Deacons, Their Work and Qualifications


     A study of deacons, their work and qualifications is not only designed to be a companion article to "Elders, Their Work and Qualifications" (click on to read), but there is much misunderstanding relative to this subject so that the truth needs to be clearly set forth. Also, the office (function) of deacons is involved in the organization of the church that Jesus built (cp. Phili. 1: 1). For some reason, many tend to doctrinally and practically intermingle the separate functions of preacher, pastors, and deacons. A preacher can also serve as one of the pastors, but he is not "the" pastor (cf. I Pet. 5: 1, 2). Elders, pastors, or overseers are always spoken of in the plural relative to serving in a local church (cp. Acts 14: 23). Deacons and elders are clearly distinguished as different men with different attendant work. There are three Greek words used regarding the overseers of God's people. There is the word presbuterion or presbuteros (denoting age and maturity), episcopos suggests the ruling ability of overseers, and poimen involves the responsibility of these men to shepherd the flock (Tit. 1: 5, I Tim. 4: 14; Acts 20: 28, I Tim. 3: 1; I Pet. 5: 2, 4, Eph. 4: 11). These men are called, respectively, elders, presbytery; overseers, bishops; and shepherds, pastors. Based on these three Greek words, we see that these men are older and that their work consists of overseeing and shepherding the flock or local church.

     "Deacon" is derived from the Greek diakonos. Diakonos simply means "servant." We read of domestic servants, civil servants, and then, the focus of our study, deacons in the church (Jn. 2: 5, 9; Rom. 13: 4; I Tim. 3: 8, the minister, diakonos, of the gospel is a servant pertaining to teaching the word, I Tim. 4: 6). All Christians are servants, but deacons are special servants who, like elders and preachers, meet specific qualifications (I Tim. 3: 8-10, 12). The "likewise" shows that just as the men who have met certain qualifications and are appointed by the church to oversee; deacons also must meet certain qualifications and be appointed by the church (I Tim. 3: 8, see vs. 1-7). Notwithstanding the separation made in the scriptures between elders or pastors and deacons, some teach that deacons may oversee a local church. Denominations that have the pastoral system of government (the preacher oversees the church), often recognize deacon oversight, especially in the absence of a preacher ("pastor"). Consider the following:

     "They (deacons, dm) are to have charge of the sick and needy members, and are also to act as counselors and assistants to the pastor in advancing the general interests of the body. In the absence of a pastor it becomes the duty of the deacons to conduct the devotional meetings, provide for the supply of the pulpit and administer the affairs of the body generally" (The Hiscox Guide for Baptist Churches, pg. 72).

     The word diakonos is indicative of the work of these special men (see the addendum regarding deaconesses and other matters). In view of the spiritual oversight of elders, the work of deacons is primarily physical (there is spiritual administering also involved, see I Tim. 3: 13). H. E. Phillips wrote thus regarding their work:

     "The administration to the physical needs of the church goes further than just to the looking after the widows, orphans, and the poor (Phillips has earlier referred to Acts 6, dm). Constant service is needed at every worship service. Ushers are needed. The preparation of the building and all elements of the worship, such as the emblems for the Lord's Supper, the distribution of song books, distribution of tracts, etc., must be done. This is directly the work of deacons. The preparation of the building, heating or ventilation must be done. The general care of the grounds and buildings come directly in line with the nature of the work of the deacons. In general the nature of the work done by deacons is easily determined, but specific duties are assigned by the elders" (Scriptural Elders and Deacons, pg. 272).

     Some have pointed to the example of the seven men who were appointed to serve the material needs of the widows in Acts 6 as an example of deacons. While these men are not called "deacons" as such, we do find the resident words diakonia ("ministration" in verse one) and diakonein ("serve" tables in verse two). These seven men also had to meet certain qualifications. Indeed, their work would be similar to the work deacons would later perform; however, the qualifications are different. For instance, there are no domestic requirements found in Acts 6: 3, 5 compared to I Timothy 3: 12. Therefore, I would not refer to these seven men as being deacons in the "official" sense of the word.

     "8: Likewise must the deacons be grave, not doubletongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre; 9: Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. 10: And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless. 12: Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well" (I Tim. 3).

     It will be observed from the foregoing qualifications for deacons that there are a total of nine stated. These nine qualifications are broken down into six positives and three negatives. In total, these qualifications present the deacon as not necessarily older in years and yet having arrived at a certain level of spiritual maturity.

