The Service of Deacons
Deacons are special and important in a congregational work. When Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, he included deacons in the greeting: “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons” (Phil 1:1). Overseers and deacons are distinct in who they are and what they do, but both are significant for many reasons. Our focus here is on the deacons.
To speak of the “service of deacons” is, in some ways, redundant because that is the meaning of the term. Saying that “deacons serve” is saying, “servants serve.” Yet the point is important because we are noting up front what deacons do. They are called servants because they really do serve in special ways. To be a deacon in a local congregation is not taking a title as a badge. Rather, it is taking on a responsibility to serve the congregation in ways that are appropriate to the needs of the group and the abilities of the servant. “Deacon,” then, is a description of who one is as a servant. There is no room for thinking about a deacon who does not serve. Even so, there is a special category that is referred to as “deacons” in Scripture and for which is given important instructions.
Paul wrote to Timothy and spoke of the special role of deacons after first speaking of elders:
“Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.” (1 Tim 3:8-10)
Deacons are to be men of high character because they are entrusted with much. They are known to be honest, honorable, and dignified. They speak truth genuinely and do not let worldly substances (like alcohol or drugs) get in the way of the sound judgment they ought to demonstrate and maintain. They are solid in faith and have shown themselves to be faithful to the message in their lives and teaching. They are not new Christians because have had enough time to be tested and proved. They are blameless (not sinless, but of such character that a continual finger of blame cannot be pointed). Because of their character and faithfulness, they maintain a good standing and great confidence in the faith. Their wives, likewise, demonstrate a high moral character. One might get the idea that this is no trivial work to be undertaken. It is not.
When a congregation agrees that a man should serve in this special capacity, the group is expressing great confidence in his character. They trust him and his wife. They are saying that they know this family is a significant part of their work and can be trusted to handle important jobs with discretion and honor. Much like those chosen in Acts 6 to serve the tables of widows, the deacons are often given tasks that require tact, wisdom in carrying them out, and discretion due to situations with which they might need to be very careful.
The deacon’s work may involve many tasks, but we need to make sure we are not seeing them as glorified janitors on the one hand or mini-elders on the other. They do more than take out trash (important as that is) because the expectation is that they will be entrusted with the care and stewardship of matters that may involve levels of difficulty in working with people (not just buildings). Imagine the man who is chosen to work with certain widows, for example. What kind of character ought he to exhibit? How honorable ought he to be? If a man cannot be trusted to treat people well or act honorably in discreet circumstances, then he must not be placed in this position. Imagine the man and his wife gossiping about a situation they had to deal with or a man who cannot be trusted with collected funds. Imagine the damage that can be done to a group if matters are not handled well or appropriately. Sadly, such has happened to churches.
There is a sense, then, in which one of the great works of deacons, in addition to the particular tasks they may be asked to do, is that of maintaining unity within a congregation. They have potential to cause division if they are not careful, but because they are to be men of high character, the group can trust them not only to carry out faithfully what they are asked to do, but to make sure the church remains together, whole, and united in the faith. After all, they have “great confidence in the faith” for a reason. May God bless every congregation with those whose abilities and characters are such that they benefit God’s people and maintain a good standing in the Lord.