Deacon, Servant, or Minister – Part 4

In our on-going series where we have been examining the nature of Christian gatherings, using the Book of Acts as our guide, we have arrived at a final excursion on the meaning and development of the familiar word, deacon. So far, we have noted that deacon, as the English transliteration, is rarely used while the Greek words from which it is derived occur frequently throughout the New Testament and are most often translated as servant or minister. The three words under discussion from which deacon is derived are the nouns diakonos, diakonia, and the verb diakoneo. As we have seen, diakonos is associated with the ‘Who’ that is serving, diakonia is associated with the ‘What’ or type of service, and diakoneo is associated with the ‘How’ or the action of serving. It is to this latter usage that we now turn our attention.

As previously mentioned at the beginning of our study, the verb diakoneo, describes the action of serving or service (the How) and occurs 45 times in 32 verses (NASB; compare KJV: 37).  It is transliterated as “deaconing” only twice, a rather unusual construction of, “let them serve as deacons” in 1 Timothy 3:10 and again in 1 Timothy 3:13. By far and away the majority of uses for diakoneo occur in the gospels. One of the first uses of the word occurs in Matthew 4:11, where the angels minister to the Lord. Among other uses there are familiar passages such as: Peter’s mother whom Jesus heals, then she subsequently ministers unto them (Matt. 8:15) and Martha, who served the Lord and his disciples (Luke 10:40). Interestingly, in this well-known passage of Martha and Mary we find both the verbal form (of deacon) and the feminine noun form.  Other noteworthy uses occur in Luke 12:37, in which we find Jesus deaconing those servants (doulas = slaves) whom He finds awake at His second coming as well as John 12:26 where we read, “If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.”  Here we find two uses of the verb under our consideration as well as one of our earlier words, diakonos (diakonos – servant).

Additional examples occur in the epistles and include a further reference to sending aid (Romans 15:25; 2 Cor. 8:19, 20), which we noted last time as one of the primary applications; a metaphorical use of the Corinthian believers as a letter from Christ delivered by the apostles (2 Cor. 3:3); the service of Onesimus (Philemon 1:13); the aforementioned occurrences in 1 Timothy (1 Tim. 3:10, 13); the service of Onesiphorus; the service of the saints of Hebrews to other saints; and finally three uses in the letter of 1 Peter referring to the prophets and then specifically in the service of God-given gifts to one another (1 Peter 4:10, 11). Once again, as with those who perform a service or minister (diakonos) we see a variety of actions as well as a variety of those performing the service. This brings us back to our principle passage under consideration, the return to Acts 6:1-6
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch.These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.

Acts 6:1-6
The word, diakoneo translated as the verb to serve [tables] in verse 2 above is usually where the justification of the institution of an ‘office of deacon’ comes from in this passage.  However, the noun form of the word is also used in Acts 6:1 translated as [daily] distribution and also in Acts 6:4 translated as ministry of the Word.  If deacon is the proper interpretation here, then the Apostles were deaconing the Word and were in need of others to oversee the deaconing of the daily deaconing.

This brings up a second issue with the traditional interpretation.  Typically, this passage is read in a way as to create a preeminence among the tasks of the Apostles, being devoted to prayer and the ministry of the word, versus the menial task of waiting tables. This has been sometimes used to justify the modern practice of a pastor locking himself in his study for hours while preparing his sermon, meanwhile the servant tasks are performed by others. However, now that we have seen that the apostolic ministry was also called deaconing or better, serving, then clarity is added to the passage, not to mention the fact that there is not a hint of sermon prep suggested here or anywhere else in the New Testament.  The heart of the two ministries taking place in this passage was service, just two different applications, which is consistent with what we have seen throughout this excursus.  The Apostles were servants and they were looking for more servants, a process of selection which they delegated to the congregation of Jerusalem.

As to the role of the seven who were chosen, all of whom have Greek names to meet the Hellenistic needs, we might expect to see them in operation, functioning as modern deacons or waiting tables right?  However, in the subsequent verse to this so-called institution of the diaconate, we see Stephen, “full of grace and power, doing great wonders and signs among the people.”  Acts 6:8 Does that sound like the modern office of deacon? Furthermore, the two principle examples of Stephen (Acts 6:9-10; 15; 7:1-60), as well as Phillip (Acts 8:5-13; 26-40) highlight the fact that they were not functioning in any way like our modern conception of the deacon office.  Instead, they were functioning as evangelists (Acts 21:8) and were both preaching the word with boldness and were accompanying this with apostolic signs.

Because of the witness of both Stephen and Phillip following up so closely on the passage from Acts 6, it is reasonable to conclude that the ‘table serving’ ministry that they were set apart for was temporary. It is remarkable to note that with the increase of persecution in Jerusalem, it is these men who scatter with the gospel (recall Acts 1:8). Given all the evidence, it seems much more natural that this passage from Acts 6 is not a proof text for the ‘office of deacon’, rather it asserts a clear example of faithful servants of God who were more closely functioning as elders in the young Jerusalem ekklesia. Furthermore, it provides a clear connection of an instance where both of the primary areas of service, as it relates to diak-, are put into practice by the same group: apostolic ministry activities and benevolence.

Thus far in our excursus on the meaning and origin of deacon/deaconing, we have seen a broad range of people who were identified by the term diakonos, beginning with our Lord, the apostles – most notably Paul, several of Paul’s fellow workers, including Timothy, women, such as Phoebe, as well as servants of Christ in general. Furthermore, as we’ve looked at the function of deaconing (diakonia), we’ve seen that it occurs under two broad headings including apostolic ministry activities and benevolence – or simply meeting the physical needs of the saints. From our Acts 6 passage above, it is clear that the apostles were engaged in deaconing and required help for deaconing of benevolence. However, the seven were not confined to an ecclesiastical office as we subsequently see them engaged in apostolic ministry activities. Additionally, we have seen that ‘deaconing’ is applied broadly in relation to individual gifting and varieties of service among the saints.

The questions before us have been, is the presence of deacons (alongside elders) necessary to legitimize the gathering of God’s people? Do we see something called the office of deacon and is this permanent or long-standing in nature, and restricted of certain activities – including preaching? The answer thus far has been a resounding no.

While the word deacon, alongside minister, carries with it a notion of ecclesiastical authority, title, position, and is often viewed as the minor leagues of church authority,  the word servant carries just the opposite meaning, simply the idea of a person who serves, without pomp or circumstance. Finally, as in the case of elders, so too here with servants – there is a general reference to those who follow Christ as His servants and there is a specific reference to those who are engaged in the exercise of gifts, the distribution of benevolence, and ministry closely akin to that of the apostles in the first century. While the references in 1 Timothy 3:8-13 certainly are characteristics that should be applicable to all believers, they are meant to highlight the character of those who are or desire to be engaged in these tasks as they publicly represent Christ. It is not enough to be gifted, nor is it enough to serve, each must be marked with the character of a Christian.

Deacon, servant, or minister? Servant – lowly, humble, self-sacrificing out of love for the brethren, regardless of the activity.

About the author

Christian saved by grace through faith.

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