A Hard Look at Deacons and Elders

For some time the use of the word ‘deacon’ as we know it has been a troubled question for me. The office of deacon has been far more emphasized for many generations than is given in Scripture. Most, if not all, Bible translations do not translate the word, but only transliterate it; that is, giving an English pronunciation rather than providing a literal translation. This should be troubling to everyone. There are other words that have been treated in like fashion; baptism being one of them, but I will not address this here.

Are we ignoring biblical guidelines affecting deacons, and now have positions that have absolutely no biblical authority? In fact, some churches give titles such as “Children’s Ministry Director” or “Women’s Ministry Director” or “Lay Counselor.” Those serving in these positions are sometimes Bible instructors, or involved in discipleship and pastoral care. My  question is simple, “Are these biblical positions of leadership?” What biblical criteria are used to support them?” There are obvious biblical standards for leadership, why not use them? Do we have ministry positions developed to fit cultural needs but no biblical authority for assigned offices?

The following question(s) come from the Greek word for “deacon,” found in etymological studies:

The word diakonos or διάκονος, transliterated “deacon” actually means “servant” and  appears 29 times in the New Testament. 36 verses contain the verb diakoneo meaning “to serve” and the noun diakonia defined as “service, ministry, office,” is applied 33 times. Why not use the term correctly? The word diakonos does have a defined meaning. Most often diakonos in the New Testament is defined as helping or serving and not as a deacon in a church setting as you and I might see it used. 

The following verses from the New Testament provide  us with the following:

John 2:9: “…The master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants (diakonoi) who had drawn the water knew.”

 Luke 22:25-27: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them… But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves (diakonon)… I am among you as one who serves (diakonon).”

 John 12:26: “Whoever serves (diakone) me must follow me; and where I am, my servant (diakonos) will also be. My Father will honor the one who serves (diakone) me.” 

Romans 13:4: “[The ruler] is God’s servant (diakonos) to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant (diakonos), an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” 

Eph 3:7: “I became a servant (diakonos) of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given to me through the working of his power.” 

1 Timothy 4:6: “If you point these things out to the brothers, you will be a good minister (diakonos) of Christ Jesus…” In these five instances diakonos expresses the idea as “servant.” Looking more closely we find diakonos used in the NT to describe the office of deacon as we understand it. Look briefly at Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8-13.

 Philippians 1:1: “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons…” In both of these instances the Greek term diakonos is utilized,  why not use them in the same way in the same verse…as servants?

1 Timothy 3:8-13: “Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove 

themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.” 

Diakonos contains the idea of servant. Is a deacon a servant of Christ and His church? But we might say, “not everyone who serves God or the church does so in the official capacity of deacon.” Some might say that every deacon is a servant, not every servant is a deacon, but because Believers are to serve the local church these are servants of the Lord.

Does the office of Deacon really exist in the New Testament? The fact that there are only two clear references to the office in the New Testament has caused some to question whether or not it does exist. Some suggest that elders and deacons in Philippians 1:1 are only defined activities in the church at Philippi but not as offices. I must, however, decline the suggestion. Elders and deacons are indeed, offices specified by Paul, but the office of deacon as we understand it does not. There is an office of a servant, but not that of a deacon.

The New Bible Dictionary gives us this explanation, “There is little to suggest that in New Testament times the term ‘deacon’ is ever more than semi-technical.” Another writer, Hermann Beyer, a Continental scholar, tells us that Paul’s first statement from Philippians 1:1 “is a reference to the office of deacon: In Paul’s statement our understanding of the office deacon can be linked to elders.”

When Paul wrote the Philippian letter there were two offices and one may be more important. Is a deacon the role of a servant in the local church and is any church member able to fill that post? If the word “deacon” points to an office should there not be both elders and deacons in God-ordained offices? We must remain in biblical context.

Do the writers of the New Testament direct us to the office of deacon, or better said, servant? We find these two statements of Paul in Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3 and these men are sitting next to the elders. Paul and Peter are speaking of elders to be appointed by the apostles with doctrinal instruction and care. We are able to observe this in Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-3 and Titus 1:9.

In Acts 14:23 Luke records that Paul “had appointed elders for them in the various churches, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the protection of the Lord in whom they had believed.” Paul instructed Titus to “appoint elders in every town” on the island of Crete, “The reason I left you in Crete was to set in order the remaining matters and to appoint elders in every town, as I directed you. An elder must be blameless, the husband of one wife, with faithful children who cannot be charged with dissipation or rebellion. For the overseer must be blameless as one entrusted with God’s work, not arrogant, not prone to anger, not a drunkard, not violent, not greedy for gain. Instead he must be hospitable, devoted to what is good, sensible, upright, devout, and self-controlled. He must hold firmly to the faithful message as it has been taught, so that he will be able to give exhortation in such healthy teaching and correct those who speak against it.” Titus 1:5-9. 

Paul gives this in 1 Timothy 3:8 -13,  Deacons likewise must be dignified, not two-faced, not given to excessive drinking, not greedy for gain, holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And these also must be tested first and then let them serve as deacons if they are found blameless. Likewise also their wives must be dignified, not slanderous, temperate, faithful in every respect. Deacons must be husbands of one wife and good managers of their children and their own households. For those who have served well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and great boldness in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.” We must translate the word ‘deacon’ to be ‘servant,’ and not transliterate it.

