One time, my wife and I were at a restaurant and I kindly asked the waiter if there was shrimp in the soup. He replied no and so we ordered it. I asked not because I don’t like shrimp—I actually love shrimp. I asked because my wife is allergic to shrimp. Still, a few hours after the waiter’s confidence response my wife was fighting a battle of hives in our apartment. Thankfully, she won, but that was one long night.
Needless to say, we never returned to that restaurant again. Again, it wasn’t because the food was bad, it was very good. We never went back simply because of the table service. We were not properly tended to, cared for, considered. It made the entire experience a terrible one. Table service is a vital and important experience. It might be a stretch, but in my experience, a bad experience with a waiter caused real harm to someone that I love.
The same can be said in a church, and this is what makes the office of deacon (a “table servant”) important. As we look through the New Testament we see some very important features that show us the weight of the biblical deacon.
First, a disclaimer. Much of what I’ll say is based on Acts 6:1–6 even though the noun “deacon” and arguable the office of “deacon” is not seen in this passage. I do believe important foundational truths regarding the official office can be gleaned from such a passage. Not all deacons need to preach like Stephen (Acts 7) or baptize like Philip (Acts 8). But, the events of Acts 6 help provide some foundational truths to what is the biblical office of deacon.
Now, I believe we can see at least four important truths in the New Testament regarding the work and office of the deacon.
First, the office of deacon protects the priority of the church’s spiritual leaders. The events in Acts 6:1–6 record a situation where the spiritual leaders of the early church (apostles) were distracted with a good task of ensuring all the widows were properly cared for in the church, whether Jewish or Hellenistic. While the work was good, it was not the best contribution these men were called to make. These men were specifically devoted to the task of prayer and the Word (v. 4). The presence of the deacon was not intended to rob the spiritual leaders from doing good things, but to maintain their commitment to the best things.
Today, we may lack the office of apostle, but we do have spiritual leaders in the church called elders/pastors/overseers. These men are called to be ministers of prayer and the Word. A deacon’s presence allows spiritual leaders to focus on spiritual activity. The reality that overseers/pastors/elders have taken the reins of spiritual leadership is seen in the context of 1 Timothy (3:1–7).
Second, the office of deacon protects and promotes church unity. The events in Acts 6:1–6 also describe a localized threat to the church in Jerusalem. The fear was that favoritism was leading to the neglect of the Hellenistic Jewish widows. The threat was so real that complaints were made. A sin so serious that God banished an entire generation in the wilderness for it (cf. 1 Cor 10:10). This threat to the unity of the church had to be taken seriously because up until that point unity had been an identifying characteristic of the church (Acts 2:42–47; 4:32–36; 5:12–16).
Meeting the physical needs of the local church is a means by which unity is not only maintained but fought for. The presence of the biblical deacon should be one that fosters unity among the people of God.
Third, the office of deacon provides holistic care for local church members. It is clear that elders prioritize the spiritual needs of the church. They lead and set examples in the area of counseling, discipleship and bear the responsibility of teaching, preaching, and leading the church in the ordinances. Deacons, in Acts 6:1–6 gladly take up the task of meeting the physical needs of the widows.
Similarly, Paul’s opening words in Philippians 1:1 hints at this responsibility as well. Part of why we have Philippians is to see Paul’s thanksgiving for the help and care of the Philippian church. Clearly, these saints contributed to his ministry through some form of physical support (Phil 4:15ff.) and Paul was thankful for their spiritual and physical support (Phil 1:6). That is why Paul addresses the letter to the saints, elders, and deacons because they were likely the ones collecting and/or delivering the collection.
What Acts 6 and Philippians tell us is that these physical needs may vary from local church to local church. This means that deacons must specialize in the physical needs of their own assembly. What one church needs is almost always different from another’s and there are several factors that determine such needs. The church’s geographical location, economic background, and even maturity could dictate what kinds of physical needs must be met. A church with no building has different needs with a new building. A church with a new building has different needs from a church from an old building. A church with lots of elderly people has different needs from a church with many young people, and so on and so forth.
Therefore, we must conclude that the spiritual leaders identify the needs of their local church (following what happened in Acts 6:1–6) and then deacons take up the task of meeting those needs. This is how deacons can provide holistic care for the entire assembly.
Fourth, the office of deacon reminds the church members of the true servant, Jesus Christ. Deacons provide a Christo-centric embodiment of Christ to the local congregation. Their selfless sacrifice to provide holistic care for church members should remind them all of Christ’s selfless sacrifice. Remember, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served [“deacon’ed”], but to serve [deacon], and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
This is the opposite of how the world measures greatness. The world utilizes their authority to step on other people (cf. Mark 10:42). Instead, Christian leaders are given positions of authority, or are given titles, when they exercise Christ-like service. Jesus says that this attitude makes someone great in the eyes of God (Mark 10:44). This means that we are at our best when we are servants.
This then is a major reason for churches to have biblical deacons. It is not necessarily to have someone who will labor behind the scenes. Rather, it is to labor in such a way that points the church to Christ the perfect and selfless servant. This also indicates that the nature of the diaconate is one of self-sacrifice. It takes effort, energy, and true and legitimate sacrifice. Christ offered Himself a sacrifice and it was demanding; therefore, how can we expect the diaconate to be an easy ride? The deacon in his service depicts the service of Christ.
Some final thoughts. Churches ought to strive for biblical deacons simply because they (1) maintain proper priorities of leaders; (2) protect and promote church unity; (3) provide holistic care for the assembly [in coordination with church elders]; and they (4) remind the entire assembly of the true servant, Jesus Christ.
I hope and pray churches embrace these truths. It will benefit the saints and glorify the Savior.