David E. West, Leicester
The subject will be considered under the following headings:
In considering the subject of ‘Deacons’, it is necessary for us to know what the word ‘deacon’ means. The Greek word diakonos, three times transliterated ‘deacon’ in the KJV, occurs thirty times in the New Testament, other renderings being ‘minister’ (twenty times), and ‘servant’ (seven times). The related verb diakoneo occurs twenty-two times and is always used in the sense of ministering to, or serving others. It should be noted that the word diakonos emphasizes a servant in relation to his work, whereas the Greek word doulos, meaning bond servant or slave, points to a servant in relation to his master.
Many have placed a restricted definition on the work of a deacon, regarding him as one occupied with the secular or administrative side of assembly work. The opening verses of Acts chapter 6 are often quoted in support of this; however, whilst according to the chapter the seven chosen men ‘served tables’ (to use the expression in verse 2), the apostles gave themselves to ‘the ministry of the word’, v. 4. Thus, both the seven and the twelve were fulfilling their respective ‘deaconships’ or ministries.
It is interesting to observe that angels served as deacons, ‘and the angels ministered unto him’, Mark 1. 13 – the verbal form of the word is used here, whilst in the parable of the king who made a marriage for his son, the corresponding noun is used of those who are presumably angels. The king bids his servants (i.e., deacons) to cast into outer darkness the man without a wedding garment, Matt. 22. 13. Indeed, angels have a present deaconship to fulfil, ‘Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?’ Heb. 1. 14.
Even Satan has his deacons, for we are told that ‘it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works’, 2 Cor. 11. 15. Then a secular ruler is said to be the deacon of God, ‘For he is the minister of God to thee for good’, Rom. 13. 4. These examples serve only to underline the fact that the word ‘deacon’ denotes one who renders any form of service, whether to the Lord or to men.
Prior to Acts chapter 6, there is no recorded structure in the assembly at Jerusalem, nor any arranged service of administration. It is true that up to this point apostles had been recognized, and they had evidently dealt with financial matters (e.g., they ‘brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles’ feet’, Acts 4. 34, 35) as well as carrying out their spiritual work of preaching and teaching. But Acts chapter 6 presents to us a development in the situation, introduced because of a need that arose in the assembly. It should be noted that Paul addresses himself to ‘all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons’, Phil. 1. 1; thus, God has ordained that certain men, by reason of their qualifications and work, should be known and recognized as ‘deacons’.
What, however, do we find today? In some assemblies certain men are designated ‘deacons’ and are expected to engage in more mundane matters such as the maintenance of the meeting room or dealing with financial affairs. Conversely, there are other assemblies where the idea of deacons and its implications are regarded as somewhat of a mystery, and are quietly ignored.
Not all members of a local church are necessarily deacons; young believers are hardly deacons, since they are not approved as yet, for they are still developing in character and ability. The Levites in the Old Testament did not serve until they were thirty years of age, when their period of approval had been accomplished. However, all who serve in the assembly are the ‘deacons’. Some may not serve for various reasons:
- young believers in the faith – these have been already referred to;
- those who are now too old to take part in any active service, but who served well in the past;
- those who do not have or have lost the spiritual and moral qualifications necessary for service.
Two forms of ministry are apparent among the Lord’s people:
- service according to the gifts given by the Spirit;
- service of a temporal and special nature.
Both are set forth in Acts chapter 6: (1) spiritual things, ‘the ministry of the word’; and (2) temporal things, ‘serve tables’. Indeed, the word is used for almost every kind of spiritual service rendered by believers, e.g., ’Paul . . . and Apollos . . . ministers by whom ye believed’, 1 Cor. 3. 5 – the reference is to evangelists; ‘unto us they did minister the things which are now reported unto you’, 1 Pet. 1. 12 – Old Testament prophets; ‘we will give ourselves . . . to the ministry of the word’, Acts 6. 4 – apostolic and, by implication, teaching ministry; ‘Epaphras, who is for you a faithful minister of Christ’ – pastoral care. So that all the gifts mentioned in Ephesians chapter 4 verses 11 and 12 are embraced.
