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 Î´Î¹á½±ÎºÎ¿Î½Î¿Ï‚ (diakonos), which means “servant”. The English word “minister” is sometimes used to translate Î´Î¹á½±ÎºÎ¿Î½Î¿Ï‚ (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 Î´Î¹á½±ÎºÎ¿Î½Î¿Ï‚ (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 diakoneÅ 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 diakoneÅ 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 Î´Î¹á½±ÎºÎ¿Î½Î¿Ï‚ (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.