Deacons play an important role in many modern day churches. However, the specifics of their role and qualifications can sometimes be unclear. This is because the Bible does not contain extensive teaching on deacons, but there are a few key passages that provide insight into the origins and expectations for those who serve in this office.
In this comprehensive blog post, we will survey the main biblical texts that reference deacons. We will look at the qualifications and responsibilities laid out for deacons, as well as examples of early deacons in the New Testament church. Whether you are considering becoming a deacon yourself or simply want to better understand the biblical foundations for this role, this post will cover the primary scriptural teachings on deacons and their service in the church.
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- The term “deacon” comes from the Greek word diakonos, meaning “servant” or “minister.”
- The qualifications for deacons focus on character traits like dignity, honesty, and spiritual maturity.
- Deacons in the early church assisted the apostles, served the physical needs of fellow believers, and supported the community of faith.
- While not specifically tasked with teaching or leading worship, deacons exemplified servant leadership alongside elders/overseers.
- Passages like 1 Timothy 3 provide the clearest guidelines for the qualities and conduct of deacons.
- What is a Deacon?
- 1 Timothy 3 – Qualifications for Deacons
- Acts 6 – Choosing the First Deacons
- Romans 16:1 – Phoebe the Deacon
- Philippians 1:1 – Overseers and Deacons
- 1 Timothy 3:11 – Women as Deacons
- Summary of Key Biblical Passages on Deacons
- Responsibilities and Expectations for Deacons
- Examples of Deacons in the Early Church
- Deacons vs. Elders – What's the Difference?
- Conclusion – Deacons as Models of Christian Service
What is a Deacon?
The English word “deacon” comes from the Greek word diakonos which is variously translated as servant, minister, or deacon. The verb form diakoneo means to serve or minister. In the New Testament, the words diakonos and diakoneo are used in a broad context to refer to rendering service to God or to fellow believers.
The specific role of a deacon developed fairly early in church history to describe an office of servant ministry. By the end of the first century A.D., the terms “overseers/elders” (episkopos) and “deacons” (diakonos) were used together to refer to different offices in the local church (Philippians 1:1). From these terms, it appears a division of labor developed with overseers/elders focusing on the spiritual leadership and supervision of the congregation, while deacons focused more on the hands-on service and logistical needs of the church.
While the New Testament does not provide extensive details about the role of deacons, it does outline the character qualities and conduct expected for those who serve in this position. Let’s survey some of the key passages that give insight into the biblical origins and expectations of deacons.
1 Timothy 3 – Qualifications for Deacons
The most detailed biblical teaching on deacons comes from 1 Timothy 3:8-13. In the context of laying out standards for overseers/elders, Paul gives similar guidelines for those serving as deacons:
Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus. (1 Timothy 3:8-13 NKJV)
This passage outlines qualifications regarding the character and conduct expected of deacons. Similar to the high standards for overseers/elders, deacons are to exhibit upright behavior and spiritual maturity, acting with dignity, honesty, self-control, and faithfulness. The instructions regarding family life also parallel the expectations for overseers/elders.
While not directly mentioning specific tasks, this passage implies deacons should exemplify servant leadership and competence in practical service within the church. The emphasis is on mature Christian character and modeling integrity in their personal lives and families. These qualifications were to be assessed before appointing someone to serve as a deacon.
Acts 6 – Choosing the First Deacons
The origin of the deacon’s office appears in Acts 6, although the term “deacon” is not used explicitly. As the early church grew rapidly, there arose a complaint that the distribution of food was unfair to Greek-speaking Jewish widows compared to Aramaic speakers.
The apostles instructed the congregation to select “seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” to take charge of this distribution (Acts 6:3). The apostles would devote themselves to prayer and preaching ministry, while appointing these seven men over logistics and charitable service to the community.
After choosing Stephen and six others, they were presented to the apostles who “prayed and laid their hands on them” (Acts 6:6), commissioning them to oversee the daily distribution (diakonia) to widows. Some draw a connection between this appointing of seven servants and the development of the deacon’s office by the end of the first century.
While the term “deacon” does not appear in Acts 6, it establishes some precedents for servant ministry in the church:
- Delegating practical service responsibilities to spiritually mature members of the congregation
- Freeing up pastor-teachers to focus on prayer and ministry of the word
- Commissioning through appointment and laying on of hands
So in embryonic form, Acts 6 records some patterns that later coalesced into formal establishment of deacons who were set apart to care for the physical needs of the church.
Romans 16:1 – Phoebe the Deacon
Romans 16 provides another important early reference to the office of deacon. Paul commends to the church in Rome “our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae” (Romans 16:1). The word translated “servant” here is the Greek word diakonos.
Paul describes her as a “patron” or “benefactor” who has helped many, including Paul himself. Some key insights can be drawn about the role of deacons here:
- Phoebe is referred to simply as “diakonos”, implying the term was an established office by this time.
- Her service and patronage of many suggests deacons may have overseen care for traveling preachers and evangelists.
- Phoebe seems to have held some position of honor and leadership, since Paul commends her influence to the Roman church.
So Romans 16 provides an early example of a woman serving as a deacon in the early church. Other references like 1 Timothy 3 seem to assume deacons could be either men or women.
Philippians 1:1 – Overseers and Deacons
Paul’s letter to the Philippians provides one of the clearest examples of the two separate offices of overseers/elders and deacons working together to lead and serve the local church. Paul addresses the church with,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:1-2 NKJV)
Here we see a distinction between those who hold the office of overseer/elder (episkopos) and the office of deacon (diakonos). This suggests a division of labor in which elders focused on the spiritual leadership and pastoral oversight of the congregation, while deacons focused on serving the physical and logistical needs of the church.
