The phrase “derived authority” is a good way to explain pastoral authority, in that the authority pastors have, is derived first from the Scripture and second from the congregation who asks them to lead them. “Delegated authority” is a good way to explain deacon authority.
In 1 Timothy 3, Paul instructs Timothy on the quality of men who should occupy the office of overseer. Verses 1-7 provides a rather lengthy list of the moral qualities and distinct abilities elders must possess and maintain. Since the Apostle immediately turns to describing character qualities that ought to be possessed by deacons in verses 8-13, and those character qualities are nearly identical to the pastoral descriptions, then it logically flows that there also exists in the church a specific office of deacon.
The office of deacon is an important part of the New Covenant church’s polity. Like elders in the New Testament, deacons are always referred to in plurality, and like elder’s deacons are expected to maintain clear and obvious testimonies of Spirit-led devotion to God. The word “deacon” is the common word in the Greek language for “servant.” And this word describes their responsibilities well.
As American citizens, our representative-democracy form of government we enjoy often affects our thinking more than we tend to realize. Most notably, the importance of “balance of powers” among leadership looms large in our minds. We cherish the two-house system of our Congress. We are grateful for the limited powers expressed by executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. Thus it is always a temptation to read this concept of balance of powers into the various leadership positions within the church. Many churches have adopted the notion that the elders and deacons exist in a sort of balance of powers role. The deacons’ job is to keep the elders from exercising too much control, and the pastors’ job is to try to get things passed through the deacons. Or perhaps some think of a deacon board as a ruling board who speak as representatives of the congregation to interact with the elders who are kind of “aloof” from the church body. The simple truth is that nothing in the New Testament alone would ever give us that kind of understanding as it relates to either pastor or deacon responsibility.
While we do have the obvious presence of an office called deacon in the early church (Phil. 1:1), and we do have moral qualifications required of deacons in the first book written to Timothy (1 Tim. 3:8-13); we actually have very little in the New Testament to describe the function and responsibility of those deacons. I am thus convinced that God intends each church to work out how the specific duties of deacon office is to be implemented so long as they are consistent with Biblical principles we do find in the Scripture.
Perhaps the only passage that seems to clearly point out the specific responsibilities of deacons in the church is the passage describing the first selection of deacons at the church in Jerusalem in Acts 6:1-6. Because the word “deacon” is the generic word for servant, there is some debate if this passage is even referring to the office we could call deacon today. However, that the apostles laid hands on the seven men chosen and prayed over them is an implication that this was a new, official office created in the church at this time. There is no textual reason to suppose that the selection and ministry of these “servants” should be an altogether different activity than the choice and service of deacons in the church today.
If we notice carefully the circumstances around the selection of the first deacons, we would note that the service of deacons was decided upon by the apostles (acting as pastors/elders) due to unrest within the congregation. A complaint within the assembly arose from the Hellenistic members of the church (whether they were Hellenistic Jews or Gentiles we cannot be certain) because the widows of the native Hebrews were being cared for with food, while the Hellenistic widows were being overlooked. A sharp division on the basis of perceived ethnic bigotry was being threatened. The Apostles realized that this is not a good thing and that everyone in the church should be treated justly. But they also realized that if they devoted their time to being certain that all the widows were being treated fairly in a church that numbered in the thousands, they would have no time to focus on serving the church through prayer and the teaching of the Word of God. So they gathered the whole assembly together and instructed the church themselves to choose out seven men who could be set to this task. These men must be obviously submitted to the Holy Spirit’s work in their lives; they should have practical wisdom as well. And when the assembly would select their servants, the Apostles would appoint those selected to have authority to execute these various practical tasks. The congregation thought this was a good idea and so they chose out seven men, of which Luke records their names for us, then the Apostles laid hands on them, prayed over them and delegated to them this authority, serving the physical and emotional needs of the church. Acts 6:7 indicates that as the church once again breathed a collective breath of unity, “the Word of God kept on spreading and the number of disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem.”
Some principles emerge from this historical account. First, we notice that the congregation chose the specific men to serve them. From the list of names, we notice that some of them had rather Hellenized names and backgrounds. It seems that the congregation chose men to be deacons who were culturally and practically equipped to meet the needs at hand. Had the Apostles simply chose the men and forced them upon the people, unity may not have been achieved.
