The Diaconate - A Study Guide

READ 1 Timothy 3:8-15


The NT teaches that at the heart of every healthy, sustainable and fruitful church there are two teams - a team of elders and a team of deacons. This two-fold leadership structure means leadership in the church works in plurality (in teams not in one person) and in partnership (elders and deacons working together). The bible describes this partnership like this:

1.        A team of Shepherd leaders (“elders”) lead, oversee, teach and provide pastoral care to the church. Elders focus on the ministry of the word and prayer. They guard the theology, vision, mission and values of a church.

2.       A team Servant leaders (“diaconate”) serve in areas of stewardship, operations and care for the tangible needs of people and of the church as a whole.  Their servant leadership enables the elders to focus on the ministry of the word and prayer.

This study guide provides an overview of the role of deacon in the life of the church.

What is a Deacon?

Even though passages like Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8-15 indicate that deacons played a key leadership role in the early churches, the bible doesn’t anywhere describe exactly what a deacon is or does. How are we know what a deacon is? We have two sources that help provide the answer:

a)       The Word “Deacon” – The word “deacon” was used to describe a servant, an attendant or a table waiter. A deacon is a servant who meets the tangible needs of others.

b)       The Origin of the Role –Acts 6:1-7 describes the origin of what would later be formalized into an official leadership calling/office. The verb from of the word “deacon” is used to describe the ministry need these seven servants were chosen to meet (v2 to wait on tables = diakonen). These servants were chosen by the congregation to meet an important need in the early church community so that the apostles could devote themselves to the ministry of the word and prayer.

From these two sources, we can arrive upon a working definition of a deacon: What is a deacon? A deacon is a servant called by God to ensure that the personal and operational needs of a church are identified and met.

Why Do We Need Deacons?

Acts 6 also shows us why every church needs deacons. As a church grows (this church grew to 5000 people!), personal and operational needs in a church increase. As a church grows, the need for leadership oversight and the individual and corporate ministry of word/prayer also increase. When these needs increase and outpace leadership capacity, people’s needs will be overlooked. This is what happened in Acts 6. When these Greek speaking widows were overlooked, it eventually was expressed as a complaint. This conflict had the potential to weaken the church and cause disunity. Instead, because the church took these needs seriously and these seven leaders were chosen to serve, the church was strengthened and grew.

Deacons serve the health and mission of the church as those a church community trusts to bring their needs and as those who are gifted by God with a particular ability to see and meet needs so that needs in a church are not overlooked.  A diaconate helps us be the church by activating living faith and practical love in the body so we all see and meet one another’s needs (see 1 John 3:17 and James 2:15-17).

Who is a Deacon?

1 Timothy 3:8-15 describes the qualifications of deacons. Notice that the qualifications are all about character. There’s nothing here about accomplishments, titles or natural abilities and skills. What kind of character is needed? We could summarize it like this: A deacon is the kind of person you can trust to care for the important (sometimes sensitive) personal and operational needs in the church.

This text tells us we should be looking at qualified men and qualified women when it comes to diaconal ministry. 1 Tim 3:8 speaks of male deacons and 3:11 speaks of “women” or “wives” – the word can be translated either way. When it comes to women’s role in the diaconate, there are two main options based on our understanding of this text. 1 Tim 3:11 is either speaking about the wives of deacons or it is speaking of women who served alongside the male deacons in some way. Is it describing a servant-leadership role that is shared by a husband and wife (qualified couples), or a servant-leadership role that is carried out by men and women in partnership (qualified men and women – who are not married to each other)? Let’s look at the arguments on either side:

1) In favor of “women”

  • The parallel structure of the descriptions (use of the word “likewise” for deacons and “women”) indicates a similar position and role.

  • There is no possessive pronoun – it doesn’t say “their wives”, so this would lead us to translate the word in its more general sense – “women”.

  • There is no parallel  set of qualifications for elders wives.

  • The requirements closely match the qualifications of deacons which indicate they were active in the work, not simply married to a deacon.

  • In addition to 1 Tim 3, Rom 16:1 – Paul mentions a prominent woman named Phoebe whom he calls a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. 

2) In favor of “wives”

  • Paul returns right back to speaking of male deacons in v12 (husband of one wife), so his remarks on these women are a part of one train of thought.

  • The nature of diaconal ministry would call for wives to come alongside their husbands.

  • Pheobe might not be an official deacon but a very active, important “servant”, ie a leader but not with office/position.

Historically, churches have landed on both sides of this discussion and churches have varied in how to involve women in diaconate ministry. Our denomination allows for two interpretations of this text – it is either referring to the wives of deacons or assistants to the diaconate (non-ordained deaconesses). At Trinity, deaconesses will be appointed servant-leaders who will serve alongside the ordained deacons to assist in ensuring that the personal and operational needs of our church are met.

How to Deacon

The biggest and most difficult obstacle to a people’s needs being met by others and the biggest obstacle to a church’s needs being met is the selfishness of the human heart. How can this be overcome in one person – let alone in an entire church community?! The only answer is the gospel. When Jesus’ disciples debated which of them deserved leadership positions in Jesus’ coming kingdom, he said this: 25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant (deacon)27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served (deaconed), but to serve (deacon), and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

We can only deacon with joy and for the good of others to the extent we understand how Jesus “deacon-ed” us first. The gospel is God Himself saying to us in Christ, “I came to serve you whatever it takes, whatever the cost. I will pay the price (the ransom) so your greatest need is met.” This is what makes the God of the Bible vastly different from any other thing we can serve. Every other thing we serve says , “You serve me enough; you do what I say; you obey me, you give me your allegiance, time and effort and then I will give you what you want from me.” But this doesn’t cure selfishness, it only fuels it! It only leads to bitterness/entitlement (if we think we are serving enough) or burnout (when we can’t serve anymore).

Jesus melts our selfishness by the power of his serving love for us. This is the great benefit of those who deacon others in his strength – they gain greater standing and assurance in the gospel as they learn to serve (1 Tim. 3:15).

Discussion Questions

  • What about the sermon/study guide most impacted you? What left you with questions?

  • What is the difference between the role of elder and deacon? Why do you think both are needed for a healthy and sustainable church?

  • Read the definition of a deacon above. Why do you think God has created a role like this and given it to the church?

  • Is the role of deacon something new to you? Have you seen a diaconate functioning in a church in the way defined in the study guide? If so, how did the diaconate help build a healthier and stronger church?

  • In the sermon, it was said that in OC, we struggle to make our needs known and we often don’t see or ignore needs because our lives are so full, busy, and fast-paced. Do agree with this? How does it ring true in your life? How might deacons help a church address this

  • Based on your understanding of the Bible, how important is it that a church be committed to seeing and meeting needs? Why? How would you respond to the idea that churches should give priority to the spiritual needs over physical, tangible needs? How might Acts 6:1-7 help answer these questions.

  • When it comes to the call to “deacon” for every Christian, what is the hardest part for you in taking the role of a “table servant” in your relationships?

  • How does this gospel keep us from becoming bitter in service or burnt-out in service? How do we know the difference between service and unhealthy boundaries and limits?  

  • Please pray for Trinity as we trust God to raise up deacons and deaconesses to provide servant-leadership.