The Historical Confusion Over the Office of Deacon

by Bob Douglas

Despite the fact that the apostle Paul established just two offices in the New Testament church (elder and deacon), three official church offices began to appear shortly after the first century. In addition to elders and deacons, some proposed the novel idea that “bishops” were to function as overseers of multiple churches. Now, instead of just one clerical office charged with the spiritual oversight of church members and attenders providing all teaching and preaching, there were two.  Deacons served in functional duties assigned by bishops and elders.1 As time went on, the ecclesiastical structures became hierarchical with professional clergy dominating all elements of leadership, operations, and money. 

By the fourth century the Christian faith became the official religion of the Roman Empire, paving the way for an entrenched state church where power was centralized in the clergy and interwoven with government.2 Hierarchical structures grew more complex, obscuring evermore the simple New Testament pattern. This trend continued and even compounded through the Middle Ages so the purpose and role of the biblical deacon went even further adrift. The Roman Catholic Church pulled deacons into the priesthood to perform ritualistic tasks, the reading of Scripture, and assisting priests at the altar.3  As the Roman Empire fragmented, the church began to split over a variety of issues, essentially separating the church into two groups: Catholics and Orthodox. To this day, both religions use a hierarchical church leadership structure that has no resemblance to the true New Testament biblical structure.

It was not until the sixteenth century when the Reformation leaders challenged Catholic and Orthodox traditions and brought back the truth of Scripture, including leadership polity and structure. The Reformation brought a rebirth of Scriptural clarity through a proper historical and grammatical approach to biblical interpretation. The Reformers launched the protestant movement that resulted in a host of denominations including the Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, and others. In the last one-hundred-plus years, many protestants have thrown off the structures of denominations, moving toward evangelical non-denominational structures. These churches are highly independent with no formalized oversight outside of their local church.   

Clarity on Elders, Confusion on Deacons
Throughout church history there has been more of a consistent view of the role and purpose of elders than there has been with the office of deacon. In the early church the apostles were the established teachers of God’s Word, as we see in Acts 6. From the first century until to today, elders have been considered the spiritual leaders of local churches.

Throughout church history there has been more of a consistent view of the role and purpose of elders than there has been with the office of deacon.

Some denominations and traditions have added hierarchical structures with varying levels and titles, but consistently from the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and broadly Protestant, evangelical, and independent churches, each possess a form of the office of elder that grew from the New Testament model. While specific roles differ among the various Christian traditions, each views the elder as responsible for the spiritual welfare of the congregation or group of congregations. Obviously, there is significant theological disagreement among Christian denominations, and some developed their elder offices into much broader structures (i.e., bishop, priest, cardinal, pope), but all utilize a form of an elder office as the spiritual headship of their respective churches.  

Five Major Church Leadership Structures
Juxtaposed to the generally monolithic view of elders, the view of deacons could not be more disparate.  From the second century to today there has not been a consistent view of this second office of the church.  Below are the five major church leadership structures across the Christian world today with a brief explanation of their form of government and view on deacons. As you will see, the views of a deacon’s role could not be more diverse.

This form of church government is used primarily by Presbyterian and other Reformed denominations.4 This leadership model is hierarchical which means it utilizes multiple levels of authority above the local church. There are four levels of government: the Session (the local church elder board), Presbytery (leaders from local churches), Synod (several presbyteries) and General Assembly (the highest governing body). Each local church has a group of elders to lead that particular church. The local congregation and its elders select those who are in the hierarchical structure above them.

Within the Presbyterian polity, deacons are charged with the ministry of mercy to show the love of Christ by providing for the poor and afflicted5 as well as assisting the elders in pastoral care in countless ways. Or, as the Book of Order puts it, the office of deacon is one of “sympathy, witness, and service.”6  As a formal group they comprise a “board.” Deacons can assist with the Lord’s Supper, manage the church money, lead worship, visit the sick, welcome new members or take on any other special tasks as directed by the session.

This form of church government is practiced by Episcopalians, Anglicans, Eastern Orthodox, Catholics, some Methodists, and some Lutherans.7 Though the leadership model does vary across the denominations, they all share the view that authority centers on the bishop who is the authority over the leadership in those churches. This view likens the office of bishop as to that of the apostles, because the office of bishop, in their view, succeeds from the office of apostle.

