Three Roles of Deacons
As I understand, the way deacons are described in the New Testament and the way they operate is that they are exemplary servants who function on behalf of a congregation to assist the elders by doing at least three things. They assist by spotting and meeting tangible needs, by protecting and promoting church unity, and by serving and supporting the ministry of the word. And each of those is vital.
Often when we think about diaconal ministry, we sometimes only think about the first of those: spotting and meeting tangible needs. And diaconal ministry is certainly not less than that. It’s not less than say, mercy ministry, but it is considerably more. And so it’s important for us to think even beyond that. And notice I didn’t just say “meet tangible needs.” I said “spot and meet tangible needs” because the best deacons don’t just react to present problems. They also anticipate future ones. They see issues in the life of the church that might threaten church unity, for example, and they rise up. They stand in the gap to meet that need.
And that leads to the second thing deacons do. They’re not just spotting and meeting tangible needs, but protecting and promoting church unity. In fact, this is probably the most overlooked role of a deacon—protecting and promoting church unity in the life of a church.
Just think about how the seven in Acts 6 who were raised up to solve the problem of the Hellenistic widows being overlooked in the daily food distribution. Just think about how that was not a mere culinary problem. It had to do with food distribution, but it wasn’t just about food. Food was the occasion, but the problem was far deeper and far more sinister. The problem was a sudden and satanic threat to church unity—to the very unity for which Jesus prayed and bled and died.
The best deacons don’t just spot and meet tangible needs, but they also have a fine-tuned conflict radar.
And it’s these protodeacons—forerunners to deacons—who were raised up to stand in the gap and to come up with a creative solution to promote the harmony of the whole congregation. And so the best deacons don’t just spot and meet tangible needs, but they also have a fine-tuned conflict radar. A good deacon is the place where gossip and conflict go to die in the church—a shock absorber, which means they’re the kind of person where they’re not making shockwaves in the church reverberate further. They’re muffling shockwaves in order to promote a compelling unity, not only within the congregation but to the watching world.
So spot and meet tangible needs, protect and promote church unity, and serve and support the ministry of the word. We see that also in a passage like Acts 6, where the deacons are raised up to serve tables so that the elders—or in in that case, the apostles as forerunners to elders—are serving the word.
And so that’s why a deacon is an assistant to the elder. There’s a sense in which deacons serve at the pleasure of the elders insofar as the elders are serving at the pleasure of King Jesus. So anything that is threatening to distract or derail elders from their primary mission of the word among the congregation is fair game for diaconal work. Show me a church with distracted leaders or a derailed mission, and I’ll show you a church without effective deacons.
Matt Smethurst is the author of Deacons: How they Serve and Strengthen the Church.
Deaconing is not for the faint of heart. Much of it is thankless: grunt work, not stage work.
The ministry of the deacons is an extension of the ministry of the elders to care for the flock of God.
Deacons are not the church’s spiritual council of directors, nor the executive board to whom the pastor-CEO answers. They are a cavalry of servants.
Matt Smethurst discusses the important role that deacons should play in the life of the local church.