The first deacons were chosen to wait tables so that the apostles (Jesus’ original disciples) could be free to preach and teach:
Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” The statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch. And these they brought before the apostles; and after praying, they laid their hands on them.Acts 6:1-6
Later passages, such as 1 Timothy 3:8-9, 12 and Philippians 1:1-2, refer to these new servants as “diakonos“, from which we get our word “deacon”. The word literally means “servant”. The Strong’s concordance defines it as:
“probably from an obsolete διάκω diakō (to run on errands); an attendant, i.e. (genitive case) a waiter (at table or in other menial duties); specially, a Christian teacher and pastor (technically, a deacon or deaconess): — deacon, minister, servant.”
How Deacons Are Chosen
In the church where I attend, the deacons are elected by the congregation from among a group of nominees. Any member can nominate someone to be deacon. The deacons serve for four years before rotating off the team, with a quarter of them rotating off and being replaced each year.
Those nominated are already known for their faithfulness to God and to our local church. Often, they are already serving in some capacity — teaching Sunday School, working on committees, helping with meals and mission programs. Being elected deacon acknowledges their dedication and “promotes” (!) them to more work and greater responsibilities.
When someone is first elected as a deacon, they go through a vetting and affirming process known as “ordination”. Modeled after the passage above, they are interviewed to confirm their faith in the Bible and in Jesus, and their ability, willingness, and fitness to serve. Then they are formally “ordained” — acknowledged and confirmed — in a service that includes prayers for blessings on them and their new area of ministry.
How Deacons Lead
Even if they are not currently serving on the deacon board, those who have been ordained in the past are usually still active in all of the church’s endeavors (as they were before being ordained!). They are often seen as the natural leaders. However, that does not mean that they wield power or enforce their will on others. Rather, they are influential because they have earned respect for their servant’s hearts. They embody Jesus’ teaching, at the Last Supper, when He knelt down to wash the dirt from his disciples sandaled feet — a task that only the lowest servant could be ordered to do:
You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.John 13:13-15
Jesus also taught this kind of lesson when His disciples were quarreling over status:
An argument started among them as to which of them might be the greatest. But Jesus, knowing what they were thinking in their heart, took a child and stood him by His side, and said to them, “Whoever receives this child in My name receives Me, and whoever receives Me receives Him who sent Me; for the one who is least among all of you, this is the one who is great.”Luke 9:46-48
Our deacons are the caregivers. Every member of the church has someone who is “their” deacon, someone who will be there to help when needed. As example that stands out to me was the day my father died suddenly of a heart attack. Many of the deacons were already at the church that Saturday morning, doing some construction work. They got the news immediately, got to the hospital as soon as we did, stayed by us and prayed for us during the hard days that followed. They lived out the idea of servant leadership.
About Women Deacons
As to why some churches don’t want women to be deacons, I think it comes from two main concerns.
First, there are passages like 1 Timothy 2:11-12 that seem to say that women should not be in positions of authority. As I discussed in the article “Women in the Church“, there is a good case that the passage is not meant to be a general prohibition on women in ministry. Regardless, deacons (as done in my church, at least) are not authority figures except in the fact that they have earned respect. Remember, the word means “servant”, not “boss”.
A second objection to women is one that I used to have friendly “discussions” with my father about before he passed away. He would say “How can a woman be ‘the husband of one wife’ as required in 1 Timothy 3:12“? My answer was that, by that logic, neither Paul — who wrote that statement — nor even Jesus would be qualified: Neither of them was married! It makes more sense that in a culture where polygamy and infidelity were accepted (almost even expected!), a faithful commitment to a single wife would be a sign of extraordinary character 1.
The Apostle Paul, who wrote both the passages above in his letter to his protege Timothy, praises a specific woman deacon by name in his letter to the church of Rome (Phoebe, in Romans 16:1).
Thank God for Deacons!
We’re back to the deacon requirement being someone who has earned respect for their godly lifestyle and servant’s heart. I know that I am grateful for the deacons in my church. They “run” the church, not by ruling, but by being willing to serve in any way needed. They are examples for all of us to follow.