Every year, churches form a nominating committee to recommend people to various church positions. Among available positions, church members can be appointed to the diaconate. In many places, the functions of deacons and deaconesses have been restricted to the offertory—that is, they collect tithes and offerings from the congregation. And in some churches, when someone is left without a role, it is immediately suggested that he or she take on a position in the diaconate. This situation raises two questions: What is the diaconate and who is the deacon?
In Acts 6:1–6, Luke describes the nomination of deacons in the apostolic church. “So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them’” (Acts 6:2–3).
This description goes against the idea that being appointed as a church deacon or deaconess indicates a lack of qualification or aptitude for other church functions. In the early church, three aspects were vital to the appointment of the diaconate: good reputation, wisdom, and being filled with the Spirit. Those who were appointed to this function were perceived as people who had a strong spiritual experience.
Stephen was among the seven who were appointed for the diaconate. His name means “chaplet,” “coronet,” and “wreath of victory.”1 He is described as a “man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5). This group of deacons was probably of Greek origin. In Stephen’s case, “though a Jew by birth, he spoke the Greek language and was familiar with the customs and manners of the Greeks.”2 In order to exercise their duties, they received the laying on of hands (Acts 6:6). This indicates that the deacon’s function includes spiritual aspects.
In this context of spirituality, Stephen left his mark on the history of the apostolic church as a fervent and uncompromising defender of the Christian faith. “Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen. But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke” (Acts 6:9–10). This implies knowledge of the history of Israel and the Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament.
Luke, in his account, made it clear that Stephen went beyond serving tables in the church. As a deacon, he was also an evangelist, developing strong spiritual leadership. Subsequently, he also became the first martyr of the apostolic church (see Acts 7:58–59). Ellen G. White writes:
The martyrdom of Stephen made a deep impression upon all who witnessed it. The memory of the signet of God upon his face; his words, which touched the very souls of those who heard them, remained in the minds of the beholders, and testified to the truth of that which he had proclaimed. His death was a sore trial to the church, but it resulted in the conviction of Saul, who could not efface from his memory the faith and constancy of the martyr, and the glory that had rested on his countenance.3
In fact, the man who served tables proved himself to be a leader in the church, and his primary distinction was his deep fellowship with God.
DEACONS AND DEACONESSES
In the Old Testament, God appointed the Levites to be responsible for the structure and maintenance of the sanctuary (see Num 1:50–53; 1 Chron 15:1–2). This task was connected to the spiritual life of the priests. They worked in contact with what was sacred, handling the furniture and vessels of the sanctuary.
In regards to the functioning of the church today, the duties of deacons are similar to those of the Levites. Therefore, the church should choose for the diaconate people who are spiritually qualified and deeply committed to the ministry of service. For this reason, the process of choosing deacons and deaconesses is one of the most important tasks of the church.
Although Luke and Paul emphasize deacons (see Acts 6:1–6; 1 Tim 3:8–13), early Christianity also witnessed women who practiced diakonia for their communities (see Phil 4:2–3; Rom 16:1–2). It is likely that Paul sent the epistle to the Romans via Phoebe, who was traveling to Rome.
The role of deacons and deaconesses is very important in the church. Their duties during worship services (offertory, organization), ceremonies (baptism, communion), and other occasions are needed for the church to function. However, their primary role is in exercising spiritual leadership. This implies communion with God and His Word. In church, deacons and deaconesses fulfill a role that is spiritual in nature. They should be seen as a reference for spirituality in the day-to-day life of the church.
In reality, before doing anything, deacons and deaconesses should be authentic Christians. In other words, their activities in the church should reflect what they are. Men and women who maintain daily communion with God will perform their activities with noble principles, wisdom, commitment, and perfection. Their lives will be a pattern of good deeds and proper spirituality.
Jesus said to the Samaritan woman, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13–14).
In the spiritual context, for someone to exercise spiritual influence over others, he or she must be linked to the source. In this case, the source is Jesus Christ. No one can give what they don’t have.
Throughout the year, the church has planned activities in its calendar: weeks of prayer, ceremonies, social events, and other activities. Deacons can interact with and assist various church ministries during these activities. For example, during a week of prayer, the diaconate can help by visiting church members, providing assistance to the sick and elderly, or visiting people who have attended the meetings and shown interest.
During an evangelistic series, deacons and deaconesses can give Bible studies. People can become members of the church by the missionary action of the diaconate. But all this is linked to the spiritual life of congregational leaders who volunteer themselves. The spiritual activities of the diaconate should reflect the spiritual communion that is maintained with God on a daily basis.
Therefore, the role of the diaconate in church is not limited, for example, to collecting tithes and offerings. Nor is it restricted to the physical aspects of the church. It is a highly spiritual function that requires the act of ordination (see Acts 6:6). Deacons and deaconesses are spiritual leaders in their community, guiding it to genuine spiritual revival.
1 See The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, 6:190.
2 Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, 97.
3 Ibid., 101.
Nerivan Silva is an editor at the Brazil Publishing House.