     Some churches, alas, are very careful in the selection of elders, but careless in the matter of deacons. This ought not to be for several reasons. First of all, there is equal stress placed on the must of these men meeting qualifications before their appointment. Second of all, new elders are usually selected from those already serving as deacons. These nine requirements, as mentioned, must be in place anterior to the appointment, they are not to be appointed and then allowed to "grow into the requirement." As with elders, these requirements must be individually possessed, not simply collectively possessed. Let us now briefly consider each of these nine qualifications.

     "Likewise must the deacons be grave" (vs. 8). As mentioned, the "likewise" (hosautos) indicates the seriousness of prospective deacons possessing these requirements (see the repeated occurrence of "must," dei, vs. 2, 7). "Grave" (semnous) is reflective of a basically serious man as opposed to a flippant, silly sort of personality.

     "…must be a grave, serious man, whose life is such that he would be dependable and trustworthy in the work. He must be of sedate and dignified conduct" (Scriptural Elders and Deacons, pg. 260).

     "…not double-tongued" (vs. 8). The double-tongued (dilogous), dis in Greek means twice and logos means a word. Hence, to be double-tongued means to have two words or rather two contradictory words. A double-tongued man could cause a lot of confusion within a local church as he moves among the members saying contradictory things.

     "'Double-tongued' is used in the New Testament in this verse only. The double-tongued says one thing to one person and a contradictory thing to another person….The double-tongued are insincere…." (The Deacon And His Work, pg. 18).

     "…Not given to much wine" (vs. 8). In the case of prospective elders we read, "Not given to wine" (I Tim. 3: 3). Some have fallaciously concluded that in the case of the elder, he must not drink alcohol; while in the case of the deacon, he may drink, but not "much." The language in verses three and eight is different. "Not given to wine" in verse three is mn parionon and "…not given to much wine" in verse eight is, mn pollo oino prosechontas. Hence, literally "not (mn) given to wine (parionon)" (vs. 3) and "not (mn) to much (pollo) wine (oino) given or addicted (prosechontas)" (vs. 8). Rather than concluding that in the case of the elder, he must not drink alcohol; while in the case of the deacon, he may drink but not "much," the conclusion should be, using this logic, that the elder is not to be "given" to any amount and the deacon is not to be "given" to much wine. While the wine prohibition for both elders and deacons may involve excess, the Bible teaches against the "recreational" use of strong drink to the point of total avoidance (Prov. 23: 31, 32). Paul's focus in the case of deacons and elders, respectively, appears to be excess and the effect of fermented drink (I Tim. 3: 8, 3, see the American Standard rendering of verse three, "No brawler"). (Click on, "Strong Drink, a Major Cause of Grief" to read more about strong drink.)

     "…Not greedy of filthy lucre" (vs. 8). The Christian must be concerned about material and financial matters (I Tim. 5: 8). However, he must avoid greed and avarice.

     "If a man is so desirous of filthy lucre that he spends most of his time trying to get possession of it, so that he has absolutely no time for his service that belongs to the office of a deacon, he is not qualified" (Scriptural Elders and Deacons, pg. 263).

     "Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience" (vs. 9). The gospel is called, "the mystery of the faith" because it was once a mystery before its revelation (Col. 1: 25, 26). The prospective deacon must respect the truth and be not opposed to doctrine or God's commandments (cp. Tit. 1: 9). In his proximity to the word, he must hold a pure conscience.

     "And let these also first be proved…" (vs. 10). Paul herein stresses the order of things ("first," protos). Just as in the case of the elder, the prospective deacon must have an established track record before he is considered (I Tim. 3: 6). Appointing a man to serve as a deacon before he is prepared is not only unscriptural and injurious to the church, but it can be very discouraging to the man. I say this because he will not have the ability to perform his work. In the language, "use the office of a deacon" or "let them minister" (Marshall, Nestle Greek-English Interlinear), Paul is showing that there is work to be done as opposed to simply being a figure head or only holding an honorary position.

     "…Being found blameless" (vs. 10). Just as some minimize the qualifications, there are others who place them so high that they are unattainable. In this latter vein, some believe "blameless" means without sin. This cannot be the idea because "all sin" (I Jn. 1: 8-10). The meaning of "blameless" (aneykletoi) is simply that the man being considered does not have some fault to which others can point. Translations that translate aneykletoi "irreproachable" do justice to the original.

