Suggested Resource: “Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches” by John S. Hammett
Last time we discussed the office of elder and in the course of that discussion, mentioned that in Baptist churches there is one other biblical office besides that of elder, namely that of deacon.
The meaning of the word “deacon”
The word we translate (really transliterate) “deacon” is the Greek verb for “to serve,” “to minister,” “to wait” (as in “wait tables”), “to care,” or “to administrate.” It can also be a Greek noun meaning “servant,” “attendant,” or “minister.”
We find it used in a variety of places in the New Testament:
Then the king said to his attendants (deacons)……
John 2:5, 9
2:5 His mother said to the servants (deacons), “Fill the jars with water.”
2:9 When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants (deacons) who had drawn the water knew)….
For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant (deacon) for your good.
2 Corinthians 6:4
As servants (deacons) of God we commend ourselves in every way….
2 Corinthians 11:14-15
For even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants (deacons), also, disguise themselves as servants (deacons) of righteousness.
2 Corinthians 11:23
Are they servants (deacons) of Christ?
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister (deacon) according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you…
The office of deacon
It is generally agreed that the origin of the office can be found in Acts 6:1-6:
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. 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. 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 of the word.” 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. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
It might be pointed out that the word “deacon” is not mentioned in this passage. The justification for seeing this as a description of the first deacons comes from: 1) The phrase “serve tables” is related, in the Greek, to the term deacon and fits the task implied by the term; 2) The relationship between the apostles and the seven men chosen seems to be that which is reflected by the relationship of elders and deacons (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1-13); 3) The men chosen had to fit certain spiritual qualifications that may have been more general in the face of this immediate need but became more specific as the office was refined.
The assumption is that the elders were taking care of the administration of the needs of the widows up until this point. As they saw their primary role as that of spending time in prayer and in teaching the Scriptures, and they saw the conflict between the Hellenists and Hebrews as threatening to distract them from those duties, they charged the congregation to set aside these seven men so that they could continue in their elder duties.
From this first instance, we do not know how the practice spread, but by the time that Paul arrived in Philippi (62 AD) he was able to write:
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi with the overseers and deacons. (Phil. 1:1).
The most detailed passage in the Bible regarding deacons provides us with the qualifications of a deacon. It is found in 1 Timothy 3:8-13:
Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.
Certainly, to be called to the office of deacon is a compliment and they can expect to “gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 3:13).
Nowhere in the Scriptures, besides Acts 6, are the tasks of deacon specified but we can come to some conclusions based upon what we have seen thus far:
First, we know that it is primarily a role of service. A deacon, by definition, is a servant of the church. This is clear both from the title itself, but also from the example given to us in Acts 6. The first deacons were set apart in order to “wait tables.” In doing so, they served the widows in the congregation, but they also served the elders by permitting them to focus on prayer and the ministry of the Word.
Extrapolating from Acts 6, some argue that the deacons should have a particular concern for the poor and will refer to the primary ministry of deacon as being the “ministry of mercy.” One of the earliest Baptist confessions, the 1611 Short Confession of John Smyth, says that deacons “attend to the affairs of the poor and sick brethren.” Deacons should be doing all that they can to tangibly assist them in their times of need, providing counsel to help them address the issues plaguing them, and even seeking to create programs by which the issue of poverty might be addressed and alleviated.
Thus, we would put under the responsibilities of a deacon, the roles of:
1) Mercy- meeting the physical/economic needs of those within the congregation and outside of the congregation when appropriate.
Second, and related to the first, it is not a ruling position. In comparing the qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 to those of deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8-13, we are struck by how similar they are. There are two main differences, however. First, though both are to manage their households well, it is only in the qualifications for elder is this requirement linked to taking care of God’s church (vs. 5). This is probably because their role is not one of ruling over the church but, rather, one of service. This is further emphasized by the fact that Paul insists that an elder “must not be a recent convert” while the same is not said of a deacon. This is best explained by the difference in role responsibilities. Finally, the elders are called “overseers” (see the post on elders in the church) while deacons are the “servants” of the church.
Third, we know that it does not include teaching. Not that a deacon cannot be given opportunity to teach, but the office of deacon is not a teaching office. Going back to their qualifications, the other main difference between elders and deacons is that deacons are not called to be “able to teach.” Instead we are told that deacons must “hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.” So, while they are those who hold to and live lives reflecting the faith, they are not required to be able to publicly teach it. This, again, points to the fact that the role is primarily one of service rather than rule.
