I refer the reader to the excellent book Deacons: Male and Female? by J. Stephen Sandifer. Sandifer explains in great detail the history of deacons in the synagogues, the early church, and throughout history. The research on which this section is based (but not the arguments made) is a very brief condensation of his work.
What does a deacon do?
What does a deacon do? There are only two sources of information: the word for deacon and Acts 6. “Deacon,” or diakonos, is an untranslated word when used of a church official. It actually means “servant” or “minister.” It does not mean minister in the sense of “preacher.” The same word was used by the ancients to refer to any servant, such as a waiter or busboy.
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 (overseer or bishop), 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.
The same word refers to either a male or female deacon. The Jewish synagogues had many officials, including elders, but only rarely was a Jewish official referred to as a deacon (Sandifer, pages 11-13).
Commentators are split as to whether the seven men appointed in Acts 6 were deacons, elders, or just men appointed to a task. Certainly, it would seem that Acts was written late enough that Luke would have called them the first deacons if they were. On the other hand, their duties closely correspond to the pagan religious use of the word.
(Acts 6:1-6) 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. 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. 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 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
These men were appointed to handle the feeding of certain widows. Their duties are contrasted to the apostles’ prayer and ministry of the word. This service is so close to the meaning of diakonos in the pagan congregations that preceded Christianity that this passage surely describes the role of deacons. If it does not, then nothing in the Bible tells us what deacons are to do!
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 (Jude 12, for example). 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 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).
Interestingly, the only other role found for deacons in the Second Century is as teachers. This association goes back to the Syrian Didache 15 (c. AD 100), where elders and deacons are identified with the prophets and teachers in Antioch, evidently in an effort to conform Antioch’s historical practices (Acts 13:1-3) with the increasingly standard pattern of elders and deacons (Sandifer at page 68). However, the Shepherd (3:9:26) lists deacons as church officers of lower rank than the office of teacher. And yet the same book associates deacons with the instruction of converts.
We must be careful not to place too much emphasis on these uninspired writings. After all, it was during this same period that the notion of a single bishop above the elders, among many other innovations, evolved. And yet 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. Indeed, all deacons were charged with the same ministry in the New Testament and the Second Century. And the history is certainly inconsistent with the notion that the deacons meet as a body to make financial or “non-spiritual” decisions.
Deacons are charged with benevolent functions for the benefit of the poor of the congregation. The only Biblical example of the role of deacons is the distribution of food to widows, and this is exactly the use of the word we find in pre-New Testament times and post-New Testament times.
In fact, the apostles ironically refer to their job as “waiting on tables.” This hardly indicates a position of great authority, but perhaps one involving responsibility for a great deal of money. There is no support in the Bible, pre-New Testament history, or post-New Testament history for giving deacons any greater or broader role.
In Acts 6, we see that a committee of seven men headed the food distribution program. They didn’t head seven programs. They were charged with a common task as a group.
If this is the pattern for deacons, we also have their qualifications — “full of the Spirit and wisdom.” And we understand why these men had to meet high moral qualifications — they handled the church’s benevolence fund.
Were deacons universal during New Testament times?
Deacons do not appear to have been universal even in New Testament times. Why did Paul give Timothy instructions on the appointment of deacons but not Titus? Paul told Titus whom to ordain as elders. Why didn’t Paul tell him about deacons too? Was Titus supposed to ask Timothy (who was many days away in Ephesus while Titus was an evangelist to the island of Crete)? If Titus had access to the book of 1 Timothy, why tell him whom to pick for elders?
I don’t know the answers, but it may have depended on the sizes or ages of the congregations. Ephesus was presumably a fairly large church, being an older congregation in a very large city. But this is sheer speculation.
Antioch apparently had “prophets and teachers” rather than elders and deacons. Jerusalem had apostles and elders (Acts 15:4).
We can only prove that the church at Philippi had deacons (Phil. 1:1) and that Timothy was supposed to ordain deacons in Ephesus. We can deduce that Jerusalem likely had deacons (Acts 6). If Phoebe was a deacon, then the church at Cenchrea had deacons (Rom. 16:1). There is no other mention of the office.