Editor’s Note: I originally produced this document for the church family I’m privileged to serve. After some thought, I felt it might be beneficial to others. I offer it here as a humble explanation.
Paul begins his letter to the Philippians in this way; “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.” (Philippians 1:1) Paul is writing to the church in Philipi. We know from other passages of scripture that all Christians are saints. Bishops are also called overseers, shepherds, or elders, and are tasked with the spiritual leadership and care of the faith community. It is the term deacon here that can be confusing. What exactly is a deacon?
The term deacon is actually just a transliteration of the Greek word diakonos which strictly means servant. The verb form is found in the New Testament 33 times while the noun form is found 63 times. It is typically translated in our English bibles as servant, service, or ministry, but there are three or four times when it is used as a special role or church group. When used as an official group it is transliterated as deacon. The Greeks developed many different words to convey the idea of servant or service; from a slave or hired hand to one who willingly serves or even a public official. The term diakonos denotes one who voluntarily serves others prompted by a loving desire to benefit those served. This is not one who serves because they have to or are required. Instead, the service is voluntary and motivated by love for the other. When the Biblical writers and the early church wanted to speak of one who accepts a specific servant role for the church body they decided to use the term diakonos, or deacon. A deacon then is one who serves the faith community out of love.
A deacon, however, is more than just one who serves. All Christians are called to serve. Service is not just the responsibility of a select group. However, there are times when special servants are needed. There are ministries or situations that require spiritual oversight which require more time and energy than is available to elders who are already spread thin with the spiritual oversight of the entire community. It is therefore important to have spiritually mature servants who will voluntarily serve the church community for the benefit of those who are being served. These deacons, or special servants, are described in 1 Timothy 3 with the same character traits as elders or shepherds. Paul tells Timothy that deacons need to be spiritually mature (honest, trustworthy, not greedy, faithful, kind…). They are to be tested first and proved to be blameless before serving as deacons. In other words, they have proven over time that they are spiritually mature and capable of handling the task they have been given. They are not required to do this task alone, but are instead encouraged to invite others to serve, helping to train them to be the next generation of deacons once they have proven themselves over time. Again, it is a spiritual task of voluntarily serving for the sake of others. It’s not a lifetime appointment, but instead an act of love accepted for a time.
Deacons in scripture are both male and female. The translation of character traits in 1 Timothy is difficult, thus making it sometimes confusing, but there is no scriptural reason why a woman could not serve as a deacon. The only deacon mentioned by name in the New Testament is Phoebe (a woman), who was a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, and also given the responsibility of carrying the letter of Romans to the church in Rome. (Romans 16:1) This fact is congruent with many of the female spiritual leaders in the Bible. Miriam is a prophetess who serves alongside her brothers Moses and Aaron (Exodus 15:20, Micah 6:4). Deborah is both a prophetess and judge (Judges 4-5). Huldah is a prophetess whose counsel is specifically sought by King Josiah because he knows she is recognized as one who speaks for God (2 Kings 22:14-20, 2 Chronicles 34-35). These are just a few of the many named and unnamed female prophetesses, teachers, and leaders in scripture. While the Bible does teach male spiritual leadership, it also teaches the vital role and gifting of women and the freedom available in the Kingdom of God where “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) We, as a community, desire to live in the freedom made available through the cross of Christ and the new creation.
What then is a deacon? A deacon is someone who offers a voluntary, love-prompted service for the benefit of others, and desires the true welfare of those served. It may involve simple service, but it should go beyond such service to seek the spiritual welfare of others. It is about service to the church in the cause of Christ. It is spiritually motivated and Christ-Centered. It is offered by Christians who have proven themselves over time as spiritually mature and above reproach. Its concern is about the salvation of all humanity.