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Misunderstood Deacon

by Tim O'Hearn

Deacon, minister, servant. All are equivalent meanings. Then does a preacher have to be a Deacon to be called a minister? Are there ministers who are not deacons? Are there deacons who are not ministers? And who should be moved from being a deacon to being a Deacon? (I use the capital D here to denote the office of deacon indicated in 1 Timothy 3.) All these questions and others lend credence to the idea that there might be such a thing as a "misunderstood deacon."

Although much has been written on the office of a Deacon, some confusion exists yet. I don't hope to end the confusion, but merely shed some light on some aspects of it. Since I am, from here on, generally talking about the deacons to whom Paul referred in 1 Timothy 3, I will henceforward drop the capital.

Ministers and Deacons

Not every time that English translations of the Bible use the word minister are they translating the Greek word that is sometimes transliterated "deacon." Sometimes it is a translation of other words that have the meaning of: one who holds public office (from which we get the word "liturgy") as in Rom 15:16, "That I [Paul] should be the minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles"; or a subordinate, as in 1 Cor 4:1, "Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God." Many times, however, it is a translation of the word meaning a servant, also rendered "deacon."

That there were those called ministers who were not the same as those designated deacons is readily apparent. In Romans 13:4 Paul refers to the representative of the established government as a minister of God. Since that may have included many who are unbelievers (as is true of many of the world's leaders today), he is clearly not talking about those whom the church might designate as deacons. In 2 Cor 11:15 Paul uses the word referring to servants of Satan-certainly not those Paul would want to be selected by the church for special service.

Paul also spoke of those who were preachers of the gospel, not necessarily for a single congregation, as ministers/deacons. He used the term for Christ (Rom 15:8), himself (Col 1:23, 25), himself and Apollos (1 Cor 3:5), and Timothy (1 Thes 3:2). While it is conceivable that a preacher sent from a congregation to teach others, as was Paul, may be a deacon of that congregation it may also be that not everyone who was called a minister was also a deacon.

Nor is it necessary that every deacon be a preacher/minister. One distinction between the qualities of an elder (as listed in 1 Tim 3) and the qualities of a deacon listed shortly thereafter is that an elder must be "apt to teach," but a deacon is not so required.

Who Should be Chosen a Deacon?

I will be looking at two different aspects of this question. The first, and obvious, aspect is the "qualifications" or "qualities" of deacons. These are specified in 1 Tim 3:8-13.

Likewise must the deacons be grave, not doubletongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre; Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless. Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things. Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.

Essentially, a deacon should be a good Christian man, married to a good Christian woman, having children (at least one), who (the deacon, not the children) is also a good manager. This is a description of just about any family man in the church. Possibly a widower or divorced man may be disqualified, but beyond that almost any married father in the church may be selected as a deacon.

Perhaps the one requirement that is most often neglected is that he must first be tested. I understand this to mean that a man who has not shown any inclination toward service in the first place is not qualified to be a deacon. You don't select a man and hope that conferring the title will make him more of a servant than he has been in the past. It may also mean that a deacon is to be "tested" as to whether he holds "the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience." That is, he should be shown to be living a correct life. On the other hand, the testing may simply be referring to a selection process, of which I have seen several.

The other, related, aspect of the question is whether a congregation should limit the number of deacons. I had a preacher once ask me why I was not at that time a deacon. His thought was that a congregation should name all qualified men as deacons. He said that any congregation has enough jobs to do that every qualified man should hold the office. I am still not fully convinced this is so. If the men selected for service in Acts 6 can be referred to as deacons, and some would say they should not, then the apostles and elders clearly selected only part of the qualified pool of men to hold the office. They were selected for a special service and apparently would not have been selected if that service were not required. Even if those men were not deacons there is nothing to indicate in 1 Timothy 3 that every man qualified as an elder or deacon must necessarily be so named. Although most churches that have a number of men qualified for the office do also have specific works for most of them to do, creating "busy work" just so a deacon has a given task is no better for churches than it is for businesses.

If the men chosen in Acts 6 were deacons, it is also possible that once the specific work for which they were selected has been completed then they should no longer be considered as holding that office. It is likely that the Philip selected to see to the needs of the Grecian widows in Acts 6 is the same Philip who preached to the Samaritans and the Ethiopian in Acts 8. If so, then his task concerning the widows was apparently completed before Acts 8. Was he still a deacon when he went out of the city preaching, or had that function, and that office, ended before that time? The scripture is silent on the matter. But if a deacon is selected to manage a specific, temporary function, it appears that once that need is met he need no longer hold the office.

Servant or Leader?

How often I have heard, in prayers or otherwise, reference made to "the leaders of this church, the elders and deacons." Therein I find another demonstration of "the misunderstood deacon."

Is a deacon a leader of the congregation? What is his function? The word means servant. Vine indicates "Diakonos views a servant in relationship to his work; doulos [slave] views him in relationship to his master." (Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words) This would indicate that a deacon is primarily a servant, not a leader. To whom is he a servant? Certainly to Christ. Most probably to the elders, and thus to the whole congregation. If, in fact, his primary function was financial or physical management as is probable (based on Acts 6 and 1 Timothy 3:12-13), then he cannot be called a leader of the church. His job is performing a duty or service as directed by another, rather than directing others. Any leadership is incidental to rather than necessary to his functioning as a deacon.

In modern times the concept of a deacon as a leader in the congregation has led to the idea that the office of deacon is primarily a stepping stone to the eldership. While some of the qualities required of each office are the same, the concept of a deacon as a servant might actually make him less likely to be qualified as an elder, who is charged with leadership. The offices are unrelated to each other. A man need not have been a deacon to be an elder. A good deacon may never qualify to be an elder.

Misunderstood or not, the office of deacon is both important and honorable. Paul closed his discussion of deacons saying that one who served well purchases a good standing or position. Further, he gains "great boldness in the faith." That alone seems to make it a worthy position to which to aspire.