waiter preparing a table

One of the most misunderstood and misapplied roles within the church is that of deacons.

I've been writing about various matters related to the church and Christian life, pointing out the challenge of trying to separate what currently is from what should be.

The goal is to properly understand GOD's intention for Christian life and church organization and operation, as the Scriptures reveal, playing out in modern times.

In this post, we take a fresh look at the role of deacons in the church.

Deacon defined

The Greek word that is translated "deacon" is the word διάκονος (diakonos).

Per HELPS Word Studies, the word is a combination of two words that mean "thoroughly dust," as in "to thoroughly raise up dust in a hurry, and so to minister." 

Strong's Concordance defines the word as a "waiter, servant, administrator."

The Greek word διάκονος and its variants are found 29 times in the New Testament.

In the New King James Version, this word is translated as "servant," "minister" and "deacon" in various passages.

The English word "deacon" is found only five times in the NASB and NIV translations, and only three times in the NKJV.

In my past experience, when a person seeks to understand the role of deacons within the church, they would turn to 1 Tim. 3:8-13, which says:

8 In the same way, deacons are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. 9 They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.

11 In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.

12 A deacon must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well. 13 Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus.
(1 Tim. 3:8-13 NIV)

When we initially read this text in our English Bibles, it seems pretty clear that a deacon is an office or "official position" of sorts within the church, much like many think of an overseer (a.k.a. elder / bishop / shepherd / pastor / presbyter), which is described in verses 1-7 of the same text.

I understood it this way for most of my life as well.

Taking a fresh look at "deacon" in the New Testament...

Now, I understand 1 Tim. 3:8-13 differently, because I looked at the other texts in which the word διάκονος is found.

Using the NKJV translation, here is a breakdown of how the word διάκονος is translated:

  • Servant (Matt. 20:26; 22:13; 23:11; Mark 9:35; 10:43; John 2:5, 9; 12:26; Rom. 15:8; 16:1; Col. 1:7)
  • Minister (Rom. 13:4; 1 Cor. 3:5; 2 Cor. 3:6; 6:4; 11:15, 23; Gal. 2:17; Eph. 3:7; 6:21; Col. 1:23, 25; 4:7; 1 Tim. 4:6)
  • Deacon (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8, 12)

When you examine each of these verses, substituting the word "deacon" in place of the word "servant" or "minister" (and vice versa), some extremely interesting facts come to light, including:

  • Jesus said:

    Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant [deacon] also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me. 
    (John 12:26 NIV)

    Here, Jesus seems to make it clear that all of His disciples are His servants—His deacons.

  • The government is GOD's deacon: 

    For the one in authority is God’s servant [deacon] for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants [deacons], agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.
    (Rom. 13:4 NIV)

  • Jesus Himself is a deacon: 

    For I tell you that Christ has become a servant [deacon] of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed
    (Rom. 15:8 NIV)

  • Phoebe, a woman, was a deacon of the church:

    I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchrea.
    (Rom. 16:1 NIV)

  • Paul and Apollos were deacons: 

    What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants [deacons], through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task.
    (1 Cor. 3:5 NIV; see also 2 Cor. 3:6; 6:4; 11:23; Gal. 3:7).

    Paul was unmarried and had no children.

  • Satan had deacons:

    It is not surprising, then, if [Satan's] servants [deacons] also masquerade as servants [deacons] of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.
    (2 Cor. 11:15 NIV)

  • Timothy was a deacon:

    If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister [deacon] of Christ Jesus, nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed.
    (1 Tim. 4:6 NIV)

Substituting "servant" for "deacon" clarifies GOD's intended meaning

Now, with this more comprehensive perspective in mind, let's re-read 1 Tim. 3:8-13, substituting the word "servants" for "deacons."

8 In the same way, [servants] are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. 9 They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as [servants].

11 In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.

12 A [servant] must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well. 13 Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus.
(1 Tim. 3:8-13 NIV)

This makes the text sound a whole lot more like Paul reminding Timothy of what every servant's—every Christian's—life in Christ should look like, than it does a list of qualifications for an official office or position within the church.

Not to mention that a couple of the so-called "qualifications" (i.e. being married and having children) would have prevented men like Paul and, based on what we know of him, Timothy from serving in an official capacity of a deacon based on the description given in the above Scriptures.

Have we, then, turned what was intended to be the basic concept of a servant into an unintended "office" within the church?

A study of the original Greek word's usage indicates this is indeed the case.

With "deacons," Christians have turned what was intended to be the basic concept of a servant into an unintended "office" within the church. Click to Tweet

Early Christian writings on deacons

Our last step is to look at what the post-NT early church writers said about deacons.

While not carrying the weight of Scripture, these writings give us some insight into the understanding of the early Christians.

Per A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs (pp. 190-191):

The Didache (c. 80-140 A.D.) says, "Appoint, therefore, for yourselves, bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord—men who are meek, truthful and tested, and are not lovers of money. For they also render to you the service of prophets and teachers. Therefore, do not despise them, for they are your honored ones, together with the prophets and teachers."

Clement of Rome (c. 96 A.D.) wrote, "And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first-fruits [of their labors], having first tested them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who would afterwards believe."

Ignatius (c. 105 A.D.) wrote, "It is fitting also that the deacons, as being [the ministers] of the mysteries of Jesus Christ, should in every respect be pleasing to all."

Irenaeus (c. 180 A.D.) wrote, "Stephen was chosen the first deacon by the apostles."

By the mid-third century, you can clearly see the more detailed description of responsibilities assigned to deacons, based on tradition and not Scripture.

Cyprian (c. 250 A.D.) wrote, "Those who have received certificates from the martyrs . . . if they should be seized with any misfortune and peril of sickness, . . . and if a presbyter cannot be found and death begins to be imminent, they can make confession of their sin before even a deacon. Thereby, with the imposition of hands upon them for repentence, they can come to the Lord with the peace that the martyrs desired."

In the compilation entitled Apostolic Constitutions (c. 390), it is written:

"If a poor man, or one of low birth, or a stranger, comes upon you—whether he is young or old—and there is no place for him, the deacon will find a place for him."

"You who are deacons, it is your duty to visit all those who stand in need of visitation."

"A deacon does not bless. . . . He also does not baptize and does not offer [the Eucharist]. However, when a bishop or presbyter has offered, the deacon distributes to the people. He does this, not as a priest, but as one who ministers to the priests. But it is not lawful for any of the other clergy [i.e., the minor orders] to do the work of a deacon."

In this case, I find little insight from the earliest non-inspired Christian writers.

We can, however, see a clear strong shift towards a more structured "office" for deacons as time progressed.

This, sadly, is consistent with the overall increase in structure and hierarchy based solely upon tradition beginning in the third and fourth century church.

Ultimately, along the way, we lost the intent GOD had behind the role of servants within the church by elevating it to an unintended church office. It's time to go back to the apostolic concept: simple servanthood.

Tim Harris
Author: Tim Harris

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