The topic of deacons is not exactly scintillating. And yet, just the word can spark strong feelings among Christians.
For some, “deacons” is a bit nostalgic, perhaps a throwback to their childhood church. For others, it’s beautiful; the word brings beloved faces to mind—specific servants laboring for the welfare of Christ’s church. Yet for too many it’s a painful word. It’s painful for many pastors. How many times has the work of a church been hindered and harmed by those called to be its most exemplary servants?
One of the tragedies in church life today is the lack of attention given to what biblical deacons are—and are not. Many churches seem content to continue operating from custom and tradition on this subject, with Bibles closed. No wonder many myths abound!
Here are five important questions (and answers) about deacons.
1. What Is the Most Overlooked Deacon Responsibility?
Being a “shock absorber.”
In Acts 6, the seven were not deployed merely to solve a culinary quibble. Food was the occasion, sure, but it wasn’t the deepest problem. The deepest problem was a sudden threat to church unity.
The apostles were faced with a natural fault line that threatened to fracture the very unity Christ died to achieve. The gospel insists, after all, that our unity in Christ supersedes any worldly difference. So make no mistake: the apostles did not delegate the problem to others (vv. 3–4) because it wasn’t important, but because it was. They could have imposed a swift, superficial solution and moved on. Instead, they laid groundwork for an ongoing solution and a permanent church office.
Good deacons love solutions more than drama.
Given the root problem of disunity facing the seven, we can conclude that deacons should be those who muffle shockwaves, not make them reverberate further. Contentious persons make poor deacons, for they only compound the kind of headaches deacons are meant to relieve.
The best deacons, therefore, are far more than business managers or handymen. They are persons with fine-tuned “conflict radars.” They love solutions more than drama and they rise to respond, in creatively constructive ways, to promote the harmony of the whole church.
2. Are Deacons ‘Parallel’ to Elders?
No. The office of deacon “reports to” the office of elder.
In 1 Timothy 3, don’t miss that Paul turns his attention to deacons (1 Tim. 3:8–12) immediately after elders (1 Tim. 3:1–7). It’s as if he doesn’t want us to catch our breath lest we miss the inseparable connection—even the logical order—between the two offices. The structure of the passage suggests that deacons are both paired with and subordinate to the elders they support. This relationship is also implied in the other passage where deacons (plural) are mentioned:
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 purpose of deacons is inseparably tied to the priority of elders.
The purpose of deacons is inseparably tied to the priority of elders.
By the way, this is why it’s misguided when deacons function as a separate power bloc or second house of legislature through which bills must be passed. Mark Dever offers a helpful illustration:
If the elders say, “Let’s drive to Pittsburgh,” it’s not up to the deacons to come back and say, “No, let’s drive to Philadelphia instead.” They can legitimately come back and say, “Our engine won’t get us to Pittsburgh. Perhaps we should reconsider.” That’s very helpful. But, in general, their job is to support the destination set by the elders.
The elders of a church are not infallible—far from it. Nevertheless, insofar as we are looking to the Bible as our guide for church governance, deacons are never presented as chaperones of the elders who impose a potential “check” on their every decision. In a healthy church, godly deacons execute the vision and oversight of godly elders, not the other way around.
3. What Makes an Effective Deacon (Besides Godliness)?
The work of deacons through the centuries has focused chiefly on tangible needs, particularly caring for the poor and vulnerable. Indeed, their work should never involve less than such mercy ministry. The larger principle of the deacon’s role, though, includes anything in a church’s life that threatens to distract and derail elders from their primary responsibilities.
A deacon should be skilled at spotting practical needs and then taking the initiative to meet them efficiently. But the best deacons don’t just react to present problems; they also anticipate future ones. They love to brainstorm creative solutions to anything that might potentially impede the work of the elders and the flourishing of the Word.
Biblical deacons, then, are like a congregation’s offensive linemen, whose job is to protect the quarterback. They rarely get attention, much less credit, but their labors are utterly indispensable for both guarding and advancing the ministry of the Word. Without effective deacons, elders will suffer incessant distraction and get sacked by an onrush of practical demands.
