The Honorable Office of Deacon in Scripture and Tradition

Note: Articles classified as essays may be long, advanced, or esoteric.

For a podcast discussion of this essay, see “Recovering the Biblical Office of Deacon.”

Introduction

While churches differ on many matters of polity, there is a strong consensus that Scripture sets forth at least two ordinary and perpetual offices in the church: (1) the office of Elder/Presbyter, and (2) the office of Deacon. Several points about the office of Elder will be assumed throughout this article:

  1. The office of Elder (or “Presbyter,” from the Greek presbuteros) is the first and primary office of government in the church.
  2. The office of Elder is synonymous with the office of Overseer (or “Bishop,” from the Greek episkopos), though some distinguish them (i.e., Episcopalians).
  3. The office of Elder is synonymous with the office of Pastor/Shepherd: every Pastor is an Elder, and every Elder is a Pastor.
  4. The church is governed by a plurality of Elders (i.e., by more than one).
  5. There may be a first Elder/Pastor among equals (e.g., a “Senior Pastor”), as Timothy appeared to be at the church in Ephesus.
  6. Elders are called to devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word; they must not be distracted from their primary duty of providing spiritual oversight and doctrinal instruction to the church.
  7. Elders must be tested by the God-given qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:5–9, which include character (“blameless”) and competency (“able to teach”) requirements.
  8. Some think that Elders must be men (Complementarians), while others think that women may also be Elders (Egalitarians).

In this article, we will seek to establish the following points about the office of Deacon, also called the Diaconate:

  1. The office of Deacon (also known as the Diaconate) is the second office of government in the church.
  2. “Deacon” (diakonos) means “servant”: Deacons are trusted servants, helpers, and assistants in the local church.
  3. Deacons alleviate the burden of the practical/external needs of the church so that Pastors/Elders can stay focused on the church’s spiritual/internal needs.
  4. Deacons must be tested by the God-given qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:8–13 (cf. Acts 6:3).
  5. Women may be Deacons and are also called Deaconesses (Rom. 16:1).

The Office of Deacon in Scripture

1 Timothy 3:8–13: The Office and Its Qualifications

The pastoral epistles provide a wealth of teaching on church polity (i.e., how the church is to be governed). In 1 Timothy 3, Paul lays down qualifications for two offices in the church: “the office of overseer” (1 Tim 3:1), and “deacons likewise” (1 Tim. 3:8). After explaining what “an overseer must be,” Paul writes,

8 Deacons [diakonos] likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. 9 They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons [diakonos] if they prove themselves blameless. 11 Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. 12 Let deacons [diakonos] each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. 13 For those who serve well as deacons [diakoneō] gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

The office of Deacon with its qualifications follows “the office of overseer” with its qualifications; it is clear that the Diaconate is a second, God-ordained office in the church. The title “diakonos,” which means “servant,” and the call to serve or diakoneō, indicate that the office is one of serving, helping, and assisting. Those with the spiritual gifts of service, helps, or administration (Rom. 12:7; 1 Cor. 12:28) are fitting candidates for this office. Strong’s helpfully defines diakonos as it is used in 1 Timothy 3: “a trusted officer of helps and service in the local church” (G1249).

The fact that Deacons are listed after the office of overseer suggests that the Diaconate is an office of a lower order and, by implication, carried out under the authority of the elders. Though Deacons must hold to the faith (1 Tim. 3:9), the eldership qualification of being “able to teach” is omitted, indicating that the office does not consist in doctrinal teaching or theological leadership.

Philippians 1:1: An Ordinary and Perpetual Office

The same two offices that Paul described to Timothy, pastor of the church at Ephesus, were established at the church in Philippi:

1:1 To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons:

This confirms that the office of Deacon is ordinary and perpetual in the church. John Wesley comments, “With the bishops and deacons – The former properly took care of the internal state, the latter, of the externals, of the church, 1 Tim 3:2 – 8; although these were not wholly confined to the one, neither those to the other” (Notes on the Bible).

