Deacon: A Word Study
We have stated that we are going to be appointing deacons in the near future. However, if we’re going to appoint deacons, we need to understand what a deacon is. It would be absolutely impossible to appoint deacons in an appropriate way if we fail to understand what deacons are. This evening, we want to open up Scripture to see what deacons are.
We are going to do a word study of the Greek term diakonos, the term translated “deacon.” In conducting a word study, you examine each occurrence of a term and attempt to ascertain the definition of the term. We don’t generally do word studies for sermons, but we have to do so to understand what deacons are. The difficult in understanding the function of a deacon is that the term “deacon” is used of an office in the church only three times in the Greek New Testament. The term usually just means “servant,” and it is used that way throughout the Greek New Testament. If we want to understand the office of a deacon, it is imperative that we examine each occurrence of the term and make some application to church deacons.
We’re not going to examine every single occurrence of diakonos in the Greek New Testament. But, what we’re going to do is to group the usages of the term into five categories and explore these categories. Let’s study the usage of “deacon” in the New Testament that we might understand God’s intentions. The term is used to describe:
One Who Serves Wealthy People
The term is used very closely to what we think of as a “slave.” “Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth’” (Matt 22:13). The word occurs twice in this manner in the narrative of the turning of water to wine. “His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you’” (Jn 2:5). “When the steward of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from though the servants who had drawn the water knew” (Jn 2:9).
Thus, a deacon is one who works under someone else and takes direction from someone else. A deacon is not really a leader; he is under someone else who tells him what needs to be done. We need men who are willing, not to be in the spotlight, but to work under someone else. The deacons we appoint in the near future will, of course, be working under the elders and taking direction from the elders.
One Who Serves Another
The term is used of one who serves someone else; one who puts the needs of others in front of his own needs. “It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Matt 20:26). “He who is greatest among you shall be your servant” (Matt 23:11). “He sat down and called the twelve; and he said to them, ‘If any one would be first, he must be least of all and servant of all’” (Mk 9:35).
This is really the essence of being a deacon: looking out for the interests of others and serving others. That becomes abundantly clear when you take a look at Acts 6:1-6. When the Greek widows were being neglected, the apostles said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables” (Acts 6:2). The word for “serve” in verse 2 is the verb form of the word “deacon.” What the apostles say, in essence, is, “It’s not right that we should work as deacons and neglect the spiritual work we’ve been assigned to do.” The seven men appointed in act 6 took care of serving the Greek widows and making sure they received what they needed.
Deacons in the modern world, like deacons in the infant church, need to look out for the interests of others. Deacons often are called upon to meet benevolent needs within and without the church—they may take a family whose house just burned clothing the congregation has collected, they may take a family food when money is tight, they may take some children Christmas gifts who wouldn’t have anything anyway else. When considering whom to appoint as a deacon, we need to take into consideration how much this person will meet others’ needs.
Of course, we all need to serve others; there is not a one of us who can turn a blind eye to those in need. Do you serve the needs of others?
One Who Serves Jesus
The term for “deacon” is used of those who follow Jesus—Jesus talked about his deacons, and Paul talked about being a deacon for Jesus. “If any one serves me, he must follow men; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if any one serves me, the Father will honor him” (Jn 12:26). “As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way” (2 Cor 6:4). “Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death” (2 Cor 11:23).
We need to appoint deacons who serve Jesus above all else. If they do not serve Jesus above all else, how can they serve others? If they do not love to serve Jesus, why would they be willing to serve those who are in dire circumstances.
Let all of us actively be serving God!
One Who Serves the Gospel
The term for “deacon” is used in the New Testament to refer to one who serves the Gospel. “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each” (1 Cor 3:5). “Of this gospel I was made a minister [deacon] according to the gift of God’s grace which was give me by the working of his power” (Eph 3:7). “Provided that you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which has been preached to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister” (Col 1:23).
In each of these occurrences, the term for “deacon” is used of a “minister of the Gospel,” one who shares his faith with others. We need deacons who are willing to share their faith with others. Stephen and Philip, two of the first seven deacons, are remembered for their sharing of faith: Stephen contended with those of the synagogue of the Freedmen and Philip went to Samaria. We need deacons who are willing to share their faith because the good deeds they do need to be done “in the name of the Lord Jesus.” What good is it going to do for a deacon to take food to a needy family but be too shamed to tell the family that it’s done in Jesus name? Any good deed that any of us performs needs to be done in Jesus’ name; we need to make it clear that the good we do we do because we serve Jesus.
One Who Serves the Church
The term for “deacon” is used in the New Testament to refer to one who serves the church. Romans 16:1-2. Phoebe was a “servant of the church in Cenchrea.” We don’t know exactly what service this woman gave, but we do know that she served many—Paul said of her, “she has been a helper of many and of myself also.” I think it’s interesting to notice that this is a woman who is called a “servant” of the church. This demonstrates that the work of service is not just for the males in a congregation. No woman can be a deacon, for a deacon must be the husband of one wife, and deacons do occasionally have a leadership role in the church, something a woman cannot have.
But apart from the leadership role of a formal deacon, what could a woman not do that a deacon does? Deacons often care for benevolence. Do you women not often take care of such functions? Didn’t you do that when you provided meals for Vivian? Deacons often care for the physical facilities, the church building and the like. Do you women not often take care of such functions? Don’t many of you women help clean the building? We need females who are as willing to serve the church as much as we need males who are willing to serve the church. There may be times when it’s more prudent for a woman to serve than a man—maybe with a single mother whose just gotten out of a violent relationship and doesn’t trust men.
“That you also may know my affairs and how I am doing, Tychicus, a beloved brother and faithful minister of the Lord, will make all things known to you” (Eph 6:21). “Tychicus, a beloved brother, faithful minister, and fellow servant in the Lord, will tell you all the news about me” (Col 4:7).
The term is also used of the official position in the church, the position of a deacon. “Likewise, deacons must be reverent, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy for money” (1 Tim 3:8). “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons” (Phil 1:1).
We need men and women who will serve the church within the guidelines of the roles God has given. Are you willing to serve the church? Are you willing to come tonight and begin serving the church?
This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at the Alum Creek church of Christ in Alum Creek, West Virginia.