If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you (John 13:14-15)
As a congregation, we have begun the process of selecting men in our congregation to serve in either the office of Elder or Deacon. We’ve noted already that it is God who gives gifts and therefore He is the one who raises up leaders for His Church. Our responsibility is to acknowledge/select those whom God has raised up and set them apart (ordain them) for service. Recently we considered what it means to be an Elder or shepherd or overseer of the people of God. Now, I want to consider what it means to be a Deacon or servant of the people of God. In essence, both offices are to be examples for the flock to follow. And there are overlapping characteristics and duties for both offices. Elders are still “servants” even though their primary role is that of overseeing souls. And deacons, though they primarily take care of physical needs, must be spiritually minded in their duties. So, without getting bogged down in the overlapping areas, let me outline what it means to serve as a deacon in Christ’s Church.
1. The origin of the office. Both offices of Elder and Deacon emanate from the Lord Jesus Christ. The office of Elder is a spiritual ministry primarily. It is a matter of shepherding souls. So, it is no surprise when we read that Jesus is the Good Shepherd who knows us and leads us and feeds us and protects us. Again, there are overlaps, but the office of Elder comes from the fact that Jesus as the Chief Shepherd (1 Pt. 5:4) cares for us in this capacity through His Word and Spirit. Jesus feeds His sheep His Word for the “fattening” of their souls that their faith might be ever in Him. Well, I digress… Back to the office of Deacon. Jesus’ ministry consisted of both Word and deed. He was constantly healing and taking care of the physical needs of His people. Even at His death, he was concerned for His mother’s well-being (Jn. 19:27).
But there is another connection to Christ that often gets overlooked. Since Christ is God, the second person of the Trinity, the office of Deacon isn’t just a New Testament concept; rather, it goes back to the days of the Levitical priesthood. The concept of a deacon is as ancient as Christ, who came not to be served but to serve. His diaconal work was prefigured in the worship and life of the Old Testament saints when God set up a system of government that included “temple servants… set apart to attend the Levites” for the worship and work of the Church (Ezra 2:43; 7:7; 8:20; Neh. 10:28).
2. The authority of the office. The origin of the office also helps us to understand the authority that goes along with the office. The temple servants had to take covenant vows along with the priests and other Levites (Neh. 10:28). And there is an official setting apart that takes place in Acts 6 whereby the apostles, by prayer and the laying on of hands, “ordain” and “install” six men for an office of service. If it is coming from the apostles, then it comes with authority! Now we must understand that Biblically authority is always given by God for the benefit of those under authority. And God-ordained authority is to be submitted to and honored. Like the authority of a parent over a child, the authority of a deacon over the church is always to be for good and not selfish gain.
3. The duties of the office. We see from texts like Ezra and Acts 6:1-7 and 1 Timothy 3 that the scope of what a deacon does is providing assistance or help to the elders. The apostles were doing the work of service in Acts 6, but it was taking away from their main duty of prayer and preaching. The needs of the people were so important and real that the appointment of deacons was necessary. In Acts 6 the duty is described as “serving tables,” but it included caring for widows in their basic necessities of life. Explaining these texts and more, our Book of Church Order describes the duties of a deacon in this way:
“It is the duty of the deacons to minister to those who are in need, to the sick, to the friendless, and to any who may be in distress. It is their duty also to develop the grace of liberality in the members of the church, to devise effective methods of collecting the gifts of the people, and to distribute these gifts among the objects to which they are contributed. They shall have the care of the property of the congregation…and shall keep in proper repair the church edifice and other buildings belonging to the congregation.” (BCO 9-2)
Normally, the duties of the deacons are summarized in terms of “mercy ministry,” which is aimed primarily, though not exclusively, at the body of Christ. Such ministry is incredibly important – just as important as the duties of elders! The office of Deacon is not a ladder to climb to the office of Elder; rather, it is a precious gift from God to His people for their care and perseverance in the faith. Therefore, we need men who with delight take their duties seriously.
4. The character of the office. It is for this reason that Paul lays out the essential character of those who would hold the office of Deacon. The same qualifications given by Paul to Timothy are found in seed form in Acts 6. These men must be “full of the Spirit and wisdom” with “good repute.” So we see that these men were to be Spirit-filled men who were exemplary in character. The qualifications laid out in 1 Timothy 3 are by no means meant to demand angelic perfection. However, these demands aren’t mere suggestions either. The list that Paul gives must be met on some level by those who would hold the office. Such a man must on some level “be dignified (respectable), not double-tongued (honest), not addicted to much wine (not a drunk — self-controlled), not greedy for dishonest gain (not a thief — a good and content steward)…, holding to ‘the mystery of the faith’ with a clear conscience (a firm grasp on doctrine).” If deacons are married, their wives “must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things,” and they must be “the husband of one wife” (faithful to the woman they are married to). And if they have children, they must be “managing their children and their own households well.” Such character in service gains “a good standing…and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 3:8-13).
Perhaps our Book of Church Order does a better job of summarizing the general nature of the office of Deacon:
“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.” (BCO 9-1)
May God raise up more men in our midst who have a servant’s heart like our Lord Jesus Christ, who came to serve us and give His life a ransom for us.
Your friend and fellow servant,