Will you be a deacon?

W-4.0404 i. (2)—Will you be a faithful deacon, teaching charity, urging concern, and directing the peoples help to the friendless and those in need, and in your ministry will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?

Who or what is a deacon? Presbyterians did not invent this pattern of ministry, nor is it unique to our way of being the church. A genuine claim can be made that its roots lie in the earliest witness of the apostolic church.

In the foundational episode of Acts 6:1–7, seven disciples are appointed to distribute food to those in need. Although the title of “deacon” is not explicitly mentioned in English translations of this passage, the Greek words diakonia (service) and diakoneo (to serve) illuminate the activity of deacons in the early church and inform our understanding of their role today. Time spent exploring the dynamics of this interesting passage will afford space for discovery about the place of service, cooperation, and justice in ministry.

We can also discern more about what it means to be a deacon by examining this passage alongside the principles of ministry and polity enshrined in our Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Constitution. Specific Book of Order references, and their enclosing chapters as a whole, provide ample space for discussion about ministry in general and the function of deacons in particular:

  • The genuine concerns about the welfare of widows in Acts 6:1 informs G-2.0201, in which the role of the deacon is defined first as a ministry of “compassion, witness, and service,” and in W-5.0303, where it is described as a mission of compassion.
  • Despite the frictions in Verse 1 and some resentment in Verse 2, the church ultimately demonstrates an openness to change and adaptation, which prompts F-1.0404: the calling of the church to see “both the possibilities and the perils” of its forms of ministry.
  • The discernment of prospects in Verse 3 and their subsequent election in Verse 5 gives shape to G-2.0401, on the nomination and election of deacons, and to F-3.0106, regarding election by the people.
  • The description of qualifications in Verse 3 informs our polity as expressed in G-2.0201, concerning the qualifications for deacons.
  • The emphasis on corresponding functions in ministry in Verses 3–4 undergirds G-2.01, which outlines the particular functions of ordered ministry in supporting, never undercutting, the ministry of the whole people of God.
  • The way the early Christian community commissions their new servant leaders in Verse 6 gives shape to our teaching in G-2.0403 and W-4.04 on the practice of ordination and installation.
  • The spreading of God’s word and the growth of the church in Verse 7 is echoed in W-5.0301 as it relates to the church’s mission in the world.

The term “deacon” is worth exploring as well. From the Greek διάκονος (diakonos), the word appears twenty-nine times in the New Testament and essentially means “one who renders service to another”—servant, attendant, helper, etc. The term had a place in the vocabulary of the Greek-speaking culture prior to its early Christian adoption. Even Scripture sometimes indicates a more general usage: tables needed waiters (John 2:5) and monarchs demanded servants (Matt. 22:13). In these and countless other non-biblical examples, diakonos was the preferred noun.

That the early church adapted cultural patterns of service for Christian ministry is instructive: Presbyterian deacons need not try to reinvent the wheel in every act of ministry, but may well choose to make use of patterns, practices, and programs already present in the church or community. The deacons in one congregation in western Pennsylvania, for instance, chose to utilize the Big Brothers/Big Sisters organization as a way to invite the congregation into relationships beyond the church walls.

The forms of Christian ministry are always flexible; its heart is always Christ-shaped. When participating in or adopting outside forms, including secular ones, deacons should always ask:

·       How might we undertake this effort in the manner of Jesus?

·       How might this work become Christian diakonia?

·       How might the adaptation of this pattern or program bless those in need and also bear witness to the good news about God in Jesus Christ?

Servant leadership” has become a popular phrase in our time, but the ancient office of deacon has been shaped by a paradigm of servanthood for centuries. For deacons, service is not a secondary action to decision-making leadership in meetings, but in fact the primary calling of the office. Service to others is central. That said, there can be a temptation in Presbyterian circles to view the role of deacon as either a lower proving ground for “higher office” as a ruling elder, or as a repository for menial or repetitive congregational tasks no one else wants to do.

On the one hand, setting up tables, making coffee, and counting the offering may well be taking up so much time for the deacons that ministries of compassion and witness to those in distress and need may be curtailed. Indeed, some may even prefer straightforward practical tasks to the sometimes- risky posture of loving real persons. On the other hand, basic communal tasks can be their own witness to the gospel when undertaken with love and generosity—as modeled by Jesus himself in the washing of his disciples’ feet (a menial act of hospitality common to the culture, transformed by him into a sign of God’s grace).

Servant tasks are either blessing or curse, depending on the culture and needs of a congregation and the attitude of those who undertake them. Those preparing for this office, together with those already serving, should be encouraged to examine regularly the role of deacon in the congregation to ensure its alignment with the primary calling 

expressed in G-2.0201. This principle should be taught: Practical tasks for the congregation should never overshadow living connections with persons in need within and beyond the flock; yet often compassion to those in need is first and best expressed through practical help and support. Deacons can and must practice wisdom to determine which side of that holy balance is needed when on a relationship-by-relationship basis.

For Reflection and Discussion:

In discerning a call to the ministry of deacon, what aspects did you consider?

How does a look into Acts 6:1–7 and some history behind the biblical concept of deacon assist you in moving forward with this call?