The Office of Deacon


Acts 6:1-7


Text Comment




v.3

Once again some form of popular election, as with the vacancy in the apostolate in chapter 1. Though this is not made a shibboleth in the NT. It is mostly inferred and understated.


v.4

the prayer”? That is, with preaching, the historic responsibilities of the priesthood.


v.6

Election by the people, ordination by the presbytery. Presbyterian church government.


v.7

This is the first of the “subscriptions” that divide the book of Acts into sections, “headers” that come after rather than before a section of the book (9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20; 28:30-31). Scholars suggest that approximately five years stretch between each of these summaries.


There were some 8,000 priests among the Jews at this time and there was a sharp division between the ordinary priests and the high priests (as a rule from wealthy families). Ordinary priests had to work at a trade the eleven months of the year they were not serving in the temple. No doubt among them were devout men such as Zachariah. It is not suggested at all that they would have given up their priestly office upon their conversion to Christ. There would have been no thought that such would be necessary. The Christians were still active in the temple worship and would continue to be so until the temple was destroyed.



Now we may take it as a general principle of the interpretation of Acts that, given the number of wonderful and important things Luke had to omit from his narrative, what he chose to include he must have considered particularly significant, something representative of the life of the church and important to a true understanding of its nature or structure or mission.


Certainly we have here an important instance of the church overcoming internal problems with grace and wisdom. [It is a striking demonstration of the spirit that animated these Christians that all of the seven names of the men chosen for the first diaconate are Greek names! Far more concerned to avoid any division than to protect any vested interest, the majority, the Aramaic speaking Jews, gave the entire ministry to Greek-speakers!]




  1. But, more important still, we have here the origin of one of the three offices of the New Testament church.


[I’m assuming that there were separate offices of the ministry and the eldership. Notice 5:21: the term “elder” is used of both priests and lay elders or rulers, but no one imagined that they were the same office. Elder was simply the embracive term for all church leaders. The term occurs with that use of the officers of the apostolic church as well (1 Tim. 5:17 and Peter and John’s use of the term for themselves. All apostles were elders but all elders were not apostles!)


This has been disputed by some:




  1. Chrysostom argued that it was a unique office;



  2. Others that it was in fact the institution, not of the office we know as the diaconate, but of either the ministry or the eldership.




    1. The word “deacon” does not appear (though the verb form of that noun occurs in v. 2 “to wait on or to serve tables” and another noun form [diakonia — service or ministry — occurs in both v. 1 (“distribution”) and v. 4 “ministry of the word.” It is a general term and is used both generally and specifically in the NT. And that will be true of the actual word “deacon” which is used of all Christians (Matt. 25:44) and of a certain church officer (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8).



    2. In some ways these men seem to be more than our “deacons,” especially Stephen and Philip, whom we will soon see as preachers and evangelists.


      But, in light of the qualifications mentioned in v. 3 it appears that Stephen and Philip did not have to have the gift of preaching in order to be deacons and were not deacons because they were preachers. This is especially true in light of v. 4 which seems to distinguish what the deacons were appointed to do from the preaching of the word. It is not, after all, that surprising that there should be overlap in an early period of the church’s development and in a fluid situation as this was, and, in any case, in days of revival often men are pressed into the work of preaching who are not ordinarily ministers of the word.


      Some have argued that the fact that the apostles directed that seven men should be appointed — there was a seven-member council of elders in a Jewish synagogue and that “wisdom” was the qualification these men must meet proves that these were elders. But the similarity between the two “sevens” is probably incidental and, in any case, the function of this office and these men is not that of the eldership as that office is described in many places in the Bible. And, like it or not, we know that there are both elders and deacons in the apostolic church. The origin of the eldership is given us in the OT [that is why elders simply appear unannounced in the Jerusalem church (11:30); we know what elders are and what they are for from the OT], but if this is not the origin of the diaconate, we are given no information either about where this office came from or what it is for. In my judgment, clearly Luke is explaining just that here in Acts 6:1-6.



    And there are other reasons for this conclusion:




    1. There is no precise parallel to the office of deacon in the OT church, though there was an officer with certain similarities to this office in the Jewish synagogue. But there is good reason for such an office in the new epoch of the church: there is now no church/state union, no theocracy. The state had fulfilled many of the diaconal functions in the ancient epoch — collecting tithes, caring for the poor — alongside the levitical establishment. But now all of that is no longer available to the church and it must make its own arrangements for these essential and perpetual needs to be fulfilled.



