What Is a Deacon?

Understand the role of a deacon or deaconess in the church

African woman talking to Reverend
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The role or office of deacon was developed in the early church primarily to minister to the physical needs of the members of the body of Christ. The initial appointment takes place in Acts 6:1-6.

Deacon Definition

The term deacon comes from the Greek word diákonos meaning "servant" or "minister." The word, which appears at least 29 times in the New Testament, designates an appointed member of the local church who assists by serving other members and meeting material needs.

After the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, the church began to grow so fast that some believers, particularly widows, were being neglected in the daily distribution of food and alms, or charitable gifts. Also, as the church expanded, logistical challenges arose at meetings mainly because of the size of the fellowship. The apostles, who had their hands full caring for the spiritual needs of the church, decided to appoint seven leaders who could tend to the physical and administrative needs of the body:

But as the believers rapidly multiplied, there were rumblings of discontent. The Greek-speaking believers complained about the Hebrew-speaking believers, saying that their widows were being discriminated against in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve called a meeting of all the believers. They said, “We apostles should spend our time teaching the word of God, not running a food program. And so, brothers, select seven men who are well respected and are full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will give them this responsibility. Then we apostles can spend our time in prayer and teaching the word.”  (Acts 6:1–4, NLT)

Two of the seven deacons appointed here in Acts were Philip the Evangelist and Stephen, who later became the first Christian martyr

Seven Deacons chosen
Section of a fresco in the Niccoline Chapel by Fra Angelico (circa 1395-1455), depicting Saint Peter consecrating the Seven Deacons. Saint Stephen is shown kneeling. Public Domain 

The first reference to an official position of deacon in the local congregation is found in Philippians 1:1, where the Apostle Paul says, "I am writing to all of God's holy people in Philippi who belong to Christ Jesus, including the elders and deacons." (NLT)

Qualities of a Deacon

While the duties of this office are never explicitly defined in the New Testament, the passage in Acts 6 implies a responsibility for serving during mealtimes or feasts as well as distributing to the poor and caring for fellow believers with unique needs. Paul expounds on the qualities of a deacon in 1 Timothy 3:8-13:

... Deacons must be well respected and have integrity. They must not be heavy drinkers or dishonest with money. They must be committed to the mystery of the faith now revealed and must live with a clear conscience. Before they are appointed as deacons, let them be closely examined. If they pass the test, then let them serve as deacons.
In the same way, their wives must be respected and must not slander others. They must exercise self-control and be faithful in everything they do.
A deacon must be faithful to his wife, and he must manage his children and household well. Those who do well as deacons will be rewarded with respect from others and will have increased confidence in their faith in Christ Jesus. (NLT)

The biblical requirements of deacons are similar to that of elders, but there is a clear distinction in office. Elders are spiritual leaders or shepherds of the church. They serve as pastors and teachers and also provide general oversight on financial, organizational, and spiritual matters. The practical ministry of deacons in the church is vital, freeing elders to focus on prayer, studying God's Word, and pastoral care.

What Is a Deaconess?

The New Testament seems to indicate that both men and women were appointed as deacons in the early church. In Romans 16:1, Paul calls Phoebe a deaconess.

Paul and Phoebe
Paul gives Phoebe the letter to the Roman christians. (Romans, Chapter 16). Wood engraving after a drawing by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (German painter, 1794 - 1872), published in 1877. ZU_09 / Getty Images

Today scholars remain divided on this issue. Some believe Paul was referring to Phoebe as a servant in general, and not as one who functioned in the office of deacon.

On the other hand, some cite the above passage in 1 Timothy 3, where Paul describes the qualities of a deacon, as proof that women, too, served as deacons. Verse 11 states, "In the same way, their wives must be respected and must not slander others. They must exercise self-control and be faithful in everything they do."

The Greek word translated wives here can also be rendered women. Thus, some Bible translators believe 1 Timothy 3:11 does not concern deacons' wives, but women deaconesses. Several Bible versions render the verse with this alternate meaning:

In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.

 As more evidence, deaconesses are noted in other second and third century documents as officeholders in the church. Women served in areas of discipleship, visitation, and assisting with baptism.

Deacons in the Church Today

Nowadays, as in the early church, the role of a deacon may encompass a variety of services differing from denomination to denomination. In general, deacons function as servants, ministering to the body in practical ways. They may assist as ushers, tend to benevolence, or count tithes and offerings. No matter how they serve, Scripture makes it clear that ministering as a deacon is a rewarding and honorable calling in the church.

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Fairchild, Mary. "What Is a Deacon?" Learn Religions, Feb. 8, 2021, learnreligions.com/what-is-a-deacon-700680. Fairchild, Mary. (2021, February 8). What Is a Deacon? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-a-deacon-700680 Fairchild, Mary. "What Is a Deacon?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-a-deacon-700680 (accessed March 30, 2023).