Shepard Leading Flock of Sheep through a Grove of Trees
When All Else Fails...Read the Directions

Ch 8: Kinks in the Links

Author: Robert W. Smith

But what about some of the problem areas? For instance---

How about Deacons?

Some concepts in the Bible and the words which describe them need to be rescued from man-made distortions which, through the accretions of the centuries, have completely or seriously clouded their meaning. The word deacon (and the concepts which surround its usage in ecclesiastical circles) is one of those words.

In order to gain renewed perspective on such a word we must review its use in the total context of the Bible, endeavoring at the same time to cast off our ingrained preconceptions, to arrive at a wholly biblical understanding of the word and its use.

We propose to do this with the word deacon and then relate it to the life of the church, hopefully as God intends us to understand it.

Deacon is a loan word which we have borrowed from the Greeks. In the Greek New Testament it takes three forms:

(1) diakonos, from which we get deacon.

(2) diakonia, usually translated service or ministry.

(3) diakoneo, to serve or to minister, the verb form.

We would like to trace the meaning of this word through its use in secular Greek, the changes in meaning effected by Jewish thought, and finally the meaning derived from its use by the Lord Jesus and throughout the New Testament. We will refer to the word diakonia as representing the other forms as well for the sake of brevity of expression, so keep in mind that diakonia is the service; diakonos is the one who serves; and diakoneo is the act of serving.

Diakonia in Secular Greek

In secular usage, diakonia has its origin in the idea to wait at table, but it broadened from this to the idea of providing or caring for the needs of another. From there it became the service of love rendered to another on a personal basis. Lest we read into this definition too much of our current Christian thinking, we need to add that in the Greek mind this was not a very worthy of worthwhile activity-more demeaning than dignifying.

The Jewish view

Jewish thought patterns, for obvious reasons, considered service of this sort not unworthy or lacking in dignity, but thought it rather a work of merit before God, not really an unselfish sacrifice for another. So in the Jewish view it became acceptable to serve only those who were worthy. The unworthy and despised were not to be recipients of their service, is evidently portrayed in our Lord's story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37).

"Service" in the words of Jesus

It took the ministry of the Lord Jesus in the New Testament record to elevate diakonia to its full expressiveness. By his life and in his teaching he elevated this word above its usage in both Greek and Hebrew thought patterns.

Jesus completely reversed the existing order when he said:

"Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes, truly, I say to you, he will gird himself and have them sit at table, and he will come and serve [diakoneo] them" (Luke 12:37).

Here the picture is that of the master serving the slaves!

He portrayed the normal order of things when he asked: "Will any one of you, who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep, say to him when he has come in from the field, 'Come at once and sit down at the table'? Will he not rather say to him, 'Prepare supper for me, and gird yourself and serve [diakoneo] me, till I eat and drink; and afterward you shall eat and drink'?" (Luke 17:7). Then he made it clear that he himself came to serve, by these words: "For which is the greater, one who sits at the table or one who serves [diakoneo]? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serve [diakoneo]" (Luke 22:27).

And our Lord supremely demonstrated his servant attitude in John 13 when he took the slave's place and washed his disciples' feet. The word diakonia is not in this text, but the idea that it conveys is clearly portrayed in the action of this scene. Our Lord further expanded and dignified the idea of serving by linking it with the ultimate service of giving his life on our behalf in the service rendered at the cross: ". . . even as the Son of Man came not to be served [diakoneo] but to serve [diakoneo], and to give his life a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:28).

The meaning of diakonia is further widened by our Lord to encompass a wide spectrum of services such as giving food and drink, providing shelter, providing clothes, visiting the sick and imprisoned (Matt. 25:42-44). There, too, the Lord Jesus brought in another element of loving service rendered to another person---the idea that for his people service given to men was also service rendered to him: ". . . Truly, I say to you, as you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me" (Matt. 25:40).

In all of this we see that diakonia comes to mean the full range of expressions of active Christian love to one's neighbor. And since the Lord Jesus was himself the living example of this atti-tude it also became the hallmark of discipleship to him: "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35). He makes it clear in the context of this verse that love finds its expression in acts of loving service to one another.

Perhaps the capstone of our Lord's words on this subject are these: ". . . You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but who-ever would be great among you must be your servant [diakonos], and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all" (Mark 10:43).

And these: "Truly, truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves [diakoneo] me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant [diakonos] be also; if anyone serves [diakoneoj me, the Father will honor him" (John 12:24--26).

Here we see service linked to dying, the sacrifice of one's own desires for the sake of another's well being. The Christian's service is clearly to parallel the service rendered by his Lord.

