The Often Misunderstood Ministry of Church Deacons:
Serving the Church in Practical Ministry Areas
- Summary: The local church, when properly structured, is a congregation of “the saints,” with elders and Ephesians 4:11 ministers in spiritual leadership roles, and deacons accomplishing numerous practical-service ministries in the church.
Philippians 1:1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons…
- • This is the local church built upon the biblical pattern. A fellowship of saints (“God’s holy people”) gathers together. They are skillfully led by New Testament elders, variously called “elders,” “overseers,” or “presbyters” — all these terms biblically referring to the same local group of spiritual leaders, including the church’s “fivefold” ministry.
- • And taking the oversight and responsibility for a number of important natural tasks in the church are the deacons. As we will see shortly, these are spiritual men, whose assigned tasks in the church are in basically “natural” areas. Let’s read below how the office of deacon came into the Church.
Acts 6:1-6, King James Version And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration [Greek: diakonia]. Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables [Greek: diakoneo]. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch: Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them.
- • These verses describe the origin of the deacons’ ministry in the New Testament church. Although the word “deacon” does not directly appear, the Greek noun diakonia (vs. 1) and verb diakoneo (vs. 2) describe here a ministry of important practical service. From these Greek words our English word “deacon” is derived and is descriptively applied to those performing such practical-service ministries.
- • vss. 1-2 The church had been providing a “daily distribution of food” (vs. 1, NIV) to the needy widows. The apostles (vs. 2) rightly considered this ministry to be important, and they themselves had been performing it. But they realized that this was taking them away from the primary calling they had received from the Lord — God’s word and prayer (vs. 4). So they established a specific group of men (vs. 3), the deacons, to attend to this ministry — and by application, to other important natural ministries in the church.
- • vs. 3 The original deacons were “seven men of honest report.” The word “men” is from the Greek aner. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words says, “ANER is never used of the female sex; it stands in distinction from a woman.” The fact that God has determined that men will fulfill the office of a deacon is further confirmed by 1 Timothy 3:12, NASB "Deacons must be husbands of only one wife.” Deacons are men, husbands (if married), not women/wives.
- • vs. 4 A valuable contribution of deacons to a local church is that by faithfully discharging their ministries, they free up others to accomplish the various ministries to which God has called them.
- • vss. 5-6 Seven men, full of faith and the Holy Spirit, were installed in this ministry by the Jerusalem apostles. The prayer and laying on of hands (vs. 6) suggests that this was some type of ordination to these roles, rather than just a casual selection process.
Matthew 25:44, KJV Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister [diakoneo] unto thee?
- • The verb diakoneo in this context helps us enlarge the scope of “deacon” ministry. Of course, these things can and should be done by all of us believers, too. But the deacon has a God-given gift and appointment to excel in these things. We can see here how a local church could use deacons extensively in facilitating ministry to the needy, the hungry, those needing clothing, the sick, those in prison, and more.
1 Timothy 3:8-13, KJV Likewise must the deacons be grave, not doubletongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre; Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless. Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things. Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.
- • Here is a list of important personal qualifications of a deacon.
- • Their qualifications are in many ways similar to those of elders (vss. 1-7). “In the same way [as elders], deacons are to be…” (vs. 8, NIV) So it is clear that, like elders, deacons are spiritual men. The difference is in the nature of their assignments — the elders over the spiritual aspects of the church, and the deacons over natural areas of the church.
- • vs. 13 Deacons who excel in their practical-service ministries gain for themselves “an excellent standing” (NIV) and “great boldness in the faith.” Two good examples of this from among the first seven named deacons are: Stephen, who, “full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles” (Acts 6:8, KJV); and Philip, who later preached in Samaria and saw great revival occur (Acts 8:5-7). Later yet we see him in Caesarea as “Philip the evangelist” (Acts 21:8).
I hope this short bible study has helped clear up any confusion. The properly structured local church, as we saw above in Philippians 1:1, is threefold: (1) the full congregation of “the saints”, among whom are those specifically in the offices of (2) spiritual leadership (elder, pastors, and other fivefold ministers) and (3) practical-service leadership (the deacons).
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by Pastor Jim Feeney, Ph.D.