The bishop appoints leaders to local congregations—neither the local leadership nor its congregation has input in appointing leadership.  Deacons in the Catholic church are the lowest position of the clergy (i.e., a full-time vocational position).8 Their duties can include ministering communion, reading from the Gospels during Mass, and counseling church members. Methodist deacons support the upper clergy, but their duties will also include duties performed by upper clergy: teaching, preaching, overseeing funerals and weddings, help with developing ministries, counseling, and more. They believe deacons are called by God to serve, so they are trained and installed by upper clergy primarily to aid upper clergy in their duties.9

This form of government (also called “congregational”) is used by several denominations, including most Baptists, some Lutherans, other congregationalist, independents, and Bible churches. These churches champion local congregational democracy and independency. The authority of the church lies with the majority vote of the assembly of believers.10 These churches have two offices: elder(s)/pastor(s) and deacon(s), but the ultimate authority is the congregation. Individual church autonomy is highly regarded by churches with this form of leadership. This local autonomy is supported by the denominations who offer support and resources to these local churches but do not have a hierarchal structure.

The autonomy of these churches leads to a variety of views on the roles of deacons, and the Baptists are especially wide-spread in their views. Below are three differing views:

(1) Blurred Lines with Elders – Some say deacons play a major role as spiritual leaders of the church.11 Believing that a major part of a deacon’s role is to teach and guide members of the church body, he is essential in the areas of pastoral leadership.12 This is a blurring of the traditional first century roles of elders and deacons.  

(2) Deacons are Shepherds – Many Baptists believe deacons are shepherds.13 These Baptists see deacons not as equals to the role of an elder/pastor but working in partnership with the elder/pastor. The deacon’s duties are dedicated to pastoral leadership.14 Beyond blurring traditional lines, these Baptists believe deacons can be preaching, teaching, and counseling just as the pastor/elder does. Churches with this form of leadership see the pastor as the one who gives the vision and direction of the church. Then, together with the deacon, the pastor sets out to lead the congregation in that vision. Howard Foshee, in his book, Now That You’re a Deacon, explains, “As a generalist leader the pastor leads the church to determine its spiritual mission. A pastor succeeds as a leader when he guides the church toward the attainment of its priority goals.”15

Foshee also states in his book that deacons are shepherds only to state later that some serve behind the scenes. Deacon leadership, according to Foshee, is in harmony with the idea stated by an ancient Chinese philosopher: “A leader is best when people barely know that he exists; not so good when people obey and acclaim him; worst when they despise him. Fail to honor people, they fail to honor you, but a good leader who talks little, when his work is finished they will say, we did this ourselves.”16

Foshee not only contradicts himself; he uses an inconsistent example to explain a deacon’s humble work. According to Foshee, a deacon should not be leading by example or be a model for others to follow. He “is best when people barely know he exists,” and, if successful, people never know that they have been led. Part of the problem is that Foshee quotes a Chinese philosopher and does not quote Scripture on the issue of biblical leadership.

(3) Congregational Baptist Churches – These churches traditionally have a single elder/pastor and multiple deacons that many times operate as secular corporate board of directors overseeing all church operations and finance. Over the last number of decades there has been a growing number of congregational churches that have moved to multiple elders and multiple deacons. They govern themselves by using a hybrid between elder shepherding and traditional congregationalism. These congregationalists believe the role of deacon is strictly a servant role with all teaching, preaching, and spiritual leadership coming from the elders.17

Elder Shepherding
Among evangelical churches, there are some independent nondenominational churches, and even some denominational churches, that believe that elders are the spiritual overseers of the local church (Heb 13:17; 1 Pet 5:1-4), with no hierarchy above them. The elders oversee the ministry of the Word and are responsible for the teaching, preaching and counseling within their congregation. Elders do not have to be the only ones who teach, preach, and counsel, but are responsible for vetting all that do. Elders are also responsible for the operations and finance of the church with affirmation from the congregation.