    2. The other few mentions of deacons in the NT (Rom. 12:7-8; 1 Cor. 12:28; 1 Tim. 3:8-13) seem to confirm the shape and function of the office as it is described here in Acts 6.



    3. It is an office distinct from the ministry of the word and superintendence of worship and from the office of rule (eldership).



    4. A strong early church tradition identifies Acts 6 with the office of deacon. The church in Rome had 7 deacons into the fourth century.


    Why seven? A Jewish tradition? Or, perhaps, one for each day of the week!




    1. The function these men were to fulfill is described in two ways.




    1. V. 2: to do what which, though vital to the church’s work and witness, does not belong to the ministry of the word (and, by implication) or of rule, for which offices already existed.


      This simple division of labor is so crucial and is a matter over which the church has stumbled so often! The Word teaches us that if certain essential things are to be done and done well, they must be entrusted to officers gifted and graced for those functions. When each office fulfills its purpose as unto the Lord, the church lives and works in the world as it should, God’s people are blessed, and so is the world. But when that connection between office and function breaks down, for any reason, it cripples the church.


      In my judgment, and I think this is the emphasis of the Scripture, few things bear more mightily on the health and welfare of a Christian congregation than that the purposes and functions of its three offices are clearly delineated and that those holding those offices devote themselves to their special responsibilities and not the responsibilities of others.


      That sounds simple enough, but, fact is, churches are always getting this wrong. It used to be, thankfully, more common among our churches than it is now, and used to be much more true in this congregation I should say than it is now, that there was a profound confusion of function among church officers and the result was a severely weakened church. Typically, elders did some, but not all, of that work deacons were to do; deacons did little and what they did was mostly what the janitor should do, and no one did what elders are supposed to do. Today, more and more, ministers do other things besides their proper work and that work suffers and Christians suffer as a result.


      We need the preaching of the word and the right worship of God; we need a rule that is according to the Word of God and exercised in love and faithfulness, and we need to manage our affairs and especially our charity in a fashion that is an adornment to Christ and the Gospel. When those needs are met through the faithful discharge of the church’s offices by godly men, the church becomes what she is supposed to be; when they are not, the church withers in one way or another. That is a fixed and never to be changed law according to Holy Scripture.


      So, first, we say the diaconate is explained to be neither the ministry or the eldership and created in part to be sure that neither of those offices is weakened by the addition of further responsibilities. It is from this fact that the additional responsibilities of the diaconate have devolved upon it over the ages — the oversight of the church’s financial affairs, property, etc. All that does not belong to the ministry of word and sacrament and the ministry of rule but belongs to the essential oversight of the church and management of its life and work.



    2. The specific function of the diaconate is then explained to be the church’s ministry to the poor.


      The diaconate was instituted because the work needing to be done on behalf of the poor was too important, too essential to the church’s authentic life and work in the world to be left to chance and is so demanding, so time consuming, so complicated that if it were undertaken by the existing officers of the church their appointed work would suffer.


      This is a powerful witness born, of course, to the importance the Lord attaches to the church’s charity [In Matt. 25 he uses such charity as the identifying mark of a true faith!] and to the fact that the exercise of this ministry is no easy thing.


      It wasn’t even in those heady days after Pentecost. Christians still misunderstood one another, still go their feelings hurt, still complained that they were not being treated fairly and the ministry to the world — which soon the Christian diaconate was embarking on as well — is even more complicated.





    1. The Qualification for this office is, as in 1 Tim. 3:8ff., a mature faith and a devout life.


    “Full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” is how the apostles put it. But that “wisdom” is OT wisdom, not book learning but the skill of living a holy life in a sinful world. The qualification for both elders and deacons is primarily that they be substantial Christian men, men of spiritual experience, whose devotion to the Lord and his Word and his house and his people, whose zeal for the gospel and for the Name of Christ is well-known and demonstrated in many ways; men who have proved themselves faithful to the Lord in their dealings with others and especially in their own home, marriage, and parenthood.


    Now, this is relative to be sure. Many churches have had to elect to this office men younger than would be ideal because they had no older men to serve; some churches are more mature than others and so it takes a higher measure of spiritual experience and stature to qualify for office in that church than in another. But the standards themselves are absolute and men should be held to them and churches that do — whatever the difficulties of that — have the blessing of it when many other churches never do because they fill up their offices with men who are not qualified to hold them and cannot discharge their functions as they should.