Acts 6:1–6: The Institution of the Diaconate

While 1 Timothy 3:8–13 and Philippians 1:1 assume the existence of the Diaconate, Acts 6 is generally viewed as its institution:

6:1 Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.

While the seven are not explicitly called Deacons, the seven are appointed to diakoneō or “serve” tables. The qualifications for the seven (“of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom”) are consistent with the description of Deacons in Timothy 3 and reinforce the gravity of the office.

There is an early and long Tradition of viewing Acts 6 as the institution of the Diaconate. For example, Irenaeus identifies Stephen as the one “who was chosen the first deacon by the apostles” (AH 3.12.10), and later notes, “He was one of the seven deacons who were appointed in the Acts of the Apostles.”

Of obvious importance is that the deacons are presented in their relationship to the church’s primary teaching officers: they served to alleviate a practical burden so that the people’s spiritual needs would not be neglected. When the apostles passed off the scene, their teaching responsibility was entrusted to Elders/Overseers, and the writings of the apostolic fathers indicate that deacons were trusted assistants of the Presbyters/Elders. As we will see, this is the consensual understanding of the whole church throughout history, including the Protestant and Methodist traditions.

Romans 16:1: A Female Deacon (Deaconess)

In Acts 6:3, the apostles appoint seven male deacons: Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus. But in Romans 16:1, Phoebe, a woman, is also called a diakonos. While many translations opt for “servant” (KJV; ESV; CSB; LEB; NASB), “deacon” is almost certainly preferable (as in the NIV, NLT, RSV).

ESV 16:1 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant [diakonos] of the church at Cenchreae,

NIV 16:1 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon [diakonos] of the church in Cenchreae.

It is unlikely that Paul would call Phoebe a generic servant of a particular church; she was almost certainly an officer of the church in Cenchreae. John Wesley comments, “A servant – The Greek word is a deaconness. Of the church in Cenchrea – In the apostolic age, some grave and pious women were appointed deaconnesses in every church. It was their office, not to teach publicly, but to visit the sick, the women in particular, and to minister to them both in their temporal and spiritual necessities” (Notes on the Bible).

Further support for female deacons may be found in 1 Timothy 3:11. While most Bible versions translate gunē as a reference to the deacons’ “wives,” this seems out of place: Paul did not give qualifications for the wives of Elders, so why would he give qualifications for the wives of Deacons just a few verses later? If he is simply referring to “women,” i.e., female deacons, the anomaly is resolved:

ESV 11 Their wives [gunē] likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.

NIV 11 In the same way, the women [gunē; i.e., female deacons or deaconesses] are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.

The Office of Deacon in Church Tradition

A Perpetual Office Instituted by Christ through his Spirit and Apostles

From the earliest times, the church’s Tradition—that is, its consensus of faith and practice—confirms that Scripture intends for the Diaconate to be a perpetual office in the church. The Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, an early summary of the apostles’ teaching (80–120 AD), instructs,

Appoint for yourselves overseers and deacons worthy of the Lord, men who are gentle and not lovers of money and truthful and well-proven, for to you they themselves also minister the ministry of the prophets and teachers. Therefore you must not disregard them, for they are your honorable ones. (15.1–2)

Clement, the second or third bishop of Rome, likewise taught that the Diaconate was instituted by Christ through his holy apostles. In his first epistle to the Corinthians (81–96 AD), Clement writes on the order of ministers in the Church:

The apostles received the gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus the Christ was sent out from God. Therefore the Christ is from God and the apostles from Christ. Therefore both came forth in good order from the will of God. Therefore, having received the commands and being fully convinced by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and full of faith in the word of God, they went forth with the full assurance of the Holy Spirit, proclaiming the gospel, that the kingdom of God was about to come. Therefore, preaching among regions and cities, they appointed their first fruits, testing them by the Spirit to be bishops and deacons of the future believers. And this is nothing new, for much time since then has been written about bishops and deacons. For somewhere the scripture says as follows: “I will appoint their bishops in righteousness and their deacons in faith.” (First Letter of Clement to the Corinthians, 42.1–5)

While Clement’s use of Isaiah 60:17 is questionable, the crucial point is that Clement viewed the office of deacon as basic to Christ’s plan for church government, not as incidental or as a temporary invention of the first-century church.

