Ever try to define a word, a word you thought you knew really well, a word you use all the time, only to find yourself dumbstruck? This can be because you know the meaning so well. For instance, try to define “it.” You may stutter, but your usage likely indicates that you undertand “it” perfectly well. I’m afraid that this isn’t the case with the word “deacon.” The word is part of our churchy parlance, but, as Inigo told Vizzini, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what yo think it means.” When a definition is readily offered most often the description better fits an elder. “Whereas the office of overseer is often ignored in the modern church,” writes Benjamin Merkle, “the office of deacon is often misunderstood.”
Why are we so confused? “How Sweet and Aweful is the Place,” may be my favorite hymn. It would be a mistake to understand the meaning of that title according to today’s usage of “aweful.” The word meant awesome, which is yet another word lying on its death bed. “Deacon” suffers a similar malady. We read our modern traditional idea of deacon back into the Bible, instead of reading the Biblical idea into our churches.
“Deacon,” in reference to the office, only occurs three times in the New Testament (there is a fourth instance that I believe should also be translated deacon, but that would require another, and much longer post). It occurs twice in 1 Timothy 3, and if you’re hoping for the their instance to be more illuminating, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons (Philippians 1:1 ESV).” After you survey every explicit mention of deacons in the New Testament you are left with the predicament of knowing that deacons should be, but not what they should do.
But, though the word in reference to the office is only used three times, the noun is used another twenty-nine times in a general sense, most often translated “servant.” For instance, Jesus is said to be a deacon in Romans 15:8. Further, the verb form is used thirty-seven times. Jesus is said to deacon, that is, to serve us in Matthew 20:28. The word originally refers to one who waits tables, and with that our ears perk up when we read Acts 6 in regards to the problem of hellenistic jewish women being neglected in the early church. “And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve [deacon] tables (Acts 6:2 ESV).” The seven chosen to serve the church are never called deacons, but it is what they do, and I believe that the division between the twelve who minister in word and prayer, and the seven who minister to the physical needs of the body, is the same division we see in regards to overseers and deacons.
So what is the distinction between the two offices? What are their respective tasks? Overseers oversee, and deacons deacon. Or, in an attempt to be more clear, yet, at risk of being misunderstood, we could say overseers oversee souls, whereas deacons deacon bodies. The only thing I mean by that language is that overseers look after the souls of their flock, whereas deacons serve the physical needs of the flock. The church needs both offices, and not some conflagration or hybrid of the two. She needs multiple elders, and multiple deacons, and when she has them, the church is a wholesome family, well ordered, well behaved (1 Timothy 3:16, Titus 1:5).