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what are deacons

This post is part of a series looking at Building A Healthy Church Leadership Structure and will look at what deacons are and what they can do – their job and duties. You can links to the rest of the series at the end of this post.

The New Testament seems to speak of two types of leaders in the church – elders and deacons. For some, this is a potentially troubling word, loaded with history or negativity. But if we ensure our understanding of it is biblical and are able to put aside poor or incorrect demonstrations, we can redeem the word, the role, and save ourselves a lot of trouble.

In this post, I want to look at the following questions:

  1. Scripturally, what are deacons?
  2. Who can be a deacon?
  3. What is a deacon’s job?
  4. What can deacons do?
  5. What are the duties of deacons?

Scripturally, what are deacons?

Deacon, from the Greek diakonos, means ‘servant’ or ‘minister’. Immediately, this can cause confusion because we may ourselves be, or have, a minister leading a church. But the title may not reflect the role, so we need to be more aware of what someone does, rather than what someone is called, to best understand their actual place in a scriptural New Testament church government model.

Scripturally, deacons were people who served the church elders in addressing administrative, pastoral or practical roles. Acts 6 shows us the first deacons, how they were selected, and what they did. Tasked by the apostles, these servants addressed a pastoral need (food for widows) and coordinated resources to care for the people. This released the apostles, who led the early church, to focus on what God has called them to do, which was prayer and the study of scriptures.

Romans 16:1 shows Paul referring to a woman called Phoebe as a ‘deaconess’. Not only does this show that being a deacon was a recognized and formal leadership role, but it also suggests that there are no scriptural gender issues over who can serve as one, no matter what that their role is.

Who can be a deacon?

This role of deacons comes with clear scriptural guidance which should inform our understanding of who can be a deacon. These biblical principles should be considered to be primary over any other requirement we may have in our church.

The criteria outlined in Paul’s letter to Timothy regarding deacons (servants) in the church, are found in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. These qualifications are:

3:8dignified (emotionally mature and stable, consistent, faithful)
3:8not double-tongued (reliable, trustworthy, not gossips or backstabbers)
3:8not addicted to much wine (not prone to addiction or vice)
3:8not greedy for dishonest gain (not self-centred, hungry for power or avaricious)
3:9hold on to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience (spiritually mature)
3:10tested (proven experience and success in life and in the church)
3:10blameless (a good reputation)
3:12husband of one wife (healthy marriage dynamics). As we saw earlier, Romans 16:1 refers to a female deacon. Therefore, this verse is not advising gender limitations. It is establishing godly marriage is an essential quality.
3:12managing children and household well (orderly, godly and well-behaved children)

Acts 6:3 also shows the consideration of people with good reputations, who are full of the Spirit of God and wisdom.

In essence, deacons should be:

  • men and women of godly, mature character;
  • committed and active in church community life;
  • a heart and attitude to serve and benefit others;
  • are financially giving to the church
  • subject to the authority of & accountable to spiritual leaders of the community;
  • a good relational connection to the leadership, where trust exists
  • for the church vision and culture, and willing to protect them
  • not necessarily on staff;
  • those with a good reputation in the church and the community at large;
  • demonstrating a life marked by the fruit of the Spirit
  • wise

What is a deacon’s job?

Acts 6 showed us what a deacon’s job is. Primarily, they released the apostles (elders) from certain tasks so they could focus on what they were called to. From this passage, then, we can safely say that deacons can:

  • address pastoral needs (there were hungry widows who felt overlooked)
  • address administrative needs (the food wasn’t being distributed correctly)
  • address practical needs (ensuring the right people received food)
  • lead specific areas (there was a clear directive from the elders what was needed to be done)
  • lead short-term or long-term projects (this might not necessarily have been a ministry for life, but could have involved resolving the issue so it was prevented from repeating)

Simply put, a deacons job is anything that serves the elders by serving the people.

What can deacons do?

Deacons, then, can do a wide range of roles. Deacon role will vary, depending on the gifts and skills of the individual, and the needs of the church. But this is the nature of the role – to serve the needs of the people. In effect, a deacon functions as a ‘middle manager’ between the people and the elders, to serve and support both.

A deacon differs from an elder, in the sense that elders are responsible for the guidance, guarding and governance of the church. They take the spiritual oversight and lead of the church. Deacons serve elders and may assist in these things, but as ones with delegated authority. Therefore, some roles in church life might be filled by an elder, depending on their skill and gift and passion. But in other churches, they might be filled by a deacon. Every church will be different, but this does not mean that certain roles are ‘off-limits’ to deacons.

It is possible that someone with a strong preaching and teaching gift preaches, but is not an elder. They would be subject to the elders, however. Deacons may be on paid staff, but they may not be. Anyone who serves in the church could be considered a deacon. Fundamentally, in the New Testament, roles did not govern churches, people did.

Some examples of what a deacon could do would include:

What are the duties of deacons?

Whatever the role a deacon may perform, they serve the people and serve the elders as necessary. This means the duties of each individual deacon may vary. Good questions to consider when viewing the potential duties of elders include:

  • What are the gifts of this deacon?
  • What are their passions?
  • What are the skills and talents present?
  • What life experiences do they carry?

These questions will help you place the right people in the right deacon roles, which will benefit your church.

Summary

Deacons are key in biblical church government. They have a clear job, which means deacons need specific duties. In a healthy church, they will partner with the elders to ensure a healthy church structure is created.

You can read other posts in this series here:

  1. The theology of healthy church structure
  2. What are church elders?
  3. What are deacons?
  4. Building A Healthy Church Leadership Team
  5. Fivefold ministry and church government
  6. The importance of organic church structure

I work with a number of churches helping them clarify their church leadership structure in terms of both the ‘who’ they have and ‘what’ they do. An organic structure is key to church healthGet in touch today if you’d like to find out more about how I can help your church.

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