and another one of our deacons to provide a benevolence need and share the gospel. I heard one of our other deacons close a church service in prayer, asking God to give all the church members opportunities to share the gospel. Thanks to these three faithful men who accepted the call to serve as deacons, I am able to serve as a pastor more freely and faithfully and our church is functioning in tune with God’s design as revealed in the New Testament.

As you read below a portion of one of my essays for a doctoral seminar at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary which discusses the deacons of the New Testament, please consider the grace that God has revealed in providing His local churches with deacons. I would encourage you to write one of your deacons a card to let him know that you are praying for him. Thank your deacons for the way they serve. Praise God for His perfect and unchanging plan in local church structure and order! May God bless your church and deacons even as you read this article!

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The Office of Deacon

When Paul established churches, he did not intend for an organic gathering of individuals without structure. He addressed the Philippian church emphasizing that he wanted two groups of people in particular to heed his message: “the overseers and deacons” (Philippians 1:1).[1] Paul required that deacons, like overseers/elders, meet specified qualifications (1 Timothy 3:8-13). Paul, nor the other apostles, treated any other offices with such concern.

Paul used the term διάκονος (diakonos) for this office in Philippians 1:1 and First Timothy 3:8-13. This word translates as “minister,” “servant,” “attendant,” or “deacon.” John Hammett notes that the New Testament writers use the term thirty-six times but only the two passages referenced above clearly refer to the ecclesial office.[2]

The Origin of the Diaconal Office

Viewing the two clear passages which refer to deacons does not reveal the location or time in which the office began. While Acts 6:1-7 does not use the term διάκονος (diakonos), many scholars and churchmen consider it the pericope of diaconal origin. Darrell Bock and F.F. Bruce do not believe that this passage speaks of deacons because Luke does not use the technical term for deacon.[3] However, apart from mentioning that Luke neglects the technical term for deacon, neither produces an argument against the traditional understanding of the passage. Some of these denials of the traditional rendering seem to consider institutionalism harmful. Hans Küng argues that these seven Hellenist men serve more as elders than as technical deacons.[4] The account of the elders caring for monetary funds in Acts 11:30 seems to corroborate Küng’s claim. Gregg Allison urges caution in viewing Acts 6:1-7 as an account of deacons while acknowledging strong arguments for both sides.[5]

Kari Latvus does present an argument against taking the seven men in Acts six as deacons: the seven are never called diakonoi (deacons), the verb diakonein (to serve) and noun diakonia (service or ministry) are used generally to refer to both preaching and serving in this passage, and the seven have a different outcome than the current understanding of deacon ministry in that they work as preachers or evangelists in the following chapters.[6] Yet, the Scriptures refer to church leaders at other times without using the technical terms (i.e., Hebrews 13:7, 17). The terms for serving and service/ministry make an association of this passage with the office of deacon more likely. Finally, preaching and serving as a deacon are not mutually exclusive activities. Only Stephen is shown preaching (Acts 7) and Philip is shown evangelizing (Acts 8). But Stephen’s apologetic proclamations and Philip’s witness of the gospel are activities expected of all Christians (cf. 1 Peter 3:15, Acts 1:8).

John Hammett presents a very convincing and concise argument for accepting the traditional view of Acts 6:1-7. First, Luke uses the cognates of the office in question, διακονίᾳ (service or ministry) and διακονεῖν (to serve), in verses one and two in relation to the work these seven men would undertake. Second, the qualifications for these seven men are commensurate with the qualifications in First Timothy 3:8-13. Third, “if Acts 6 is not linked to the origin of deacons, we have an office with no precedent in Jewish society, with no origin described in Scripture, and yet an office that was widely and readily accepted by New Testament churches.”[7] Merkle relates the apostles and the seven men in this account to the relationship between the future elders and the deacons. He concludes, “although the term diakonos does not occur in Acts 6, this passage provides a helpful model of how godly servants can assist those who are called to preach the Word of God.”[8]

God’s sovereignty and Jesus’ headship and pastoral care for the church make it unlikely that He would leave His church ignorant about an apparently important office that He wanted them to implement. The textual evidence is strong enough to warrant belief that this passage speaks of deacons or at least provided a reliable pattern for deacons to follow in their relationship with their elders and congregation.

The Responsibilities of the New Testament Deacon

A survey of Acts 6:1-7 and First Timothy 3:8-13 hints at four responsibilities of New Testament deacons within their respective churches. In Acts 6:1-7, both Judaic and Hellenistic Jews comprised the church. According to Polhill, these Hellenistic Jews likely came from the diaspora and settled in Jerusalem later in life. They spoke different languages and wore different clothes than the Judaic Jews.[9] Bruce explains that the main differences between the two groups were their differing languages and attendance to synagogues which used their respective languages.[10] The gospel had not yet gone to the Gentiles but the mixture of Judaic and Hellenistic Jews created a potential fault line that the church would need to guard. Complaining[11] arose along this natural fault line.

The church had been providing food for their widows. This was a normal practice among religious Jews in Jesus’ days. While the Apocryphal book of Tobit contradicts the gospel, it does reveal the thinking and practice of the Jews soon before the church began. Tobit states,

Praier is good with fasting, and almes and righteousnesse: a little with righteousnes is better then much with vnrighteousnesse: it is better to giue almes then to lay vp gold. For almes doth deliuer from death, and shall purge away all sinne. Those that exercise almes, and righteousnesse, shall be filled with life.[12]

The church had continued this Jewish practice of providing for the needy but they did so motivated by the gospel rather than an attempt to earn their salvation.

In the daily distribution of food for the widows, the church unintentionally neglected the Hellenistic widows. The apostles addressed the situation with the wisdom of Jethro when he told Moses to delegate some of his responsibilities in Exodus 18:17-27. The apostles called the church together and proposed a plan inspired by the Holy Spirit:

It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word (Acts 6:2-4).

