What Did Deacons Do?

Sunday Evening Message

1. The Two Church Offices of Deacons and Elders

Deacons and elders (= pastors/overseers/bishops) are the two ongoing church offices taught in the New Testament.

1.1. Second London Confession of Faith, Article 26.8:

A particular Church gathered, and completely organized, according to the mind of Christ, consists of officers, and members; and the officers appointed by Christ to be chosen and set apart by the church (so called and gathered) for the peculiar administration of ordinances, and execution of power or duty which he entrusts them with or calls them to, to be continued to the end of the world, are bishops or elders and deacons.

1.2. Biblical evidence:

Philippians 1:1

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.

1 Timothy 3:2–13

Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife . . .

2. Were Women Deacons?

Very probably yes.

2.1. The Greek word for deacon can be masculine or feminine. So the word does not settle the issue.

2.2. In the middle of the qualifications for deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8–13, Paul says, "The women likewise must be serious, no slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things." This could be the wives of the deacons, but could also be the women deacons. The latter is suggested by the fact that the elders' wives are not mentioned in 3:1–7.

2.3. The deacons were distinguished from the elders in that they were not the governing body in the church nor were they charged with the duty of authoritative teaching. So the role of deacon seems not to involve anything that Paul taught in 1 Timothy 2:12 is inappropriate for women to perform in the church.

2.4. In Romans Phoebe is very probably called a deacon. "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cenchreae, that you may receive her in the Lord as befits the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a helper of many and of myself as well."

3. The Diakon- Word Group in the New Testament

3.1. The word "deacon" comes from the Greek word diakonos. It usually has the general meaning, "servant," in a broad range of contexts. For example:

3.1.1. The servants at the wedding who carried the water containers (John 2:5, 9):

His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you."

3.1.2. Christ is called servant to the circumcision (Romans 15:8):

Christ became a servant to the circumcision to show God's truthfulness.

3.1.3. Paul calls himself a servant (=minister) of the new covenant (2 Corinthians 3:6):

God has qualified us to be ministers of a new covenant.

And of the gospel (Colossians 1:23):

Do not shift from the hope of the gospel . . . of which I, Paul, became a minister.

And of the church (Colossians 1:24):

I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister.

See also 1 Corinthians 3:5.

3.1.4. Tychicus is called a faithful servant in the Lord (Ephesians 6:21; Colossians 4:7):

Tychicus the beloved brother and faithful minister of the Lord will tell you everything.

3.1.5. Timothy is called God's servant (1 Thessalonians 3:2):

We sent Timothy, our brother and God's servant in the gospel of Christ.

3.1.6. The disciples are told that if they would be great they must be servants (Matthew 20:26):

Whoever would be great among you must be your servant.

3.2. The Greek noun that describes what a diakonos does is diakonia and has meanings just as broad:

3.2.1. Martha is concerned with too much serving (Luke 10:40).

3.2.2. The apostleship is called a ministry (Acts 1:17, 25).

3.2.3. The widows of the Hellenists were being overlooked in the daily "distribution" (Acts 6:1).

3.2.4. But three verses later Luke refers to the task of the apostles as the "ministry" of the word.

3.2.5. The raising of money for the poor saints was called a "ministry" (Acts 11:29; 12:25; Romans 15:31; 2 Corinthians 8:4; 9:1, 12, 13.).

3.2.6. Paul calls his own assignment from the Lord a "ministry" (Acts 20:24; 21;19; Romans 11:13; 2 Corinthians 4:1).

3.2.7. It is listed in the gifts between prophecy and teaching in Romans 12:7.

3.2.8. And "various ministries" is listed between "various gifts" and "various workings" in 1 Corinthians 12:5.

3.2.9. The old covenant is called a ministry of death and condemnation as compared to the new covenant which called a ministry of the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:7–9).

