Spirituality Magazine

The Faithful Deacon

By Mmcgee4

Grace Thoughts

The Faithful Deacon

The Faithful Deacon

In the first part of our special series about ‘Deacons’ we saw that Jesus Christ is our ultimate example of a ‘serving’ deacon. The word Jesus used for ‘served’ and ‘serve’ in Matthew 20 is the word διακονέω (diakoneó). It comes from the Greek word for ‘deacon’ (διάκονος, diakonos).

… the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.

Matthew 20:28

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.

Philippians 2:5-8

The word διάκονος (deacon) translates as ‘servant, minister, waiter,’ and is focused on the work of a deacon and finishing an assigned task. Jesus made it clear to His disciples that all believers are διάκονος and should serve one another.

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant.

Matthew 20:25-26

That leads us to the next part of our series – what kind of διάκονος we should be.

The Deacon’s Character

The first time we see either of these words (διάκονος or διακονέω) used outside of the Gospels is in the Book of Acts.

Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, ‘It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables.

Acts 6:1-2

Based on what we read in Acts 2 – 5, the Jerusalem assembly of disciples numbered in the thousands, possibly in the tens of thousands of men, women and children (e.g. Acts 2:41, 47; 4:4; 5:14) by the time we read the words of Acts 6:1-2.

We know what the new disciples did with the apostles and each other every day because of what’s written in Acts 2 –

And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.

Acts 2:42-47

As the number of new disciples grew, so did the responsibilities of the apostles in shepherding the young flock. One of those responsibilities was the physical support of widows. Though we don’t know the number of disciples who were widows needing to be fed, it was apparently large enough to cause a problem in the young fellowship.

The problem was between Hellenist and Hebrew Jews who were followers of Jesus Christ. The Hebrew Jews spoke Hebrew and were native to Israel. The Hellenist Jews spoke Greek and lived among Gentiles in other countries (from the Diaspora). Many Hebrew Jews saw themselves as superior from their Hellenist brethren, which gave rise to this complaint –

… there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution.

The Hellenist members of the fellowship believed their widows were not getting their fair share of the daily distribution of food compared to what the Hebrew widows were receiving. That was a potential division within the young fellowship of believers and the apostles knew they needed to address it quickly and efficiently.

Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, ‘It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables.

The reason that serving food to Hellenist widows was not desirable (ἀρεστός – acceptable, fit) to the twelve apostles was because it kept them from doing the work Jesus had tasked them to do, which was to give themselves “continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).

The apostles “summoned the multitude of the disciples” together and asked them to “seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.”

Notice that the first quality the apostles mentioned was good reputation. Here’s how different Bible versions translate the word μαρτυρέω –

  • KJV – honest report
  • NIV – are known to be
  • NASB and CSB – good reputation
  • AMP – good reputations [men of godly character and moral integrity]
  • TLB – who are well thought of by everyone
  • NLT – who are well respected 

Notice the emphasis on the character of the people who would serve table for the Hellenist widows. The apostles added that the servers should also be “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom.”

The reaction of the multitude of believers to the words of the apostles is important to note –

And the saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch, whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them. Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.

Acts 6:5-7

The believers chose seven men they trusted to ensure that the Hellenist widows received a fair distribution of daily food.

Stephen was the first mentioned and as we know would play a major role in the life of the Jerusalem Church and the Apostle Paul (Acts 6:8 – 8:3; 9:1-31):

Look at the character of Stephen – “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” The words “full of faith” are πλήρης πίστις – ‘full of, abounding in, faithful, reliable, loyal’. You could count on Stephen to finish any task given him. He was faithful, reliable. Stephen was also full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom. We see that on full view when Stephen addressed the Sanhedrin in Acts 7 and was summarily stoned to death for sharing that wisdom from the Spirit of God.

We know that Stephen and the other διάκονος did their jobs well in serving the Hellenist widows because of what happened in the Jerusalem church following the people’s choice –

Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.

Acts 6:7

Everyone was doing what God had tasked them to do and the Word of God spread and the number of people saved multiplied greatly. Even many of the Jewish priests became followers of Jesus Christ. When God’s people do God’s work God’s way, good things happen.

