Deacons in the New Testament: Questions and Answers from the Elders of Christ Fellowship of Kansas City

Deacons in the New Testament: Questions and Answers from the Elders of Christ Fellowship of Kansas City

The office of deacon has been subject to a wide variety of practices and interpretations, even among biblically minded Christians. Much of this variance stems from the fact that few New Testament passages mention the office, let alone explain its function. Yet the biblical information we do have indicates that deacons are a vital aspect of “how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15 ESV). This document outlines, in question and answer form, Christ Fellowship’s understanding of the role and office of deacon, as summarized in the following sentence: Deacons are qualified, tested, and authorized men who serve the church as officers by performing tasks assigned by the elders.[1]

1. What does the word “deacon” mean?

The word “deacon” (diakonos) and its related terms “to deacon” (diakoneo) and “deacon-ship” (diakonia) occur more than 90 times in the New Testament. These words are most commonly translated “servant” (“to serve,” “service”) and “minister” (“to minister,” “ministry”). One New Testament scholar has observed in this word group four categories of usage: table attendant, domestic attendant, emissary, or agent (Agan 2008). Another scholar uses the term “assistant” to translate key aspects of the meaning (Strauch 2017, 52-64). Among the 90+ usages of the diakon- word group, only a few refer to the specific church office, and these are transliterated in our English Bibles as “deacon.” Both the original meaning of the word “deacon” and the specific passages referring to the office shape our understanding of who deacons are and what they do.

2. Where does the office of deacon appear in the New Testament?

The only texts that specifically mention deacons in the sense of recognized church officers are Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8-13.

3. Are “the seven” in Acts 6 deacons?

“The seven” (Acts 21:8) are not specifically called deacons. They do “deacon tables” so that the apostles may devote themselves to the “deaconship” of the word. Thus, both the seven and the apostles are engaged in “deaconing” but with different goals. While some consider the seven to be prototypical deacons, they are nowhere specifically called deacons.

4. Does Acts 6 have any bearing on the New Testament teaching about deacons?

Perhaps. Given that the deacons of 1 Timothy 3 have a similar function to the seven in Acts 6 (i.e., assisting the established leaders of the church), it is possible that this historical situation serves as background to Paul’s instruction in 1 Timothy 3. On the other hand, there are evident differences in the situations (for example, Acts 6 is about Apostles, not elders), and Paul does not reference the example of Acts 6 in his instruction in 1 Timothy 3.

5. Are deacons church officers?

Yes. We understand deacons to be formally recognized church officers because the Philippian deacons are addressed alongside the elders in Philippians 1:1. Also, in 1 Timothy 3, Paul gives instructions regarding deacons in a form similar to those concerning elders.

6. Who is qualified to be a deacon?

Only those who meet the character qualities listed in 1 Timothy 3:8-12 may be appointed as deacons. With the notable exception of “able to teach,” these qualities parallel that of an elder from 1 Timothy 3:1-7. Deacons must be “dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain” (v. 8). They also must “hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience” (v. 9), meaning that they understand and live according to the gospel (cf. v. 16). Also, deacons each must be “the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well” (v. 12). There are also requirements for their wives,[2] who “must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things” (v. 11).[3] Those men who have these characteristics, and desire to serve as deacons, are qualified for the office of deacon.

7. How should deacons be appointed?

Deacon candidates may be identified by either the church membership or leadership. In either case, potential deacons are to be examined: “And let them be tested first, and then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless” (1 Timothy 3:10). This testing may be a formal period of observation, or it may simply include examination of prior service and character. After deacon candidates have proven themselves through testing, they should be formally recognized before the church. This public recognition demonstrates that a deacon has been given the authority to execute his tasks and will guard against accusations. While Acts 6 may provide an example of how deacons can be selected, it should not be taken as prescriptive.

