What’s a Deacon?

Brothers and Sisters,

In anticipation of our upcoming officer nominations, I’m dedicating a string of letters to the basics of presbyterianism. Two weeks ago, I wrote about the truth, goodness, and beauty of our polity. Last week, we looked at the office of elder. Today, we consider deacons.

What’s a deacon?

“Deacon” comes from the Greek word diakonos, which means “servant.” The New Testament uses this word in a general sense for all believers (Matt 20:26; 23:11; Mark 9:35; 10:43). Jesus even uses the verbal form of the word to describe His own ministry (Mark 10:45).

There is also a special use of diakonos that refers to an office in the church: deacon (1 Tim 3:8-13). Our church currently has three deacons: George Basch, Scott Meneely, and Don Wunder. You’ll hear their group referred to as a “board” or “diaconate.”

What do deacons do?

The passage doesn’t use the word diakonos, but Acts 6 gives us a picture of the first diaconate—at least, a precursor to it. There were works of mercy ministry that needed to be taken care of. The apostles and elders could not keep up the work without neglecting the ministry of the Word and prayer. So, they instructed the church to elect deacons.

Although it’s clear from deacons like Stephen that their ministry included plenty of Word and prayer, opportunities to preach and pray came in the context of wonders and signs done among the people—i.e., works of mercy that God blessed in public ways.

Deacons are called to aid the communal sharing we see in passages like Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37. They assist the church’s fellowship by tending to the “outward things” like tithes and offerings, mercy fund distributions, food, clothing, physical property, and so on.

Deacons may naturally lead the congregation in ministering to the community, but diaconal ministry in the New Testament focuses primarily on ministering to the church. We want to be generous to our community, but we’re called first and foremost to do good “to those who are of the household of faith” (Eph 6:10).

Who can be a deacon?

In Acts 6, the apostles tell the church to choose men “of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (v. 3). Although deacons focus more on the physical needs of a congregation, their office is nonetheless a spiritual office with spiritual qualifications. The ability to swing a hammer and balance a checkbook is important, but secondary to godly character.

That said, we find the following qualifications laid out in 1 Tim 3:8-13:

  • Dignified and Worthy of Respect
  • Sincere
  • Not Addicted to Much Wine
  • Not Greedy for Dishonest Gain
  • Biblically Orthodox
  • Proven (Spiritually and Practically)
  • Blameless
  • Competent Household Manager
  • Male, The Husband of One Wife*

*There’s disagreement over how to read v. 11, where Paul says “their wives” must be qualified. Since Greek used the same word for wife and woman (gyne, where we get gynecologist), this verse could be translated “their women,” in which case it’s possible that Paul was referring to women who served with the deacons—either as their “assistants” or office-holders themselves. I think the office-holder reading is the least plausible.

In the PCA, we hold that those who are ordained to the office of deacon must be men, although there is a range of opinions as to whether and how women could serve as “assistants” or even “deaconesses.”

If you’re interested in taking a deeper dive on the biblical arguments as well as our denomination’s practice, please check out the PCA’s Report on Women in Ministry.

What kind of authority does a deacon have?

If you come from a Baptist background, then you’re probably used to the deacons exercising oversight. According to Scripture, though, the responsibility to rule belongs to elders.

Deacons do not have authority per se. Theirs is an office of sympathy and service. That does not make deacons “junior” officers, as though the office were a step on the path to “elder.” Each office was instituted by Christ to serve according to its own sphere of responsibility.

Because the elders rule, the buck ultimately stops with them, but the vitality of the diaconate depends on a certain level of independence. If the elders are constantly breathing down their necks, then the former will surely neglect the ministry of the Word and prayer and the latter will be unable to serve in the way God has called them to serve.

As with last week’s letter about elders, there’s so much more we could’ve said here. I do hope this brief overview gives you a better understanding of who deacons are and what they do. As always, if you have any questions or would like to know more, please don’t hesitate to ask!

In Christ Alone,