(The Last In A Series)
By Randy Blackaby
The work of deacons is subordinate to that of elders. It nevertheless is an extremely important function in the Lord’s church. The New Testament sets forth qualifications necessary for appointment to this work. Sadly, brethren typically have not given nearly as serious attention to these qualifications as to those for pastors or overseers.
In fact, the appointment of deacons often seems to come as an after-thought, a necessary but quick footnote to the process of appointing elders. When viewed in this light, brethren minimize the importance of an office ordained by God.
It also is not that unusual to find a deaconship more honorary than effective. The Lord’s church still has progress to make in actually functioning in the pattern set forth in the scriptures. Too many congregations effectively still follow a denominational model where the preacher does the elders’ work, the elders do the deacons’ work and the deacons don’t do much of anything. It goes without saying that this is wrong.
Once we understand the important work of deacons, their appointment should be undertaken with the same care and adherence to divine qualifications as that applied to the eldership.
What Are Deacons?
The Greek word diakonos is generally translated “minister” or “servant.” This is helpful but also a bit confusing in trying to understand the office or work of deacons. The Apostle Paul used this Greek word of himself (1 Corinthians 3:5; Ephesians 3:7). The same apostle referred to Jesus by this general term (Romans 15:8). Regular household servants in the first century were called such (Matthew ). Phoebe was a Christian woman who was called a “servant” or “deaconess” of the church at Cenchrea (Romans 16:1). And all Christians are servants of Christ.
In our study of the qualifications and work of elders, we observed these men are themselves special ministers or servants of the local church.
So, taken generically the descriptive word or title doesn’t really tell us too much.
Obviously, as we begin to examine the qualifications for deacons in the church, not everyone who is a Christian is in view. Those qualifications necessarily narrow both the function in view of who may carry out this work.
If this seems confusing, let’s observe some parallel uses of non-biblical titles. Everyone who listens to someone else is an “auditor.” But in the state of
, where I live, every county has a person elected as “county auditor” to record and account for public financial records. So, we see that many words have a general or “generic” meaning and also a specific one applied to a special function or office. Ohio
While all Christians, male and female, new converts and mature, are servants generally, deacons have a specific work distinguishable from that of other members.
What Is A Deacon Supposed To Do?
There isn’t a great deal directly stated in scripture about the specific work of deacons. In fact, if you limit yourself to passages that use the term “deacon” or “deacons,” you’ll find no direct help in defining their work (1 Timothy 3:8,10,12; Philippians 1:1).
While the seven men appointed in the early church (Acts 6:1-6) were not specifically called deacons, this passage really seems the only one that paints a picture of what special servants in the church would do.
Obviously, they do not do the ruling, guiding, overseeing and spiritual shepherding that is the job of the elders.
The seven men chosen by the church in
handled very necessary physical work (care of needy widows) so that the apostles could give their full attention to preaching the word of God. Jerusalem
It is not stated whether elders then existed in the
church. The deacons’ work aided or served that congregation and simultaneously freed the apostles from having to divert themselves from their main work in the word. Jerusalem
It has been generally concluded that deacons today handle the same type of work so that elders can remain focused on their primary function.
Two of those men appointed in
were also preachers—Philip and Stephen. So, it is obvious that their work as special servants or deacons did not preclude their doing other work in the kingdom as well. Jerusalem
And it probably is an over-simplification to describe elders’ work as the “spiritual” work of the church and that of the deacons as the “physical” work. As we’ll observe in looking at the qualifications for deacons, men of spiritual strength and maturity are to be sought for this office. Stephen is described as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5).
Common duties of deacons today include care of the treasury, maintenance of worship facilities, preparations for various functions of the church, assistance to widows and other needy members and other similar things.
Who May Serve As Deacons?
The qualifications or requirements for deacons are set forth in only one passage of scripture—1 Timothy 3:8-13. One who has read the qualifications for elders in the preceding verses and in Titus 1 will observe that deacons must meet many of the same criteria as elders.
Like elders, they must be men. Paul told Timothy they must be “husbands of one wife.” Women, obviously, can’t be husbands. This precludes the idea of Phoebe being a “deaconess” in the sense of holding the office in the church.
Deacons can’t be polygamists, adulterers or men otherwise bound to more than one wife. Of course this applies to all male Christians, but particularly it demonstrates the type of man needed for this job.
