“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.
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.