Role in Brief
The deacon, like the elder, is an elected and ordained role. The deacon’s primary roles are the assistance in running of services, the visitation of members, the care of the sick and the maintenance of church property.
The office of deacon is described in the New Testament (1 Tim. 3:8-13), where the Greek word diakonos is used from which the English “deacon” is derived. The Greek word is variously interpreted as “servant, minister, writer, attendant” and in Christian circles acquired the specialized meaning now attached to “deacon.” Scripture clearly endorses the office in the New Testament church: “They that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 3:13). On this authority, the church elects some of its members to serve in eminently practical ways, caring for several aspects of church services, as well as for church property.
The deacon is elected to office, serving for a term of one or two years as determined by the local church.
Importance of the Office
In the account of the choosing of the men who came to be known as the seven deacons of the apostolic church, as recorded in Acts 6:1-8, we are told that they were chosen and ordained to attend to the “business” of the church.
But the call to the office of deacon included more than caring for the business of the fast-growing Christian community. The deacons were engaged in an important part of the Lord’s work, demanding qualifications but slightly less exacting than those of an elder. (See 1 Tim. 3:8-13.) “The fact that these brethren had been ordained for the special work of looking after the needs of the poor did not exclude them from teaching the faith. On the contrary, they were fully qualified to instruct others in the truth, and they engaged in the work with great earnestness and success.”—The Acts of the Apostles, p. 90. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and Philip, afterward called “the evangelist,” were among the first seven deacons chosen in the Christian church (Acts 6:5, 6; 8:5-26; 21:8).
This inspired arrangement resulted in great progress in the building up of the work of the early church. “The appointment of the seven to take the oversight of special lines of work proved a great blessing to the church. These officers gave careful consideration to individual needs as well as to the general financial interests of the church, and by their prudent management and their godly example they were an important aid to their fellow officers in binding together the various interests of the church into a united whole.”—The Acts of the Apostles, p. 89.
The appointment of deacons in the present-day church through election by the church brings similar blessings in church administration by relieving pastors, elders, and other officers of duties that may well be performed by deacons. “The time and strength of those who in the providence of God have been placed in leading positions of responsibility in the church should be spent in dealing with the weightier matters demanding special wisdom and largeness of heart. It is not in the order of God that such men should be appealed to for the adjustment of minor matters that others are well qualified to handle.”—The Acts of the Apostles, p. 93.
Board of Deacons
Where a church has a sufficient number of deacons to warrant the formation of a board of deacons it is well to organize such a board, with the head deacon as chairman and with another deacon serving as secretary. Such a body affords a well-ordered means of distributing responsibility and coordinates deacon contributions to the well-being of the church. It also provides a training ground where younger men, rightly recruited as deacons, may be instructed in their duties. The head deacon is a member of the church board.
Deacons Must Be Ordained
A newly elected deacon cannot fill his office until he has been set apart by an ordained minister who holds current credentials from the conference/mission/field.
The sacred rite of ordination should be simply performed in the presence of the church by an ordained minister, and may consist of a brief reference to the office of deacon, the qualities required of such a servant of the church, and the principal duties he will be authorized to perform for the church. After a short exhortation to faithfulness in service, the minister, assisted by an elder where appropriate, ordains the deacon by prayer and the laying on of hands. If he has been once ordained as deacon, and has maintained his membership, it is not necessary for him to be ordained again even though he has transferred to another church. When the term for which he was elected expires, he must be re-elected if he is to continue to serve as deacon. Should one who has been ordained as elder be elected as deacon of a church, it is not necessary for him to be ordained as deacon; his ordination as elder covers this office.
Deacons Not Authorized to Preside
The deacon is not authorized to preside at any of the ordinances of the church, nor can he perform the marriage ceremony. He may not preside at any of the business meetings of the church, neither may he officiate at the reception or transfer of members. Where a church has no one authorized to perform such duties, the church shall contact the conference/mission/field for assistance.
