W Wolfenden, Blackpool
In considering the subject of “deacons” it is needful for us to know just what the word “deacon” means. The late W. E. Vine, in his Expository Dictionary, indicates that the Greek word diakonos means “minister”, “servant” and always designates one who ministers to or serves others. Many have put a restricted definition on the work of a deacon, regarding him as one occupied with the secular branches of church work only, such as treasurer or distributor of funds. Acts 6 is often quoted in support of this. In that chapter, however, while the seven men “served” tables the apostles gave themselves to the “ministry” of the Word, so that we see both the seven and the twelve fulfilling their respective deaconships.
The Appointment of Deacons
The appointment of the seven in Acts 6 was for the administration of material gifts which the church had contributed. It was fitting, therefore, that the church should choose its own distributors. But spiritual gifts come not from man but from the Risen Lord, and He alone has the authority to appoint the administrators of His gifts. We never read of a New Testament church choosing its own evangelists, pastors and teachers. The Lord Jesus Christ “gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ”, Eph. 4.11-12. The Lord appoints the administrators of His gifts, and makes it clear that they possess both the gifts and the power to use them.
The Qualifications of Deacons
As in the case of elders, we have set out in 1 Timothy 3 the moral character suited to those who serve the Lord. They should be above reproach from those within or without. They must not be novices since they must “first be proved”. Scripture says of the seven in Acts 6 that they were “men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom”. There must be gift and grace to exercise that gift. A man may be full of grace and yet be unqualified to preach the gospel or minister the Word. Those who serve must do so in “the ability that God giveth”. There will be increasingly “great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus”. There must be soundness of doctrine, “holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience”. In the case of deacons responsible for handling church funds, they must be men of strict integrity, tact and discretion.
The Work of Deacons
Since the meaning of the word is to “serve” or “minister”, the essential characteristics of deaconship are to serve as those accountable to God, and to minister according to the ability God has given. The elders rule well, tire deacons are to serve well, .1 Tim. 3. 13; 5. 17.
In the Epistles we have several people referred to by names such as “minister of God”, “minister of Jesus Christ”, “minister of the gospel”, “minister of the church”. The word for deacons is used in all these contexts. The work of deacons is therefore more definitely associated with the preaching of the gospel and the ministry of the Word than with what are looked upon as secular or less spiritual tasks, though some may also be serving in the administration of temporal things. “There are differences of administrations”, 1 Cor. 12. 5, embracing service of the most varied kind, including teaching, exhorting, giving and showing mercy, Rom. 12. 7-8. In Ephesians 4 the word is connected with the bestowal of the great gifts of ministry “for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ”, vv. 12-13.
It is important here to observe that we are to exercise the gift that we have received. We have not all received the same gift so that we must not all crowd in to do one particular type of service. This would practically deny the Lord’s sovereignty in distributing gifts to every man severally as He will. We must be before God about our ministry in order that the Spirit may use us. The Spirit should be free to move among us and take up the person or persons with the gift for His own work. However, a man can never claim the liberty to do what the Spirit has not qualified him to do. It may be noted that a man may possess more than one gift; he may be an evangelist to the world, and a pastor and teacher in the church.
A deacon should seek to emulate his Lord. He “came not to be ministered unto, but to minister”, Mark 10. 45, and said “he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve”, Luke 22. 26.
The Recognition of Deacons
A deacon is one that receives three things: (i) a gift from Christ; (ii) a call from Christ to exercise that gift and (iii) the recognition of the church for public service. Since they are diligently engaged in service empowered by the Spirit, we recognise and appreciate those so labouring among us. In the work of a secular nature, the church, knowing the ability and worth of the persons, selects them for the particular service, Acts 6. 3.
The deacon is first and foremost the servant of the Lord, but he also belongs to the Lord’s people. We must respect the fact that he is accountable to his Master. “Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand”, Rom. 14. 4.
Let us recall the words of our Lord, showing the true character of all deacon work whether public or private, “If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be: if any man serve me, him will my Father honour”, John 12. 26.