THE OFFICE OF A DEACON


Very soon after the inception of the Church in New Testament form, it became quite obvious that the twelve Apostles were not able to handle all the demands of the care of the church. They were not only required to teach and preach, but also to minister to the poor by way of distribution of food and necessities collected on behalf of them. The Apostles no doubt concentrated on their primary duties. But soon, it became obvious that the ministry of mercy was being given less attention, and the Grecians began to complain that their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. It was then that the Apostles called the church together and instructed them to choose “seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom” (Acts 6:3).


Purpose of the Diaconate


The immediate responsibility of these men would be to “serve tables” and they were ordained to their office with the laying of hands (Acts 6:6). Although the title “deacon” was not given to the seven in this account, it is clear that this was what was intended, and the Church has from earliest times taken these seven to be the first deacons. It is not insignificant that the word translated “serve” in verse 2 is the word diakoneô, from which we get the anglicanised word “deacon.” What does it mean to “serve tables”? The reference to the table suggests that it has to do with the distribution of food to the poor. But Luke has already indicated in Acts 4:32–35 that the Apostles were involved in receiving and managing the monetary contributions of members of the church. This work pertaining to the stewardship of the funds would certainly have been the most time consuming aspects of the ministry of mercy. Thus, it is unlikely that the Apostles were simply referring to waiting at tables and distributing food. In other words, the deacons were ordained not just as waiters at the table, but as those responsible for the stewardship of the funds being collected and the entire ministry of mercy. Furthermore, in speaking about the “need” (Grk. chreia, translated “business” in verse 3) for deacons, the Apostles added: “it is not reason that we should leave the word of God” (v. 2) and “we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word” (v. 4). The word translated “ministry” is also the noun form of the word diakoneô. The Apostles, in other words, were distinguishing their ministry pertaining to teaching (and preaching) and prayer from the duties that could be handed to the deacons. The ministry of teaching and prayer has direct spiritual bearings on the congregation, whereas ‘serving tables’ has more to do with the physical needs of the members. Thus, we may infer that the diaconate was formed not merely for the ministry of stewardship and mercy, but for all the temporal affairs of the church. It was instituted to support the Apostles and later the elders by relieving them of any administrative or logistical duties so that they may concentrate on the care of the church in pastoring, overseeing, ruling and teaching.


Responsibilities in a Modern Congregation


In the modern context, the diaconate would be responsible for duties such as: (a) collecting and counting the weekly offering; (b) maintaining the accounts of the church; (c) maintaining an active ministry of mercy by discovering or discerning and meeting the needs of members and friends of the church; (d) assessing and supporting missionaries in their material needs; (e) determination of salaries for remunerated workers in the church; (f) renting of place for worship or recommend purchases and oversee the maintenance of church building; (g) purchase, operation and maintenance of church vehicles; (h) purchase and maintenance of sound system and other necessary equipment for the church; (i) planning and ensuring the proper execution of duty rosters; (j) ensuring that everything is in order before worship services; (k) calling up and visiting the sick, as well as newcomers to our worship services; (l) initiating and overseeing the provision of helps to members needing them, such as when they are shifting house or getting married; (m) publication of materials under the direction of the session; and (n) organisation of church conferences and camps. This list, it must be noted, is not exhaustive, but it does show the amount of work that is necessary in a modern congregation. No doubt, some of these may be done by ordinary members in the church, but it is nevertheless needful, as is so often the case, that the diaconate must initiate and supervise. Also, there may be occasions of significance when prudence will require that the elders of the church handle what would ordinarily be done by deacons (cf. Rom 15:25–26). But in ordinary circumstances, the diaconate should be able to function independently, though all consequential decisions must be approved by the session, which is appointed with the power to rule the church.


What about Teaching?


The question is often asked: can deacons also teach in the church? My answer would be that under normal circumstance and when there are enough elders who are able to teach, deacons should not be required to teach. I say this for a few reasons: firstly, it is not the divinely ordained duty of deacons to teach, and therefore deacons have no authority to teach. It is true that Stephen and Philip, who were both ordained as deacons, were later found to be involved in the ministry of the Word. But there is no indication that they did so as part of their official duties as deacons. Rather, it is evident that they were later bestowed the gifts of evangelists and it was in such a temporary charismatic office that they went about preaching and teaching. Secondly, it is generally the case that a higher standard of doctrinal integrity with regards to the Confession of the church is required of elders. Thirdly, if a deacon is gifted to teach, and he is recognised by the church as such, it would be more appropriate to have him ordained as an elder if possible. Fourthly, if a deacon is faithfully serving in the diaconate, it would be difficult for him to find time to prepare the lessons.


Promotion?


Another question that is frequently asked is this: If deaconship is perpetual by virtue of ordination, then, is it possible for a deacon to eventually serve as an elder of the church? I believe it is. It is possible that Stephen and Philip were in fact divested of their duties of deaconship before serving as evangelists. As such, the Church has generally allowed that deacons may sometimes be divested of their diaconal ordination and re-ordained as elders. Calvin, for example, agreed that “the order of deacons might sometimes be the nursery out of which presbyters were taken” (Comm. on 1 Timothy, p. 87). It, however, ought not to be a norm to choose elders only out of the diaconate. Neither should we speak of promoting deacons to be elders. The contrasting duties of deaconship and that of eldership suggest that the gifts required for each office are very different. The gift of deaconship may be denoted “help” whereas the gift of eldership may be denoted “government” and “teaching” (see 1 Corinthians 12:28). But certainly, it is possible that the Lord may, in His providence, endow a person who has hitherto been serving as a deacon with gifts necessary for eldership. In the natural course of things, such may also be the case when a deacon increases in knowledge as the years go by and so becomes more and more qualified to be an elder.


Conclusion


May the Lord grant us that there will arise in our midst men meeting the qualifications of the Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 3:8–12, and also firmly resolved to serving the Lord through deaconship. “For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree [standing], and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 3:13). “For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered [diakoneô] to the saints, and do minister [diakoneô]” (Heb 6:10).


J.J. Lim