8. What do deacons do?

The New Testament does not specifically define the tasks that deacons should perform. However, the following principles can be derived from the texts concerning deacons:

Deacons perform tasks assigned by another. The meaning of the word “deacon” (“minister”/“servant”) implies that they carry out tasks that are assigned by another. Taken alongside the meaning of the word “overseer” from earlier in 1 Timothy 3, we infer that the “servants” of God’s house perform the tasks assigned by the “overseers,” who are charged with the leadership of the church (Strauch 2017, 56-58). The service is done for the church and directed by the overseers.

Deacons perform tasks requiring character, testing, and recognition. Because much of the New Testament teaching on deacons deals with the character requirements of the office, deacons should be assigned tasks requiring maturity and wisdom which would be inappropriate to assign to a novice believer. Similarly, because the New Testament makes clear that deacons are to be tested and then publicly recognized, it follows that deacons should be entrusted with responsibilities which, if mishandled, would bring reproach upon Christ and his church. In Acts 6, when faced with accusations of neglect and favoritism within the Jerusalem church, the apostles directed the disciples to choose “seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” for the daily distribution. The tasks of deacons should be those requiring a qualified, tested, and authorized servant.

Deacons perform tasks that assist the elders in the care of the church. Deacons may relieve the elders of practical tasks so that they can devote themselves to their shepherding responsibilities. In this sense, they may function similarly to the seven in Acts 6. Or, deacons may assist in teaching and managing under the elders’ supervision to extend their ministry. Though some hold that the absence of “able to teach” in 1 Timothy 3:8-13 indicates that a deacon’s role should not include teaching, it is more likely that the absence of that phrase leaves the door open for any assistance the elders may need.

9. What are some examples of tasks that may be assigned to deacons?

Deacons may assist the elders by handling the church’s finances, instructing the church in an elder’s place, coordinating the church’s care for orphans and widows, leading church meetings, or communicating to the church body or other churches on behalf of the elders. The elders will assign deacons tasks according to their gifts, desires, and the needs of the church.

10. Why are deacons recognized as church officers if all Christians should serve in the body?

All believers are to serve one another and use their gifts to build up the body. However, because some tasks require proven character, demonstrated experience, and authorization, the church is to recognize some servants in this specific office. The church needs to know that these duties are entrusted to trustworthy and tested individuals.

11. Should all churches have deacons?

The leadership priority in a local church is to appoint qualified elders (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). Given that deacons are only mentioned in the context of the Philippian and Ephesian churches (and possibly the Jerusalem church), it is hard to make the case that every church must have deacons. However, Paul’s instruction in 1 Timothy 3 indicates that churches should aspire to appoint deacons for the following reasons. First, Paul writes so that Timothy may know “how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:14-15). Deacons are a normal part of God’s design for healthy churches. Second, “those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 3:13). Blessing comes to the deacon(s) when this office is faithfully executed. Third, there is a benefit to the elders: the assistance of deacons allows elders to focus on other aspects of ministry more directly related to their calling and to extend their work through qualified men.

12. Are deacons appointed indefinitely, for the duration of a task, or for some other period of time?

Because deacons are appointed church officers, and because we do not see specific tasks assigned to them in the New Testament (with the possible exception of Acts 6), it seems better to consider them as appointed to a standing office that is not linked to a specific task, and which therefore does not dissolve upon its completion. Similar to elders, deacons serve as long as they desire to do so and remain qualified. Even if a specific task a deacon has been carrying out is no longer needed, other tasks will likely arise. Deacons stand ready to assist the elders in those tasks that need to be entrusted to qualified, tested, and authorized servants.

13. Should deacons receive titles specific to their task?

While deacons may be appointed to fulfill a primary task, they may be called upon to assist the elders in various ways according to their abilities. Therefore, deacons should not be considered as the “deacon of finances,” or given other such titles. Additionally, there is no indication that the New Testament churches gave task-specific titles to deacons.