The Deacon’s Role

The Apostle Paul used the words διάκονος and διακονέω many times in his letters to address the issue of serving/ministering in churches, but he was the first to mention a deacon as an official role or title in the churches. He wrote this to the church in Philippi –

Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Philippians 1:1-2

Note that Paul connected deacons (διάκονος) with bishops (ἐπίσκοπος) after addressing his letter to “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi.” Deacons had a particular role in the early church that has changed through the centuries, but that’s for another study at another time. Our focus is on the character of the deacon.

The character of a deacon was to be similar to that of a bishop (overseer). We see that in Paul’s first letter to Timothy. Here’s the full context –

This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. Likewise deacons must be reverent, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy for money, holding the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience. But let these also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons, being found blameless. Likewise, their wives must be reverent, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things. Let deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a good standing and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.

1 Timothy 3:1-13

The word “likewise” in verse 8 is ὡσαύτως and means ‘in like manner.’

Paul addressed the character qualities of the bishop from verses 1-7, then described deacon character “in like manner” to that of a bishop.

Bishops and deacons worked side by side in churches. Having similar spiritual character would be important to the growth and vitality of each congregation of Christ followers.

Here is the full list of the character qualities for bishops and deacons along with the meaning of each quality from the Greek –

  • Blameless – ἀνεπίληπτος, not found wrong, without reproach, without blame
  • Husband of one wife – εἶναι μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα, of one woman man, husband
  • Temperate – νηφαλέος, sober, not intoxicated, clear-minded
  • Sober-minded – σώφρων, sensible, of sound mind, self-controlled, well-balanced
  • Of good behavior – κόσμιος, orderly, well-ordered, well-prepared
  • Blameless – ἀνεπίληπτος, not found wrong, without reproach, without blame
  • Husband of one wife – εἶναι μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα, of one woman man, husband
  • Temperate – νηφαλέος, sober, not intoxicated, clear-minded
  • Sober-minded – σώφρων, sensible, of sound mind, self-controlled, well-balanced
  • Of good behavior – κόσμιος, orderly, well-ordered, well-prepared
  • Hospitable – φιλόξενος, loving strangers, given to hospitality, generous to guests
  • Able to teach – διδακτικός, apt and skillful in teaching, instructive, the virtue which makes one teachable
  • Not given to wine – μὴ πάροινος, not drunken, not quarrelsome from wine, not addicted to wine, not excessive drinker, not impudent, arrogant in intoxication
  • Not violent – μὴ πλήκτης, not a striker, not a brawler, not a contentious person, not a quarrelsome person, not violent
  • Not greedy for money – (not in oldest manuscripts)
  • But gentle – ἀλλὰ ἐπιεικής, but equitable, yielding, forbearing, reasonable, moderate, fair
  • Not quarrelsome – ἄμαχος, peaceable, uncontentious, abstaining from fighting
  • Not covetous – ἀφιλάργυρος, without love of money, not fond of silver
  • One who rules his own house well – τοῦ ἰδίου οἴκου καλῶς προϊστάμενον, one’s own (distinct) household (family) rightly (nobly, honorably) preside over (superintend, direct)
  • Having his children in submission with all reverence – τέκνα ἔχοντα ἐν ὑποταγῇ μετὰ πάσης σεμνότητος, offspring (those living with you) possessing in control (subjection, obedience, submission) with every kind of seriousness (dignity, honor, gravity, due reverence)
  • For if a man does not know how to rule his own house, ‘how will he take care of the church of God?’ – πῶς ἐκκλησίας Θεοῦ ἐπιμελήσεται, in what manner (by what means) the assembly (called out congregation of believers) of God to take care of (to care for, to attend to)
  • Not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil – μὴ νεόφυτον ἵνα μὴ τυφωθεὶς εἰς κρίμα ἐμπέσῃ τοῦ διαβόλου, not newly planted (newly converted, neophyte) that not being conceited (puffed up, haughty, foolish) into (fall into) the judgment (verdict, condemnation) of the devil (slanderer, accuser, maligner)
  • Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil – δεῖ δὲ καὶ μαρτυρίαν καλὴν ἔχειν ἀπὸ τῶν ἔξωθεν ἵνα μὴ εἰς ὀνειδισμὸν ἐμπέσῃ καὶ παγίδα τοῦ διαβόλου, it is necessary (behooves, right and proper) now also a testimony (witness, evidence, reputation) good (beautiful) to have from those (the ones) from without (outside, outward, external) so that not into reproach (reviling) he might fall (fall into) and the snare (trap, device, wile) of the devil (slanderer, accuser, maligner)
  • Likewise deacons must be reverent – Διακόνους ὡσαύτως σεμνούς, deacons in like manner must be serious (grave, reverent, honorable, dignified, respected)
  • Not double-tongued – μὴ διλόγους, not given to being double-tongued (deceitful, double-saying)
  • Not given to much wine – μὴ οἴνῳ πολλῷ προσέχοντας, not to wine being much given (addicted, attend to)
  • Not greedy for money – μὴ αἰσχροκερδεῖς, not greedy of dishonest gain (not fond of base gain, sordid gain, filthy lucre)
  • Holding the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience – ἔχοντας τὸ μυστήριον τῆς πίστεως ἐν καθαρᾷ συνειδήσει, holding (possessing) to the mystery (known through revelation) of the faith (trust, confidence) with clean (pure, unstained, innocent, free from anything that corrupts)
  • But let these also first be tested – καὶ οὗτοι δὲ δοκιμαζέσθωσαν πρῶτον, also these now let them be tested (put to the test, approved, examined, fit, distinguished by testing) first (at the beginning, before)
  • Then let them serve as deacons – εἶτα διακονείτωσαν ἀνέγκλητοι ὄντες, then let them serve (minister, kick up dust) blameless (unreprovable, irreproachable, not to be called to account) being (existing)
  • Likewise, their wives must be reverent – Γυναῖκας ὡσαύτως σεμνάς, women (woman, wife) likewise (in like manner) must be dignified (serious, grave, venerable, honorable)
  • Not slanderers – μὴ διαβόλους, not accusing falsely (make charges that destroy)
  • Temperate – νηφαλίους, clear-minded (sober, not intoxicated, free from negative influences)
  • Faithful in all things – πιστὰς ἐν πᾶσιν, trustworthy (reliable, loyal) in all things (every kind of, every part of)
  • Let deacons be the husbands of one wife – Διάκονοι ἔστωσαν μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρες, deacons let be of one wife (woman, wife) man (man, husband)
  • Ruling their children and their own houses well – τέκνων καλῶς προϊστάμενοι καὶ τῶν ἰδίων οἴκων, their children (child living in dependence) well (honorably, rightly) managing (ruling over, presiding over, superintend) and the own (one’s own, distinct) households (family)
  • For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a good standing and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus – οἱ γὰρ καλῶς διακονήσαντες βαθμὸν ἑαυτοῖς καλὸν περιποιοῦνται καὶ πολλὴν παρρησίαν ἐν πίστει τῇ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ, those for well (honorably, rightly) having served (ministered) a standing for themselves good acquire and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus

Paul set the bar high for bishops and deacons. Even though the apostle did not address the qualifications for deacon again in his letters, he did address ‘bishops’ and ‘elders’ in his letter to Titus.

For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you— if a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination. For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.

Titus 1:5-9

The Greek word for ‘elder’ is πρεσβύτερος and the word for ‘bishop’ is ἐπίσκοπος. Even though the two words come from different roots, Paul appears to have used them interchangeably in his letter to Titus.

Paul told Titus that he had left him in Crete to “set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you.” Paul had a history of ‘appointing’ elders in cities where he preached the Gospel and established churches. He had already demonstrated for Titus how to ‘appoint’ (καθίστημι – set in place, put in charge) leaders in the churches.

And when they had preached the gospel to that city and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying, ‘We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.’ So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.

Acts 14:21-23

History of Deacons, Bishops and Elders

While we know about the qualifications for deacons, bishops and elders in the New Testament, we know little about their history working together. Much of what we do know comes to us from early Church history. We see that deacons had a close relationship in helping bishops and elders.

