Immediately after giving the qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy 3:1–7, Paul lists the qualifications for deacons in verses 8–13. However, in comparison with elders, the Bible does not give us as clear a picture of what deacons do. In fact, we rarely see deacons mentioned specifically.
What Do Deacons Do?
But we do see a powerful picture in the word “deacon” (from the Greek diakonos). This word is used at least one hundred times in the New Testament, and it almost always refers to some form of service or ministry. We see a deacon-like ministry taking place in Acts 6, where a form of the word “deacon” is used three times in the first four verses (see the words in bold below):
Acts 6:1–7 Teaches Us What Deacons Do
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. (Acts 6:1–7)
Though every member of the church is called to serve, deacons lead others who are serving, which is why I refer to them as “leading servants.” Notice that a form of the word “deacon” is also used in verse 4 to refer to the apostles, who were servants of the Word.
Three Responsibilities of Deacons
We see two primary pictures of leadership illustrated in Acts 6:1–7. There is a group of leaders responsible primarily for prayer and the ministry of the Word, which is what elders do. Then another group rises up to lead in specific areas of service, which is what deacons do. This passage outlines the three primary responsibilities of deacons.
1. Deacons meet needs according to the Word.
The primary meaning of the word diakonos is spiritual service aimed at meeting specific needs. The church in Jerusalem was growing and sharing its resources, and it needed someone to lead in the distribution of food. In other words, there was a specific need that necessitated these leaders. Part of the reason we do not see many specifics in terms of the responsibilities for deacons in the New Testament is because different needs in the church necessitate different types of leaders at different times in the church.
Deacons not only meet needs that arise from specific circumstances, but they also assume accountability for specific commands. Scripture necessitates that the church look after widows, so in order to carry out God’s commands, these deacons in Acts 6 assumed accountability for the church’s obedience to God in this area.
2. Deacons support the ministry of the Word.
One consequence of widows being overlooked in the distribution of food was that the apostles would be taken away from their primary leadership responsibilities, namely, prayer and the proclamation of the Word. The mission of the church would suffer. Here we see the balance that God intends for His church—to be fully devoted to the Word and fully devoted to meeting needs in the world.
To put it another way, we might say that deacons serve elders so that elders can lead. Stephen and the other deacons freed the apostles to devote themselves to prayer and the Word. The deacons are not a second power block in the church, a body of leaders competing with the elders to provide overall leadership in the church. No, deacons help to ensure that elders are leading with the Word as God has designed them to, and in the process, deacons lead others to serve.
Only seven leading servants are selected in Acts 6 (v. 5), which is certainly not a large enough group to handle all the situations facing a church that contained thousands of people by this time. These deacons were organizing others to make sure the work was done. Everyone in the church was intended to serve, and the deacons were helping lead all these servants.
3. Deacons unify the body around the Word.
In Acts 6 the unity of the church was at stake. Physical neglect was causing spiritual disunity, and Christians were beginning to complain against each other. There was tension, and the deacons were appointed to squelch the rising disunity in the church. They did this by demonstrating a Christ-like character with a mission mindset.
The church in Jerusalem was growing at a breathtaking speed, and it needed leaders who would unite together around the church’s mission. This means that deacons should not be small-minded, engrossed in turf wars, caring only about their area of service. Rather, they know the mission of the church, and they work to help the church stay focused on that mission. Every facet of their ministry is a part of that mission.
The church exists to glorify God by making disciples and multiplying churches among all nations. Deacons exist to make sure needs are met in the church in a way that keeps the mission front and center. And much like elders, deacons are intended to model the character of Christ as they carry out their responsibilities. Deacons should be honorable, genuine, self-controlled, generous, and devoted to God’s Word. A deacon must be faithful in every area of life, though, again, we are not talking about sinless perfection.
–This article is an excerpt from Twelve Traits: Embracing God’s Design for the Church, 131–134.