God has given some offices to His church on earth: two of them are the office of elder and the office of deacon. This office of elder is actually associated with multiple titles in the Bible; sometimes elders are called overseers, bishops, pastors, or shepherds. Each of these titles refers to the same person, and there are two key verses in the Bible that demonstrate this very clearly. Notice that in each verse, these titles are used interchangeably:
1. “I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd (i.e., pastor) the flock of God among you, [by] exercising oversight” (1 Peter 5:1, 2).
2. “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd (i.e., pastor) the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28).
When Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, he acknowledged the offices of elder and deacon when he wrote, “Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons” (Phil. 1:1).
In this article we will focus our attention on the office of deacon.
THE DUTIES OF A DEACON (ACTS 6:1-6)
The duties of a deacon are described in Acts 6. Here we find the early church in its infancy. In terms of leadership, the church had no elders or deacons; the only leaders of the church were the 12 apostles. Yet, we see here the office of deacon beginning to develop. It did not develop fully in Acts 6; it simply began to take shape. The narrative begins in verse 1: “Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number . . .” This is a huge understatement! Peter had preached a sermon at Pentecost, after which 3,000 souls “received [Peter’s] word and were baptized” (Acts 2:41). A short time later, the church numbered more than 5,000 men in Jerusalem (Acts 4:4), plus women and children. This was the first “mega-church.”
The influx of so many members created a problem. In verse 1, we find a description of that problem. It says, “A complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food.” In those days, there were two types of Jewish people: the Hellenists and the Hebrews. The Hellenists were Jewish people who had adopted many of the cultural norms of the day. They spoke Greek, the common language of that culture. They dressed like the Greek people. They participated in the Greek culture. On the other hand, the Hebrews were Jewish people who had rejected the Greek culture and chose to remain culturally unmixed. They spoke Aramaic or Hebrew. They also dressed differently than the Greeks. There was tension between these two groups because the Hebrews thought the Hellenists were being unfaithful to their families by neglecting their culture.
At this time of growth in the church, the church was doing a good job of caring for its widows by feeding them. The problem arose because those involved in the distribution of food were playing favorites. They neglected the Hellenists in favor of the native Hebrews. Imagine someone with an armful of groceries for the widows of your church. Rather than giving half to the Hellenistic widows and half to the Hebrew widows, this person gives all the groceries to the Hebrew widows. This was not a chance occurrence; it took place day after day after day. Verse 6 said that this was taking place “daily.” We do not know why the Hellenistic widows were being neglected. Perhaps it was because the church had only enough to support the Hebrew widows. Perhaps it was because of prejudice against those who had “sold out” to the culture of the day and had not remained pure. Whatever the reason, some widows were being overlooked, and a complaint arose.
TEAMWORK: APOSTLES AND DEACONS
The apostles heard about this complaint and, in verse 2, “summoned the congregation of the disciples” to discuss how they were going to solve the problem. They agreed that something wrong was happening. They knew it was not good that these widows were being neglected. They understood that all widows needed food. Listen to what they said:
“It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. But select from among you, brethren, seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer, and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:2-4).
I am sure that as they evaluated the situation, the apostles thought about solving the problem themselves. After all, if anybody had the spiritual maturity to ensure that all believing widows received proper help without favoritism, the apostles did. I’m sure they would have done a fine job. But, in doing so, they would have neglected their own God-given priorities to do this good thing. In other words, the apostles refused to let the good take the place of the best. They had been called to be devoted “to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (verse 4). Quite frankly, serving tables would interfere with this priority. So, they said, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables.” Yes, there was negligence in the church; however, the apostles refused to solve one problem by creating another.
THE APOSTLES’ PRIORITY
Imagine with me a heart surgeon. He has scrubbed for surgery. He has taken his scalpel, cut through his patient’s sternum, and pulled it back to get to the heart. He has begun the process of repairing the blockages in the heart. And then the phone rings at the receptionist’s desk. For some reason or another, no one is available to answer the phone. The phone rings again and again. Now, imagine, the heart surgeon saying, “Excuse me, I cannot neglect the phone.” He then backs away from the operating table, takes off his surgical gloves, walks over to the phone, picks it up, and says, “Hello?” Answering the phone is a good thing. Perhaps one of the patient’s relatives. Perhaps it is another patient who is experiencing chest pain. There is nobody better equipped to answer these people’s inquiries than the surgeon. But answering the phone is not the best thing for the heart surgeon to do. It is a good thing but not the best thing.
Likewise, for the apostles, the best thing for them to do wasn’t delivering food to neglected widows. The widows had genuine need and needed to be helped, but the apostles were not to neglect their priority to make sure the widows were not neglected. This is the point of verses 2 and 4.
John Piper has said, “Without extended and consecrated prayer, the ministry of the Word withers up and bears no fruit. . . . And what opposes the pastor’s life of prayer more than anything? The ministry. It is not shopping or car repairs or sickness or yard work that squeezes our prayers into hurried corners of the day. It is budget development and staff meetings and visitation and counseling and answering mail and writing reports and reading journals and answering the phone and preparing messages.”1
And the apostles might easily add, “and serving food to widows.”
THE MEANING OF THE WORD “DEACON”
Now, we have reached the point where we can see the role that deacons play in the life of the church. They help in the work of the ministry so that elders can focus on the priority of prayer and the ministry of the Word. Deacons are servants in the church. The word we translate “deacon” is the Greek word διακονος (diakonos), which is most often translated as “servant.” In John 2:5, 9, this word is used to describe those who were serving the tables at the wedding feast in Cana. In Matthew 22:13, it refers to the servants of the king who gave a wedding feast for his son.
Epaphras is called a “servant of Christ” (Col. 1:7). Paul considered himself as a “servant of [the] new covenant” (2 Cor. 3:6). Jesus Himself was a “servant to the circumcision” (Rom. 15:8). Jesus said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Other related words, διακονια (diakonia) and διακονεω (diakoneo), are used several times in Acts 6:1-2:
“Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving (διακονια) of food. And the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, ‘It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve (διακονεω) tables’” (Acts 6:1, 2, emphasis added).
There are only two instances in the Bible where the word διακονος (diakonos) is not translated “servant” (or to something equivalent). In Phillipians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8, the word διακονος (diakonos) is used to describe an office in the church. It could just as easily be translated “servants.” All Christians are called to be servants. “As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Peter 4:10). The deacons, however, are called to be model-servants. They are servants who lead. As the early church matured, the apostles were multiplied into pastors and elders. The model of the apostles seeking help in the ministry matured into the office of deacon.
The apostles needed help if they were going to keep their commitment to prayer and to the Word of God. This is the point of verse 3: “But select from among you, brethren, seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task” (Acts 6:3). The apostles surveyed the extent of the problem and determined that it would take seven men to adequately serve food to the neglected widows. The apostles wanted this great need to be met. Finding seven faithful men would accomplish two things: the widows’ need for food would be met, and the apostles would maintain their priorities. So, a cry went out to the congregation to find seven men with three characteristics:
1. Of good reputation
2. Full of the Spirit
3. Full of wisdom
Notice that the apostles did not solve this problem by asking for volunteers as if any person could take care of the task. They were not looking for any men; they were looking for spiritual people of integrity who would do this job well. It would have been no help at all to the apostles to delegate this task and see it not done well; in fact, that would have caused further problems.
1 John Piper, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, pp. 60, 61.
General Conference Ministerial Association