The word “deacon” comes from the Greek word diákonos, which is often used in the New Testament to describe the work of a servant, helper, and attendant. As a word that refers to an office with the young church, Paul was perhaps the first to use it as such in Philippians (1:1) and 1 Timothy (3:8, 10–11). But where and how does the work of the deacon first appear in the New Testament church?

The answer may be traced to a peculiar situation that emerged in the early church as a result of the post-Pentecostal rapid expansion of believers, as recorded in Acts 6. Some scholars estimate that around the time described in Acts 6, the church in Jerusalem had grown to some twenty thousand believers. These believers constituted a cultural milieu, with Hebrewspeaking Jews and Greek-speaking Hellenists comprising two major groups. A sizable section of these believers were poor, and the church had set up a ministry of caring for their needs, including distribution of food.

Along with the staggering growth of the church and the introduction of a system of caring for the poor, a peculiar problem confronted the apostles. The Greek widows in the church felt that they were neglected in their care as compared with the help extended to Jewish widows. The problem was not confined to physical needs alone, but slowly began to erode the spiritual function of the church. Ellen G. White describes the situation: “The enemy [Satan] succeeded in arousing the suspicions of some who had formerly been in the habit of looking with jealousy on their brethren in the faith and of finding fault with their spiritual leaders.” 1

The apostles recognized the seriousness of the situation and suggested that the church set aside a special team of spiritually mature members to attend to this important need in the young church. Doing so would free the apostles to concentrate on their primary mission: “prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). The proposal pleased the church and with much prayer they chose seven men full of faith and spirit. The apostles prayed and set them apart by the laying on of hands. Stephen was one of those: “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5), mighty in preaching the Word, and the first martyr to the gospel of Jesus Christ (Acts 7). Philip was another (Acts 8:5) whom the Lord used later to take the gospel to Samaria (Acts 8:4–6), to the Ethiopian official, and to Caesarea (Acts 8:26–40).

Faithful in church membership and responsibilities, known for their upright characters, filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom, the deacons were chosen and set apart to meet the growing needs of an everexpanding body of God’s people. Part of this settingapart service, Acts 6:3–6 tells us, is prayer and the laying on of hands by the apostles. This action derives from an ancient Hebrew custom where they indicated publicly that the faith community had chosen certain leaders to perform specific functions of leadership and service within that community.

The election and ordination of church deacons and deaconesses continues today in the Seventhday Adventist Church. The Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual 2 states, “Newly elected deacons cannot fill their office until they have been ordained by an ordained pastor currently credentialed by the conference” (p. 77). The Church Manual also states, “The sacred rite of ordination should be characterized by simplicity and performed in the presence of the church. The pastor . . . assisted by an elder where appropriate, ordains the deacons by prayer and the laying on of hands” (p. 77).


In Acts 6:2 the Greek word used for “servant” is diákonos. This has also been translated as “table waiter.” This inference has led to some controversy regarding the kinds of service intended by the term. However, the Greek words for “to be ministered unto” and “to minister” used in the New Testament also come from the same root word diakoneo, indicating that the word is used for varied kinds of service. Therefore the word “deacon” refers to different kinds of service related to the church.

In Greek usage, diakonia suggests many kinds of service, just as the English word service does. The words diákonos, diakoneo, and diakonia have just as wide a variety of meanings, but in general they refer to any kind of service that supplies the needs of another person. The words are used at least one hundred times in the New Testament, and they are usually translated with variants of the English words “serve” or “minister.” In a few places in the King James Version they are translated differently—diakonia is “administration” in 1 Corinthians 12:5 and 2 Corinthians 9:12, and “relief” in Acts 11:29. But in these verses and in other New Testament usage the primary meaning has to do with service and ministry.


Men were not the only ones serving the church. In his letters, Paul speaks of several women who served the church. Romans 16:1–2 refers to Phoebe as a diaconon, the same word used to describe the first seven deacons in Acts.

In Philippians 4:2–3, Paul requests believers to help two women who have worked with him—Euodia and Syntyche—and accept them as “co-workers” even as he requests other Christians to help them in their work.

Scripture supports women deaconesses with an active, serving role in the church. Paul describes that their character should be as lofty as their service: “In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything” (1 Tim 3:11). Paul is emphasizing here the woman’s role in the church as not simply being a reflection of her husband, but being a “servant” in the church.

