Part 1 of 3: What Deacons Are and Do
By Jim Dalrymple
Where have all the deacons gone? Has this biblical role become obsolete in our modern world?
Not long ago, when hosting a seminar on the topic, an elder approached me and declared facetiously, “We don’t have deacons . . . who still does?” I knew what he meant. To him, the term deacon was a signpost of an outdated model of ministry. When I said “deacon,” he thought committee. What I wanted to say (but didn’t) was that they did in fact have deacons—they just called them something like “ministers” or “ministry team leaders.” I have found many are curious and confused about the role of deacons in the church. In this three-part conversation, I hope to reexamine the biblical material regarding deacons and reimagine their role in the church today.
In the ancient world, a deacon (from the Greek word diakonos) was simply someone who served. The title would have instantly communicated a function, much like waiter, mechanic, or carpenter do today. Deacons were common and in ancient society their role was clear: deacons served. They served in households, temples, governments, and the church. Their work varied, but their function was the same. Unfortunately, the word deacon does not carry the same claritytoday. Why is this?
We have chosen to transliterate the Greek word (diakonos) rather than translate it. Ask anyone today what a deacon does, and the lack of clarity will prove my point. What are our options for translation?
1. Deacons—a transliteration of the Greek word diakonos
2. Minister—a transliteration of the Latin word ministerium (yes, we even transliterate a translation!)
3. Servant—an English translation
The key thing to notice from these three options is that we use all three! Not only that, but we associate a unique role with each synonymous term. I know churches who have ministers on staff, deacons on their board, and servant leaders over various ministries. No wonder we’re confused! What does this look like in your church? Here are three models I have observed:
1. Deacons as board members. In this model, deacons function primarily as a governing body—a role like that of the elders. In addition, they often are given shared leadership over the same tasks such as serving Communion, overseeing building maintenance, etc.
2. Deacons as volunteer ministry leaders (or servant leaders). In this model, deacons are primarily a need-meeting body rather than a governing body (distinct from the elders/overseers). Unlike the model above, in this model each deacon is appointed to a unique area of responsibility and thereby is leveraged to meet a diversity of needs in the church. Often, those who serve in this model are called ministry team leaders or servant leaders rather than deacons.
3. Deacons as paid ministry staff (ministers). This model functions like the above but those serving are primarily in paid staff positions, plus they often are called minister rather than deacon.
Which model is the biblical one? Part of the genius of the Bible is that this role is adaptable to various contexts and cultures. But let me come back to the issue of transliteration. My concern is that, in transliterating, we have stripped the original term of its clear referential meaning. I’ll show you what I mean.
WE CALL BIBLE THINGS BY BIBLE NAMES
We want to call Bible things by Bible names, but sometimes we settle for calling worldly things by Bible names. Sure, we use biblical labels like deacon, but we merely slap these labels over a preferred secular model. An honest evaluation often reveals underlying templates from the American political system, corporate boardroom, or the 21st-century social club. Want evidence?
1. Do you nominate and vote deacons into an office or appoint them to a specific ministry need?
2. Do your deacons serve until their term is over or until their task is completed?
3. Do your deacons spend more time in meetings or in meeting needs?
4. Are your deacons known more for their titles than their service?
We have re-created deacons in our cultural image. We have flipped what was meant to be an embodiment of Jesus’ servant ministry and made it an embodiment of our own power structures. Let me be clear. To be a deacon is not to have an honorific title but to have a humble task. Deacons are not appointed to meet in committees but to meet needs in the community. Deacons lead the way in Christlike service. It is time for deacons to trade their ballots and boardrooms for the basin and towel.
Read part 2 (“Who to Select and How They Should Function”) of this 3-part article next week at ChristianStandard.com.
Jim Dalrymple serves as executive vice president of advancement and professor of New Testament and leadership with Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Mo.