Diakonia in the New Testament

The scope of this word in the New Testament is broad and inclusive. It covers:

  • Timothy and Erastus as assistants in preaching the gospel (Acts 19:22).
  • Onesiphorus in his service to Paul at Ephesus (2 Tim. 1:1-18).
  • The apostles' service to the church (2 Cor. 3:3).
  • The Old Testament prophets' service to the church (1 Pet. 1:10-12).
  • Paul ministering to the needs of the saints at Jerusalem (2 Cor. 8:19 and Romans 15:31).
  • Ministry of the saints in general (Eph. 4:11, Heb. 6:10).
  • The household of Stephanas devoting themselves to the service of the saints (1 Cor. 16:15).
  • The ministry of angels (Heb. 1:14, Mark 1:13).

Service is coupled with other words to describe a particular form of ministry:

  • Preaching the gospel as a ministry of the Word, in which the preacher is the one who serves up the Bread of Life (2 Tim. 4:5, Acts 6:4).
  • This is also called a ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18).
  • All self-effort to keep the law is called a ministry of death and condemnation (2 Cor. 3:7-9).
  • While in the same passage, by contrast, the life of faith is characterized as a ministry of the Spirit and a ministry of righteousness (2 Cor. 3:7-9).

Also, one can be:

  • a servant of Satan (2 Cor. 11:14-15),
  • or of God (2 Cor. 6:3, 1 Thess. 3:1-3),
  • of Christ (1 Tim. 4:6),
  • of the gospel (2 Cor. 11:23),
  • of a new covenant (2 Cor. 3:6),
  • of the church (Col. 1:25).

Deacons as officials

It is commonly supposed that there is in the church the "office" of deacon in addition to, or as opposed to the general functioning of a Christian in a service or ministry described up to this point in our study. This view has perhaps been encouraged and implanted by the King James translation which uses the term "office" in translating 1 Timothy 3:13. "For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase for themselves a good degree . . ." (AV).

Let's examine the validity of this idea. A literal translation of this verse would not contain the word office, but would read: "For the ones having served well acquire for themselves a good standing and much boldness in the faith. . . ." We need not strain too hard at the "office" idea from this text. It isn't actually there.

Deacons and bishops

In Philippians 1:1, the deacons are linked with the bishops (or overseers) which could lead us to believe that there were two kinds or groups of officials in the church. This may be so, but we could argue with equal weight that the apostle is here covering a spectrum of saints in this address. He could be saying, ". . . to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the over-seers and household servants . . ." (Phil. 1:1). There is no real warrant for thinking Paul is addressing two groups of officials, even though we have been conditioned to think this way.

On the other side, however, there seems to be some sense in which deacons are representatives of a local church, for they are addressed with the bishops when the Apostle sets forth the re-quirements for these men in 1 Timothy 3:1-13 (though Titus 1:5-9 and 1 Peter 5:14 omit any mention of deacons in reviewing the requirements of the bishops).

We could infer from this reference to God's qualifications for deacons in 1 Timothy that they were in a recognized place of authority along with the bishops, but this is nowhere actually taught. We could equally well decide that all we really know is that deacons, as household servants, were called upon to live out a godly quality of life. This could be because they are to portray before men the same character as the One who came as a servant---the one whom Isaiah prophetically called "servant" in 52:13, the Lord Jesus.

It appears we cannot arbitrarily conclude that there was an "office" of deacon. Rather it seems more in keeping with the biblical evidence to conclude that deacons were and are those called of God to fulfill a special ministry in the household of God, of value to the whole body of believers and acting as representatives of the local church, thus the specifications in 1 Timothy.

But how about Acts 6?

The sixth chapter of Acts sheds a great deal of light on the appointment and function of deacons in the early church. And though diakonos is not used to identify those appointed in the scene, diakonia and diakoneo are used in Acts 6:1-2 of the ministry they performed, specifically here as to serve tables. To review the action, you may recall that there was a problem regarding the distribution of food between the Hellenists (Or Greek-speaking) and Jewish widows, so the church leaders (in this case the apostles) called a meeting of the church to solve the problem. Their approach was direct and to the point: "We have a problem; we cannot be pulled away from the priority matter of the study and preaching of God's word to 'wait on tables,' so we want to delegate this job. You choose seven men from your number to handle it. But they must fit these specifications: (1) "They must be men of good repute, (2) men filled with the Spirit, (3) and full of wisdom" (Acts 6:3).

