By Sam Caldwell
Stepping into any official church office (elder or deacon) should be approached in the fear of God. And it should also be approached alongside regular church life. Being made a deacon (or elder) does not mean the man should stop being himself. In fact, it usually means that he needs to be even more transparent, more clear about who he is, more clear about his abilities and failings. But in no way does it mean that an elder or deacon stops being part of the working, living body of the church – those people who love one another, lean on one another, live life together. Stepping into a church office does not exclude one from being real and sharing burdens.
The best way to seek and equip elders and deacons is from within the church body, not by hiring or scouting people from without. Surely we could go on an elder/deacon hunt and find people far more professional than anyone in our local church. While that may at times be needed, it is not necessarily God’s best for the local church. God’s best and God’s will must be evaluated by internal personal witness, external congregational witness, prayer, and constant reference to the Word of God. Generally speaking, it should not be evaluated by hiring committees, etc.
A quick note on the relationship between serving as elder and serving as deacon: they are distinct callings. However, one man could be a deacon for a season and an elder later, or vice versa. Also, one could be an elder or deacon just for a season. There is no New Testament indication that such a position must last a lifetime; but it also could, and elders/deacons could serve in multiple churches.
Deacon comes from diakonos, the ordinary Greek word for “servant.” It is not the word for “slave” (doulos) but rather for one who “serves tables” (diakonein trapezais), as in Acts 6:2, indicating practical and substantial help in matters of church life.
Elders and deacons are mentioned together in some passages (1 Timothy 3, Philippians 1:1). They have distinct functions but serve the church together. One practical outworking of this is that in a given local church, there could be separate meetings for elders, separate meetings for deacons, and meetings with both present. Providence and the needs of the congregation would determine what is appropriate.
Main passages to study
1 Timothy 3:8–13
Qualifications of a Deacon
There are roughly 11 deacon qualifications spelled out in 1 Timothy 3:8–13 and Acts 6:1–6.
1) Reverent: “Reverent” (semnous) (1 Tim. 3:8). This word means pious, godly, and serious. This has both horizontal and vertical dimensions – the deacon should be respectful of people and full of the fear of God.
2) Honest: “Not double-tongued” (me dilogous) (v. 8). This literally means, “not speaking in different ways, not divided in speech, not speaking out of both sides of your mouth.” A deacon should be upright, honest, and unhypocritical.
3) Self-controlled when it comes to alcohol: “Not given to much wine” (me oino pollo prosechontas) (v. 8). This means not indulging in much wine. Comparing 1 Timothy 3:3 and 3:8 suggests that elders should be basically abstinent, while deacons should be self-controlled.
4) Not greedy: “Not greedy for money” (me aischrokerdeis) (v. 8).
5) Theologically and practically faithful: “Holding the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience” (echontas to musterion tes pisteos en kithara suneidesei) (v. 9). See also Acts 6:3: “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” (plereis pneumatos kai sophias). We could sum this up by saying that the deacon should be theologically and practically faithful and wise. Men who hold bad theology or disagree with our statement of faith should not be considered for deacons. (More on this under “Responsibilities” below.)
6) Tested and blameless: “But let these also first be tested (dokimazesthosan); then let them serve as deacons, being found blameless (anenkletois)” (v.10). See also Acts 6:3: “men of good reputation.” Deacons must be tested and found blameless.
“First tested” means that the testing process comes before being officially appointed. “Blameless” means without any blot on one’s reputation, “beyond reproach.” It does not mean “perfect,” but it does mean that there is no glaring deficiency of character that would hinder the man’s ministry, or his ability to be considered helpful by a congregation.
7) Character of the deacon’s wife: If married, the deacon’s wife must meet certain character qualifications (v. 11); this verse also applies to elders’ wives. “Likewise, their wives must be reverent, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things.”
8) Marital fidelity and holiness: “Let deacons be the husbands of one wife (mias gunaikos andres)” (v. 12). If married, the deacon must be faithful to his wife, must not be a polygamist, and must not have been unlawfully divorced while a Christian, or divorced in a way that mars how people esteem him in the church. If single, the deacon must walk with integrity and should honor Christ with his body (1 Corinthians 6:18–19). Regarding single deacons, note that Stephen was single (Acts 6–7).
9) Management of children and house: “…ruling (proistamenoi) their children and their own houses well” (v. 12). A deacon must rule his children and his house well. Here, compare the elder qualification in 1 Tim. 3:4–5, where one’s ability to “rule his own house” is intimately connected to his ability to “take care of the church of God.”
10) Full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom: In Acts 6:3 this quality is mentioned, so it should be added to our consideration of qualities in 1 Timothy 3.
11) Serving well: Finally, we should note that all these qualifications are active through the time a man serves as deacon. 3:13 speaks of “those who have served well as deacons.” A deacon should remain actively qualified while serving. Also, if a deacon fails to meet these qualifications while serving, it is most noble for him to actively bow out of the position for a time.
The Responsibilities and Duties of a Deacon
1) Serve well: 1 Tim. 3:13 “those who have served well as deacons.” The deacon is called to perform his service according to the qualifications outlined above. He is also called to serve in a way that is more involved than other congregants find themselves serving. All Christians are called to serve, but elders and deacons are called to a more dedicated and demanding form of service. This “serving well,” though, should be an extension of the man’s normal Christian life.
2) Be a vessel for truth: 1 Tim. 3:9 “holding the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience.” Here note the word “holding”; it means, “having, possessing, holding forth.” The deacon’s approach to truth should be steady, and it should be exemplary to the congregation and the watching world.
This possession of the truth also entails maintenance of a “pure conscience.” While every Christian is called to keep a pure conscience, the elders and deacons are particularly beholden to this duty. Ministers who possess truth but not with a clean conscience are quickly impaired and rendered useless. Ministering with a pure conscience is one of the most valuable gifts elders and deacons can give to the church. A “pure conscience” must be actively kept up through prayer, Bible reading, confession, fellowship, and honest accountability with other Christians or fellow elders/deacons.
3) Help free up pastors/elders – see Acts 6:1–4. Help the pastors/elders concentrate the bulk of their time on “prayer and the ministry of the Word.” Note: this does not mean that elders no longer do any physical work or see to the physical needs of the congregation; it simply means that it is “not desirable that elders should leave the Word of God and serve tables” (Acts 6:2). A healthy delegation of duties does not mean that elders and deacons no longer share duties.
4) Help meet the physical needs of the congregation – see Acts 6:1–7. From Acts 6, we see various needs being put upon the then formed deaconate. These include ensuring people are not neglected in distribution of needs (6:1), “serving tables” (6:2), and being “appointed over” a certain “business” (6:3).
5) Participate in financial matters – 1 Timothy 3:8 “not greedy for money.” Deacons can participate in managing the financial needs of the church with the elders (and with other congregants, if need be). Financial matters do not need to be a duty of deacons exclusively.
The Reward of a Deacon
One specific and glorious reward is promised to deacons in 1 Timothy 3:13: “For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a good standing and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.”
This reward follows from having “served well as deacons.”
It is a private, secret, and personal reward which deacons obtain “for themselves.” This indicates that the reward is personal between the deacon and God, and therefore incredibly special. It also indicates that the reward is not something that would produce pride or ostentation before others.
The reward has two components: “good standing” and “great boldness,” both of which are “in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.” The first component of this reward is “good standing,” which points mainly to judgment day and heavenly rewards. The second component has earthly and heavenly dimensions – “great boldness” is of use in this present life in evangelism, assurance of faith, boldness at the throne of grace in prayer; and it may also have to do with boldness at the judgment seat when we meet our Lord.