     A man who is shiftless and does not support his family, has outbursts of uncontrolled anger, and is heard using vulgar and banal language is not blameless regardless of the positive traits he may possess (cp. I Tim. 3: 2)

     "Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife" (vs. 12). The language, "…be the husbands of one wife" (estosan uias yunaikos andres) literally means, "be of one woman men." The language condemns polygamy, many wives, and requires the future deacon to be married. The language here applied to the deacon is essentially the same as that applied to the elder (I Tim. 3: 2, except for the singular/plural difference, elder and deacons). H. E. Winkler wrote:

     "I believe 'husband of one wife,' conveys the same thought with regard to the deacon that it does to the elder" (The Eldership, pg. 106). (For a complete study of this requirement, click on "Elders, Their Work and Qualifications" and scroll down.)

     "…Ruling their children and their own houses well" (vs. 12). In using the plural "deacons" with the plural "children," Paul is requiring the man being considered to serve as a deacon to have one or more children (there is a difference in the grammar in verse 12 and in verse 4. In verse 4, Paul uses the singular "bishop" with the plural "children," thus requiring more than one child. For a complete study of this matter, click on "Elders, Their Work and Qualifications" and scroll down).

     Hence, the deacon must be a serious, truthful, temperate man with a good sense of priorities, one who insists on truth, knowing the truth. He must be established, no practiced sin in his life, and a spiritually successful family man, able to exercise his ruling ability.

     One incentive for serving as a deacon is seen in the following language:

     "13: For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus."

     As mentioned at the outset of our study, the organization of local churches involves the "saints," the "bishops," and the "deacons" (Phili. 1: 1). While it is true that all of the requirements for being a deacon are generally taught regarding all Christians, except the marriage and children qualification, deacons have a serious work to perform and can either be an asset or liability, depending on how well they possess these requisites.

     Addendum: In a study of "deacons," the question is often raised about "deaconesses" (female servants of the church). Some would hastily say that the Bible knows nothing of "deaconesses." The truth of the matter is "deaconesses" are mentioned. Paul referred to "…Phebe our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea" (Rom. 16: 1). "Servant" is from diakonon. The grammar of diakonon in Romans 16: 1 is "accusative, singular, masculine and feminine" (The Analytical Greek Lexicon, pg. 91). Phebe, then, was a deacon or deaconess, as we would say in English. The question, though, is what was meant. Was Phebe simply a female servant who ministered in some way or was she a one of special women who served equally along side of deacons.

     Some believe I Timothy 3: 11 is referring to deaconesses. The verse is literally rendered, "Women in like manner must be grave, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things" (ASV). The common position is that these women were the deacon's wives (see vs. 8-10, 12). If so, why was there nothing said regarding the wives of elders? Others contend that the women were the wives and the deacons and elders. However, why are they only mentioned in the middle of the qualifications for deacons? A growing number are of the persuasion that the women were deaconesses, female deacons. If this is the case, why are they not separately and clearly mentioned and addressed as were the elders and deacons? Could it be that these women were not necessarily the elders or deacon's wives or female deacons as such, but that these women were simply female servants who might assist the deacons? In view of the social distinctions and barriers especially in the First Century society regarding men and women, deacons would have had a number of impediments in assisting the female sick and infirm, etc.

     While I certainly have to admit the existence of female servants in the early church, I do not believe these women were deaconesses, on an equal level with deacons. Again, the fact of female servants such as Phebe who were used by churches cannot be denied, but even these women would have to meet certain requirements (perhaps I Tim. 3: 11). If I Timothy 3: 11 is referring to deaconesses just as verses 8-10 and 12 are referring to deacons, why the qualification difference? For instance, they are not required to be married or have children as is the case relative to deacons. One danger in officially appointing women to serve as deacons, besides the foregoing matters, is that such can be just one step away from appointing them to serve as elders, knowing how man thinks and works (women are excluded from serving as elders, I Tim. 3: 1-5, I Tim. 2: 12-15).

     On occasion the question is raised regarding a church having deacons but not having elders, is such scriptural? Many point to Acts 6: 1-7 and argue that the church in Jerusalem had deacons but no elders. To make this argument, certain matters must be assumed. First, these seven men are not called "deacons" and the qualifications are not the same as those found in I Tim. 3. Second, while "elders" as applied to "bishops" is not mentioned until Acts 11: 30, it is apparent that elders were already in place in Judaea.

     There is a present and real danger with a church having deacons in the absence of elders. Without rulers (bishops, elders, Acts 20: 17, 28, I Tim. 3: 4, 5), a church tends to place more overseeing duties on deacons and deacons themselves face the risk of moving into the position of oversight. Deacons, I repeat, have no spiritual oversight of a local church assigned to them in the scriptures.

     Some also ask about the case of just one man being qualified to serve as a deacon, should the church appoint him? All I can say is that such male servants are spoken of as in a plurality. The same is the case regarding presbyters or bishops (Acts 14: 23).