Wise leaders

It is apparent that they acted in God-given wisdom, since this was no simple problem: there were racial and religious implications, and the fight was between two groups of women!

The men chosen had to satisfy the people involved; thus the church was to select them. They had to be men whose fairness was well known, hence "men of good reputation." They needed the wisdom that God alone can provide, to handle this delicate matter between believers, so they must be "full of the Spirit and of wisdom." Thus we see that the apostles were wise in their Stipulation of the method of handling and the qualifications of the deacons. But notice, too, the rest of their handling: "Pick out seven men . . whom we may appoint to this duty" (Acts 6:3).

The seven deacons were (1) picked by the congregation, and (2) appointed by the apostles---an interesting combination of congregational action and apostolic oversight. Note, however, that the apostles reserved to themselves the appointive role. This is consistent with their spiritual leadership responsibility and overseeing ministry to the church. This responsible action was confirmed when "these [deacons] they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them" (Acts 6:6), the expression of identification and approve.

Deacons---but not always

One more observation: in Acts 7, Stephen, one of the men appointed, is seen preaching his marvelous sermon to the Jewish council. And in Acts 8 we see Philip, also one of the seven, evangelizing a Samaritan city, so it seems clear that they were not exercising the "office" of deacon in the Jerusalem church as permanent officials. Their appointment we take as performing a loving service in solving a problem in the assembly.

Can we follow?

We suggest that the twentieth-century church should follow this example: Allow the assembly to choose its own leadership for areas of ministry, but consistent with the scriptural and spiritual qualifi-cations set forth by the church leaders (apostles in the early beginning, then elders), and the appointments to be made and backing confirmed by the leaders, as responsible before God for the spiritual overseeing of the local body. In practice this approach would seem to apply to the selection of committees, leaders of men's and women's fellowship groups, etc. The duration of service can be long or short, depending on the demands of the task and extent of need.

Sure, there are problems

There are undoubtedly problems attendant with this procedure, but given the genuine exercise of the lordship of Christ and the love of the brethren in each case, they should not be insurmountable. Where the situation parallels Acts 6, at least, this solution should be applied, as it appears to have solved the problem and restored harmony in this instance.

This example is an explicit use of the word diakonia to mean "waiting on tables" and as "a service of love rendered to another person." Here, too, deacons were to be godly men, ministering in the name of Christ and exemplifying the character of Christ, as representatives of the local body.


Our conclusion is that the Scriptures do not teach that there is a governing function or "office" of deacon, or that a board of deacons is to govern the church, but that deacons are many and varied in the local church scene, as servants ministering out of love to meet the needs of the local body. There do seem to be two categories, however: (1) the general broad-based ministry of household servants and (2) deacons appointed as representatives of the local body of believers. Also, it seems apparent that some governing boards being called deacons are really overseers or guardians in actual function.

A beautiful example of the general, grass-roots functioning of a deacon came to my attention recently. A young Christian girl gave a dinner for a newly married couple who were moving away. She invited about twenty-five of their friends to share a gracious evening around the table where she herself served a lovely full-course dinner for their enjoyment. The evening ended for her in washing dishes until 2:30 A.M. As I saw her literally "waiting on table" and expressing in this whole occasion "a loving service to Christian friends" whom she loved, it said one word to me---diakonia---and it was a joy to see! Romans 16:1 records a First Century ministry of this sort: "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cenchreae, that you may receive her in the Lord as befits the saints, and help her in what-ever she may require from you, for she has been a helper of many and of myself as well."

The gift of service

How does the gift of service or administration as listed among the spiritual gifts in Romans 12:7 fit into our understanding of diakonia? This is not hard to see if we recall that spiritual gifts are given for the building up of the body as a special measure, over and above the lowest-common-denominator level of Christian life and expression. For instance, every Christian has faith, for this is the way he became a Christian, by grace through faith. But every Christian does not have the gift of faith, which is evidently a greater measure of the same quality. Again, every Christian is expected to give, as an expression of Christian love, but every Christian does not have the gift of giving or making contributions. Barnabas is a classic example of a Christian with the gift of exhortation---so much so that Barnabas, meaning "son of encouragement," was actually his nickname.

So it is with the gift of service. Those who have this gift are to be an example and encouragement to the rest to go and do like-wise, since they represent the One who came to serve.

To sum up

We have reviewed many of the uses of diakonos, diakonia, and diakone enough, we trust, to get the flavor of this word and what it represents in terms of "deacons" in the church. Our conclusion is that there are to be a multitude of deacons and deaconesses expressing their life in the Lord Jesus through varied avenues of loving service. In essence these words capture the very spirit of our Lord Jesus in his servant character. I cannot help reflecting where we would be if He were not inclined to show this wonderful attitude of heart. And what the church (and the world) would be like without the real "deacons" and "deaconesses" with their acts of loving care.