While the record of women as deaconesses in the Bible is sparse, scriptural evidence and extra-biblical sources indicate that deaconesses were part of the history and growth of the Christian church. They ministered to other women, especially those who were poor and sick, and their ministry is recorded in the history of the church through centuries.

The Adventist Church also owes a great deal to the ministry of women for its growth. This is particularly so with Ellen G. White, through whom God chose to manifest the gift of prophecy, which guided, counseled, and led the church from its earliest days. Other women who helped in the early beginnings of the Adventist church include Sarepta Myrenda Irish Henry, Anna Smith, and others who also followed the biblical teaching of servanthood. Truly, our Adventist faith has been blessed by God and His guidance to these women to be both shepherds and servants in the early years.


Stephen was among the first to be chosen by the early church as a deacon. His life illustrates the kind of person who should be chosen to serve in this important ministry. He is described as a person “full of faith and power” who “did great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8, NKJV). Being “full” of the Spirit (Acts 6:5) implies that Stephen experienced what the apostle would later explain as the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22–23, NKJV).

Although Stephen was a person of great faith and spirituality, he did not see his role as one to exercise power and authority over other leaders. He had the support of the congregation but did not use this to dominate the church or promote himself. He just allowed God to work in and through him. Of him White says:

Stephen, the foremost of the seven deacons, was a man of deep piety and broad faith. Though a Jew by birth, he spoke the Greek language and was familiar with the customs and manners of the Greeks. He therefore found opportunity to preach the gospel in the synagogues of the Greek Jews. He was very active in the cause of Christ and boldly proclaimed his faith. Learned rabbis and doctors of the law engaged in public discussion with him, confidently expecting an easy victory. But “they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake.” Not only did he speak in the power of the Holy Spirit, but it was plain that he was a student of the prophecies and learned in all matters of the law. He ably defended the truths that he advocated and utterly defeated his opponents.3

Stephen’s full understanding of the biblical narrative of salvation history, as his speech in Acts 7 reveals, and his total commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ shows to Christians of all times what it truly means to be a deacon of Jesus: to believe in Him, to trust Him, to serve Him, to preach His word without any hesitation, to proclaim Him as the Savior of the world, and then finally be ready to give himself if necessary in dying for Him. Therefore, a deacon is a person in full commitment to his Lord.


Who set the example and taught these early believers to be servants to others? How were the first apostles and disciples, first deacons and deaconesses, trained? The story goes farther back to its roots in history, back to the Old Testament. There the prophet Isaiah, foretelling the coming of Christ as the Savior, predicted His first advent ministry in terms of a servant. Isaiah 61:1– 2 has the Savior describe His ministry as one of service: “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me, because the LORD has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; . . . to comfort all who mourn” (NKJV). In Isaiah 53:11 God calls Jesus “My righteous Servant [who] shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities” (NKJV). Jesus Himself was fully self-conscious of His mission on earth as one of a suffering servant. On one occasion, He said, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matt 20:28, NKJV). Throughout His life on earth, Jesus taught, healed, preached, and ministered to others that they may have a taste of God’s love and be drawn to Him. His life was a source of every blessing human beings needed: emotional health, spiritual healing, physical well-being, training for God’s service, and above all a guidance that all may become like Him—children of God.

Therefore, the concept of service so crucial to the ministry and authenticity of deacons and deaconesses links the church with Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Church and the Servant of God. Christ Himself points to His own life of service as the model for Christians to follow: “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:43–45).

The service of Jesus embraced many facets. He fed the hungry, He cared for the poor, He healed the sick, He loved the children, He had compassion on the widows, and He sought to fill every type of human need— spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical. In doing so, He fulfilled the essence of pure religion: “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble” (Jas 1:27). He is the model for all Christians, particularly for deacons and deaconesses. In word and deed Jesus showed His followers the true meaning of service: it is not power and control; it is not position and authority; it is service in the truest sense to God and humanity.

Such service-oriented ministry of deacons and deaconesses, elders and pastors is mutually supportive and cooperative. Such service is essential for the sustaining, strengthening, and growth of the church.

1 Ellen G. White, Acts of the Apostles, 88.
2 All references to and quotations from the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual are from the 18th edition (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2010).
3 White, Acts of the Apostles, 97.

This article was originally printed in the Seventh-day Adventist Deacon’s and Deaconess’s Handbook, published by the General Conference Ministerial Association.