Duties of Deacons
The work of the deacons involves a wide range of practical services for the church, including:
1. Assistance at Services and Meetings—At church services, the deacons are usually responsible for welcoming members and visitors as they enter the church, and for assisting them, where necessary, to find seats. They also stand ready to cooperate with pastor and elders for the smooth functioning of the meetings conducted in the church.
2. Visitation of Members—An important duty belonging to deacons is that of visiting church members in their homes. In many churches this is arranged by a distribution of membership by districts, assigning a deacon to each district, with the expectation that he will visit each home at least once a quarter.
3. Preparation for Baptismal Services—The deacons should do their part in making the necessary preparations for this service; there should be no confusion or delay.
4. Assistance at the Communion Service—At the celebration of the ordinance of foot-washing, the deacons or deaconesses provide everything that is needed for the service, such as: towels, basins, water (at a comfortable temperature as the occasion may require), buckets, et cetera. After the service they should see that the vessels and linen used are washed and returned to their proper place.
Following the Lord’s Supper, great care should be exercised in disposing of any bread or wine left over after all have partaken of these emblems. Any remaining wine that was blessed is to be respectfully poured out. Any remaining bread that was blessed should be buried, burned, or respectfully disposed of in another appropriate manner but in no event returned to common usage.
5. Care of the Sick and the Poor—Another important responsibility of deacons is the care of the sick, relieving the poor, and aiding the unfortunate. Money should be provided for this work from the church fund for the needy. The treasurer, on recommendation from the church board, will pass over to the deacons or deaconesses whatever may be needed for use in needy cases. This work is the particular charge of the deacons and the deaconesses, but the church is to be kept fully acquainted with the needs, in order to enlist the membership’s support.
6. Care and Maintenance of Church Property—In some churches, where the responsibility for the care and maintenance of the church property is not assigned to a building committee, the deacons have this responsibility.
Role in Brief
The deaconess holds a similar position to a deacon, however no provision is given for their ordination. The duties of a deaconess are very similar to the deacon, with particular emphasis placed on assistance in running services and the care of the sick.
Deaconesses were included in the official staff of the early Christian churches. “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cenchreae, that you may receive her in the Lord as befits the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a helper of many and of myself as well” (Rom. 16:1, 2, RSV).
The deaconess is elected to office, serving for a term of one or two years as determined by the local church. It does not follow that the wife of a man chosen as deacon thereby becomes a deaconess, nor is it incumbent upon a church to choose the wife of a deacon as deaconess because her husband is a deacon. The deaconess is to be chosen from the standpoint of consecration and other qualifications that fit her to discharge the duties of the office. The church may arrange for a suitable service of induction for the deaconess by an ordained minister holding current credentials.
Duties of Deaconesses
Deaconesses serve the church in a wide variety of important activities, including:
1. Assistance at Baptisms—Deaconesses assist at the baptismal services, ensuring that female candidates are cared for both before and after the ceremony. They also give such counsel and help as may be necessary regarding suitable garments for baptism. Robes of suitable material should be provided. Where robes are used, the deaconesses should see that they are laundered and carefully set aside for future use.
2. Arrangements for the Communion Service—The deaconesses assist in the ordinance of foot-washing, giving special aid to women visitors or those who have newly joined the church. It is the duty of the deaconesses to arrange everything needed for this service, such as seeing that the table linen, towels, et cetera, used in the celebration of ordinances are laundered and carefully stored.
The deaconesses make arrangements for the communion table, including: preparing the bread and wine, arranging the ordinance table, pouring the wine, placing the plates of unleavened bread, and covering the table with the linen provided for that purpose. All these matters should be cared for before the service begins.
3. The Care of the Sick and the Poor—Deaconesses are to do their part in caring for the sick, the needy, and the unfortunate,
cooperating with the deacons in this work.
Board of Deaconesses
Where several deaconesses have been elected, a board of deaconesses should be formed, with the head deaconess serving as chairperson and another as secretary. This board is authorized to assign duties to individual deaconesses, and cooperates closely with the board of deacons, especially in welcoming members and visitors and in home visitation.