New Testament Deacons
The ministry of the deacon has changed as the church and society have changed. In the modern church the deacon has two functions. The first is maintaining the buildings and property of their church. The second is raising money to support their highly paid professional minister. Most of the deacons' work is devoted to raising money. This has made their ministry very unrewarding. In some churches the elders are called deacons. In some churches deacons are priests in training.
The task of deacons in the New Testament was completely different. The Church owned no buildings of their own, but met in the homes of believers. There were no buildings for the deacons to maintain. Secondly there were no highly paid professional ministers. The Churches were led by a group of elders. Most of these supported themselves, so the deacons did not need to worry about supporting them.
The function of the deacons was to care for the poor. They were the social welfare arm of the Church. The record of the appointment of the first deacons is in Acts 6:1-7. Men like Barnabas, when called to a Christian ministry, had sold their property and "brought the money and laid it at the apostles feet". The twelve used this money to provide for those in need. When the number of disciples had increased, some of the Grecian Jews complained because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.
So the twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, "It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and of wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.
This proposal pleased the whole group so they appointed seven men who were full of the Spirit. They presented these men to the apostles who laid hands on them. As a result the word of God spread, and the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly.
These deacons were responsible for the offerings of the Church. They used them to provide for the needs of the poor and the sick. In doing this they were fulfilling the parable of the Good Samaritan. When he found a person in trouble, he took action to meet the immediate need. He then took further action to find a permanent solution, taking responsibility for the cost himself. This is a good pattern for the ministry of a deacon. It is the task that deacons should still be doing. And because they would be working with people, and not money and buildings, it would be a rewarding ministry. When the church goes back to a New Testament structure, as outlined above, the deacons will be able to go back to their true ministry.
Qualifications of Deacons
The qualifications for the selection of deacons are listed in I Timothy 3:8-13. A number of important points are made.
A deacon must be a person who does not pursue dishonest gain. Because they are responsible for the money of the Church, deacons must be trustworthy. They must have proved that they can handle money wisely and responsibly.
A deacon must be able to manage his household. If a man cannot manage his own household, then he will not be able to manage the finances of the Church. The elders should look at the way a person's household is functioning for evidence that he has the ability to do the work of a deacon. But there is another reason why household management is important. The deacon also has a teaching role. He does not just give money to the people who are poor. He also teaches them how to manage their households better, so that in the future they can manage on their own. A deacon could not do this unless he was skilled in managing his own household.
A deacon must also have a clear knowledge of the truths of the faith. This is because he also has an evangelistic ministry. The Christian gospel is always directed to the whole man. If a man is hungry, it is no use preaching the gospel to him, without feeding him. On the other hand it is no use feeding a hungry person, without doing something about his spiritual needs. Deacons have a total ministry to the poor. As they distribute food and clothing, they will also preach the gospel. This is why they must have a good knowledge of the faith. Philip and Stephen are two men who began as deacons and then went on to a successful ministry as evangelists.
The early Church chose deacons who were skilled in working with people. Skill in finance and administration may be useful. They may be good at raising money but that is not essential for the true ministry of a deacon.
Warning and Opportunity
One of the problems faced by deacons in the modern world is that their function has been taken over by the state. However, many social welfare systems will eventually collapse.This will provide an opportunity for deacons to take a leading role in the reformation of society.