Due to these two points, it is common to see a deacon’s role to include that of:
2) Helps- accomplishing the practical tasks and errands that help the ongoing work of ministry in the church. This would include ensuring that everything is prepared and ready for the public services and other meetings that take place in the church building. This includes helping with the Lord’s Supper. Benjamin Keach said “The work of Deacons is to serve Tables, i.e., to provide for the Lord’s Table, the Minister’s Table, and the Poor’s Table.” The “Lord’s Table” referred to the administration of the Lord’s Supper, the “Minister’s Table” referred to their ensuring that the minister was financially cared for, and the “Poor’s Table” referred to the church’s care for the needy.
Other duties might be deduced from Acts 6
Since the duties described in Acts 6 included the distribution of goods, it became common for the deacons to be seen as those who took care of the monetary affairs of a congregation. Church Father Origen (185-254 A.D.) noted that “The deacons preside over the money tables of the church.” John Calvin would later write that the role of the deacon is “to receive the daily contributions of believers, and the annual revenues of the Church, and to apply them to their proper uses.”
It is common, then, to see deacon’s duties including the following:
3) Stewardship- promoting giving among the congregation followed by the collection and distribution of those financial gifts. This would include counting, recording, and depositing funds.
4) Property- keeping the property that belongs to the church in good repair and to help oversee its use.
Another important point needs to be made regarding what the deacons accomplished in Acts 6. By waiting tables they worked to restore and preserve unity within the body of Christ. Christ intended that His church would be a demonstration of the glory of God and the unity that existed between the Father and Himself. The conflict regarding the distribution of food threatened this witness and, so, the creation of deacons was about much more than making sure everyone got equal servings. Restoring unity was the primary goal. This should inform the work that deacons do and the process of selecting deacons themselves. Deacons serve in order to promote unity and those members who are known as peacemakers will likely be good candidates for the office.
Structure and Number
As there are no formal directions on this, Baptist churches have approached the structure of the deacon ministry in different ways to suit their needs. In most churches, the deacons operate as a “board of deacons” which follows a committee-type structure. Unfortunately, in many Baptist churches, this format has served to blur the distinction between the role of elders and deacons.
Some churches, however, follow a structure in which individual deacons are charged with specific needs within the church. Following this structure, there would be a “deacon of building and grounds,” a “deacon of sound system,” etc.
There is no place where we can find a specific number of deacons mandated for a church. Some have pointed out, however, that the church in Jerusalem chose only seven to care for a church of several thousand members and so a large number of deacons is not necessary. It seems that the best guide for a church to follow would be the needs of the church and the number of qualified candidates.
Was Phoebe a Deacon?
The fact that the word “deacon” is used in a variety of ways in the Scriptures that do not refer to the church office of deacon (even Jesus is described as a deacon in Romans 15:8), is one of the reasons debate exists regarding what to make of Phoebe. In Romans 16:1, we read:
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant (deacon) of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well.
While some point to this passage and conclude “Phoebe was a woman and was a deacon, therefore the church ought to have female deacons.” Others point out that simply having the word “deacon” as a descriptor does not settle the matter as it could simply mean that she proved to be a servant within the body of believers at the church in Cenchreae.
The other pertinent passage is 1 Tim. 3:11 where the Greek word “gynaikas” can be translated “wives” or “women” depending upon the context. Choosing “women” adds some strength to the argument that Phoebe was, in fact, serving in the role of deacon. Historically, there are instances of this interpretation and of deaconesses in Baptist churches going back to the 1600’s but this understanding and practice was never the norm. This is especially true in Particular Baptist churches- women deacons were virtually unheard of. In the modern era, once many Baptist churches adopted the model of deacons as a “board of directors” that had more of a leadership role in the church and, thus, had roles similar to that of elders, churches didn’t often consider female deacons as a possibility. Now that many Baptist churches are returning to the practice of having a plurality of elders with a clear distinction between the roles of elders and deacons, some prominent “conservative” Baptist ministers have begun advocating for women deacons. Mark Dever and John Piper stand as two examples.
John Hammett, professor of systematic theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary argues, however, that the argument for 1 Tim. 3:11 being translated “wives” is the stronger of the two options and the church is on stronger ground limiting the deaconate to men. Denny Burk, professor of Biblical studies at Southern Seminary’s Boyce College agrees but notes “No matter what your view of female deacons, we can at least agree together that the women spoken of here are being called into service. As wives of deacons, these ladies did have responsibility for serving others—whether or not they held office.”