14. How does the office of deacon relate to that of an elder?

Deacons are formally recognized servants of a church who perform tasks assigned by the elders. The general meanings of the Greek words used for the offices of overseer (episkopos) and deacon (diakonos, meaning “servant”) indicate that the former has authority over the latter. When these words are used in sequence in 1 Timothy 3, there is an implied relationship: the servants carry out the tasks assigned by the overseers (Strauch 2017, 56-58). Because of this, deacons are under the authority of the elders, and not under the direct authority of the entire church. This also affirms that the oversight of a church is the burden of the elders, not the deacons.

15. How should elders and deacons work together within a local church?

Elders and deacons should communicate regularly about the deacons’ assigned tasks. Since the deacons remain under the direction of the elders, the deacons as a whole are not an independent decision-making body, yet may make decisions within the scope of their assigned tasks. Deacons may also fulfill a task primarily under the direction of a single elder, but their ministry is determined by the elders as a group. Whether deacons meet as a whole group, or individually serve under specific elders, or function according to any other pattern, is the prerogative of the elders as they consider what is most effective. Depending on the needs of the church and the responsibilities given, deacons may be asked to participate in elders’ meetings as the elders determine is most helpful and practical.

16. Are deacons expected to become elders?

Some deacons may eventually be appointed as elders, but this is neither a requirement nor an expectation of the role. These are distinct offices with different functions. A deacon may aspire to the office of overseer similar to any other man in a church. Due to the many overlapping qualifications, it is possible that some deacons will at another time serve as elders. For example, a deacon may be developing his teaching gift and eventually be appointed to serve as an elder. Others will serve as deacons for their entire ministry. This could be because the church has no present need for additional elders, the deacon lacks certain pastoral skills, or he does not wish to serve as an elder. Thus it is possible that the office of deacon may precede that of overseer for some men, but the office itself is not to be viewed as a stepping-stone or prerequisite to becoming an elder.

17. For what causes may a deacon be removed from office?

Similar to elders, deacons serve as long as they desire to do so and remain qualified. A deacon may remove himself from office for personal reasons at any time. A deacon who otherwise wishes to remain in office may also be removed because he is unable to fulfill his tasks due to such things as age-related problems, long-term illness, mental issues, difficulties within his family, increase of work pressures or travel requirements. In some cases, a conflicting philosophy of church life or service may be of a type or degree that makes his ministry incompatible and therefore unworkable. It may also be necessary to remove a deacon due to sinful behavior.

18. How are deacons removed?

For any reason of removal, personal or otherwise, a deacon must be in contact with the elders first of all and therefore guided to do what is best for the church and for the deacon and his family. If removal is for non-sinful reasons, the elders will talk through the issues involved with the deacon and lead the church and the deacon to complete the removal process and reassign tasks as necessary. If appropriate, the elders should lead the church to commend the deacon who has completed faithful service.

Any questions arising from the members of the church surrounding a deacon’s qualifications should only be admitted by the elders on the basis of multiple witnesses (cf. 1 Timothy 5:19). On the occasion of disqualification because of sin, the church’s disciplinary procedures should be put into operation. Removal from office may be, in part or whole, an act of discipline for sinful behavior, even if the sin is repented of. [4]

19. May women be deacons?

This question is debated by conservative Bible scholars. The main interpretive questions are the meaning of gune in 1 Timothy 3:11, and the meaning of diakonos when used of Phoebe in Romans 16:1. In 1 Timothy 3:11, the word gune has no article, and thus can be translated as “wives” (i.e., the wives of deacons) or “women” (i.e., female deacons or deaconesses). This debate must ultimately be decided by analyzing 1 Timothy 3:8-13, the only text where women are unarguably mentioned in the context of official deacon appointment.[5]