However, practical service and administration are also involved, thus ‘the daily administration’, Acts 6. 1; ‘Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem, when they had fulfilled their ministry’, Acts 12. 25 – that of taking the relief to ‘the brethren which dwelt in Judaea’, Acts 11. 29; ‘I go unto Jerusalem to minister unto the saints’, Rom. 15. 25 – the reference here is to financial matters. Moreover, sisters are included for the Greek admits of a feminine form which has been translated ‘deaconess’, e.g., ’Phebe our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea’, Rom. 16. 1. The service of sisters is quite distinct from that of brethren. These examples demonstrate the wide scope and dignity of deacon service.
The divine requirements for deacons are detailed in 1 Timothy chapter 3 verses 8-12; of the seven things listed four are positive and three are negative. The four important essentials in the case of women who serve, v. 11, should also be noted: (i) ‘grave’, (ii) ‘not slanderers’ - the reference is to slanderous gossip, (iii) ‘sober’ or temperate, (iv) ‘faithful in all things’ - there is the need for trustworthiness in all things committed to them. Verses 8 and 9 deal with personal qualifications: (i) ‘grave’, (ii) ‘not doubletongued’ - the idea is not taking one point of view in one place and a different point of view in another, (iii) ‘not given to much wine’ - there is the need for the strictest sobriety, (iv) ‘not greedy of filthy lucre’, i.e., free from the love of money, (v) ‘holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience’ - the scriptural significance of the word ‘mystery’ is that it is truth hidden but now revealed, here the substance of the mystery is the body of Christian doctrine; this mystery is best preserved in the casket of a pure conscience, one exercised to avoid offence towards God and men. Verse 10 is concerned with the proving of deacons, whilst verse 12 points out what might be termed domestic qualifications.
Further qualifications are brought out in Acts chapter 6 verse 3 in relation to those who serve in a practical way: (i) ‘of honest report’ or ‘well reported of’, i.e., news about them, as circulating around the company, should always be uplifting and positive, and not damaging and negative; (ii) ‘full of the Holy Ghost’ - entirely open for the Spirit to use; (iii) full of ‘wisdom’ - able to translate doctrine into practice, and principles into discernment.
This must be looked at in a twofold way:
- As far as spiritual gifts are concerned, these are entirely according to God’s selection and grace. Man has no part in this. Thus, ‘the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will’, 1 Cor. 12. 11; ‘having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us’, Rom. 12. 6; ‘when he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men’, Eph. 4. 8.
- On the other hand, local administration is that kind of service for which the choice and distribution is made by the assembly. Thus, ‘look ye out among you seven men’, Acts 6. 3; the church must have a say in what it gives; the choice was left to the assembly, but the men were then appointed by the apostles. Then again, ‘whomsoever ye shall approve by your letters, them will I send to bring your liberality unto Jerusalem’, 1 Cor. 16. 3; also, ‘the brother . . . chosen of the churches to travel with us with this grace’, 2 Cor. 8. 18, 19. Such service is accomplished by those known to have the full confidence of the Lord’s people, since the service is essentially on their behalf.
‘Those who have served well as deacons’, 1 Tim. 3. 13, lit., ‘purchase to themselves’, i.e., gain for themselves, ‘a good degree’, i.e., standing – the expression seems to include both the honourable esteem of the assembly and the favour bestowed by God in regard to service and testimony. Indeed, the reference here probably looks on to the higher service hereafter which is the reward for faithful service here, ‘Well, thou good servant: because thou hast been faithful in a very little, have thou authority over ten cities’, Luke 19. 17. Remember the Lord’s words, ‘If any man serve me, him will my Father honour’, John 12. 26. Picking up the words of 1 Timothy chapter 3 verse 13, ‘and great boldness in the faith’ - the thought is that of making the faith known with boldness or confidence, an unhesitating declaration of the body of Christian doctrine. Deacons could hardly be expected to hold it, 1 Tim. 3. 9, without declaring it.
A deacon would do well to emulate his Lord who Himself could say, ‘For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister’, Mark 10. 45. Remember, ‘God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister’, Heb. 6. 10.