Last week the College hosted the initial Deacons’ Seminars in Magherafelt and Swords. At those events we gifted the churches present with Matt Smethurst’s excellent book entitled Deacons. Today’s blog is a summary of that book by way of a short essay by Matt Smethurst. This essay first appeared at: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/deacons/. Future Deacons’ Seminars are planned for September: https://www.irishbaptistcollege.org/events/deacons-seminar-september/.
Deacons are model servants appointed to a local church office. They are deployed to assist the pastors or elders by protecting church unity, organizing practical service, and meeting tangible needs.
In a general sense, every Christian is called to be a deacon (the New Testament word diakonos simply means “servant”). But the designation is not always generic; it is also a formal church office. Deacons—rightly defined and deployed—are an irreplaceable gift to Christ’s people. They are model servants who excel in being attentive and responsive to tangible needs in the life of a church. In what ways do they serve? By assisting the elders, guarding the ministry of the word, organizing service, caring for the needy, protecting unity, mobilizing ministry, and more.
A church without effective deacons may exhibit signs of health for a while, but over time its health will suffer. We rob ourselves of the benefits of God’s revealed wisdom when we either unduly elevate the role of deacons (say, to pseudo-elders) or unduly reduce their role (say, to glorified janitors). Biblically understood, deacons are a cavalry of servants, deputized to execute the elders’ vision by coordinating various ministries. When deacons flourish, the whole congregation wins.
The word evokes vastly different feelings. For some, “deacons” is a bit nostalgic, perhaps a throwback to their childhood church. For others, it’s beautiful; the word brings beloved faces to mind—specific servants laboring for the welfare of Christ’s church. Yet for too many it’s a painful word. How many times has the work of a church been hindered and harmed by those called to be its most exemplary servants?
And how many times has “deacon” become a biblical misnomer, with well-meaning churches installing them for the wrong purpose? In such cases, the deacons may be faithful, but they are not really deacons; they function more like what Scripture calls “elders.”
In a general sense, of course, every Christian is called to be a deacon (the New Testament word diakonos simply means “servant”). Indeed, believers are those who walk in the footsteps of the ultimate deacon, the suffering servant who “came not to be deaconed but to deacon, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
Where Deacons Began
Despite its importance, the New Testament actually says quite little about the diaconate. Apart from a passing reference in Philippians 1:1, a list of qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:8–13, and a possible reference in Romans 16:1, there are no explicit remarks on the office.
Nonetheless, Christians have long seen precedent for deacons in Acts 6:1–7, where Luke reports on the Jerusalem congregation:
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
It’s worth noting that the apostles neither dismiss nor minimize the complaint of these Hellenistic, or Grecian, Jews. In fact, they see rectifying the problem as a “duty” (v. 3). And yet, the apostles believe the interests of the whole church—widows included—will be best served through a strategic division of labor. Rather than risk getting distracted from the ministry of the word and prayer, they deputize a separate group to coordinate a resolution to the problem.
Without downplaying the importance of caring for widows, the apostles clarify the focus of their labors. They will devote their best energy to shepherding the church by means of teaching and prayer. Note the play on words, rendered literally:
It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to deacon tables. . . . But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to deaconing the word. (Acts 6:2, 4)
Read hastily, this might seem rather callous. Do the apostles lack concern for the welfare of the vulnerable? Are they elevating “spiritual” ministry above “practical” ministry—or perhaps not recognizing the latter as real ministry at all? No. By prioritizing Scripture and prayer, the apostles are choosing to stay focused on the whole church’s spiritual welfare, even as they affirm the Hellenists’ physical needs. In fact, they recognize a fundamental truth: a church whose ministers are chained to the tyranny of the urgent—which so often shows up in “tangible problems”—is a church removing its heart to strengthen its arm. It’s a kind of slow-motion suicide.
This strategic division of labor was a sign of strength in the first church, and it signals strength in churches today. Pastors (or deacons, for that matter) who try to do everything end up doing a disservice to everyone.
Of the many lessons for deacons from Acts 6, perhaps most overlooked is their role in preserving congregational unity. The situation was no mere culinary quibble. The apostles were faced with a natural fault line that threatened to fracture the very unity Christ died to achieve. The gospel insists, after all, that our unity in Christ supersedes any worldly difference. So make no mistake: the apostles did not delegate this problem to others because it wasn’t important, but because it was. They could have imposed a swift, superficial solution and moved on. Instead they laid groundwork for an ongoing solution and a permanent church office.