The terms “overseers” and “deacons” seem to be well established offices by this point, reinforcing the idea that deacons served a separate (though related) role from that of pastor-teachers.
1 Timothy 3:11 – Women as Deacons
In addition to outlining qualifications for men as deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8-10, Paul also addresses “women” (some translations render “wives”) in verse 11:
Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. (1 Timothy 3:11 NKJV)
This strongly implies that women also served in the office of deacon in the early church. Like their male counterparts, these women deacons were expected to exhibit the same kind of spiritual maturity and Christlike character.
The immediate context further suggests Paul had both men and women deacons in mind. Thus, it seems clear that the New Testament establishes precedent for both men and women to serve formal roles as deacons in the local church body.
Summary of Key Biblical Passages on Deacons
To sum up the key biblical teachings, here are the primary passages that speak to the origins and expectations for deacons:
- Acts 6: Establishes a division of labor between preaching pastors and servant-minded deacons to care for physical needs in the church.
- Romans 16: Phoebe served as a deacon, emphasizing ministry to patrons/benefactors who supported the church.
- 1 Timothy 3: Outlines key qualifications for men and women to serve with spiritual maturity as deacons.
- Philippians 1: Mentions overseers and deacons as separate offices working together to lead and serve the local church.
While more Details are lacking, these passages lay a solid biblical foundation for the continued role of servant-hearted deacons to meet tangible needs, handle logistics, and support the overall work of the gospel in the context of local church congregations.
Responsibilities and Expectations for Deacons
Based on these key passages, we can summarize the following responsibilities and expectations for those who serve as deacons in the church:
Model Christlike Character
Deacons are to exhibit maturity and integrity as followers of Jesus, displaying the fruit of the Spirit in their lives. The qualifications for deacons emphasize personal character over specific skills or abilities.
Care for Physical/Logistical Needs
Deacons are set apart to handle practical service responsibilities like distributing resources, caring for facilities, and coordinating programs. This frees pastors to focus on prayer and teaching.
Support the Broader Ministry
Deacons assist pastors and support the overall ministry in tangible ways. Their servant leadership aids the smoother functioning and health of the local church.
Work Alongside Elders/Overseers
Deacons complement pastoral oversight and teaching by caring for logistics and daily needs. The two work hand-in-hand, exhibiting teamwork and humility.
Facilitate Greater Service
Part of the deacon’s role is to mobilize the broader church towards greater acts of service. They model servant leadership for the entire congregation.
Aid the Community
As exemplified by early deacons, caring for needs like food distribution expresses God’s love to both church members and neighbors in the wider community.
Deacons must embody the gospel message in their personal and family lives. Their lives should affirm the faith they profess.
So in synthesizing these principles, deacons are called to focus on practical service tasks that facilitate the smooth functioning and spiritual health of local congregations. More than mere church housekeepers, they model Christlike servanthood for the entire body.
Examples of Deacons in the Early Church
In addition to the passages already surveyed, the New Testament provides glimpse of deacons in action through examples like:
Stephen (Acts 6-7): One of the original seven appointed in Acts 6. Displayed wisdom and grace defending the faith before the Sanhedrin.
Philip (Acts 8): Also one of the first seven deacons. Went on to become an evangelist who preached across Samaria and to the Ethiopian eunuch.
Tychicus (Ephesians 6:21): Described by Paul as “the dear brother and faithful servant in the Lord.” He delivered Paul’s letters and updates to churches.
Onesimus (Colossians 4:9): A convert under Paul’s ministry who was commended as a “faithful and beloved brother” when sent to update the Colossians.
These examples illustrate that early deacons like Stephen and Philip started off caring for practical needs but went on to preach or evangelize through divine calling. Tychicus and Onesimus give models of deacons faithfully executing church planting and ministry tasks on Paul’s behalf.
Deacons vs. Elders – What’s the Difference?
Given the biblical distinction between overseers/elders (episkopos) and deacons (diakonos), what exactly is the difference in their roles? Here is a brief comparison:
- Responsible for spiritual oversight and shepherding.
- Focus on teaching, prayer ministry, counseling, and guiding the overall vision.
- Qualified based on spiritual maturity and teaching/preaching ability.
- Also referred to as bishops or pastors.
- Handle practical logistics and serve tangible needs.
- Focus on tasks like facilities, benevolence distribution, programs.
- Qualified based on character, integrity, and servanthood.
- Complement elders by freeing them to focus on teaching/praying.
So in summary, elders/overseers are responsible for the spiritual health and vision of the church through shepherding, teaching, and prayer. Deacons facilitate this by handling practical service needs and offering tangible support in a servant’s role.
Conclusion – Deacons as Models of Christian Service
While only subtly presented in Scripture, the role of deacons stands out as incredibly vital to the health and functioning of Christ’s church. Through humble service, deacons follow Jesus’ example of taking the lowest position and giving up status for the sake of others. In this way, deacons powerfully model the heart of the gospel to the watching world.
Far from just “helping around the church,” deacons represent Christ’s love through sacrificial service. Whether feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, or handling logistics, deacons reflect Jesus’ servant spirit to the congregation and the community.
My prayer is that this comprehensive overview has provided a helpful guide to the biblical foundations for deacons. May it inspire all believers to find ways they can humbly serve the body of Christ!