In The Multiple Pastor Model, we saw how the Bible presents elders, bishops and pastors as different names for the same leadership function. Each church in the New Testament is presided over, not by an individual leader, but by a body of leaders.
Now if much of Christendom is mistaken about the pastorate, it should be no surprise to find it mistaken about deaconship. For the most part, Christians regard deacons as those officers who take care of the practical needs of the flock. They take up the collection, stock the pantry, make sure the plumber fixes the leaky faucet in the church building's rest room. They ensure the physical grounds of the church building are cared for properly.
Traditionally, deacons have been assigned many of the more mundane tasks. This distinguishes them from the elders, who give themselves to the spiritual work of the congregation. The deacons, it is often asserted, help take the burden of lesser work from the elders so they can minister more effectively.
Jay Adams, in his book Shepherding God's Flock, presents the generally accepted concept of the deacon's office: "The basic principle behind the diaconate...is to give to the pastor-teacher and to the elders whatever help they need to carry on their calling without diversion or distraction" (p. 351). Adams lists some of the deacons' tasks: they may work to "organize the next fellowship supper, or to solve some problem with the ushers or with the florist concerning flowers for the front of the church" (p. 352). Adams does not limit the deacons' work to these kinds of activities, but many churches tend to make the office a menial problem-solving role.
This office is almost universally regarded as having its origin in Acts 6, when the disciples chose seven men full of the Spirit to oversee the affairs of the tables in Jerusalem. The appointment of these men freed the apostles for the preaching of the word. So, it is said, the deacon's office was born.
Is this Scriptural? Is there a special office of deacon in the church, having its origin in the seven at Jerusalem?
A careful look at Scripture will reveal that no formal office of "deacon," especially the one said to be concerned with mundane matters, exists in the Christian church. On the contrary, the Scripture teaches the following about the so-called deacon's office:
- The Greek word translated "deacon" in 1 Timothy and Philippians is everywhere else translated "servant" or "minister." The word refers to one giving diakonian, or service.
- The role refers, therefore, to anyone officially recognized by the church as giving service, whether overtly spiritual or otherwise. There is no justification for making it a formal office.
- It is in no way connected with the appointment of the seven disciples in Jerusalem (Acts 6:1-7) who serviced the tables.
Diakonos, a Servant
The anonymous author of an 1857 work, Priesthood and Clergy Unknown to Christianity, says this about the Greek word translated "deacon":
Diakonos, a word employed thirty times in the New Testament, never once has the technical and official meaning of either a deacon or a [clerical] minister. The diakonos of the New Testament is a person who is any way serving God, when the word is in reference to the Church of God. In two instances it is applied to express an ordinary domestic servant. 'his mother said unto the servants...the servants which drew the water' (John 2:5,9). In Romans 13:4, the ruler or magistrate is called 'a servant of God....'"
The words "servant" and "minister," therefore, would be much better words for the so-called deacon's office. Such terms are more expressive of its function. Anyone rendering service in the sight of the church - prison ministry, evangelism outreach, Sunday School teaching - is a New Testament servant (diakonos). It is important, therefore, that those doing such work meet the qualifications in Paul's pastoral letters.
There is no cogent Scriptural evidence of the existence of the traditional deacon's office. The term diakonos is fluid, referring simply to one who serves. If someone is rendering service in the church, that person is diakonos. The idea of electing "officers" to a "board of deacons" is foreign to primitive ecclesiology.
The occurrence of the phrase "office of a deacon" in 1 Timothy 3:10,13 of the King James Version is altogether faulty and has been corrected in subsequent translations. Amazingly, the KJV translators have taken one verb, diakoneo (to serve), and rendered it "[to] use the office of a deacon." And so we read, "And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless" (v. 10).
The New International Version renders it, "They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons" (emphasis mine). Even in the NIV, however, the words "as deacons" are superfluous, not found in the Greek. Any interlinear will testify to this. The text should read only, "let them serve." At any rate, the phrase "office of a deacon" is nowhere to be found in the text.
The difference between the two translations is even more dramatic in 1 Timothy 3:13. The KJV reads, "for that they have used the office of a deacon well purchase for themselves a good degree" (emphasis mine), while the NIV reads, "Those who have served well gain an excellent standing" (emphasis mine). The phrase "office of a deacon" in the KJV is a mistranslation and totally misleading.