In light of the task entrusted to the seven, and the underlying conflict it was meant to solve, it’s clear that deacons should be those who muffle shockwaves, not make them reverberate further. Contentious persons make poor deacons, for they only compound the kind of headaches deacons are meant to relieve. The best deacons, then, are far more than business managers or handymen. They are believers with fine-tuned “conflict radars.” They love solutions more than drama and rise to respond, in creatively constructive ways, to promote the harmony of the whole.
What Deacons Must Be
Later in the New Testament, the apostle Paul outlines qualifications for the office of overseer or elder, before turning his attention to the office of deacon:
Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives [gynaikas; NIV “the women”] likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus. (1 Tim. 3:8–13)
Perhaps most surprising here is Paul’s relative disinterest in what potential deacons are able to do. This paragraph is not about a skill set. Its focus is squarely on who deacons must be. (Don’t miss this easy-to-forget lesson: God cares more about character than about gifting.)
The diaconal requirements are divided into three “negatives” and three “positives”—but first, one flies like a banner over the whole list: deacons must be “dignified” (NIV “worthy of respect”). This doesn’t mean they must be perfect; it signifies they must be humble, repentant, and exemplars for the flock. So what does it look like, practically, to be dignified? The passage points to six things.
Paul lists the “negative” requirements first—what a deacon must not be. All three relate to a particular fruit of the Spirit: self-control.
1. Not Double-Tongued
Because deacons are in the business of serving, they will have countless interactions with people. And these interactions won’t always be with the shiniest saints. Deacons will often be confronted with sufferers and strugglers, some of whom will be disgruntled and prone to complaining.
In these interactions, a deacon must be compassionate while remaining on guard. Being double-tongued is not a minor flaw or personality quirk; it is a symptom of hypocritical pride. It’s consciously saying one thing to one group—and then saying or insinuating something else to a different group. A double tongue indicates a fear of man, and a deacon driven by fear of man can destroy a whole church.
2. Not Addicted to Much Wine
Not only are deacons to be self-controlled in their speech, they’re also to be self-controlled in their appetites. This standard prohibits drunkenness (cf. Eph. 5:18) and also challenges anything that would enslave the deacon’s heart or impair their judgment.
It’s possible that Paul included this qualification since the nature of diaconal work would at times include bringing wine to the sick for medicinal reasons (1 Tim. 5:23). But whatever the purpose, the principle is plain: qualified deacons will not indulge cravings or abuse substances that would hinder their work or their witness.
3. Not Greedy for Dishonest Gain
Qualified deacons will control their speech, their appetites, and also their wallets (specifically, what goes into their wallets). While these virtues mark any mature believer, the nature of diaconal work will sometimes put deacons in contact with church money. So Paul warns against installing anyone known for being deceptive, cutting moral corners, or obsessing over money. A money-obsessed person is not qualified to serve the church of God.
After listing three “negative” requirements, Paul turns to three “positive” ones.
4. Holds the Mystery of the Faith with a Clear Conscience
It can be easy to assume that deacons—given the practical focus of their work—don’t need to know much doctrine. Deacon work is hand work, not head work, one might think. Can’t they just stay in their lane and outsource theology to the pastors? Not according to Scripture. Although the primary responsibility for teaching and governing falls to the church’s elders—and their roles must not be confused—deacons are not exempt from knowing their Bibles. In fact, they will often be in situations where they will have opportunity to speak biblical truth. The question, then, is not whether deacons will be theologians; it’s whether they will be good ones.
5. Tested and Proved
How many times has a church been harmed by a deacon who had no business being one? And how many of those times could the disaster have been prevented by heeding this clear mandate?
One reason this standard can get sidelined, I imagine, is because Paul isn’t explicit about the length or nature of the testing. What should the process entail? How long should it last? Individual churches must exercise wisdom and prayerful discernment. What’s nonnegotiable is that a season of testing occurs.
6. Faithful Family Life
Paul’s final requirement is that a deacon’s godliness extend to his closest relationships. If he is married, he must love his wife and be faithful to her alone—a one-woman man. If he has children, he must raise them in an atmosphere of gentle firmness and joyful love. The apostle could not be clearer: there is no such thing as a qualified deacon who is a lousy husband or dad.
