*What Is The Role of a Deacon?
(Benjamin Merkle, 40 Questions & Answers Series)
Whereas the office of elder is often ignored in the modern church, the office of deacon is often misunderstood. In many churches, the board of deacons provides the spiritual leadership in the church in partnership with the pastor. They are involved in making the important decisions of the church and often involved in teaching and shepherding. But based on the NT data, the role of the deacon is mainly a servant role.
Deacons are needed in the church to provide logistical and material support so that the elders concentrate their efforts on the Word of God and prayer.
Differences with Elders
The NT does not provide much information concerning the role of deacons. The requirements given in 1 Timothy 3:8-13 focus on the deacon’s character and family life. There are, however, some clues as to the function of deacons when their requirements are compared with those of the elders. Although many of the qualifications are similar, there are some notable differences.
Perhaps the most notable distinction between elders and deacons is that deacons do not need to be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2). Deacons are called to “hold” to the faith with a clear conscience, but they are not called to “teach” the faith (1 Tim. 3:9). This suggests that the deacons do not have an official teaching role in the church. D.A. Carson rightly comments, “Deacons were responsible to serve the church in a variety of subsidiary roles, but enjoyed no church-recognized teaching authority akin to that of elders” (D.A. Carson, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p. 229). Wayne Grudem likewise states, “It is significant that nowhere in the NT do deacons have ruling authority over the church as the elders do, nor are deacons ever required to be able to teach Scripture or sound doctrine” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 920).
Again, this does not mean that deacons cannot teach in any capacity but simply that they are not called to teach or preach as a matter of responsibility related to their office as deacon.
Like elders, deacons must manage their house and children well (1 Tim. 3:4, 12). But when referring to deacons, Paul does not compare managing one’s household to taking care of God’s church (1 Tim. 3:5). The reason for this omission is most likely due to the fact that deacons are not given a ruling or leading position in the church—a function that belongs to the elders.
Other differences provide us with less information. Some maintain that the omission for deacons be gentle and not quarrelsome (1 Tim. 3:3) may indicate that the elders were often put in situations that required such characteristics. Knight, for example, suggests that this omission “may reflect the fact that the deacon is not in the role of one who must give oversight and direction, as well as discipline, in sometimes difficult situations that make such qualifications imperative” (George W. Knight, The Pastoral Epistles, p. 167).
Although Paul indicates that a person must be tested before he can hold the office of deacon (1 Tim. 3:10), the requirement that he cannot be a new convert is not included. Paul notes that if an elder is a recent convert, “he may become puffed up with conceit” (1 Tim. 3:6). One implication of this distinction could be that those who hold the office of elder—because they possess leadership over the church—are more susceptible to pride. On the contrary, it is not as likely for a deacon—someone who is in more of a servant role—to fall into the same sin.
The fact that Paul includes the character of a deacon’s wife also might reveal an important distinction (1 Tim. 3:11). Because the role of a deacon is focused toward serving and not leading, a wife could easily be involved. The wife of an elder would be more limited since Paul forbids women “to teach or exercise authority over a man” (1 Tim. 2:12). Finally, the title “overseer” (1 Tim. 3:2) implies general oversight over the spiritual well-being of the congregation, whereas the title “deacon” implies one who has a service-oriented ministry.
Duties of Deacons
We have discussed some distinctions between elders and deacons, but we have yet to specify the precise duties of deacons. We already have indicated that deacons are not responsible to teach or lead the congregation. They are not the spiritual elders of the church. Instead, the deacons provide leadership over the service-oriented functions of the church. The Bible, however, does not clearly indicate the function of deacons. But based on the pattern established in Acts 6 with the apostles and the Seven, it seems best to view the deacons as servants who do whatever is necessary to allow the elders to accomplish their God-given calling of shepherding and teaching the church (The role of the Seven should not be compared too closely with the role of the deacons since Steven was also a miracle-worker [Acts 6:8] and preacher [Acts 6:8-10] and Philip was an evangelist [Acts 21:8]).
Just as the apostles delegated administrative responsibilities to the Seven, so the elders are to delegate responsibilities to the deacons so that the elders can focus their efforts elsewhere. Newton rightly concludes, “In the servant role, deacons take care of those mundane and temporal matters of church life so that elders are freed to concentrate upon spiritual matters. Deacons provide much needed wisdom and energy to the ample physical needs of the church, often using such provision as opportunities to minister as well to the spiritual needs of others” (Phil A. Newton, Elders in Congregational Life, p. 41). As a result, each local church is free to define the tasks of deacons based on its particular needs.
There are some clues as to the function of deacons based on the requirements in 1 Timothy 3. Wayne Grudem offers some possibilities:
“Deacons seem to have had some responsibility in caring for the finances of the church, since they had to be people who were “not greedy for gain” (v. 8). They perhaps had some administrative responsibilities in other activities of the church as well, because they were to manage their children and their households well (v.12). They may have ministered to the physical needs of those in the church or community who needed help [Acts 6]…Moreover, if verse 11 speaks of their wives (as I think it does), then it would also be likely that they were involved in some house-to-house visitation and counseling, because the wives are to be “no slanderers” (Grudem, ST, p. 919).
We must note, however, that some of the requirements could have been given to counter the characteristics of false teachers and were not so much directed toward deacons’ duties. William Mounce maintains that the requirements listed suggest that a deacon would have substantial contact with people: he must not be double-tongued, must have a dignified wife, be faithful in marriage, and have a well-managed family (William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 46:195). Although such a conclusion is possible, it cannot be given too much weight.
What are some duties that deacons might be responsible for today? Basically they could be responsible for any item not related to teaching and ruling in the church. Below is a list of possible duties:
Benevolence – Similar to what took place in Acts 6 with the daily distribution to the widows, the deacons should be involved in administering funds for the needy.
Facilities – The deacons could be responsible for the basic management of the church property. This would include making sure the place of worship is prepared for the worship service. Other items may include cleanup, sound system, etc.
Finances – Some believe that matters of finance should be handled by the elders since the famine-relief money brought by Paul and Barnabas was delivered to the elders (Acts 11:30). But while the elders can oversee the financial business of the church, it is probably best left to the deacons to handle the day-to-day matters. This would include collecting and counting the offering, record keeping, helping to set the church budget, etc.
Logistics – Deacons should be available to help in a variety of ways so that the elders are able to concentrate on teaching and shepherding the church.
Ushers – The deacons could be responsible for distributing bulletins, seating the congregation, preparing the elements for communion, etc.
The role of a deacon is different from the role of an elder. Whereas elders are charged with the tasks of teaching and shepherding the church, deacons are given a more service-oriented function. That is, they are given the task of taking care of matters related more to the physical or temporal concerns of the church. For example, they might have responsibility over areas such as benevolence, facilities, finances, and other matters related to the practical logistics of running a church.
(1) What are the roles of the deacons in your church?
(2) In one sentence, how would you describe the main function of the deacons from a biblical perspective?
(3) What are the main differences between the elders and the deacons?
(4) Are there any clues given in the qualifications for deacons that might shed light on their duties?
(5) What are some needs deacons might fill in your church?
*Article Adapted from Chapter 36: “What Is the Role of a Deacon?” in 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons by Benjamin L. Merkle. Benjamin L. Merkle is Professor of New Testament and Greek at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina where he has taught since 2008.