Ignatius writes of deacons as those who are “entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ” (Ignatius to the Magnesians, 6), and always includes them in the order of ministers:

Let everyone respect the deacons as Jesus Christ, as also the bishop is an example of the Father, and the presbyters as the council of God and as the band of apostles. Without these things a group is not recognized as a church. (Ignatius to the Trallians, 3.1; cf. 2.3; 7.2)

… whom I greet in the blood of Jesus Christ, which is eternal and abiding joy, especially if they are in unity with the bishop and with the presbyters and deacons with him, who have been appointed in the purpose of Jesus Christ, who, according to his own will, he securely established by his Holy Spirit. (Ignatius to the Philippians, Preface; cf. 4.1; 7.1)

The office of deacon, which continued into the late patristic and medieval church, was also upheld by the Protestant Reformers. For example, when John Calvin discusses the primitive church and its government before the papacy, he argues that deacons are the second order of ministers (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.4.1, 5).

Assistants to the Elders/Presbyters

The practical nature of the Diaconate is also emphasized in church Tradition. When Justin Martyr describes the weekly worship of the early Christians, he notes that it was the duty of deacons to pass out the bread and wine of the Eucharist and carry away a portion to those who were absent (see First Apology 65; 67).

Once again, this understanding of deacons was upheld by the Protestant Tradition, including John Wesley and the Methodists. In his Compendium of Christian Theology, the great Methodist theologian William Burt Pope devotes a section to “The Diaconate,” identifying deacons as “helpers” and “assistants”:

The first officers whose appointment is mentioned after Pentecost were set apart as helpers of the Apostles in the service of tables: the feasts and charities of the Church. The Seven originally designated were in all respects an extraordinary creation; but in due time a distinct order is mentioned by the name of Deacons, whose vocation was, first, to assist the Presbyters in their several offices generally, and, secondly, as their assistants, to take charge of the sick and the poor. To the Deacons corresponded a much less prominent order of Deaconesses. (Vol. 3, p. 347)

Qualifications: Blameless Servants

In his epistle to the Philippians, Polycarp echoes the high moral requirements for deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8–13 and Acts 6:3, urging them to follow Christ’s example of wholehearted servanthood:

Likewise, deacons must be blameless in the presence of his righteousness, as servants of God and Christ and not of people, not slanderers, not insincere, not lovers of money, but self-controlled in all things, compassionate, careful, walking according to the truth of the Lord, who became the servant of all. (Polycarp to the Philippians, 5.2)

Ignatius likewise emphasizes that as official servants of the church, deacons must be blameless:

And it is also necessary that those who are deacons of the mysteries of Jesus Christ please everyone in every way. For they are not deacons of food and drink but servants of the church of God. Therefore they must guard against accusation as against fire. (Ignatius to the Trallians, 2.3) 

Order and Submission

Like Polycarp, who wrote that Christians should be “subject to the presbyters and deacons as to God and Christ” (Polycarp to the Philippians, 5), Ignatius is best known for his emphasis on order and submission in the church: “All of you follow the bishop as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and follow the council of elders as the apostles. And have respect for the deacons as the commandment of God” (Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, 8.1).

Example Statements

Methodist

Finally, consider the following statements on the diaconate from a variety of Protestant traditions, including the “Form and Manner of making Deacons” in The doctrines and discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church:

It appertained to the office of a deacon to assist the elder in divine service. And especially when he ministereth the holy communion, to help him in the distribution thereof, and to read and expound the Holy Scriptures; to instruct the youth, and in the absence of the elder to baptize. And furthermore, it is his office to search for the sick, poor, and Impotent, that they may be visited and relieved.

Note that this is an ordination liturgy. Deacons are ordained. Ordination is a formal appointment to a God-ordained office, whether elder or deacon. Every Elder/Pastor and Deacon in the local church is ordained when they are set apart by the church to their office. The so-called “ordination” that is practiced by some denominations, in which a person may be required to hold an office for several years before qualifying for ordination, lacks biblical and historical foundation.