What Deacons Must Do
We have seen what a deacon should be, but what is a deacon meant to do? On the broadest level, diaconal work encompasses three things in the life of a church.
1. Spotting and Meeting Tangible Needs
As we saw earlier, the apostles’ response to the brewing conflict in Acts 6 was to lead the congregation in setting apart seven men who would coordinate a solution to the problem. Informed by this precedent, diaconal work through the centuries has focused chiefly on tangible needs, particularly caring for the poor and vulnerable. And diaconal work should never involve less than such benevolence care or mercy ministry. The larger principle of the deacon’s role, though, includes anything in a church’s life that threatens to distract and derail elders from their primary responsibilities.
A deacon should be skilled at spotting practical needs and then taking the initiative to meet them in an efficient manner. But the best deacons don’t just react to present problems—they also anticipate future ones.
2. Protecting and Promoting Church Unity
Just as the seven were tasked to salvage the unity of the Jerusalem church, so deacons today are meant to play a pivotal role as “shock absorbers” in congregational life.
Again, a quarrelsome Christian will make a poor deacon. So, what should mark a deacon? A palpable sense that they have not yet arrived. A spirit of gentleness. A willingness to be flexible. The ability to stand on conviction without being combative.
A qualified deacon will increasingly resemble the kind of unity-building love the Bible so clearly commands.
3. Serving and Supporting the Ministry of the Elders
It is not accidental that Paul turns his attention to deacons (1 Tim. 3:8–12) immediately after discussing elders (1 Tim. 3:1–7). The structure suggests deacons are both paired with and subordinate to the elders they support. This relationship between the offices is also implied in the other passage where deacons (plural) are mentioned (Phil. 1:1):
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.
The purpose of deacons is inseparably tied to the priority of elders. By enabling elders to stay focused on their teaching and prayer roles, deacons both guard and advance the ministry of the word. They are like a congregation’s offensive linemen, whose job is to protect the quarterback. Without them, elders will suffer incessant distraction and get sacked by an onrush of practical demands.
The elders of a church are not infallible—far from it. Nevertheless, insofar as we are looking to the Bible as our guide for church governance, deacons are never presented as chaperones of the elders who impose a potential “check” on their every decision. In a healthy church, godly deacons execute the vision and oversight of godly elders, not the other way around.
Meeting tangible needs, promoting church unity, and assisting the elders—three broad parameters for diaconal service, beneath which lies much room for flexibility in application.
Deaconing is not for the faint of heart. Much of it is thankless—grunt work, not stage work. But here is a promise:
For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus. (1 Tim. 3:13)
A faithful deacon, Paul says, will receive two gifts in increasing measure: respect and boldness. The first comes horizontally from the church; the other descends vertically from God. Given the “downward” shape of diaconal work, this promise of respect is particularly beautiful, isn’t it? Though the call to diaconal service is not glamorous, the reward is glorious.
A church without biblical deacons may exhibit signs of health for a while, but over time its health will suffer. We rob ourselves of the benefits of God’s revealed wisdom when we either unduly elevate the role of deacons (say, to de facto elders) or unduly reduce their role (say, to glorified janitors). Thankfully, the word of God charts a more excellent way. What it says about deacons is not extensive, but it is enough.
- Matt Smethurst, Deacons: How They Serve and Strengthen the Church (Crossway, 2021)
- Alexander Strauch, Paul’s Vision for the Deacons (Lewis & Roth, 2017)
- Benjamin Merkle, 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons (Kregel, 2007).
- Thabiti Anyabwile, Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons (Crossway, 2012)
- Timothy J. Keller, Resources for Deacons: Love Expressed through Mercy Ministries (Presbyterian Church in America Committee on Discipleship Ministries, 1985)
- Cornelis Van Dam, The Deacon: Biblical Foundations for Today’s Ministry of Mercy (Reformation Heritage, 2016)
- Mark Dever, Understanding Church Leadership, Church Basics, ed. Jonathan Leeman (B&H, 2016)
- Gregg Allison and Ryan Welsh, Raising the Dust: ‘How-To’ Equip Deacons to Serve the Church (Sojourn Network, 2019)
- 9Marks Journal: Deacons Are Shock Absorbers, May–June 2010 issue.