What are the biblical responsibilities of deacons?
How are deacons and elders to relate?
The Deacon has three primary responsibilities, which are extracted from Acts 6. (1) A Deacon is to serve the physical needs of the local church community. (2) A Deacon is to help maintain unity in the local church community. (3) A Deacon is to guard the ministry of the Elder. Deacons relate to Elders in five different ways. (1) Deacons serve Elders so Elders may remain focused on the ministries of the Word and prayer. (2) Deacons relate to Elders in moral conduct and reputation. (3) Deacons relate to Elders by serving under their authority. (4) Elders and Deacons relate in that they are both servants to the church. (5) Elders and Deacons relate as they both come under the Lordship of the Servant-King, Jesus Christ.
We recognize two offices of the church according to the Scriptures: elder and deacon. We encounter these roles in the biblical text in several places. In 1 Timothy 3:1-13, Paul communicates the qualifications of both elders (called overseers in the ESV) and of deacons. Paul addresses the office of elder once more while writing to Titus, as Paul articulates the various qualifications of an elder (Titus 1:5-16). When writing to the Philippians, Paul is careful to insist that his letter addresses all the Philippian saints, and he mentions the overseers (elders) and deacons specifically (Phil. 1:1). The role of deacon, however, does not originate with Paul; it does not find its genesis in Ephesus; it was not born while Paul evangelized in Philippi. The office of deacon originates in the early chapters of Acts. From Acts 6, I will establish what I view as the three essential responsibilities of the deacon, and then, with help from 1 Timothy 3, I will explain how the deacon is to relate to the elder.
BUILDING FROM ACTS 6
Acts 6 begins with a confrontation rising in the early church. The Hellenists bring a complaint against the Hebrews for their widows were being neglected “in the daily distribution” (Acts 6:1, ESV). Here, what the ESV has as “distribution,” is the Greek word διακονία which means “ministry, service or contribution” (Nestle-Aland). Here, in Acts 6, the word is used as a verb; however, Paul uses the same word in 1 Timothy 3 as a proper noun and titles the second office of the church, “Deacons.” It is important to note this fact as Acts 6 continues. The confrontation between the two groups is no small ordeal and has divisive potential. It is this discord that sets the back drop for the installation of deacon. The twelve Apostles step in and summon all the disciples. They have conceived a plan that will alleviate the tension, solve the problem, and permit the Apostles to continue unimpeded in their calling. Acts 6:2-4 records the disciples’ words:
It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve (διακονέω) tables. 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. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry (διακονία) of the word (Acts 6:2-4).
In this response, I want to comment on two types of service. The Apostles recognize that they are deacons, in a broad sense, yet they are deacons of the Word and of prayer. They are called, by Jesus Christ, to serve the Word to the people and to be in service to them through prayer. However, while the service of the Word gratified the spiritual need of God’s people, in Christ’s church physical needs were still prevalent. These needs are evident: the Hellenists and their widows were lacking and everyone was being served daily. Those physical needs required deacons (servants) as well.
In God’s providence and by the directing of His Holy Spirit, the Apostles recognize that their human capacity to deacon (serve) was limited. Time, ability, calling, and priority restricted them from serving tables. For the sake of the Kingdom, and in obedience to God, they needed to remain devoted to the ministries of the Word and prayer. So, to meet those real physical needs, the Apostles elect from the disciples seven men to “serve tables,” to deacon.
THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF DEACONS
I believe that Acts 6 institutes the office of Deacon in Christ’s church, and from this passage I believe we see three responsibilities of a Deacon.
First, and most obvious, Deacons are to serve (deacon) the physical needs of the church. Clearly it was a neglect of physical needs that brought about the confrontation and that resulted in an apostolic solution. In the daily distribution, Hellenist widows were being neglected. F.F. Bruce gives helpful insight into this daily distribution. Apparently, a fund was created to meet the physical needs of the poor in the community (Bruce, 120). It is probable that since the fund rested in the hands of the Hebrews, the Hellenists (who were themselves Greek-speaking Jews; however, not as “Jewish” as the other) began to murmur. Bruce writes, “complaints began to arise as one group was being favored at the expenses of the other” (Bruce, 120). The need, then, was not a theological necessity, but a physical demand (Bruce, 120).