Among evangelical churches, there are some independent nondenominational churches, and even some denominational churches, that believe that elders are the spiritual overseers of the local church (Heb 13:17; 1 Pet 5:1-4), with no hierarchy above them.

Deacons are seen only in roles of service. In his book, Paul’s Vision for the Deacons, Alexander Strauch notes, “Deacons are not a separate autonomous body of officials disconnected from the body of overseers. Deacons operate under the leadership of the elders.”  Deacons serve under the guidance of the elders in roles of service to and for the church. They complement the ministry of the elders, freeing the shepherds to do the ministry of preaching the Word and prayer.

This form of government is used mostly by Brethren and Quaker congregations and a growing number of those in the “house-church” movement. These churches minimize the need for a formal leadership structure, viewing their unity within the Holy Spirit sufficient to guide believers. These churches stress the priesthood of all believers as the foundational principle for how they view leadership. These churches often have elders to lead the congregation, but teaching and preaching is not limited to them—freedom is given to allow the Holy Spirit to prompt others to share God’s Word, many times in a spontaneous manner.18

Quaker churches do not have deacons. Deacons in Brethren churches focus on caregiving ministries to individuals and families in the areas of welcoming, nurturing, reconciling and witnessing to both church body and those outside the church.19

In addition to these five, there are countless upstart churches that exist that utterly disregard the need for the office of deacon as mandated in the New Testament.  These churches may or may not have ordained elders. Most authors writing about deacons claim biblical authority of their respective views. However, there are few who really exegete Scripture in its context. In a later article, we will examine Scripture to uncover the purpose and role intended by Christ for this second office of the Church.

As time progressed and the church moved out of the apostolic era, what was a simple leadership structure in the first century with two offices (elders, focused on the ministry of the Word, and deacons, serving the body through direction of the elders) grew into unbiblical and often unwieldy hierarchical structures. Then came the Reformation and the establishment of the various denominations.

It is not surprising that with the five major church governmental structures coming from a mix of theological views, all with varying interpretations of Scripture, there is no singular, cohesive view of the purpose and role of a deacon that boasts of the universally mainstream Christian position. The fact is there are more views on the role and purpose of deacons than there are church governmental structures.

Christ gave specific instructions to the Apostles on the structure of church leadership.

It is surprising that with only a few passages about this office, two millennia of church history and scholarship there is not more agreement. It is sad to see that in two thousand years, Christ’s church is so confused regarding its leadership. Christ gave specific instructions to the Apostles on the structure of church leadership. As is too often the case, we humans have taken it upon ourselves to reframe and remake that simple structure laid out in Scripture.  Now, two thousand years later, we have what can only be described as a convoluted mess overall in our ecclesiastical leadership structure, especially when it comes to the polity of deacons. This puts countless congregations at risk who trustingly follow their leaders who do not know the role of a biblical deacon.

In coming articles we will study the Bible to glean the proper view of the role and purpose of deacons as opposed to leaning on church tradition, denominational teachings, or man’s wisdom.


1 J.D, O’Donnell, Handbook for Deacons (Nashville: Randall House, 2009), 13-14.

2 Cornelis Van Dam, The Deacon, (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017), 98-101.

3 O’Donnell, Handbook for Deacons, 14.

4 Benjamin Merkle, 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons (Grand Rapids: Kregal, 2007), 27.

5 Van Dam, The Deacon, xi

6 Earl S. Johnson, “The Presbyterian Deacon, The Presbyterian Outlook, August 31, 2008, See also Earl S. Johnson, The Presbyterian Deacon: An Essential Guide (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2014).

7 Merkle, 40 Questions, 26



10 Merkle, 40 Questions, 27-28

11Henry Webb, Deacons Servant Models in the Church (Nashville: B & H, 2001), 73.

12 O’Donnell, Handbook for Deacons, 53.

13 Howard Foshee, Now that You’re a Deacon (Nashville: B & H, 1975), 16.

14 Robert Naylor, The Baptist Deacon (Nashville: B & H, 1998), 10.

15 Foshee, Now that You’re a Deacon, 27-28.

16 Foshee, Now that You’re a Deacon, 28.

17 Merkle, 40 Questions, 238-240.

18Merkle, 40 Questions, 28.


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