There were deacons in the church I grew up in, but honestly, I had no idea what that title meant for them. Many Christian denominations have deacons on staff or as specially chosen volunteers.
What does a deacon do? How are they different from the overseers?
The Greek word for deacon (diakonos) translates into humble servant. While all Christians are called to serve others like Christ did, the early church found themselves in a situation where they needed officially identified servants to address specific needs in the church family. Here’s how the apostles in Jerusalem established this office:
Therefore, brothers, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we can appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the preaching ministry.
This division of labor makes a whole lot of sense. We can’t expect our church’s pastors and overseers to handle every single ministry need of the congregation. Notice that these first deacons were to be highly regarded men from within the church family – but their role as an official church servant was to then be appointed by the church leadership.
Paul wanted to keep this balance of structure within the churches outside of Jerusalem as well. After explaining to Timothy the qualifications necessary to be an overseer, Paul then turns his attention to the qualifications necessary to be a humble servant for the congregation:
1 Timothy 3:8-13
Deacons, likewise, should be worthy of respect, not hypocritical, not drinking a lot of wine, not greedy for money, holding the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And they must also be tested first; if they prove blameless, then they can serve as deacons.
Wives, too, must be worthy of respect, not slanderers, self-controlled, faithful in everything. Deacons must be husbands of one wife, managing their children and their own households competently. For those who have served well as deacons acquire a good standing for themselves, and great boldness in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.
Paul’s directions to Timothy do not list what places a deacon is to serve; rather, Paul is more concerned that Timothy understands the type of person who would be allowed to represent the church’s ministry to others by their serving.
It should be noted, too, that the Greek word for wives is often translated as “wife” or simply “women”, depending on the context of the word. Commentators have made reasonable arguments for either interpretation here – that Paul is referring to qualifications for the wife of a deacon, or that Paul is allowing for women to also hold the deacon-servant role within the church. Supporters for the latter interpretation often refer to Paul’s comments at the end of his letter to the Roman believers:
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant (diakonos) of the church in Cenchreae.
Additionally, with the deacon role’s subordination and support function for the activities of the church’s overseers, having both men and women official serve the church would fit nicely into the leadership model Paul describe just a few verses prior (see 1 Timothy 2:1-15).
Paul then closes out his discussion about deacons by reminding Timothy of the two-fold reward available to those who serve well in this capacity. First, that by their quality service, a good standing and reputation would be enjoyed by both them personally and the church corporately. Secondly, a quality deacon would imitate Jesus’ servanthood so well that they would acquire a great boldness in the faith. The Apostle John also believed that obtaining this boldness was worth working toward:
1 John 2:28
So now, little children, remain in Him, so that when He appears we may have boldness and not be ashamed before Him at His coming.
A deacon’s actions are a great help to the pastors and overseers, allowing them to focus on spiritual needs of the congregation through teaching and prayer. Serving and ministering the physical needs of the church congregation is an important and rewarding labor, which is why Paul wanted Timothy to carefully select those who would serve in this manner.