Second, we notice that the Apostles exercised leadership over the deacons. The deacons were chosen by the people, but they were appointed to the tasks by the Apostles. This indicates quite clearly that the elders and deacons were not intended to be a balance of powers, rather they were intended to work within the leadership alongside the elders and among the congregation.
Third, we understand that the deacons did have some type of delegated authority over the tasks given them. We do not find in this passage or any of the New Testament, deacons forming a board to rule over the church. But we do find that they had a delegated authority to see that the tasks appointed to them would be accomplished in a godly, unifying way-thus they would be making decisions on a daily basis that the Apostles entrusted to them perhaps without the specific knowledge of the Apostles. They had to be trusted to use the Spirit and wisdom to accomplish tasks while not burdening either the church or the Apostles unnecessarily.
Fourth, we find that the ministry of these deacons was intended to serve in the physical, administrative, practical matters of organization of the church so that the Apostles could devote their time to serve in the spiritual, prayer and teaching matters of the church.
It is quite clear that the two offices of elders and deacons were not meant to be two sides of the rope pulling against one another in a tug-o-war contest, but on the same side of the rope pulling together to encourage the spiritual and numerical flourishing of the church – the deacons serving the administrative and practical needs of the church and the elders serving the spiritual and doctrinal needs of the church.
Today, deacons are an important part of the leadership structure within the church. Pastors and assemblies need deacons to lead with spiritual wisdom, integrity and diligence in the practical, day-to-day operations and functioning of the organized church. Financial accounting, maintenance of building and furnishing responsibilities, record keeping, meeting physical needs of members, event or ministry organizing, technology maintenance, etc. all present temptations to pastors to neglect the ministry of the Word and prayer in order to “get things done.” But this is where elders and a congregation need to allow deacons chosen by them to flourish in the service God has called them unto. Certainly churches will not look the same in our current age, but deacons will always be necessary to fulfill these necessary, “behind the scenes” responsibilities.
Furthermore, Pastors and congregations should trust the Spiritual wisdom of the deacons they have selected to lead in these and perhaps other areas. Personally, I find that deacons provide a tremendous service to the pastors through the spiritual wisdom that they possess. It is logical that a church submitted to the Spirit of God will choose deacons who are obviously filled with the Holy Spirit and full of wisdom. Thus, for elders to ignore the advice and counsel of those members whom the congregation has identified as “filled with the Holy Spirit” and “full of wisdom” would be foolish. It is also highly doubtful that these seven men in Acts 6 did all the service needs of a church several thousand strong. Certainly the deacons themselves delegated areas of service to others within the congregation. Yet the deacons were responsible to see that the tasks were accomplished so that the church could promote unity and so that physical needs would not stand in the way of spiritual growth. Good deacons always have the unity of the church as important to them. Good deacons are willing to serve in whatever tasks the Elders delegate to them. And good deacons are faithful to use the spiritual wisdom to exercise their responsibilities with dignity and integrity.
Whenever the issue of deacon’s in the church arises, so does the question about female deacons or “deaconesses.” This is not easy to answer, and I believe some freedom should be given in this practice. There is grammatical evidence in 1 Timothy 3 that may support a female version of the deacon. If the Bible does allow for deaconesses, certain things must be clear. God has always intended men to be the leaders within the church. If female deacons are serving in a church, it must be in a way that is consistent with Paul’s commands for men to lead and women to assist, especially as it relates to the teaching and preaching ministry of the church (1 Timothy 2:9-15). However, from the pattern of Acts 6 and from the plain reading of 1 Timothy, in my opinion, it is best to have male deacons serve in the church and their wives to assist them in those matters where a female deacon could be of assistance. This of course is not a primary matter as it is not clearly revealed in Scripture and churches should pursue graciousness in these differences of application.
When the congregation, the elders and the deacons are all pursuing the glory of God, obedience to the Word of God and seeking to serve God’s church with the responsibilities given to them, while not being lifted up with pride or self-aggrandizement, the church will flourish under the good hand of God.