3.2.10. Paul calls his work a ministry of reconciliation in 2 Corinthians 5:18.

3.2.11. Pastor/teachers are to equip the saints to do the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:12).

3.3. The verb form of this Greek word is diakoneo. It has the general meaning of "serve."

3.3.1. Jesus came to serve not be served (Matthew 20:28).

3.3.2. Therefore he taught that a good leader is one who serves (Luke 22:26).

3.3.3. Jesus said that if anyone serves him, the Father would honor him (John 12:26).

3.3.4. In Acts 19:22 Timothy and Erastus are described as those who serve Paul.

3.4. But there is a strong tendency of this verb (diakoneo) to refer to the kind of serving that involves very practical acts of supplying material needs, and literally table-service.

3.4.1. Angels came to serve Jesus in the wilderness, i.e., tend to his needs (Matthew 4:11).

3.4.2. Peter's mother in law rose from her sick bed to serve her guests (Matthew 8:15).

3.4.3. The women who followed Jesus served out of their own pockets (Matthew 27:55; Luke 8:3).

3.4.4. Martha served from the kitchen (Luke 10:40; John 12:2).

3.4.5. Paul's carrying money to Jerusalem is doing service (Romans 15:25; 2 Corinthians 8:19).

3.4.6. The serving of Onesiphorus is described as often refreshing Paul in connection with his not being ashamed of Paul's chains, which I take to mean that he visited him in prison (2 Timothy 1:16–18).

3.4.7. Paul wants to keep Onesimus, the converted slave, with him so he can serve him in prison (Philemon 13).

3.4.8. The saints of Hebrews are described as serving the saints in love (6:10), and later they are described as visiting saints in prison (10:32–34).

3.4.9. In 1 Peter 4:10–11 speaking and serving are treated separately as though there may have been a word ministry (perhaps the teaching of elders) and a non-word-serving ministry (perhaps the service of deacons).

3.4.10. Matthew 25:44 may be the best summary in the NT of the kinds of activities done by one who "serves."

"Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?'"

3.5. Conclusion:

The basic meaning of the diakon- word group is practical, active helping with respect to the basic necessities of life.

From Matthew 25:44 we could include dire needs arising from hunger, thirst, alienation, nakedness, sickness, imprisonment. That would imply that the basic notion of "serving" in the sense of being a deacon is to help meet needs for

  • food,
  • water,
  • acclimatization,
  • clothing,
  • health,
  • and whatever needs arise from emergencies (like imprisonment).

Probably the term is applied to ministries of the Word and apostleship and Christ's own ministry to show that they are to be done humbly and in compassion and for the benefit of others. But when Jesus says in Luke 22:26 that the leader should become as one who serves (as he did!), he does not mean that there are no differences between a leader and a non-leader. He means that the lowliness that is natural for a table-waiter should also characterize those in positions of leadership.

So even though the highest offices (e.g., apostle) are called "ministry," this does not mean that there is no office in the church with a special focus on practical and more material needs.

It appears that the deacons in 1 Timothy 3 and Philippians 1 were that kind of officers.

4. A Probable Origin of the Office

Acts 6:1–4.

Verse 2: "It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables."

From the seven men chosen (including Stephen and Philip) it is obvious that the "deacons" could be men of the Word as well, just as Stephen and Philip seemed to be in Acts 6–8.

5. Conclusion: What Did Deacons Do?

It would seem, then, that the deacon office exists to assist the leadership of the church by relieving the elders of distractions and pressures that would divert them from the ministry of the Word and prayer and the general, visionary oversight of the church.

Thus it would seem that deacons would care for the building and grounds; supply the communion and baptismal needs, as well as all other food and fellowship materials; administer a fund for the manifold material needs of the people and be ready to step in during crises of all kinds; handle the greeting and welcoming ministries; provide practical assistance in job-hunting, housing matters, legal-aid, child-care, etc. In general they would be ready to assist the elders of the church in any "service" that would support and promote the ministry of the Word.

©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Used by Permission.

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For Internet posting, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Desiring God.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. ©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org