Who Are Deacons and What Do They Do?

September 20, 2013

“Deacon” is not a translation but a transliteration. A transliteration is when you spell a word of one language in the corresponding letters or characters of another language. The Greek word is “diakonos” (Strong’s number G1249). It is usually translated as servant or minister. The definition in the standard Greek dictionary of the New Testament is: (1) one who serves as an intermediary in a transaction, agent, intermediary, courier, and (2) one who gets something done, at the behest of a superior, assistant.1 A number of groups and individuals are called “diakonos” in the New Testament.

  • Servants of a king: Matt. 22:13
  • Servants at a wedding: John 2:5, 9
  • Governmental rulers: Romans 13:4 (2x)
  • Christ: Romans 15:8, Galatians 2:17
  • Satan’s servants: 2 Corinthians 11:14-15
  • A number of individuals: Paul and Apollos (1 Cor. 3:5), Paul (Eph. 3:6-7, Col. 1:23, 25), Timothy (1 Tim. 4:6), Phoebe (Rom. 16:1), Tychicus (Eph. 6:21, Col. 4:7), and Epaphras (Col. 1:17).
  • Disciples: Matt. 20:25, 23:11, Mark 9:35, 10:43, John 12:26, 2 Cor. 3:6, 11:23.
  • Deacons: Phil. 1:1, 1 Tim. 3:8, 3:10 (verb form), 3:12

It is not unusual for words to have a general use and a technical term use. There is a proper sense that all Christians are servants. Yet, it is also clear that there is a special group of servants in Philippians 1 who are distinguished from the other church members (i.e., the saints) and the overseers. The fact that we have qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:8-13 also indicates a specially appointed group of servants. Not everyone has the qualifications mentioned in this text.

But what do deacons do? The New Testament doesn’t give specifics. The word itself suggests that deacons assist the work of the overseers in some way. They are said to serve (diakoneō, G1247) in 1 Timothy 3:10. Acts 6:1-6 may at least be a case of proto-deacons. The men in this passage are not called deacons. Years later Philip is referred to as “one of the seven” (Acts 21:8). Yet the passage speaks of the “daily ministry” (diakonia, G1248) in Acts 6:1, and the apostles do not want to neglect the preaching of the word of God “to serve tables” (diakoneō, G1247) in Acts 6:2. Certainly to serve tables could refer to serving food at a table, but it could also mean “serve as accountants.”2 The word table is associated with money changers and banking in the ancient world and therefore accounting. Even our English word “bank” comes from the “bench” of the money lender. The seven of this passage are either distributing food or funds.3 At any rate, the seven assisted and served in the work of the church so that the Apostles did not lose the focus of their ministry. It would seem that deacons function in the same way in relationship to overseers.

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1A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Earl Christian Literature (abbreviated as BDAG), p. 230

2BDAG, s.v. trapeza, p. 1013

3Several English translations say in Acts 6:1 “daily distribution of food.” However, the Greek text only has “daily ministry” or “daily service” (cf. the KJV or ASV). I think it is an open question as to whether the Seven were distributing food or money. The bottom line was that they were taking care of widows.

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The Work of Elders

September 13, 2013

We tend to use the word “elders” in referring to our congregation’s leaders. This term (presbuteros in Greek) was used in both Jewish and Gentile environments for religious and civic leaders in the ancient world. Jack P. Lewis notes, “The term ‘elder’ suggests a leadership built on respect and reverence (cf. Lev. 19:32), a reverence that recognizes ability, service, knowledge, example, and seniority.”1

The New Testament uses “elders” interchangeably with two other words: overseer (episkopos) and shepherd (poimēn). Bishop is another word used in English for overseer. Unfortunately, it now has some historical baggage and has come to mean something different from its New Testament usage. Pastor comes into English from Latin and is simply a word meaning shepherd. The nouns “overseer” and “shepherd” also have corresponding verbs that are used in leadership contexts: to overseer (episkopeo) and to shepherd (poimainō).2 The following New Testament passages confirm the idea that these words were used interchangeably to refer to the same group of leaders within the congregation: Acts 20:17, 28, Titus 1:5-7, and 1 Peter 5:1-2.

