The Ministry of a Deacon, Part 1


Editor’s Note:
This article is adapted from the latest book in our Equip series,
Deacons: Clarifying the Biblical Role by J. Robert Douglas.

What is the ministry of a deacon? Across the landscape of the universal church today there are numerous divergent views about the role and ministry of deacons. Below are just a few:

  • Deacons are spiritual leaders.[1]
  • Deacons are servants.[2]
  • Deacons are assistants to the elders.[3]
  • Deacons are not subordinates of the elders but serve Christ for the good of the congregation.[4]
  • Deacons are those nearest to the needs of the people, spiritual or otherwise.[5]
  • Deacons are to protect the joy of the congregation by focusing on the poor, needy, lonely, and sick.[6]
  • Deacons are set apart for the ministry of love, justice, and service.[7]
  • Deacons are to support the ministry of the pastor.[8]
  • Deacons are to grow the ministry of the pastor.[9]
  • Deacons are to exercise general spiritual leadership.[10]
  • Deacons are to serve in the areas of pastoral leadership.[11]
  • Deacons are shepherds—they minister to the congregation, caring for the well-being of the flock.[12]

There is tremendous confusion and misunderstanding around the office of deacon. On one side of the spectrum, there is a narrow view of the role and purpose with a short list of specific duties usually around compassion ministry, quoting Acts 6 as the model. The other side claims deacons are shepherds and spiritual leaders of the church, with various other views in between.

It is obvious that from the list above the church has moved away from the simplicity that Paul laid out in 1 Timothy 3. Most of these views come from church traditions and denominational beliefs that have been foisted upon this apostolic template, smothering out its blessed instruction.

This article exposes wrong thinking about a deacon’s ministry and provides a biblical foundation for a proper view.

The Ministry of Deacons
Christ’s leadership structure for the church is elegantly simple. The Spirit initiated the office with the apostles in Acts 6 and universalized it with the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 3. There are two offices, each with its own roles. They are both under Christ and directed by his Word for the benefit of the body. Both offices pertain only to the local church. There is no current office designated with authority over multiple churches. Bearing authority over multiple churches was the role of the apostles, and there are no apostles since the passing of the apostle John.

Elders are the overseers of the local church (Acts 20:28).
Elders are under-shepherds of Christ, overseeing all aspects of the church and responsible for every ministry of the church. The elders are responsible for overseeing everything from the finances of the church, to operations, to everything up to and including the teaching and preaching of the Word which is their foremost responsibility.[13] This started with the apostles in the very first church (Acts 2:42; 4:32-35; 2 Tim 4:2; 1 Tim 4:11-16; 1 Peter 5:1), and continues in the New Testament and today with elders (1 Tim 4:11-16; 2 Tim 4:2). When additional management servants are needed, deacons should be appointed (Acts 6:6; 1 Tim 3:10).

Deacons serve the body of the church through elder-appointed tasks (Acts 6:6; 1 Tim 3:10).
There are two offices: (1) the overseers bear the responsibility of all areas of the church; and (2) the deacons are appointed to serve and manage. In Acts 4, the apostles oversaw and managed the entirety of the ministry including the care of the widows. The ministry of the widows required so much attention it began to take away from the apostles’ primary duties. So, the apostles in Acts 6 appointed men to handle the task. The same is true for the deacons established by Paul, with one modification. Deacons carry out any service tasks appointed by the elders for the needs of the body. This allows the elders to keep focused on the ministry of the Word so they would not be distracted by practical needs that required attention (just as the apostles in Acts 6). There is nothing in Acts 6 or the rest of the New Testament that establishes that deacons can only serve widows or the needy. Interestingly, Paul did not create a special title or word for this office of service. He used the noun daikon which means “a servant” or “to serve.” It was a straightforward, well-known job with a simple title.

The two offices in this model work together to address the needs of the congregation for God’s glory, and the result is captured in Acts 6:7: “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly” (ESV).

Hard Boundaries and Autonomy
Paul gave the local church a specific set of qualifications, roles, and duties for its elders. For deacons, he provided a set of qualifications and roles, leaving the elders freedom in the selection process and appointing specific tasks to the deacons. Paul did not give the elders flexibility to add to the qualifications of deacons, or to expand the role of a deacon.

The qualifications between the two offices (elders and deacons) are similar, and a cursory review might lead some to believe there are no real differences. This could be an underlying reason why, over the centuries, spiritual leadership and other similar tasks have been added to the deacon’s role. However, further study shows there are some major differences and key distinctives between the qualifications of the two offices.

The primary qualifications that separate elders and deacons are teaching, preaching (1 Tim 3:2), counseling, and exhortation (Titus 1:9). It is the elders who are to minister the Word of God. Deacons serve and help manage other servants. Herein you find an elegant, clear, and simple division of labor.

Can Deacons Teach?
The office of deacon does not have qualifications requiring them to teach. A deacon may have a personal spiritual gift of teaching (Rom 12:6-8), but their role doesn’t require that they possess this gift. Every believer receives at least one spiritual gift (1 Cor 12:3), and all deacons have the gift of service (Rom 12:7; 1 Pet 4:10-11). They may also have other gifts, including the gift of teaching (1 Cor 12:11).

The gift of teaching varies in skill and depth, from teaching a children’s class, to leading an in-depth inductive Bible study, to teaching through a book of the Bible. It is not uncommon to find deacons who have the gift of teaching at one of these levels. Stephen and Philip, for example, had personal spiritual gifts beyond their service to the widows (Acts 6, 8). Both men performed wonders and miracles, both preached the Word with boldness.

A deacon who also has the gift of teaching is not necessarily qualified to be an elder. Elders must be able to preach, counsel, and exhort (Titus 1:9) across the whole counsel of God’s Word. So, a deacon who has the gift of teaching may become an elder based on the fullness of elder qualifications.

In part two of this article, we will look at whether or not a church can function without elders or deacons, the dismissal process for deacons, and biblical leadership within the church.

[1] Henry Webb, Deacons: Servant Models in the Church (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2001), 2.

[2] Benjamin Merkle, 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2008), 238.

[3] Alexander Strauch, Paul’s Vision for the Deacons (Littleton, CO: Lewis and Roth Publishers, 2017), 52.

[4] Cornelis Van Dam, The Deacon: Biblical Foundations for Today’s Ministry of Mercy (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2016), 75.

[5] Harold Nichols, The Work of the Deacon & Deaconess (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2014), 29.

[6] Van Dam, The Deacon, 71-72.

[7] “The Ministry of a Deacon and Provisional Deacon,” BOM Library, last modified January 2013,

[8] J.D. O’Donnell, Handbook for Deacons (Nashville, TN: Randall House Publications, 1973), 17.

[9] Robert Naylor, The Baptist Deacon (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1955), 10.

[10] O’Donnel, Handbook, 73.

[11] Naylor, The Baptist Deacon, 10.

[12] Howard B. Foshee, Now That You’re a Deacon (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 1975), 15-16.

[13] Cliff McManis, The Biblically-Driven Church (Cupertino, CA: With All Wisdom Publications, 2016), 97-134.

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