, DEACONESS The term “deacon” is derived from the Greek word diakonos, which is usually translated “servant” or “minister.” Only a few times in the New Testament (Philippians 1:1;
1 Timothy 3:8,1 Timothy 3:12, and, in some translations,
Romans 16:1) is it translated “deacon” and used to denote one holding a church office. The noun form comes from a verb which means “to serve,” probably originally in the sense of waiting on tables. It came to be used to signify a broad range of types of service. In the New Testament, the noun is used to refer to ministers of the gospel (Colossians 1:23), ministers of Christ (1 Timothy 4:6), servants of God (2 Corinthians 6:4), those who follow Jesus (John 12:26), and in many other similar ways.
Philippians 1:1 and
1 Timothy 3:1 clearly indicate that the office of deacon existed in New Testament times, no explicit Bible reference describes the duties of deacons or refers to the origin of the office. In
Philippians 1:1 and in numerous references in early Christian literature outside the New Testament, bishops and/or elders and deacons are mentioned together, with deacons mentioned last. Because of this order, and because of the natural connotations of the word diakonos, most interpreters believe that deacons, from the beginning, served as assistants of the church leaders. Certainly, that was clearly the role of deacons by the second century. Deacons continued to fill an important role in the ministry of the early church, serving the needs of the poor, assisting in baptism and the Lord's Supper, and performing other practical ministerial tasks.
The nature of the qualifications of deacons outlined in
1 Timothy 3:8-13 perhaps indicates the function of deacons in the New Testament period. In most respects, the qualifications of deacons mirror those of the “bishops,” the leaders of the churches. The high standards of morality and character expected of both demonstrates the church's serious regard for the offices and the importance of their functions. The requirements that deacons must have a clear understanding of the faith (1 Timothy 3:9) and that their faithfulness already be proven (1 Timothy 3:10) indicate that their duties consisted of more than menial chores. The exclusion of those who are “doubletongued” (1 Timothy 3:8) may be evidence that the work of the deacons brought them into close contact with the everyday lives of the church members, as would occur in visiting the sick and ministering to the other physical needs of fellow Christians. Such service would both give them greater knowledge of items for gossip and allow them greater opportunity to spread such gossip, thus making it crucial that they should not be prone to talebearing. The requirement that deacons not be greedy may indicate that they were responsible for collecting and distributing church funds.
Whether the deacons' functions extended to leading in worship is not clear. Gifts for teaching, a requirement for “bishops,” are not mentioned in the qualifications for deacons. The connotations of table service in the word diakonos and the centrality of the Lord's Supper in the worship of the early church strongly imply that distributing the elements and, in the early years, serving the agape meal were important functions of deacons.
Many interpreters believe that the account of the choosing of the seven in
Acts 6:1 describes the selection of the first deacons, although the term diakonos is not used in the passage and the term diakonia (“service” or “ministry”) is used only for the work of the twelve. The tasks that the seven performed, however, later seem to be principal functions of deacons. On the other hand, two of the seven, Stephen and Philip, are known to us as prominent preachers and evangelists, roles which may not have been common for deacons. The seven were set apart for their task in a ceremony in which the apostles “laid their hands on them” (Acts 6:6). This ceremony may reflect the origin of later ordination practice. Other than this passage, which may or may not represent usual practice, the New Testament does not mention ordination of deacons.
The list of qualifications in
1 Timothy 3:11 requires that “women” must “likewise” (NAS) be similar in character to the men. Although this remark may refer to the wives of male deacons (KJV, NIV) it probably should be interpreted as a parenthetical reference to female deacons, or deaconesses (NIV footnote; NAS footnote; NRSV footnote).
Romans 16:1 refers to Phebe as a diakonos of the church at Cenchrea. Williams New Testament translates this as deaconess. The NRSV uses “deacon.” Other translations use “servant.” In this verse, Phebe's role as “helper” and Paul's obvious regard for her work seem to support the conclusion that she functioned as a deacon in her church. Deaconesses are mentioned prominently in Christian writings of the first several centuries. They cared for needy fellow believers, visited the sick, and were especially charged with assisting in the baptism of women converts.
Fred A. Grissom