What Are Deacons, 1 Tim 3:8-13

What Are Deacons?

What are deacons?  Deacons are an interesting subject in the Bible because there are a variety of interpretations concerning who they are and what they do.  The Biblical teaching about deacons is different than the traditional understanding.  Traditionally, deacons are men who are chosen by a congregation to carry our whatever responsibilities the church or the pastor has deemed necessary.  But, what are deacons?

We should see what the Bible says about deacons before we decide what to do with them or how they will function in our church.  Our by-laws address the duties of deacons.  Yet, before we fill the vacancies created by the resignation of two of them, or amend the by-laws, we should study the Bible to see what, in fact, they are supposed to do.  What are deacons?

Deacons are only mentioned in two passages

Deacons only show up in two passages in your Bible.  They are mentioned once in Phil 1:1, “bishops and deacons”.  And they are mentioned four times in 1 Tim 3:8-13, after the passage in 1 Tim 3:1-7 concerning the qualifications of bishops.  In other words, deacons are only mentioned in the context of bishops.

The seven men in Acts 6 are not the first deacons

Part of the confusion about who or what are deacons arises from calling the men in Acts 6:1-5 deacons.  Traditionally, people have said that the seven men chosen to serve tables in Acts 6 were the first deacons.

It’s a mistake is to call the men in Acts 6 “deacons”.  Typically, they have been called deacons because the Greek word for “serve” as in “serve tables” is a derivative of the word diakonos.  This is the Greek word which is also translated deacon in 1 Tim 3.  It’s assumed that these men, therefore, were deacons.

But a derivative of the word diakonos is also used to describe what the apostles were doing in Acts 6.  They were given to the “ministry” of the word.  In other words, the seven men were chosen to “diakonos” and the apostles were given to “diakonos”.   Thus, you couldn’t say that these seven men were deacons as distinguished from the apostles.  They aren’t called deacons in our English Bible and in Greek, their ministration and serving is a derivative of the same word as the apostles’ ministry.

As a matter of fact, there are several instances where derivates of the word “diakonos” were used before Acts 6.  And none of these passages has anything to do with deacons.  See Lk 10:40, where Mary was “serving” (a derivative of the word diakonos).  And Lk 12:37, where the Lord will “serve” (a derivative of the word diakonos).  And see Acts 1:17 where Judas Iscariot had part of this “ministry” (a derivative of the word diakonos).  These are just a few examples.

Thus, it’s odd that men would come to the conclusion that the seven men in Acts 6 were deacons, since the Bible doesn’t call them deacons and their “qualifications” for serving tables are much different than the quality, character, and qualifications for deacons in 1 Tim 3.

In Acts 6, the disciples were instructed to “look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom”.  They were appointed by the apostles over “this business” of the daily ministration to the widows.  And the apostles laid hands upon them.

Qualities of and qualifications for deacons, 1 Tim 3:8-13

The deacons in 1 Tim 3:8-13 had no hands laid upon them.  There is nothing said about them being selected by the congregation.  And mention is made of their families and their wives.  And many of their qualities and qualifications are similar to the qualities and qualifications for bishops.

As a matter of fact, 1 Tim 3:8 begins with the word, “Likewise”.  This means that whatever was written before is to be considered when studying what follows.  Paul wrote about bishops in 1 Tim 3:1-7, and then wrote, “likewise” when he began to write about deacons.  In other words, what holds true for the bishops also holds true for the deacons.  Their character and qualities are very similar.  They both have an “office”; the only two offices in the church.

“Bishops and Deacons”, the clue to answer “What are deacons”?

So, what are deacons?  When and where did the purpose and need for deacons arise?  Apparently, the need for them came near the end of Paul’s ministry, when we see the first mention of bishops.

When you look back to the end of Paul’s first missionary journey, you see that he ordained elders in every city where they had preached and there were now churches, Acts 14:23.  These elders were charged with the responsibility to oversee and “feed the church (or the flock) of God”, Acts 20:28; 1 Pet 5:1-4.  Clearly, these are not a ruling board of elders.  They are pastors.  And there was no mention of bishops and deacons at this time.

By the time Paul wrote 2 Timothy and Titus, he was now near the end of his life.  The post scripts on these epistles indicate that Timothy was “the first bishop of the church of the Ephesians” and Titus was “ordained the first bishop of the church of the Cretians”.  So, there had not been any bishops before them.  They were the first.  Likewise, when Paul was in Rome, late in his life, there were now bishops and deacons in Philippi, Phil 1:1.

In these locales, there were multiple elders.  In Acts 20:17, Paul “sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church”.  In Titus 1:5, Paul instructed Titus to “ordain elders in every city”.

It appears then, that as the congregations grew, there was a need for a presiding elder among the elders.  This presiding elder was called “bishop”.  Timothy was the bishop of the church of the Ephesians; Titus was the bishop of the Cretians.

Once there was the need for a bishop, the other elders in the church were apparently called deacons.  This would explain why Paul addressed the bishops and deacons in Philippi, while not mentioning any elders in his greeting in Phil 1:1.

If this is so, then deacons are like associate pastors in churches that are large enough to need more than one elder.  In the Bible, the presiding elder is called bishop and the associates are called deacons, 1 Tim 3.  Today the bishop is called senior pastor and the deacons are called associate pastors.

There will be more on this subject in the next lesson on deacons.  But to this point in our study, hopefully, you can at least begin to answer the question, “What are deacons”?