Oversight. So what do elders do? Both the words “overseers” and “elders” suggest oversight, leadership, and decision making. In 1Timothy 5:17, Paul notes elders “who rule well” (ESV). The Greek verb in this verse (proistēmi) can be defined as “to exercise a position of leadership, rule, direct, be at the head (of).”3 The same verb is used in 1 Timothy 3:5 to speak of a elders’s leadership in his family.

Teaching. One of the qualifications of overseers in 1 Timothy 3 is “able to teach” (3:2). Some may “especially” give attention to “preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17). “Especially” lets us know that the work goes beyond these things, but may include them. In the qualifications given in Titus, there is the need “to give instruction” (Titus 1:9). And shepherds are linked with others in Ephesians 4:11 as equipping the saints for service.

Guarding. The word “overseers” includes the idea of guardians. The image of shepherds also includes the thought of guardians of a flock of sheep. Paul warns the Ephesian elders of dangers coming to the church and urges them to “pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock” and “be alert” (Acts 20:28, 31).

Shepherding. Shepherd is a very personal image. The figure of speech evokes the role of shepherd with his sheep: feeding, protecting, caring for wounds, and searching for the lost sheep.

And finally, we note that elders are “examples to the flock,” the church (1 Peter 5:3).

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1Lewis, Leadership Questions, p. 21

2I’ve given the first person singular form rather than the infinitive, because it is the dictionary form.

3BDAG, p. 870


Learning from the Names of God

September 6, 2013

In a recent reading of Genesis, one of the things that struck me is how we come to know God from the narrative. Names for God are introduced in the context of a story. God’s actions and speeches are a part of a narrative. This is a striking contrast to how we might learn about God in other contexts. The systematic theology will discuss God in abstract definitions. Historically, the catechism will teach about God with the repetition of certain questions and answers. The way that God has chosen to introduce himself is strikingly more personal and more interesting. The sharing of life stories is typically the way we get to know one another. Who doesn’t delight in a story?

Elmer Towns in his book, My Father’s Names, gives an appendix listing 85 names of God in the Old Testament. Primary names are God, Jehovah, and Lord. God (Elohim, El, and Eloah) suggests the mighty creator (Gen. 1:1). Jehovah (or Yahweh) is explained by “I am”—the self-existing one who is faithful to His covenants (see Exodus 3:14-15). Lord or Master (Adonai) reminds us who is in control and to whom do we belong. The remaining names in Town’s list are compound names containing either “God” or “Jehovah” with a further description.

Studying the names of God is one way of getting to know God. Elmer Towns suggests several benefits from such a study. The names of God reveal different attributes of God. We gain insights into God’s character from the names and descriptive titles found in scripture. Secondly, the names suggest the kind of relationships we can have with God. When we hear God called Shepherd and Rock (Genesis 49:24), we are finding out about another’s relationship with God, and it suggests the kind of relationship we too may find. Third, the names of God often reveal that God is the source to meet our needs and solve our problems. As we grasp the meaning of God’s names, we may learn to be dependent upon Him.

Eighty-fives names are beyond what I want to list here, but consider the following list from Genesis.

  • Jehovah, God Most High (Genesis 14:22)
  • My Lord Jehovah (Genesis 15:2)
  • The God who sees (Genesis 16:13)
  • God Almighty (Genesis 17:1, 2) also Mighty One of Jacob (Genesis 49:24)
  • Jehovah-jireh that is Jehovah will provide (Genesis 22:14)
  • The Shepherd, the Rock of Israel (Genesis 49:24)

May our knowledge of God (both intellectual and experiential) grow as we learn from the names of God.