What is a Deacon?
Every church is different. They can be different in seemingly superficial ways such as musical style and dress. They can be different in more important ways like preaching methods and doctrinal statements. These differences can be profound even within the same denomination. One consistent difference between nearly all the churches that I have been involved with is that of governance, more specifically the role and work of deacons. Many churches fall into the trap of either over emphasizing or ignoring their deacons. So what exactly is a biblical deacon?
Many biblical scholars would agree that the deaconate is established in Acts 6. Here we see that deacons are a solution to a problem. The Apostles, who acted as pastors for the Jerusalem church, had too much on their collective plate. They had a growing church and with a growing church comes practical issues. Racism and prejudice was getting the best of the Jewish believers and some of the Greek widows were not receiving their daily provisions. The Apostles knew this could not continue, yet they needed to remain focused on the ministry of the Word. Their solution to this problem of serving tables was establishing a new ecclesiastical role called deacons.
Deacons are servants.
Although deacons are often talked about in context of governing the church, the biblical concept of a deacon really has nothing to do with governance. The word “deacon” literally means servant or helper. Fittingly, deacons are meant to be servants of the local church. The services a deacon is to render is often where churches go wrong. The work of a deacon that we see in the Word of God has nothing to do with spiritual service, such as counseling or preaching. Rather, every example that we see of deacons fulfilling their role has a practical or material service. Deacons are a practical solution to practical problems within the church. These practical solutions are necessary for the church to be healthy thus deacons are necessary for the church.
Deacons are examples.
Even though the main function of a deacon should be service in some practical function, everything in the local church is spiritual in some way. This is why we have biblical requirements for deacons. Paul built on the qualifications found in Acts 6 and elevated them in I Timothy 3. Some might look at these qualifications and jump to several wrong conclusions. After all, why would “lowly” waiters need to attain the sort of holy living Paul demands? Deacons must meet these qualifications because they are to be examples to the flock. Thabiti Anyabwile puts it this way, “Though our culture thinks of table service as demeaning and lowly, we Christians should not miss the fact that such lowliness and willingness to serve reflects Christ’s life and humility.” In showing Christ to us through their service, deacons show us a small glimpse of Christ’s love for the church. This then sets the bar for how all are to serve one another within the church.
Deacons and pastors are different.
While the work of deacons are vastly important to the local church, churches must be careful to not raise the deacon to a place of authority with responsibilities that he is simply unqualified to fulfill. Paul’s main difference in qualifications between Edlers/pastors and deacons is found in three little words - “apt to teach.” This distinction is what separates these two offices and enables the elder to fulfill his specific role. The authority of elders do not derive from within themselves. It has nothing to do with their personality. Their authority flows from their regular teaching of the Word. This is why pastors must be apt to teach, because without it they cannot fulfill their own role within the church. This does not mean deacons are below the pastor, rather like Benjamin Markle writes, “The distinction between elders and deacons is not as much a distinction of rank as a distinction of function.”
Deacons and pastors are not synonymous. They fulfill very different roles. Deacons are to assist the pastor not inform the pastor. Pastors are to lead the deacons not command them. Deacons serve an incredibly important function within the local church. They serve the church, they exemplify Christ to the church, and they assist the pastor in fulfilling the purpose of the church.
1. Finding Faithful Deacons and Elders by Thabiti Anyabwile
2. Baptist Foundations edited by Mark Dever