In 1 Timothy 3:8-13, Paul begins with “likewise” to indicate that he is changing categories. He has listed the qualifications for elders (vv. 1-7) and will now list the qualifications for deacons. He lists most of those qualifications in verses 8-10. Then in verse 11 he uses the word “likewise” to once again change categories, temporarily shifting his focus from deacons to their wives. He does this for the purpose of adding a qualification for a married deacon: a godly wife. In verse 12 he lists a final qualification, specifying that “deacons must each be the husband of one wife.” Here Paul uses the same Greek word he used in verse 11 (gune), obviously meaning “wife.” Because verse 12 can only apply to men and seems to apply to all deacons, it solidifies the view that verse 11 is a reference to deacons’ wives and not to women serving as deacons. Verse 13 then sums up the passage, listing important benefits for deacons who serve well.[6]

Consider that Timothy would have read this letter with some existing knowledge of Paul’s position on women deacons. If he knew that Paul did not permit women to serve as deacons, nothing here would serve to reverse that position. If he somehow previously knew that Paul permitted women to serve as deacons (although such is not taught elsewhere in Scripture), he would naturally have understood diakonos in verse 8 as referring to all deacons, including women.[7] Since the qualifications for all deacons had already been given in verses 8-10, he would logically have understood verse 11 as introducing something new, since the restating of qualifications for women deacons would have seemed strangely redundant. Even if Timothy knew nothing previously of Paul’s position on this subject, he could not have been clearly informed by the insertion of verse 11. The verse simply lists the qualifications pertaining to a new category, using a word that can be understood in two ways, and set in a context where everything else appears to point to deacons being men and gune meaning “wives.” Paul uses the same debated word in the next verse to refer unambiguously to a wife. Therefore, regardless of Paul’s actual position on women serving as deacons, Timothy would most naturally have perceived verse 11 as explaining that a married (male) deacon must also have a godly wife.

We respect those who hold a different view, but we feel strongly that the biblical evidence directs us toward limiting the office of deacon to men. We remain open to changing our position on this issue if we receive more clarity in the future. We would also emphasize that limiting the office of deacon to men in no way negates the important role that women have serving in the church.


[1] The terms “elder,” “pastor,” and “overseer” are synonymous in the New Testament. See Acts 20:17,28; 1 Peter 5:1-3.

[2] For a full discussion of our reasoning for preferring deacons’ wives to female deacons or deaconesses, see #19.

[3] It is often asked why Paul would list qualifications for deacons’ wives, but not elders’ wives. We cannot know for sure, but it is possible that Paul felt that the need for a married elder to have a godly wife was so obvious that it did not need to be stated. It is also possible that in 3:11 he is referring to all wives of church officers, elders and deacons. In any case, these qualifications for a deacon’s wife are possibly given to demonstrate that the deacon is leading his wife well, and/or because she may assist him directly in fulfilling his responsibilities as a deacon.

[4] For one possible removal process, see: Appointment and Removal of Deacons

[5] In Romans 16:1 Paul introduces a woman named Phoebe using the word diakonos, but the verse is inconclusive as to whether Paul was referring to her as a deacon in the official sense, or as a servant of the church in a more generic sense.

[6] Other interpreters read verse 11 as Paul’s insertion of the qualification for women who serve as deacons, with verses 8-10 and verse 12 referring specifically to male deacons, and then verse 13 including all deacons who serve well, whether male or female.

[7] Consider Paul’s use of the word diakonos in Philippians 1:1, where he uses the word to greet all the deacons at Philippi without reference to gender.


Agan, Clarence DeWitt “Jimmy”. 2008. “Deacons, Deaconnesses, and Denominational Discussions: Romans 16:1 as a Test Case.” Presybterion (Covenant Theological Seminary) 34 (2): 93-108.

Christ Fellowship of KC. 2006. Removal of an Elder.

Elliff, Benjamin. 2018. Burrus the Deacon and the Meaning of Diakonia in the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch. Accessed November 12, 2019.

Strauch, Alexander. 2017. Paul’s Vision for the Deacons: Assisting the Elders with the Care of God’s Church. Littleton, CO: Lewis and Roth Publishers.

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