We have taught for a century that a scripturally organized church has a plurality of both elders and deacons. However, we seem not to have noticed that the Bible nowhere says what it is that deacons are to do. As a result, we’ve fallen into the assumption that all ministry programs are required to be headed by a deacon, with very little thought or Biblical justification.
This thinking has created the very practical problem that a deacon is often not the best qualified person to run a ministry. The children’s Bible program may well be run by a deacon who never teaches children. The elders felt obligated to put a deacon in that slot on the organizational chart, even though none of the deacons knows a thing about teaching children. Meanwhile, the women who have degrees in early childhood education or who’ve taught children for decades are forced to answer to a man who knows nothing of their ministry.
When the elders and deacons meet to set the budget, the poor deacon doesn’t know what the program really needs. When the architect for the new education wing asks for his input, he doesn’t know that the program needs its space doubled, and so he doesn’t ask for what they really need.
As a result, those with the gifts and talents to make the program prosper are denied the opportunity to do so, all because of this notion that a deacon has to be over every ministry.
How did we get ourselves in this mess? Well, we made at least two doctrinal mistakes.
First, we assumed that just because 1 Timothy 3 has a list of qualifications for deacons, all churches have to have deacons. But the scriptural evidence for this is suspect.
1 Timothy 5 has a list of qualifications for an order of widows, and we don’t appoint widows to such a list. It seems rather arbitrary that we enforce one list as a condition of salvation and utterly ignore the other.
When Paul wrote Titus, he gave instructions to appoint elders but said nothing of deacons. Evidently, there was a need for deacons in Ephesus (where Timothy was when 1 Timothy was written) but not Crete (where Titus was).
Moreover, while there are many references to elders, shepherds, and overseers in the New Testament, deacons are only mentioned in 1 Timothy 3, Acts 6, the introduction to Philippians, and Romans 16, with regard to Phoebe (which many dispute). The evidence is that not every church had deacons.
Second, we’ve read Acts 6 as describing deacons as program heads, which is just not what it says.
(Acts 6:1-4) In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 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. 3 Brothers, 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 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
Although the passage doesn’t use the word “deacon,” for reasons I’ll explain later, it seems fairly clear that these men were the first deacons. In fact, if they weren’t, then we have no Biblical guidance at all for what deacons are to do.
The seven weren’t appointed to head seven programs. Rather, the seven were a committee that was responsible for the feeding of poor widows. In modern terms, they ran the benevolence program. But they weren’t liaisons or supervisors. Rather, they were said to “wait on tables.” These men were surely more than waiters, but they were plainly expected to be personally involved in the ministry they oversaw.
Now, this interpretation fits the flow of history very well. Stephen Sandifer’s excellent book, Deacons: Male and Female?, is a very comprehensive study of the history of deacons in the church.
In Gentile religions, deacons were frequently appointed, and the term normally referred to the persons handling the organization’s funds or the persons responsible for distributions of food to the needy. The Gentile deacons were not rulers, but simply trusted men or women who conducted a congregation’s benevolent program.
The citizens of the first century composed a broad economic spectrum, making philanthropy very significant. Finance became a central focus of many [pagan] associations. The funds were brought to one man, the episkopos, and he then gave them to servants known as oikonomoi (managers, stewards) or diakonoi (servants, deacons) to distribute. The benevolent need was even greater in Christianity because perpetual virginity and perpetual widowhood were encouraged, thus increasing the proportion of single women requiring financial assistance.
The diakonoi were those who commonly served tables, especially in distributing the meat of sacrifice among the festival company in pagan religious associations.
(Sandifer, 11-13). The job of the seven men appointed in Acts 6 is so close to the meaning of diakonos in the pagan congregations that preceded Christianity that this passage surely describes the role of deacons–members charged to care for the needy.
This conclusion is reinforced by the writings of uninspired Christians from the early years of the church. It is evident from scripture and early church history that many congregations served the Lord’s Supper at a common meal, known as the love feast, or simply the agape. See, for example, Jude 12.
These common meals also served as a means of dispensing food to the poor. Thus, the deacons who were charged with the distribution of food soon were also charged with handling the elements of the Lord’s Supper.
In Trallians 2, Ignatius (c. AD 107), the bishop of Antioch, states,
[D]eacons, who are ministers of the mysteries of Christ Jesus; for they are not [just] ministers of meat and drink, but servants of the Church of God.
(Sandifer at page 69). The reference to “mysteries” is very probably to the Lord’s Supper. “Meat and drink” would be a reference to the love feast.
According to the Shepherd of Hermas 3:9:26 (c. AD 120), the job of a deacon included care for widows and orphans, and bad deacons are those guilty of misappropriating benevolent funds (Sandifer at page 69).
Justin Martyr (c. AD 155) states that deacons took the Lord’s Supper to the sick who could not attend the assembly (First Apology 67; Symonds 410). Deacons were also charged with handling the elements of the Lord’s Supper (First Apology 67) (Sandifer at page 70).
We clearly see that the deacons began with a charge to handle the distribution of food for the care of a church’s widows. This role expanded to include the congregation’s love feast (where such distributions often occurred), and then expanded again to include the Lord’s Supper (which was often combined with the love feast). In the Third Century, the role of deacons expanded further into a formal clergy.
This bit of history is entirely inconsistent with the notion that deacons are to each head a different church ministry or program or that every church program should be headed by a deacon. Indeed, so far as we can tell, all deacons were charged with the same ministry in the New Testament and the Second Century.
Now, this conclusion helps us understand 1 Timothy 3’s list of qualifications for deacons. It’s hardly obvious why a man charged to cut the grass or lock the doors has to meet such high standards. But if he’s charged with a benevolence program where he’ll be dealing with congregational funds and unmarried women, then he really needs to be a man of excellent character.
So what does this mean for us today? As a doctrinal matter, I think it means we don’t have to have deacons unless we have a program for distributing food to widows (if then).
Now, the Greek word for deacon is diakonos, which means “servant.” If a church wants to appoint someone as a servant and give him a title, certainly the church may do so. But deacons do not, by virtue of their office, have the right to oversee a program, to sit as part of a decision-making body over the ministries of the church, or to meet with the elders. A congregation is free to organize itself differently, if it wishes.