From this account, the church derived the diaconal role.

The first New Testament diaconal responsibility involved the deacons’ relationship to the apostles. They served to protect the apostolic ministries of the Word and prayer. Had the apostles met the needs of the Hellenistic widows themselves, they would have neglected the ministry to which God called them. Later, the deacons served in this same supporting role for overseers as Philippians 1:1, in conjunction with this passage, displays. Hammett explains, “Diakonos indicates more of a support role than episkopos or presbyteros…The example in Acts 6 fits the distinction between the ministry of leaders (elders/overseers/pastors) and the important but different ministry of other servants (deacons).[13]

Second, the New Testament deacons cared for the physical needs of the church. The seven men of Acts 6:1-7 provided for the widows’ sustenance. The meaning of the office title indicates this function as “one who waits tables.” The apostles did not require the deacons to be able to teach as they required of the overseers (cf. 1 Timothy 3:2; 8-13). However, this ministry of providing for the physical needs acted as a complimentary role to the apostles’ and overseers’ ministry of teaching. It enabled the ministry of the Word to advance.

Merkle, combining the first two responsibilities states, “the deacons provide leadership over the service-oriented functions of the church…it seems best to view the deacons as servants who do whatever is necessary to allow the elders to accomplish their God-given calling of shepherding and teaching the Church.”[14] Paul’s requirements in First Timothy for the deacons to not be fond of “sordid gain” and to be “good managers of their children and their own households” likely hints at their responsibility in using church funds to provide for physical needs.[15]

Third, the New Testament deacons worked to prevent divisions within the church. The reason the apostles proposed the office was because a division was beginning. Merkle acknowledges that the apostles “understood that allowing this problem to continue could cause division in the church.”[16] The apostles also knew that Jesus wanted the church to have unity as one people. They heard the Lord pray, “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:20-21). When a threat of division appeared, they dealt with it decisively by establishing the diaconate. Mark Dever adds,

The apostles were not just interested in rectifying a problem in the church’s benevolence ministry. They wanted to prevent a fracture in church unity, and a particularly dangerous fracture–between one ethnic group and another. The deacons were appointed to head off disunity in the church. Their job was to act as the shock absorbers for the body.[17]

Since preventing and repairing division in the church served as a catalyst for the apostles establishing the diaconate, it likely continued as one of their responsibilities throughout the New Testament.

Fourth, the New Testament deacons set a godly example for their respective assemblies. When the apostles guided the church in selecting their deacons, they did not allow anyone to serve. The men who served had to meet certain qualifications. They had to be “men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3). The good reputation was necessary so the church could have an effective witness with outsiders. The fullness of the Holy Spirit and wisdom were necessary to deal with divisive issues within the church. However, the early church had the expectation that every Christian should be of good repute and full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom. When Paul guided Timothy in establishing leaders in Ephesus, the deacons and their wives had to meet certain qualifications (cf. 1 Timothy 3:8-13). The early church expected this kind of character from the members of their assemblies.

A perplexity exists as to the need of giving and stating qualifications since the apostles expected the same from everyone in the assemblies. The likely conclusion is that the New Testament deacons shared with the elders (that is, pastors) the ministry of Christ-like modeling. Hammett, after mentioning this role of the deacon, states, “Anyone identified as an officer in the church in some way represents the church publicly and is thus required to possess a degree of maturity…the office of deacon is not a small, unimportant ministry that anyone can render.”[18]

While the New Testament authors do not explicitly state that these four responsibilities belonged to the deacons, Acts 6:1-7, First Timothy 3:8-13, and Philippians 1:1 hint at them. The scarcity of information on the diaconal role in the Scriptures may be intentional. The apostles may have intended to be vague so the deacons could serve unforeseen needs in the church as they arose. The early deacons may have served in any way needed.[19]

 Endnotes 

[1] Moises Silva, considers why Paul singled them out and concludes that he was showing a regard for them while preparing to give them “rebukes and criticisms that occur in the body of the letter” in Philippians (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 41.

[2] John Hammet, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2005), 192.

[3] Darrel L. Bock,  Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 259. F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), 182, and F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts: Revised (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), 122.

[4]  Hans Küng, The Church (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1976), 511-512.

[5] Gregg Allison, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 242.

[6] Kari Latvus, “The Paradigm Challenged: A New Analysis of the Origin of Diakonia.” Studia Theologica  62, no. 2 (2008): 147-148.

[7]  John Hammet, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2005), 192.

[8] Benjamin Merkle, 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2008), 229.

[9]  John B. Polhill, Acts (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 1992), 178-179.

[10] F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts: Revised (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publlishing Company: Grand Rapids, 1988), 120.

[11] The word here is γογγυσμὸς which can be rendered “grumbling” or “murmuring.” This would have been a certain sign that division had begun and would need to be dealt with swiftly to defend unity.

[12] Tobit 12:8-10 in The Authorized Version of the English Bible 1611, Vol. 5, William Aldis Wright, ed. (London: Cambridge University Press Warehouse, 1909), 113.

[13]  John Hammet, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2005), 194.

[14] Benjamin Merkle, 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic & Professional), 240.

[15] John Hammett points this out as well in Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2005), 196.

[16] Benjamin Merkle and Thomas Schreiner, eds., Shepherding God’s Flock: Biblical Leadership in the New Testament and Beyond (Grand Rapids: Kregel Ministry, 2015), 65.

 [17]  Mark E. Dever, “The Church” in A Theology for the Church, Daniel L. Akin, ed. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 799-800.

[18] John Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2005), 196.

[19] See Benjamin Merkle, 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2008), 238-242.

 

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