One of the 2013 goals of the church I serve (Glory of Christ Fellowship in Elk River, MN) is to identify, train, and appoint deacons. Accordingly, I prepared a brief paper for the Elders (also called Pastors), part of which I've decided to post here. I hope it helps you as you think about the nature and office of deacon. I would love to hear your feedback and constructive criticism as well.
Lexical Definitions and NT Usage
From the time of Sophocles (fifth century B.C.), the word diakonos referred to one who was a servant (though not a slave), attendant, or domestic helper. It was most likely derived from another word that meant “one who executes the commands of a superior” (Thayer’s Lexicon). This broad usage of the word is, in fact, displayed in the New Testament in texts such as Matt 22:13, Luke 8:3, John 2:5, 2:9, and Rom 13:4.
In the course of time, this word was further used to refer to those who served in Greek temples under the direction of pagan priests. Thus, it developed a religious connotation while retaining its broader usage in society (Vocabulary of the Greek NT), which is probably why various NT authors utilized it to describe the office we now call the deaconate.
The unique NT usage of this word began to take shape when Jesus said that he came to serve, not to be served, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matt 20:28). I take this to mean that Jesus envisioned himself as a Deacon of God, sent to seek and save the lost on his Father’s behalf and for the glory of his Father’s name. Paul, in fact, says as much when he refers to Jesus as God’s Deacon to the circumcised, sent to display God’s truthfulness and faithfulness to the promises he made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Rom 15:8).
Then, as an overflow of Jesus’ own spirit and manner of life, he taught his disciples that the great among them would be the deacons or servants of all, and that the greatest would be their slaves (Matt 20:26; 23:11; see also John 12:26). He did not hereby appoint all of his disciples as deacons in the church, rather, he called them to have the disposition of servants no matter what their position in the church. Every position and all authority in the household of God is to have the flavor of servant-hood.
It is no surprise, then, that the great Apostle Paul was not ashamed to refer to himself and his fellow laborers in the proclamation of the gospel as deacons (2 Cor 3:6, 6:4; Eph 3:7, 6:21; Col 1:7, 23, 25, 4:7; 1 Tim 4:6). This does not imply that Paul and the others held the position of deacons in the church, rather, it implies that as apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers they embodied the spirit of servants of God. They were imitators of Jesus and thus displayed his spirit in their manner of ministry, whatever their official position in the church. We might say that they were all deacons of God appointed to various offices in the church.
With this Christ-like disposition in mind, the office of deacon emerged in the early church when the Apostles faced issues that threatened to impede the progress and spiritual prosperity of the church. There were, it seems, interpersonal conflicts between Jews of different cultural backgrounds, conflicts that were substantial and required significant attention to understand and mediate. However, the Apostles boldly declared that they could not allow themselves to be distracted from the ministries of intercession and proclamation in order “to wait on tables,” that is, to serve as deacons.
We should not infer from this that they thought themselves above such service but rather that they rightly discerned the vital nature of the calling God had placed upon them. In a very real sense, they were in fact deacons of God who were appointed as Apostles in the church for his glory and the common good and thus their verdict was not the rejection of a servant-spirit, rather, it was the preservation of a divine calling. But in order to fulfill that calling in the church and the world, they needed Spirit-filled, Christ-like men and women to rise up and serve under their authority for the glory of his name and the common good.
Accordingly, they commanded the church to choose seven men of good reputation who were filled with the Spirit and wisdom, who they would then appoint as deacons. Later, women were also appointed to this service (see Rom 16:1-2) so that the office of deacon became that position designed by God to uphold the cause of the gospel by attending to the pastoral and practical needs of the church under the supervision of the Apostles, and later the elders of local churches.
Functions of Deacons in the Church
There is very little indication in the NT of what deacons actually did in the life of the church but I think we are on safe ground to say that they served God under the supervision of the Apostles, and later the elders, by attending to the pastoral and practical needs of the church. Thus, deacons are called of God to do things like conflict mediation, biblical counseling, training and mobilizing, as well as things like administration, supervision, and general assistance to the elders and the church.
Qualifications for Deacons in the Church
Thanks be to God, the qualifications for deacons are spelled out in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. I see seven specific traits in this text which must be further defined in another document. A deacon must be (1) dignified, (2) not double-tongued, (3) not addicted to much wine, (4) not greedy for dishonest gain, (5) a true believer, (6) faithful to their spouse, and (7) good managers of their own households. Further, their spouses must be (1) dignified, (2) not slanderers, (3) sober-minded, and (4) faithful in all things. The only substantial difference between these criteria and those for elders is that elders must further be able to teach sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it (2 Timothy 4:1-5; Titus 1:9; Titus 2:1), and elders must be men.
As for those who are qualified to serve as deacons and do indeed serve God and the church well, Paul holds out the promise that they will gain a good and godly standing before God and men, and that they will grow in their confidence “in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.” Financial compensation for this service, though not forbidden, is not normative, and this service will often be consuming and trying. However, the rewards substantial and eternal, and I think Paul wants the God-ordained servants to know that.