A married man is required. Additionally, he is to rule his children and house well. He needs some experience in managing matters related to people and a household before he is qualified to handle such things for the local church.
These men must be “grave” or “reverent,” that is serious or quiet in behavior, not giddy, foolish or unconcerned. This is serious work they will be doing. If their work is not accomplished properly, needy saints will suffer, preparations for worship and other work of the church will be left undone. The right kind of man is needed.
No “double-tongued” man is suitable. In other words he needs to be honest. A man who speaks one thing to one person or group and another to thing to others is unacceptable. Again, remember that the qualifications connect to the work he will be doing. Neither God nor a congregation wants a dishonest fellow handling the church’s treasury or dealing with needs in less than a fair and equitable manner.
He is not to “be given to much wine.” A deacon, like all Christians, shouldn’t allow himself to lose sobriety or self-control through the use of alcoholic beverages. If you’ve been around many drunkards, you quickly realize the near impossibility of them being grave or reverent in such condition.
Of elders it is said that they must not “be given to wine” (1 Timothy 3:3). The adjective “much” is not included. A few people have tried to suggest elders can’t drink at all but deacons can drink moderately. This is a somewhat humorous “stretch” that ignores the underlying principle in view. Christians are not to let themselves come under the control of anything that would keep them from being sound of mind and capable of distinguishing good and evil, truth and error.
Deacons aren’t to be men who are “greedy for money.” They can’t be prone to using illegal or immoral methods to obtain money and they can’t be men who are overly focused on materialism as opposed to spiritual things. For a case study in why this qualification exists, look at Judas. He was the disciple responsible for carrying the moneybox and he was a thief (John 12:6).
These special church servants must “hold the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience.” So, a local congregation needs to look for a man who is stable in his faith, who knows the will of God. Even though his work doesn’t deal with spiritual oversight, he must do his work in conformity to God’s will.
He must be a “proven” man. This is not speaking of on the job training but rather evidence of his capabilities assessed before he begins the job of deacon. He must be pre-qualified, is the idea. Brethren should be able to observe his behavior with respect to his family, community, work and other associations and see if he meets God’s standards.
And, he must be blameless. This is the same qualification as that given for elders, widows to be assisted (1 Timothy 5:7) and all mature Christians (2 Peter ). It doesn’t imply a person who has never sinned, for no one would meet this standard. Rather, it speaks of a person who can’t be successfully charged with sin. If past sins have been repented of and forgiven, a charge of sin can’t be brought.
While many deacons eventually become elders, when maturation and desire qualify them, this office should never be viewed merely as a training ground for becoming a bishop. It is an important work in its own right. Men who dedicate themselves to doing this job well “obtain for themselves a good standing and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy ).
Novices are not qualified to be deacons, yet men not old enough to be elders or men whose children have not matured enough to assess his success in raising “faithful” children, can qualify to do this important work in God’s kingdom and the local church.
In the absence of elders and when a congregation is not fully and scripturally organized, many people will undertake to do portions of the work normally the task of deacons. This doesn’t make those people deacons and it doesn’t suggest that deacons aren’t needed or important.
Just as in congregations that try to do the best they can without elders, using business meetings and deference to older members’ judgment, congregations do the best they can without deacons.
But it must always be remembered that God’s plan is for every church to have elders and deacons. That is His goal—and it should be ours.
Randy Blackaby lives in Medway, OH and preaches for the New Carlisle church of Christ. He also serves this congregation as one of its elders. He has preached full-time for about 18 years and part-time for that many more. During the period from 1971 to 1988 he was a reporter and later managing editor of The Xenia Daily Gazette in Ohio. He preached for 14 years in Kokomo, IN and has written a number of newspaper columns as a preacher, including Bible Q&A and op-ed pieces on current issues from a biblical perspective. He is a staff writer for Truth Magazine and writes monthly columns for the New Carlisle Sun, the Knollwood Messenger and this magazine. He has written a host of workbooks on Bible texts and themes, including recent ones on the book of Galatians and the Life of Moses. Currently, he is working on another on what the Bible teaches about “Money and Possessions.” After the fall of the Soviet Union, he made five preaching trips to Lithuania between 1994 and 2000. He can be contacted at email@example.com.