The Interlinear Greek-English New Testament never uses "deacon" to translate diakonos. In 1 Timothy 3 and Philippians 1:1, the Greek word is rendered "those who serve." And so in Philippians 1:1, the KJV reads, "to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons," while the interlinear reads, "to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with [the] overseers and those who serve."
There is no valid reason, then, for calling diakonos by the name "deacon" when the Scripture merely conveys the normal, everyday word for a minister or servant. The translators appear to be inserting the word "deacon" according to ecclesiastical bias. It makes no sense to translate diakonos into "deacon" in 1 Timothy 3, and then to render it "minister" when the same word refers to Timothy himself in chapter 4. But Timothy was a servant in the church, therefore he was diakonos (see also 1 Thess. 3:2).
The following are also called diakonos in the New Testament:
- Paul (2 Cor. 11:23; Eph. 3:7).
- Phoebe (Rom. 16:1).
- Apollos (1 Cor. 3:5).
- Tychicus (Eph. 6:2).
We can see then that diakonos refers to anyone serving within the church under its sanction.
Deacons and Acts 6
But didn't the deacon's office begin at the table in Jerusalem? This is an example of how repeating something often enough makes it true in people's minds. There is no proof that the apostles were creating a permanent diaconate in Acts 6. Nowhere are these people called deacons. Nowhere does any biblical author refer back to this event as the origin of a church office.
Again, the author of Priesthood and Clergy comments:
We may be certain that if this were indeed the origination of the deacon's office, the office must have ceased even before the death of some of the apostles. It had reference to peculiar local circumstances, namely, the common table of the saints at Jerusalem, so it must have ceased when the necessity ceased to which it owed its existence.
The evidence for this is compelling. Scripture says the men were chosen "for this necessity" (Acts 6:3). This would indicate the situation was local and specific. The New International Version reads, "We will turn this responsibility over to them" (emphasis mine). When that particular responsibility ceased, so did the work of the seven. To tie this service to a permanent deacon's office is unwarranted. [see Note 1]
It is common to assert that deacons are entrusted with the collection and distribution of offerings within the churches. But no such distinction occurs in the New Testament. In fact, in Acts 11:29,30, we read, "The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul." Here we find the elders, not deacons, handling church funds.
But if there is no deacon's office, how are we to apply the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3? The answer is simple: They must be applied to everyone who is serving the church in a recognized capacity. Those who teach, organize evangelism, lead youth groups, etc., should meet the requirements laid down by Paul. They must be "worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine and not pursuing dishonest gain" (1 Tim. 3:8).
Paul also says they "must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience" (v. 9). That means they ought to have a good grasp of Scripture and the truths it contains.
But how far removed this is from today's "church deacons." Many of them are poor Bible students. A friend of mine was involved in a church Bible study in which one of the deacons did not even know where to find the book of Colossians!
Those "giving service" within the church must be tested first to see if they are cut out for ministry (v. 10). How many churches, even those ostensible in their claim of being "Bible-believing," follow this clear instruction? Churches, unfortunately, a re often so desperate for help that they will accept any volunteer.
A servant within the church must be adept at managing his family (v. 12). Again, how many churches adhere to this? When was the last time you heard of a candidate disqualified for deaconship because he had unruly children?
The time has come for reform in the church's view of its offices. A review and scrutiny of the traditions handed to us from our forefathers is long overdue.
God's blessing rests on those churches who do things His way. Let us push for a return to the proper function of the elder/pastor and servant. We have everything to gain and nothing to lose by following heaven's blueprint, rather than human tradition, for the operation of the church.
Editor's Note: Further proof of this is seen in the fact that two of the "deacons," Stephen and Philip (Acts 6:5), did not content themselves with serving tables for long. Soon after this episode, as related in Acts 6:8-7:60, Stephen headed out as an evangelist and got himself stoned. Shortly after that, Philip began his own missionary journeys, travelling to Samaria (8:4-13) and baptizing the Ethiopian Eunuch on the road to Gaza (8:26-39). And instead of returning to Jerusalem, he evangelized every town to Caesarea where he settled down (8:40; 21:8). If Stephen and Philip held a static "deacon's office" in Jerusalem, they were not faithful to their responsibilities.
Furthermore, the verb form of the word diakonos in Acts 6 refers not only to the work of the seven (v. 2,3) but to the work of the Twelve also (v. 4). They were all "deacons" of one sort or another!