Relevant Scriptures: Acts 6:1-6; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:8-12
Deacons and Elders are the only appointed positions for the church today according to Scripture (see Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1-12; and Offices vs Ministries).
- “wait on tables” (Acts 6:2)
- “turn this responsibility [of caring for the widows’ food distribution] over to them” (Acts 6:3)
- serving well (1 Tim. 3:12)
- διάκονος (diakonos) ‘servant’ (Strong’s Greek Lexicon, G1249): “servant, minister, a person who renders service and help to others, in some contexts with an implication of lower status; also transliterated as “deacon,” a trusted officer of helps and service in the local church” (see stepbible.org).
- most occurrences of diakonos refers to “servant”/”servants” generically, the only times it unambiguously points to the office of “deacon” is Philippians 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8-12
- Acts 6:1-6 does not use the actual title of “deacon”, but does speak of appointed officers who were to “serve” or “wait on” tables. The Greek word used for “serve” is diakoneō, which is the verb form of “deacon”/”servant”. Thus, this seems to speak to the same role as the deacon office, which would more formally come later (see 1 Tim. 3:8-12).
- I’ve heard that this is the same word used of Eve–that she would be made as a, “helper,” for Adam (see Gen. 2:18). And perhaps this gives a picture of the overall function of the elders (think “husbands”) and deacons (think “wives”) overseeing the affairs of the saints (think “children”), see Philippians 1:1.
- we also may tentatively think of the deacon role similar to the treasurer role that Jesus assigned (albeit to Judas Iscariot, for reasons outside the scope of this study). In this sense, the apostles have overlap with elders (even as they make binding decisions together in Acts), and, perhaps, the treasurer has an overlap with the function of a deacon.
Truthfully, this seems to be the gist of everything we find in Scripture that speaks to the roles of deacons. Thus, there is quite a range of possibilities and freedom in considering what their role should be.
But generically, deacons:
- help oversee physical needs, services, and “helps” of different sorts
- work alongside and within elder oversight
- come later in a church’s development (likely after elders are established)
Deacon Qualifications (Acts 6:3; 1 Tim. 3:8-12)
- “known to be full of the Spirit” – they have a track record of walking by the Spirit (Acts 6:3 cf. Gal. 5:22-25)
- “known to be full of…wisdom” – they have a track record of making wise decisions, presumably this would especially relate to the realm of physical stewardship (Acts 6:3)
- respected by the church (1 Tim. 3:8)
- trustworthy (1 Tim. 3:8)
- self-controlled (1 Tim. 3:8)
- substantially hold to biblical truths on foundational matters (cf. Statement of Faith) (1 Tim. 3:9)
- wives (or deaconnesses, see discussion below): respected; guarded in their tongue; trustworthy in all things (1 Tim. 3:11)
- faithful leader in his house (1 Tim. 3:12)
- “tested” – to see if they meet this criteria; likely by the elders and/or apostles, in conjunction with the whole church (see Acts 6:1-6) (1 Tim. 3:10)
A last qualification to consider, that seemed best to insert in its own category is:
- “men”; husbands, leaders of the home (Acts 6:3; 1 Tim. 3:12) – certainly in Acts 6, the seven “appointed servants” (likely deacons) were all men. While:
- In Romans 16:1, Phoebe is commended as a “sister,” and “servant”/”deaconness” (i.e. diakonos) associated with the “church in Cenchrea.” This could mean she was an appointed deacon of the church, or it could be a way of saying she is a servant of this church (as it means in describing Epaphras and Timothy in similar ways, see Col. 1:7 and 1 Tim. 4:6). We don’t know for sure.
- In 1 Tim. 3:11 we read about deacon qualifications for “the women.” That is, “the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything,” (1 Tim. 3:11). As in Romans 16:1, we don’t have enough clues from the text to categorically know whether this addresses “female deacons” (deaconnesses) or the wives of male deacons. The Greek does not make this clear, as either of those translations would work. On the one hand, the elder qualifications give no details regarding how “elder’s wives” should behave, which makes it seem that maybe this is describing female deacons (otherwise, why is there an extra qualification for deacons not present in elders?). On the other hand, the next verse says, “a deacon must be faithful to his wife,” (1 Tim. 3:12), which implies male deacons. Further, the qualifications of “the women” in 1 Tim. 3:11 echo many of the qualifications already listed for deacons (compare 1 Tim. 3:8), thus it would seem strange to need to repeat them. And, some of the qualifications for elders do include the conduct of other elder family members (e.g. 1 Tim. 3:4; Titus 1:6), which could make a comment on the conduct of deacons’ wives not completely out of place (this would potentially hold even more weight if a role of the deacons was to hold onto money for the church, for instance, thus the trustworthiness of the wife could be of a special significance for deacons that is different than elders).
- With all these considerations, I lean toward male deacons as more of the norm urged in Scripture, but would allow for exceptions (cf. Deborah serving as judge in Judges 4-5), and am very open to being corrected. Regardless, in all things both sides of the “female deacon” debate should hold this somewhat tentatively, since Scripture does allow some possible gray area here (see above).
See also Elder Qualifications & Functions.