    [An aside. You will notice that the apostles propose that the church select seven men. It is the specific word for “male” as opposed to “female” not the word for “man” that regularly means “human being.” And, in fact, all seven are males.


    You know that there are many in our own PCA communion who favor the ordination of women to the diaconate. Let me tell you, very briefly, why I am unimpressed with the argument for such a change– and change it would be from both the historic practice of Christendom and of the Reformed Tradition.




    1. The requirement of males here and in 1 Tim 3 (where, no matter what you may sometimes here, the natural reading is that these are men and the reference in v. 11 is to their wives, as the NIV has it.) This is all the more striking here in Acts 6 because it concerns a ministry to widows in a day when the sexes did not mingle as they do today. It is often alleged that the church needs women deacons for ministry to women, but it was not so here in a case where the entire ministry being contemplated was to women!



    2. The Scripture is not afraid to pronounce revolutionary developments. If women were to enter the office of the church, any office, that would be a revolutionary development, but it is nowhere pronounced and, on the contrary, everywhere the ancient order is preserved: 12 male apostles, male elders, and here male deacons.



    3. The case of Phoebe in Rom. 16:1 is no argument. The word “deacon” everyone knows is more often used in the NT generally for “servant” than technically for a church officer. And when people triumphantly point out that Phoebe is referred to as a deacon, that is the Greek word is there in the masculine gender, they usually fail to point out that it always occurs in the masculine in the NT and in the Greek of that period, that in classical usage the masculine form is used even in reference to women. Further, to set aside direct teaching by a dubious and unclear example is the technique of subverters of the Bible’s teaching not upholders of it.



    4. The “authority” argument so often found in Presbyterian circles is not biblical that I can see. Of course there is authority in a church office, in each office authority of a particular kind. That seems to be exactly what is conveyed to these seven men by the laying on the hands of the apostles in v. 6. I do not have the same authority to rule this congregation as the elders do and they do not have the same authority I have in the pulpit and at the table. Likewise the fact that the deacons do not have the same authority as elders does not mean they do not have authority, of course they do. They make all manner of decisions that affect people and the church owes them honor and obedience in respect to their work.



    5. The witness of early Christianity is a powerful argument against women deacons. If women officers were one of the revolutionary features of the new era that fact has disappeared from the face of early Christianity. They had deaconesses (perhaps what Paul is referring to in 1 Tim. 5) but they never confused them with women deacons. Deacons were men!


    I cannot help but think that with arguments as weak as the ones usually advanced for women deacons, even by good men, the result would be that this would be, as it has been for other churches, simply the thin end of the wedge and women elders and ministers would follow and the ethical authority of the Bible would be overturned.]<



Let me conclude with two brief applications:




  1. The Lord has shown us here how much the church’s charity matters to him. Stinginess is a terrible sin in a Christian church and utterly subverts the principle of grace that ought to rule in that church. We ought to care deeply that our church be generous and be known to be generous to those in need, both within and without. And we ought to encourage the deacons in this with our gifts and our words.



  2. That work of charity is difficult and complicated in many ways. You ought not to suppose that we can be generous without at every turn facing difficult choices and decisions: when to give, to whom, how much, how often, for what? That is why God entrusted it to the sort of men who are supposed to occupy this office. I’m grateful for the men who undertake this sacred work for us here and, believe me, if you spent as much time as they did and faced the sort of situations they face all the time you would not think it an easy job. The more generous you wish to be the more difficult questions you have to answer.


Thousands of dollars are given out month after month to pay rent or utilities, to buy food or medicine or clothing, or to pay school tuition. And we love to meet those needs and to do so in Christ’s name. It is a great satisfaction. But, it also happens all the time that the one asking you for money for rent has spent his rent money on drugs, or the one who needs money for a ticket home is in fact going nowhere and is working a scam, or the money being asked for would hardly make a dent in a financial sinkhole that years of irresponsibility have dug and no amount of generosity could fill in again. What do you say to such people, how do you minister to them? Not so easy.


Your deacons rightly live by the principle enunciated by C.S. Lewis in one of his Letters to an American Lady [p. 108]:



“It will not bother me in the hour of death to reflect that I have been ‘had for a sucker’ by any number of impostors; but it would be a torment to know that one had refused even one person in need.”


But that is not the same thing as being indifferent to the facts of any case or taking no care to check and being careless with the Lord’s money. It is a hard thing many times to know what to do. That is why there are deacons — it is work that must be done and must be done well and in a godly way.


Pray for yours here that they may fulfill this office with grace and faithfulness.