the weblog of Alan Knox

Deacons

Posted by on Sep 27, 2007 in office, service | 7 comments

After finishing an extended series on elders, a friend pointed out that I have not written much about deacons. While this will not be an extended study, I do want to write about a few observations concerning deacons in Scripture.

First, “deacon” is a transliteration of the Greek word διάκονος (diakonos), which means “servant”. The English word “minister” is sometimes used to translate διάκονος (diakonos). However, as John Hammett points out in Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, the word minister “in contemporary English use connotes more of an ecclesiastical office, whereas diakonos in New Testament use is more a general word for ‘servant.'” Therefore, as we are attempting to understand the English word “deacon”, we should start with the idea of serving.

Second, very few biblical passages discuss “deacons”. In fact, the ESV only translates διάκονος (diakonos) as “deacons” in two passages: Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8-13. Unfortunately, these passages do not tell us how “deacons” are supposed to function among a group of believers, or how the function of “deacons” are different from the function of other believers.

Third, Acts 6 is sometimes used to describe both the origin and the function of “deacons”. Hammett offers these arguments in favor of reading Acts 6 as the origination of “deacons”:

Though some object that Luke nowhere applies the term diakonos to the men chosen to coordinate the distribution of food to widows, there are several good reasons for the traditional view. First, the related noun diakonia and a form of the verb diakoneō are found in Acts 6:1-2. Second, the qualifications and activities of the men selected in Acts 6 seem commensurate with the more detailed information in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. Third, if Acts 6 is not linked to the origin of deacons, we have an office with no precedent in Jewish society, with no origin in Scripture, and yet an office that was widely and readily accepted by New Testament churches.

I have discussed this passage previously in a post called “Seven Chosen to Serve“, but in summary, Hammett’s three points are not compelling to me. First, as Hammett points out, it is true that “the related noun diakonia and a form of the verb diakoneō are found in Acts 6:1-2″. However, he does not state that these forms are not only used in relation to the daily distribution to the widows, but also in relation to the work of the apostles. Second, “the qualifications and activities” of the men in Acts 6 is “commensurate” with the description of deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8-13, but they are also commensurate with the description of elders in 1 Timothy 3:1-7. In other words, these are very general descriptions, not specific to deacons. Third, this same argument could be made about “apostles”: we have not precedent in Jewish society, nor do we have descriptions in Scripture of how apostles are chosen after the original twelve. This is an argument to defend our current practices, not to determine scriptural prescriptions or descriptions. This passage tells us very little about the function of “deacons”. It is just as possible that this passage tells us about the function of “elders”.

Fourth, the translation of the Greek term διάκονος (diakonos) tells us much more about our ecclesiastical presuppositions than about the context of the term. For example, in 1 Timothy 3:8-13, the term is translated “deacon”. However, just a few sentences later, the same term is translated “servant”. Why? Because it is used to describe Timothy, and we have already decided that Timothy was not a “deacon”.

Fifth, we get much more information about “deacons” once we move beyond the New Testament into the writings of the Apostolic Fathers. However, we find different descriptions of the duties and functions of deacons. I think much of our modern practices and understandings of deacons comes from these writings as opposed to the New Testament. This does not make the practices wrong, but it does become problematic when we try to justify our practices from Scripture.

I wish I could say more about “deacons”, but anything further that we say could also be said about all followers of Jesus Christ. “Deacons” should serve… as should all believers. “Deacons” should “hold the mystery of faith with a clear conscience”… as should all believers.

Perhaps you would like to add something to this discussion about deacons. I would love to read about your understanding of deacons.


7 Comments

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  1. 9-27-2007

    The conundrum you state at the end of your post brings about the same issues that I was trying to address regarding eldership.

    If we are left with “deacon” and “elder” simply meaning “Christian”, then we are forced to assume that the Holy Spirit inspired the writers to insert meaningless terms into scripture.

    The early writings can indeed shed much light on the practice and outworking of these terms. Perhaps the solution is to study them, be educated by them, and let these offices be held by those who submit their behavior humbly to scripture.

  2. 9-27-2007

    Alan,

    You forgot to address the “deacon board” from scripture. Whoops, I just remembered that there is no deacon board in the bible. My bad.

    Eric

  3. 9-27-2007

    Nearly thirty years ago I sat, for the first time, in the study of the first church I was invited to “pastor”. I had thoughts of some of he “great men of God” and wanted to pray some amazing prayer regarding the ministry I was to exercise, instead, I sensed an overwhelming compulsion to pray words, “Lord! Please keep me as an ordinary man”.

    Christians are people with an extraordinary God who has called, and entrusted to them, the extraordinary task of glorifying Him with our lives (ministry). Elders, deacons are some of those, ordinary Christians, amongst many others who also serve, whom the Holy Spirit has indwelt and gifted for ministry.

    Paul recognised that, and even though having an extraordinary ministry, was an ordinary man, like the incarnate Person of his Master,who came “to serve, not to be served”. “…He has no stately form or majesty That we should look upon Him, Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him. He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; And like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.” He had the clothes upon His back, dirty sandaled feet and nowhere to lay His head.

    Why do we (elders, deacons, etc)try to convince ourselves, and others, that we are special, higher in office, having higher staus,holding more authority,entitled to more honour, (don’t quote 1 Tim.5:17 please) when God has not given us rational for such in Scripture?

  4. 9-27-2007

    David,

    The terms are not meaningless if we understand “deacon” and “elder” to mean “mature Christian” and “more mature Christian”. The early writings can help us. When we follow these writing though, we need to be honest and admit that we are following tradition (even if it is ancient tradition) and not Scripture.

    Eric,

    No, I didn’t find a deacon board, or a deacon family ministry, or a deacon on call, or even a deacon pager. Certainly these are not bad things in and of themselves. But, they are not scriptural either.

    Aussie John,

    I think we will best understand deacons and elders (and maturing in Christ) when we best understand humility, gentleness, and service. Thank you for the reminder.

    -Alan

  5. 9-28-2007

    Alan,

    I wonder if Matthew 20:26 might help us in translating and understanding what it means to be a “deacon.”

    It reads, “It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant…”

    The word ‘servant’ is the same word translated deacon. Perhaps those of us who are ‘great’ (read “mature in the faith”) are those who have learned how to serve (as Jesus did).

    It is funny though, διάκονος only means servant (or its synonyms). Yet we have become completely attached to a made up word (read “transliterated word”) that usually takes on a much different meaning.

    Thanks for taking the time to post on this subject.

    God’s Glory,
    Lew

    The Pursuit Online Store

  6. 9-28-2007

    I really think that Lew and Aussie John are on to something here. I would like to throw out the two greatest commandments (Matt. 22:37-40) as another measure of eldership or deaconship. Being a servant means putting others before ourselves, and we all recognize those people within the body that seem to put God and others first. You can’t bestow this on people. You shouldn’t say, “We see great potential in you to be able to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind and your neighbors as yourself. Therefore, we are going to ordain you (whatever that means) so that you will begin doing that very thing.” It’s ridiculous. I don’t care who’s on the deacon board. When I need help, I’m going to a brother who displays maturity in obeying the two greatest commandments and who exemplifies a commitment to Christ through actual service that originates from a love of God and the brethren.

    Gary

  7. 9-28-2007

    Lew and Gary,

    Thank you both for your comments. I think you are both onto something. Love and service should be characteristics of the lives of all believers. However, we should be able to recognize thos believers who are maturing in their faith and are therefore more loving and more serving – that is, becoming more and more like Christ.

    -Alan