So what’s right?
There are two things we need to answer.
First, what is the true Biblical plan for deacons, if we can even retrieve one.
Second, what’s the best way to organize the ministries of the church, consistent with the first point?
What deacons are really supposed to do
The organization of the early church is patterned, in part, on the Jewish synagogue. Both the synagogue and early churches were overseen by elders. Both judged disputes between their members outside the government’s court system (1 Cor 6:1-8).
However, the synagogues had no office called “deacon.” But 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 (J. Stephen Sandifer, Deacons: Male and Female? 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!
And this suits the parallel pasage in 1 Tim 5 quite nicely. Paul discusses the qualifications for men who were to handle the support of certain widows in chapter 3. In chapter 5, he describes which widows should be supported by the church. It fits.
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. 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 were 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.
(We must not bind what we learn from the Patristics as doctrine. Ever. Rather, the point of these references is to disprove our entirely imaginary doctrine of what deacons are to do. It’s not in the Bible, and the best evidence is that it’s dead wrong.)
So what should deacons do?
I’m not willing to say that a church must have deacons. After all, many congregations are mentioned in the scriptures, but we only know that the church in Phillipi had deacons. We know that Paul told Timothy to ordain deacons in Ephesus — and to create a list of widows to be supported. And we know that Paul told Titus to ordain elders but said nothing about deacons — or widows.
We know that Phoebe may have been a deacon in the church at Cenchrea. And we know that apostles appointed some men to do what is probably the work of deacons in Jerusalem — motivated by the need to delegate, but not so that the Jerusalem church would finally be scripturally organized. The appointment arose from need, not doctrine.
So it’s clear to me that there’s no necessity to have deacons. You can be organized quite scripturally without deacons. If God cared so much about having deacons, he’d have told us what they are to do.
But if you must have deacons, they should — as a group — be over the food program for widows. That’s the only example we have in scripture. If you’re a fan of the Regulative Principle (I’m not), that’s a binding example.
Otherwise, do whatever suits you, but realize that you’re just making it up out of nothing. But I’m not greatly offended by a political solution. As Paul says, we are called to peace (which is what the rabbis said when there was no perfect solution for a tough problem).
How would we organize without deacons?
Better. Much, much better.
And the structure you choose will change with the size of the congregation and how extensive your ministries are. Nonetheless, there are some general, scriptural principles that we often ignore.
1. God gives gifts and talents to his children, and he expects us to use them — and to let each other use them — in his service.
(1 Cor 12:19-21) If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”
Who should head the nursery? Well, whom has God gifted for that service?
May a woman speak directly to the elders about her budget and other program needs? Of course.
But if every ministry leader speaks directly to the elders, won’t they be overwhelmed? Probably.
The solution is not to put deacons over the programs. The solution is to create some sort of “middle management” (this will surely trigger a comment or two). This can be a minister of involvement or a member who is gifted in administration. Or a committee made up of key leaders. There are lots of alternatives, but the elders have to delegate, so they’re not approving purchase orders for diapers and grape juice.
2. Delegate. I know I already said that, but I mean really delegate.
In a church that’s large enough, the elders need to turn the budget over to a committee or individual gifted in such things. The budget should be set with the input and participation of all ministry leaders. And one or two elders probably should sit in to referee and answer questions.
Elders, as a group, have no business handling delegable duties. They certainly should be overseers in more than name, but they can’t also be shepherds and fulfill their duties as teachers of the word if they’re running small groups and the Bible class program. Delegate. Moses did it. The apostles did it. You can do it. Really.
3. Women have gifts and talents, too. And women can handle far more tasks than we often allow. If God gives them the gifts, he authorizes them to use them.
Let them serve on committees, participate in the budgeting process, and otherwise be first-class members. Most of your members and volunteers are women. Make sure they participate fully in budgeting and setting the church’s vision.
4. In case you missed the most obvious point — God expects your church to serve the needy. In the First Century, one of the greatest societal problems was unsupported widows. Men generally married much younger women (a Jewish man married around age 20 to a girl who was a year or less past puberty!) Those women who survived several childbirths (a very risky proposition in those days) outlived their husbands by many years.
There was no social security and no 401(k) plans. Most people had to work a week to earn enough to buy a week’s worth of food. Widows, therefore, were often destitute.
Nowadays, we still have destitute widows, but not nearly at the level as 2,000 years ago. Nonetheless, the principle remains true. Share with each other. Support those who need it. And your church should have programs that serve the needy. That’s the real lesson of the deacon passages, I think.