The early Methodist ordination prayer is instructive:

Almighty God, who by thy divine Providence hast appointed divers orders of ministers in thy Church, and didst inspire thy apostles to choose into the order of deacons thy first martyr, St. Stephen, with others: mercifully behold these thy servants, now called to the like office and administration; replenish them so with the truth of thy doctrine, and adorn them with innocency of life, that both by word and good example they may faithfully serve thee in this office to the glory of thy name, and the edification of thy Church, through the merits of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost now and for ever. Amen.

Anglican

Methodism, of course, finds its roots in the Church of England with its Book of Common Prayer. In the Catechism, we find a concise summary of “the ministry of a deacon”:

The ministry of a deacon is to represent Christ and his Church, particularly as a servant of those in need; and to assist bishops and priests in the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments.

Once again, deacons are viewed as trusted assistants of the church’s primary officers.

Presbyterian

The Presbyterian tradition, with which Methodism finds much affinity (Wesley revised the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and the early Methodists drew freely from the Westminster Standards), provides some of the most robust teaching on the Diaconate. “Chapter 9: The Deacon” in The Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is worth reading in its entirety (note that the PCA is a conservative Presbyterian denomination, not to be confused with the PCUSA, a liberal Presbyterian denomination). The chapter begins,

The office of deacon is set forth in the Scriptures as ordinary and perpetual in the Church. The office is one of sympathy and service, after the example of the Lord Jesus; it expresses also the communion of saints, especially in their helping one another in time of need. (9-1)

The practical nature of the office is emphasized. Deacons “minister to those who are in need, to the sick, to the friendless, and to any who may be in distress”; they collect and distribute the financial gifts of the people; they “have the care of the property of the congregation.” They are even charged with “keeping in proper repair the church edifice and other buildings belonging to the congregation.”

Baptist

While we have seen that deacons are by no means a Baptist distinctive, deacons are sometimes associated with Baptist churches. The 1689 Baptist Confession states,

… the officers appointed by Christ to be chosen and set apart by the church (so called and gathered), for the peculiar administration of ordinances, and execution of power or duty, which he intrusts them with, or calls them to, to be continued to the end of the world, are bishops or elders, and deacons. (“Chapter 26: The Church,” Paragraph 8)

The Baptist Faith & Message 2000, the doctrinal statement for the Southern Baptist Convention, affirms,

Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. (“VI: The Church”)

Conclusion

In summary, God instituted the office of deacon (aka the Diaconate) to serve the church by looking after its practical and external needs, alleviating the burden of the elders/pastors so that they can focus on teaching, praying for, and providing spiritual oversight to the church (Acts 6:1–6). Deacons are mature and respectable members of the congregation who have been tested by the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:8–13 before being ordained. Most agree that women may be deacons or deaconesses (Rom. 16:1; 1 Tim. 3:11 NIV). The duties of deacons may include distributing funds to the poor, visiting the sick, managing the church’s property, helping with the administration of the sacraments, and reading Scripture in public worship.

In light of this biblical teaching, several obvious problems rise to the surface:

  1. In some churches, there are no Deacons at all; this violates Scripture’s expectation for an ordinary and perpetual office of Deacon in the church.
  2. The title of “deacon” is sometimes loosely applied to anyone who serves or takes up the offering; this violates God’s command for Deacons to “be tested first” by the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:8–13 before being formally appointed to the Diaconate.
  3. In some churches, Elders are bogged down by the practical/external needs of the church; these responsibilities should be delegated to qualified Deacons, since “it is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables” (Acts 6:2).
  4. In some contexts, Deacons have a reputation of being more of a nuisance than a help; this violates the servant character of their office and Scripture’s expectation that Deacons will be in submission to the Elders.

For the health of the church, and in obedience to the head of the church, it is the duty of church leaders to remedy these problems by recovering the office of Deacon according to Scripture and Tradition.

Further Resources