At the end of 2017, our church’s deacon body transitioned into a new way of doing diaconal ministry. Instead of all the deacons trying to juggle multiple different responsibilities, each individual deacon assumed a specific ministerial task that he was both eager and able to do. In short, our deacons went from being generalists to specialists. In this post, I want to set forth our understanding of a deacon, which prompted us to make this change. And the way I want to do this is by explaining the role, requirements, and reward of a deacon.
The Role of a Deacon
So what exactly is a deacon? The word translated “deacon” literally means servant, which is exactly what deacons do. They serve the elders and the congregation by tending to the practical needs of the church. Put simply, a deacon is an individual who meets certain character requirements and is set apart by the church in order to handle a specific physical need or a ministerial endeavor (see Acts 6:1-7; 1 Tim. 3:8-13).*
Deacons do not lead or oversee the church because this is the role God has given to the elders (see Acts 20:28; 1 Tim. 5:17; 1 Pet. 5:1-2). Instead, they humbly serve the congregation by ensuring that the practical matters of the body are met. Serving in this way frees the pastors from doing these tasks so that they can, instead, devote themselves to teaching, praying, and leading the church.
For example, a deacon may handle any requests for benevolence so that the pastor can use his time to prepare a sermon. Or a deacon may take care of the church’s leaky roof so that the elders can focus on equipping and counseling others. Of course, some overlap may occur, but by and large, deacons handle physical needs and elders tend to spiritual matters.
To see this played out in Scripture, all we need to do is look at Acts 6:1-7. Most people believe this account marks the beginning of the office of deacon. Seven men were set apart to ensure that all the widows within the Jerusalem church received enough food to eat. They served in this way so the apostles were free to fulfill their primary responsibilities—prayer and the ministry of the Word.
The Requirements of a Deacon
While every church member should be serving the church, not everyone can serve as a deacon. The office of deacon—like the office of elder—is reserved only for those who meet certain character qualifications. 1 Timothy 3:8-13 makes this clear. To summarize these four verses, deacons must be marked by godliness. In a word, they should be “blameless.” Dishonest or disruptive persons need not apply. Of course, sinlessness isn’t a requirement, but personal holiness and Christian maturity certainly are.
It’s noteworthy that Scripture spends significantly more time describing what a deacon must be, rather than what a deacon must do. That’s because God cares more about our character than our abilities or job description. These character requirements are also important because they protect the reputation of the local church. Deacons are typically more visible than other members and often deal with finances. For this reason, it is essential that they are trustworthy. Nothing brings reproach to the name of Jesus like a scandalous deacon.
The Reward of a Deacon
We might be tempted to think that being a deacon isn’t that important. Being an elder or a missionary or a conference speaker or a Christian author is where it’s at. But Scripture would disagree. Competent, qualified deacons are essential to the health of a local church. When deacons serve the congregation and support the elders, they protect the unity of the church—something Jesus views as precious (see John 17). One reason those first deacons were so important is because they prevented the Jerusalem church from fracturing.
And what was the net result of these deacons fulfilling their responsibility? Acts 6:7 states, “So the word of God spread, the disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly in number, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith.” Because those deacons served the physical needs of the body, the unity of the church was preserved and the Great Commission was advanced.
Paul told Timothy, “For those who have served well as deacons acquire a good standing for themselves” (1 Tim. 3:13). Christians—more than any other people on the earth—highly esteem those who dedicate themselves to humble, Christ-like service. As John Calvin commented, “The more anxious a person is to devote himself to upbuilding [the church], the more highly Paul wishes them to be regarded.” By the world’s standards, being a deacon may seem boring and unattractive, but according to Scripture, there are great rewards for faithfully fulfilling this office.
Being a deacon is difficult. It requires humility, faithfulness, and service in ways that often go unnoticed. However, deacons are indispensible because they help maintain the unity of the body and enable the congregation to fulfill its purpose of making disciples. So if you know a deacon, let me encourage you to go out of your way to thank or encourage that “servant” either in word or deed.
*There is disagreement over whether the office of deacon is restricted to men only. Space does not allow me to outline the merits of each view. For that reason, I’ll refer to the office of deacon in a more generic way. But if you’d like to learn more about the merits of each view, check out 40 Questions about Elders or Deacons by Benjamin Merkle or chapter 8 of Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches by John Hammett. Also, my friend Matt Capps wrote a convincing article arguing that women can serve as deacons.