Acts 6:1-4, Here Luke gives foundation for the places of elder and servant leadership. However, we must not forget the reason for the appointment. There was a complaint from the Hellenistic Jews against the Hebrews because the widows were ignored in the distribution of food. The Apostles then responded by calling on the congregation in vv. 2-3,  “So the twelve called the whole group of the disciples together and said, “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to wait on tables. But carefully select from among you, brothers, seven men who are well-attested, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this necessary task.”  However, because the noun ‘deacon’ is not used here we should not suggest that these men were to be the first deacons. A great disservice has been accomplished by transliterating the Greek verb ‘διακονίᾳ’ to indicate something that is not. The word only tells us that the Greek widows were not being served. “Served” is the appropriate verb, not the use of the noun taken from the same root word. The apostles did not establish the office of deacon in Acts chapter 6.

In my opinion, elders must be the priority. The local church should begin with the appointment of qualified elders. Paul planted a new church with elders followed by the servants. Elders are given to theological, doctrinal, and moral training by faithfully teaching Scripture. The servants are given to the practical leadership instructed by the elders. To transliterate the Greek word is simply not correct. Elders delegate tasks to deacons as servants in ministry under the direction of the elders.

Paul writes into his friend Timothy 1 Timothy 3:8-13 with definite qualifications for the place of servants in the church and women are not allowed to be “teaching or exercising authority over a man.” In the context of 1 Timothy, there is a clear restriction on authoritative leadership in the church. The Apostle demands elders to be men as the biblical roles of men and women in the home and the church: “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord, because the husband is the head of the wife as also Christ is the head of the church (he himself being the savior of the body). But as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her to sanctify her by cleansing her with the washing of the water by the word, so that he may present the church to himself as glorious—not having a stain or wrinkle, or any such blemish, but holy and blameless. In the same way husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one has ever hated his own body, but he feeds it and takes care of it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of his body.  For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This mystery is great—but I am actually speaking with reference to Christ and the church. Nevertheless, each one of you must also love his own wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” Ephesians 5:22-33. Both men and women as servants/helpers must follow the male elders within God’s instructions. The biblical qualifications for elders are specific to men, while the qualifications for helpers can include women. 

The egalitarian view of the role of women in the church is determined by a foundation of sand, not solid rock. From the late 20th Century is found much talk about the role of women in the church. The role of women finds root in the book of Genesis and continued in the New Testament. We do find, at best, suggestions, but no clear statements that men and women are on the same footing socially. We must comply with the Word of God.

The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 under Article XVIII, The Family, states, “The husband and wife are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God’s image. The marriage relationship models the way God relates to His people. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.” 

Galatians 3:28 is a Pauline statement of equality, but we must keep this verse within the context of the entire letter to the church in Galatia. Paul is not suggesting in any manner whatsoever anything about social order. NONE!!

Notice again what the Apostle clearly states in 1 Timothy 2:9-15, “Likewise the women are to dress in suitable apparel, with modesty and self-control. Their adornment must not be with braided hair and gold or pearls or expensive clothing, but with good deeds, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. A woman must learn quietly with all submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man. She must remain quiet. For Adam was formed first and then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman, because she was fully deceived, fell into transgression. But she will be delivered through childbearing, if she continues in faith and love and holiness with self-control.” 

No, I am NOT an egalitarian, no, not at all. But, can women serve in the local church? The answer is obvious, “yes,” so long as they are willing to follow the instructions of the appointed elders just as the Word of God instructs. Elders are to be men only and deacons are to be understood as being servants of the Lord, both biblically qualified men and women following the directives of the Elders.

In most cases, however, we Baptists for the most part are a very long way from this. There is a conflagration of how men and women serve in our churches. Whether we like it or not most women are the real driving forces of our church and the Deacons mostly serve at their bequest; their beckoning call. Elders are becoming more and more popular in some settings as young Pastors are beginning to understand. Our social order is changing in all of our churches.

I might add that for many years my wife and I served as missionaries to Peru under the auspices of the Southern Baptist Convention. Observing our women missionaries helped me to determine their invaluable service to our Peruvian churches. They were extraordinary in their service to God. Many excelled as both teachers and speakers giving biblical directions in every manner. They worked just as hard and successfully as their men counterparts. Peruvian women accomplished just as much as did their men in the local churches. I might add, these were Peruvian Baptist churches and not Southern Baptist churches.

As more and more churches are ordaining women in places of leadership and elders are beginning to emerge in others we will find a greater division as a result. Most likely, I will not see the solutions of the issues and I am much better for it. As I write this the great divide among Baptists will continue to grow and grow. There will be more quakes to come, perhaps big ones. May the Lord bless.

But, Jesus remains Lord of His Church.

About Bob Williford

Conservative Southern Baptist pastor, missionary, and personal evangelist. An avid supporter of Texas Tech Athletics. Enjoy oil painting, writing and woodworking. My wife, children, and grandchildren are my joy. Reading and writing are great for relaxing......
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2 Responses to A Hard Look at Deacons and Elders

  1. Absolutely wise my friend


    • Thank you for your kind comment. However, I am not sure of the wisdom you suggest. There is one thing most important while reading and studying the Word of God, and that is to play within the contextual rules that always apply. Context is the rule because God has said that His thoughts and actions are not human, these belong to Him and we find those within the inerrant statements He has given us. We must follow them. Jesus is Lord.


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