The earliest Apostolic Father of the Church to mention deacons and bishops was Clement of Rome who wrote in the latter part of the 1st century AD. He personally knew and served with some of the apostles (e.g. Paul and Peter).

And this they did in no new fashion; for indeed it had been written concerning bishops and deacons from very ancient times; for thus saith the scripture in a certain place, I will appoint their bishops in righteousness and their deacons in faith.

1 Clement 42:4-5, Translation by J.B. Lightfoot

Ignatius was the bishop of Antioch and a direct disciple of the Apostle John. He wrote several letters in the early part of the 2nd century AD as he approached martyrdom.

For when ye are obedient to the bishop as to Jesus Christ, it is evident to me that ye are living not after men but after Jesus Christ, who died for us, that believing on His death ye might escape death. It is therefore necessary, even as your wont is, that ye should do nothing without the bishop; but be ye obedient also to the presbytery, as to the Apostles of Jesus Christ our hope; for if we live in Him, we shall also be found in Him. And those likewise who are deacons of the mysteries of Jesus Christ must please all men in all ways. For they are not deacons of meats and drinks but servants of the Church of God. It is right therefore that they should beware of blame as of fire. In like manner let all men respect the deacons as Jesus Christ, even as they should respect the bishop as being a type of the Father and the presbyters as the council of God and as the college of Apostles. Apart from these there is not even the name of a church … He that is within the sanctuary is clean; but he that is without the sanctuary is not clean, that is, he that doeth aught without the bishop and presbytery and deacons, this man is not clean in his conscience. Not indeed that I have known of any such thing among you, but I keep watch over you betimes, as my beloved, for I foresee the snares of the devil. Do ye therefore arm yourselves with gentleness and recover yourselves in faith which is the flesh of the Lord, and in love which is the blood of Jesus Christ.

Ignatius to the Trallians, Chapters 2:1-3; 3:1; 7:2; 8:1, Translation by J.B. Lightfoot

Notice the emphasis Ignatius of Antioch placed on deacons being “servants of the Church of God” and how all men should “respect the deacons as Jesus Christ, even as they should respect the bishop as being a type of the Father and the presbyters as the council of God and as the college of Apostles.”

In his letter to the Christians in Smyrna, Ignatius wrote –

[But] shun divisions, as the beginning of evils. Do ye all follow your bishop, as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and the presbytery as the Apostles; and to the deacons pay respect, as to God’s commandment.

Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, Chapter 8:1, Translation by J.B. Lightfoot

Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna and also a direct disciple of the Apostle John. He wrote in the early part of the 2nd century AD. He would have understood clearly the apostolic perspective on leadership in churches having been appointed to the position by an apostle of Jesus Christ.

In like manner deacons should be blameless in the presence of His righteousness, as deacons of God and Christ and not of men; not calumniators, not double-tongued, not lovers of money, temperate in all things, compassionate, diligent, walking according to the truth of the Lord who became a minister (deacon) of all. For if we be well pleasing unto Him in this present world, we shall receive the future world also, according as He promised us to raise us from the dead, and that if we conduct ourselves worthily of Him we shall also reign with Him, if indeed we have faith. In like manner also the younger men must be blameless in all things, caring for purity before everything and curbing themselves from every evil. For it is a good thing to refrain from lusts in the world, for every lust warreth against the Spirit, and neither whoremongers nor effeminate persons nor defilers of themselves with men shall inherit the kingdom of God, neither they that do untoward things. Wherefore it is right to abstain from all these things, submitting yourselves to the presbyters and deacons as to God and Christ. The virgins must walk in a blameless and pure conscience.

Polycarp to the Philippians 5:2-3, Translation by J.Bl Lightfoot

It’s interesting that Polycarp told Christians in Philippi to submit themselves to elders and deacons “as to God and Christ.” It’s helpful to see how the Apostolic Fathers viewed the important role of deacons in the early Church.

The role of deacons has evolved through the centuries to what we find it to be in many different churches. I highly recommend anyone considering becoming a deacon study the writings of the apostles and their direct disciples to determine how to best serve Christ and His Church.

Next Time

The Apostle Paul wrote Timothy that deacons are to be “tested.” What did he mean by that? We’ll find out in the next part of our special series.

Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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