But God reaffirms this calling to us through the apostle:

"So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which you have in Christ Jesus, who, though lie was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form lie humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Phil. 2:1-8).

From "being in the form of God" to "taking the form of a servant" seems to us a tremendous downward step of condescension, but to the Son of God it was the natural expression of his character, just being as he is. This comes out in bold relief from the word in the Greek text translated "form." In "taking the form of a servant" the word is morphe, which means the expression of the true inner nature. So the essential inner nature of the Lord Jesus is that of a servant. By contrast, "being found in human form" uses a Greek word that signifies a form which was not his natural or normal mode of being.

That our Lord is this way shouldn't surprise us, for God is love (1 John 4:8), and love delights to serve. And so it is (or should be) with deacons, God's gift to the church as household servants, doing all those menial (but not demeaning) chores around the house out of love and as unto the Lord.*

Assessing Needs

Lack of sensitivity to needs is an area of frequent administrative failure. Long-standing traditional boundaries very often restrict our freedom to think under the direction of the Spirit of God.

My past experience in the engineering field taught me a signifi-cant lesson on this subject. In confronting design problems I frequently found myself completely hemmed in by my thought processes. But when I freed myself from the built-in conditions

I had so easily assumed, invariably I found ideas and answers which were not previously in my field of vision.

If we need this freedom in designing a machine, consider how much more important it is in thinking through the total church program and every facet of ministry---under the Lord's direction! He is never lacking in creative imagination. And if we are honestly willing to evaluate our programs, weighing them against observed needs among our people, without feeling threatened that some pet project might be scuttled, then we are free to hear the Lord's answer to our problem.

On Quiet Commitals

Sometimes, as Howard Hendricks says, "We just need a quiet committal." In other words, when a program is dead already, what we need to do is bury it! After saying a fond farewell and offering a prayer of thanks for former days of usefulness and vitality, we can then go on to that current expression of life which the Lord has in mind for us.

This is not easy. Our attachments and those of our people go deeper than we realize. In one cliurch I know that is trying to think through a better answer to the Christian education of our children than the Sunday school, the anguished reactions are deep. One would think that the Sunday school movement began in the first century, and that the Apostle Paul was the first Sunday school superintendent.

Admittedly, we need to be wary of going off on wild ideas just for the sake of trying something new. And certainly we must have something better to offer before we scrap existing vehicles. But in Christian maturity we need to shake off whatever inhibiting factors keep us from seeing and implementing God's new plan of action, if he has one for us.

Facing Failure

We need, also, to be willing to fail in some of our attempts to learn new approaches to ministry. In America, especially, we have such a "success" complex that we are threatened at any thought of failure, however small. But if we examine the pages of Scripture, we can see that all the heroes of faith have had their moments of failure: Moses, Abraham, Paul, Peter, David practically any one you can name. But the Lord used their failures to teach pointed lessons about their frailty and fallibility. Out of their weakness, he showed his strength!

So, let's dare to launch out----even on an experimental basis. Second let the Lord demonstrate his ability to steer us on his course of action. He's not threatened by our failures; why should we be?

Frustration Factors

When we free ourselves for his kind of action, there will be plenty of things to try our patience and frustrate us:

Waiting for people to catch up with us. We catch on to what God wants and proceed impatiently, not recognizing that it may take months, or even years, of patient teaching and encouraging until we can all move together in unity of spirit.

Trying to "buck city hall." The management or hierarchy, or even the pastor, may not have a clear vision of the church as we see it, so that they throw all kinds of roadblocks to impede our progress.

Teaching and training leadership. This is a slow business. It may take years to implant some of the "radical" thinking inherent in Christian truth. In the meantime, are we to bend to human opinion at the cost of surrendering solid Christian principles?

There's nobody more difficult than people. And yet there's nothing more important to God, if we believe the evidence of the cross. Did you ever notice God's appeal for "forbearance"? This means putting up with the way people are and loving them anyway, always remembering that we're of the same breed and that all of us are "under construction."

A list like this could go on and on, but that would belabor the point. The important thing is to count on the great Lord of the church to be at work in his people---in me and in you---to bring us all out on top. He said it: "I will build my church."

* Note: A complete listing of the usage of dakonos, dakonia, and diakoneo for further study is set forth in Appendix D.