In the early church, we find further support for deacons being teachers. The Didache (100-125 AD) says that deacons “are to be honored, “for they too carry out the ministry of prophets and teachers” (Did. 15.1).
Later on, we find in the early church fathers evidence that deacons were involved in administering the Lord’s Supper, in handling church benevolence funds, and otherwise serving as aides to the elders or bishop. The office is also associated with administration of baptism, with female deacons being ordained due to the practice of some churches of baptizing converts in the nude.
In short, it’s difficult to declare that deacons did one and only one thing, but under Collins’ translation, their role in Acts 6 was as teachers, assisting the apostles in their ministry of the word. On the other hand, this translation leads to taking the Seven as something more like elders. Nor has this translation gained a scholarly consensus, whereas the scholars seem largely agreed on Collins’ re-definition of diakonos.
We must therefore proceed cautiously, but at the least, it seems that the office of deacon is not tied to serving widows but as aids to the elders, most likely taking on whatever responsibility the situation requires. After all, the Jerusalem church did not appoint men as deacons in order to be scripturally organized. They were not thinking in terms of fitting some pattern of organization. Rather, there was a need that the apostles could not personally meet, and so they delegated their work to others.
That being the case, we err when we define X or Y as necessarily the work of someone bearing the title “deacon.” We have no biblical basis for imposing such a requirement on the churches.
Qualifications for the office
1 Tim 3:8-13 gives a list of qualifications for deacons, but Acts 6:3 only requires that they be of good repute and be filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom. Surely, the equipping of deacons by the Spirit for whatever task they are to be given is the more important test, and so we should take 1 Tim 3:8-13 is describing the characteristics of someone having a good reputation, filled with the Spirit, and gifted for this task.
(1 Tim. 3:8-10 ESV) 8 Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. 9 They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless.
These are just the sort of standards that you would apply to someone who might visit widows to teach them the gospel.
(1 Tim. 3:12 NIV) A deacon must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well.
This language suggests a role that might lead a man to sexual temptation, such as spending time with the widows of the church, as well as some administrative responsibility.
If we ask what jobs these qualifications would seem to suit, the likely answer is that deacons are simply members charged with helping elders fulfill their duties. The elders’ duties certainly include teaching, and so we see that deacons are to “hold to the mystery of the faith,” that is, know their gospel well. And we see that deacons are to have some administrative skills (“manage his children and his household well”) and be trustworthy when it comes to money (“not greedy for dishonest gain”).
We cannot easily draw lines as to what deacons can and cannot do — which means there is no way that we can distinguish “deacon” from the modern terms “teacher” or “ministry leader” or “small group leader.” All are acting, directly or indirectly, at the behest of the elders to perform the elders’ work. All these roles have precedent in the literature of the early church.
Defining the office: traditional hermeneutic
So there are two approaches that might be argued for.
First, if you want to insist on the Churches of Christ’s traditional “command, necessary inference, binding example” hermeneutic (which I don’t agree with), you really must limit deacons to the tasks described in Acts 6.
Under our traditional hermeneutic, allowing deacons to take on any other role would be to act without authority — because of the nature of a binding example. As explained at one Church of Christ website,
If an example is set forth as unapproved, it is sinful. If it is set forth as approved, it is not only authoritative, it is binding. If more than one way to do the same thing is set forth as approved, then each of the patterns can be considered authorized. However, where a singular example is the only approved example, it becomes a binding example, as no other precedent or binding example is provided.
They are authorized to act, as a committee, to handle the distribution of food to the widows or, if we adopt Collins’ translation, to teach the gospel to the widows. Period. We have an approved example of deacons’ work. It is the only approved example. Therefore, it is a binding example.
If the binding example principle limits how often we may take communion and how often we must give contributions, then the same principle governs regarding what deacons may do.
Under our traditional hermeneutic, there is no basis at all in scripture for making deacons into program heads, requiring other church volunteers to deal with the elders through the deacons, or making “deacon” a title associated with any task not found in Acts 6:1-6. Show me the command, necessary inference, or binding example that authorizes a deacon to be the church treasurer, to oversee building maintenance, or to sit in meetings and vote on the budget.
Ironically, those who most insist on a church being “scripturally organized” as a condition to being saved are the ones who stray furthest from the word by imposing commands regarding deacons that are just not in the Bible.
The origin of “scripturally organized”
The Churches of Christ have a long history of being closely connected with the Baptist Churches. Pre-Civil War, many of our congregations were “converted” Baptist Churches. And we adopted the Baptist “Landmark” Movement theology in the late 19th Century wholesale.
As a result, our history is filled with debates against the Baptists, and so we’ve tended to exaggerate the importance of our differences — as most of our polemics have been aimed at persuading Baptists to join our denomination.
One of the key differences we have is Churches of Christ are overseen (shepherded) by a plurality of elders (bishops, shepherds, pastors), while Baptist Churches have a single pastor.
Baptist Churches have a board of deacons, men, who oversee the “secular” work of the church and hire and fire the pastor. The pastor oversees the spiritual work of the church. In the Churches of Christ, we have deacons, but they are officers subordinate to the elders.
And so, in our debates with the Baptists, we emphasize the importance of a plurality of elders (we have this; they do not) and the subordination of deacons to the elders (same), with deacons not having authority properly held by the elders (same).
And then, to bring the argument home, we conclude that having the right kind of elders and deacons is a “mark of the church” showing the Churches of Christ to be the one true church and the Baptists to be in error and therefore damned. Yes, damned. The argument insists on being scripturally organized as a condition to being saved as a means of inducing people to change denominations on fear of hell fire.
But there is, of course, no scriptural basis for making scriptural organization a salvation issue. The Bible just doesn’t speak in those terms. We invented this teaching in order to win converts — and it’s just not in the Bible.
In fact, if God were that concerned with scriptural organization, surely he’d have told us what deacons are to do. Or been clearer on whether women may be deacons. Or told us how deacons are to be ordained. After all, if we take 1 Tim 3 seriously, the deacons (and elders) are to be ordained by Timothy — that is, the evangelist, not the congregation. And yet in Acts 6, the deacons were chosen by the church and then ordained by the apostles. So which is the saving pattern?