Who are the deacons?
In Reformed churches, we find three kinds of special office bearers. The pastor will be well known to you because you normally see him on the pulpit each Sunday. The elders should also be well known because they normally visit each communicant member during the course of the year. They are responsible for the supervision and government of the church. But what about the deacons? You see them collecting the money each Sunday. But what else do they do besides taking the collections? In what sort of circumstances should you call the deacons instead of the pastor or elders? In this brief pamphlet, let’s see what the Bible says about the office of the deacon and its place in our church today.
Old Testament Roots
There were no deacons in the Old Testament, at least not as we know them today. There was no special office of deacon. Instead, God expected all his people to be involved in caring for the poor in their cities and towns. As an example, consider Deuteronomy 15:7-8:
If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs.
Widows, orphans and foreigners were in especially perilous positions in Old Testament times. They could be easily taken advantage of. God gave laws to prevent this from happening. Exodus 22:21-22 Do not mistreat an alien (or foreigner) or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt. Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan…
In short, God’s people were to be deaconal — willing to serve and give for the benefit of others. As part of his perfect obedience, our Lord Jesus fulfilled this ideal for God’s people. In thankfulness for this obedience, God’s new covenant people are still expected to be deaconal.
New Testament Origins
We learn about the origin of the office of deacon in Acts 6. The twelve apostles had become overly burdened with distributing food and some widows were being neglected as a result. As a response to this, the apostles instituted the office of deacon. The apostles would focus on prayer and the ministry of the Word, while the deacons would take care of the daily distribution of food, the deaconal work. This special office arose as a response to a special situation and has stayed with the church since then.
Philippians 1:1 gives us further evidence that the office was officially recognized early in the history of the church. Paul addresses the church at Philippi and “the overseers and deacons.” Elsewhere, Paul gives the prerequisites for Christian officebearers, including deacons (see, for instance, 1 Timothy 3:8-13).
Naturally, the people of God were still expected to be deaconal. Some were especially gifted in this area, including at least one woman whom the Scriptures call a deaconess, namely Phoebe in Romans 16:1. Special officebearers called ‘deacons’ do not take away the responsibility of God’s people to care for one another.
Our Deacons and You
The Scriptures are clear that the deacons are responsible for overseeing and stimulating the charitable life of the congregation. They have to be familiar with the needs and difficulties that exist. They also have to encourage the members of the church to show mercy to those in need. They are responsible for taking the offerings, managing them, and distributing them in Christ’s Name, according to need.
The deacons of our church are here to show the love and mercy of Christ to all in need. This charity begins at home, in our own church community. Perhaps you’ve lost your job. Perhaps your home has encountered some very large and unexpected expenses. Perhaps you or a family member has been afflicted with a long-term illness. Are you wondering about how you can budget your money more effectively? In each of these cases (and many more) you can call your deacons for a visit. There is no shame in asking for the help of the deacons — they represent the loving mercy of Christ for you. If you would not be ashamed to ask Christ for help, why should you be ashamed to ask the deacons for help? The deacons may not necessarily give you money, but they can give you valuable spiritual guidance through the Word. And they can pray with you and for you!
Finally, as with the other office bearers, you can be assured of confidentiality when you meet with the deacons. The elders and pastor, for instance, do not see a list of who is receiving assistance or who the deacons visit. So, if you need help, don’t be shy to ask the deacons. They’re there to serve us as ambassadors of Christ too.