What should I look for in a potential deacon?
Similar the office of elder, the office of deacon is one part of the structure that Christ gave his church (Phil 1:1). Those nominated to the office must embody the character of a deacon and must also have certain gifts or competencies that will be necessary for the duties of the office.
In the book of Acts, Luke records an interesting incident in the life of the early church. The apostles were hindered in their work of preaching the gospel by the physical needs of the body, in this case caring for widows. Obviously, it was imperative that the widows have food, but the apostles saw this work of service as a distraction from the work that God had called them to be about. Their solution was to set apart certain men to “serve tables.” The English word “deacon” is a derived from this original Greek word meaning “to serve tables.” One might think that the apostles could have selected any able-bodied person for this duty, but instead the apostles asked the congregation to select only “…men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom…” This event in Acts 6 is the foundation for the office of deacon. Therefore, candidates for this office must embody these characteristics. Similarly, the Apostle Paul says:
Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.
In other words, Deacons are thoroughly Spiritual men. They are honorable, wise, good leaders, and most importantly they are those men who exemplify the compassion of Christ in the sacrificial giving of themselves for others (Mark 10:45, the word serve in this verse is the word for deacon).
A side-by-side comparison of the character prerequisites for the offices of elder and deacon reveals a large degree of overlap. Yet, experience shows that most who occupy one office would not serve well in the other. Why? Each office requires unique gifts and abilities and it is unusual that one individual have the giftedness for both.
- A deacon must be a servant. At its core, the office of deacon is intended to be one of service. Deacons are “go-to men” who are willing to help at the drop of a hat. They usually work behind the scenes and receive little recognition (often they would feel uncomfortable with such recognition). They organize and lead the church in serving others and have an ability to proactively sense needs before they become apparent to most. A deacon must recognize and delight in the fact that his office is one of supporting the ministry of the word and of the session. He gives himself to tasks that are often menial because he recognizes that in doing so he is part of a team. His role on that team is to serve the needs of the body and to take care of thousands of other details so that others might give themselves more fully to the preaching of the word and prayer.
- An deacon must be a theologian. Some wrongly assume that because the deacon works primarily with practical matters he no longer needs to be one who deeply understands the teaching of the Bible. Instead, Paul says that a deacon “must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.” Yes, the deacon’s work is concrete, but it is also spiritual. As the deacon serves and leads the body in service, he exemplifies a savior who donned the towel of a servant and washed the feet of his disciples. The deacon’s work is a visible manifestation of the gospel so a deacon must hold firmly to the truth or the gospel and have the ability to explain it to others (though he might not be gifted as a teacher). Moreover, a deacon must thoroughly understand the Bible’s teaching on the nature of the church and its mission so that he can apply these concepts in difficult situations.
- A deacon must be street-smart, creative, and persistent.
- Street-smart: Deacons regularly help others balance their check book. They are called to evaluate the claims of others and discern whether they are truly in need (1 Tim 5:3). They get to the bottom of problems quickly and know how to get a job done.
- Creative: Deacons are frequently called to solve problems with no obvious solution: How can I get a free car for a needy person? What will it take to impart necessary skills for a better life to this person? Where can this person work? How can I mobilize a complacent people to love others as themselves, etc.
- Persistent: A deacon must not be one who is easily discouraged. The work of the deacon will often be met with road-blocks and difficulty, but he is one who makes a way where there is none and stays with a task until it is complete.