Therefore, the seven were chosen and, as the verse explains, they were appointed to the “duty” (Acts 6:3). The Greek χρεία (translated duty here) means, simply, need (Nestle-Aland). The deacons were appointed to the physical need of the church community.
The second responsibility of the Deacon flowing from Acts 6 is the duty of maintaining unity in the church. Mark Dever explained, “The Deacon should serve the physical…needs of the church in order to, number two, protect the unity of the church” (Dever, Leadership Podcast 53). Dever’s point results from the natural outworking of Acts 6. If the division in the church between the Hellenists and Hebrews is a result of physical needs not being met, then those meeting the needs will protect or promote unity in the church body. The divisions will be rectified.
Third, and this point serves as a nice transition to the question pertaining to relationship, the Deacon is to protect the ministry of the elder (Dever, Ibid.). Now, Elders are not Apostles; however, the ministry of the elder as detailed in Titus 1 is similar: namely, prayer and Word ministry. Therefore, if the Apostles sought to alleviate pressure in order that they may stay devoted to Word and prayer ministry, then the Deacon who serves the physical needs of the church and who promotes unity naturally protects the ministry of the Elder.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN DEACONS AND ELDERS
So, how are deacons and elders to relate? First, Deacons are to protect the ministry of the Word and prayer by protecting the time and devotion of the Elders.
Second, Deacons and Elders relate in conduct (Dever, Ibid.). When looking at the qualifications of both Elders and Deacons given in 1 Timothy 3, we can note some consistent overlap. For example, both are to be husbands of one wife. Much of their character traits need to overlap. However, there are two distinct differences. First, the Elder, unlike the Deacon, must be able to teach. Second, the Elder, unlike the Deacon, must not be a recent convert.
These two differences show that Elders and Deacons relate to one other in a third way: Elders are officially over the Deacons. Elders are to be spiritually more mature than Deacons. Elders are to be qualified to rightly handle the prominent ministry – Word ministry. If the Apostles of Acts 6 stand as an example for the Elder and Deacon relationship, then the Elders are to ordain or affirm the ministry of the Deacon. The office is held under the Elder who shepherds and guides the Deacon by the Word.
Fourth, Elders and Deacons relate to one another in that they are both servants. Building a case from Acts 6, I’ve shown how the Apostles viewed themselves as ministers of God’s Word and of prayer. Deacons, likewise, are ministers too. However, they are ministers of physical demands, church unity, and ministers to the Elders of Christ’s church.
JESUS, THE GREAT SERVANT
Finally, Elders and Deacons relate to one another in that they are both under the great Servant-King, Jesus Christ. In Mark 10, James and John come to Jesus begging to hold the place of honor at His right side in His Kingdom. They desired a place over others at Jesus’ right hand. Jesus, in response, explains the path to His throne. It will not be one of glorious triumph, but of seemingly shameful defeat. He will not conquer by the sword, but through a cross. Christ’s path to glory was not to Lord over the world, it was to serve the world in death. To summarize this, Jesus tells His disciples, “… the Son of Man came not to be served (διακονέω) but to serve (διακονέω), and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
The Elder and Deacon relate to one another as they relate to the great Servant, Jesus Christ. Both an Elder and Deacon serve in their ordained office because God’s ordained King served them by giving His life for theirs. Without such a King, the Elder and Deacon would be left in sin and unable to serve the church through Word, prayer, or physical service.
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton: Crossway, 2011.
Bruce, F.F. The Book of Acts. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988.
Dever, Mark. Episode 53: On Deacons. https://www.9marks.org/interview/episode-53-on-deacons/
Nestle-Aland. Novum Testamentum Graece. Germany, 2016.