When eyeing future deacons, look for those who see and meet needs discreetly (they don’t need or want credit), at their own expense (they sacrifice), and without being asked (they take initiative to solve problems).
So, pastor, when eyeing future deacons, look for godly saints who see and meet needs discreetly (they don’t need or want credit), at their own expense (they sacrifice), and without being asked (they take initiative to solve problems). Warning signs in a deacon candidate, then, will include not merely a tendency to be quarrelsome but also a tendency to be disorganized or unreliable. Someone who regularly flakes out, or never returns emails, or always needs to be told what to do, is not yet a good fit for the office. A deacon must be reliable, neither angling for authority nor needing to be babysat.
Show me a church with distracted pastors and a derailed mission, and I will show you a church without effective deacons.
4. What Do Deacons Have to Do with the Mission of the Church?
Much discussion in recent years has centered around the role of “social action” in the church. Is the church’s mission to preach the gospel, to care for the poor, some combination of the two, or something else entirely? These are important conversations, and they hinge on important distinctions—for instance, whether by “church” we mean the institution or the individuals.
In my estimation, much confusion would be alleviated by attending more carefully to an age-old feature of diaconal ministry. Scripture is clear that the central mission of the church is not to cure global poverty, but to preach gospel grace; it’s not to transform the world, but to make disciples heralding the One who has (Matt. 28:18–20). But this by no means suggests that the work of a church is exclusively “spiritual.” This whole article is about a formal office God established in his church to give practical help to those who need it most. Again, diaconal work is more than mercy ministry, but it is not less.
Deed ministry (diaconal) has always served Word ministry (pastoral). What God has joined together, let no church separate.
I sometimes perceive an ironic similarity between churches who want to “just preach the gospel” and those who want to “transform the culture.” The one tends to oppose social ministry in favor of gospel proclamation; the other tends to champion social ministry instead of gospel proclamation. Yet both are susceptible to an impoverished view of the diaconate. In “just preach the gospel” churches, diaconal mercy ministry can be seen as unimportant; in “transform the culture” churches, diaconal mercy ministry can be seen as superfluous and unnecessary—for it’s what the whole congregation exists to do already. In the former, the mission of the church manages to downplay this diaconal role; in the latter, this calling of deacons becomes the mission of the church.
Thus it’s crucial, in churches committed to preaching Christ and making disciples, that we not diminish the diaconate—God’s “social” office for catalyzing spiritual mission. Yes, it’s true that the gospel would not have spread in Acts 6 had the apostles neglected their chief calling to preach and pray. But it’s also true that the gospel likely would not have spread had the seven not risen to meet the widows’ needs.
Perhaps today’s highly charged conversations about the church’s mission would move forward if we had some of these historic ecclesial categories more firmly in place. A holistic ministry that weds these concerns—gospel proclamation and gospel demonstration—is not the latest fad; it’s been par for the course throughout church history. Deed ministry (diaconal) has always served Word ministry (pastoral). What God has joined together, let no church separate.
5. What One Thing Does Scripture Promise to Faithful Deacons?
After sketching a deacon’s qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:8–12, Paul goes out of his way to make one final remark. He knows that deaconing is not for the faint of heart. Much of it is thankless: grunt work, not stage work. So, what will keep a deacon going amid exhaustion and discouragement? A promise:
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. (1 Tim. 3:13)
A faithful deacon will receive two gifts in increasing measure: respect and boldness. The first comes horizontally from the church; the other descends vertically from God. Given the “downward” shape of diaconal work, this promise of respect is particularly beautiful, isn’t it?
A faithful deacon will receive two gifts in increasing measure: respect and boldness.
Though the call to diaconal service is not glamorous, the reward will be glorious.
Do the deacons in your church feel respected? Do they know how much you appreciate their service? Take a moment to encourage a deacon in your church. Give them a call. Buy them a gift card. Offer to babysit their kids. Send them an email. Just do something to put wind in their sails—“a word in season, how good it is!” (Prov. 15:23). Such encouragements are for the good of the flock and the glory of God.