What is a Deacon?
The scripture uses the word in a variety of ways. So do PCA congregations.
Editorial Note: This was originally published on the Presbyterian Polity blog.
Modernism was characterized by a quest for objectivity and certainty, but it failed to deliver. Post-Modernism arose in response and questions all objectivity and certainty. Post Modernism thrives in the society of our exile.
Perhaps nowhere is the impact of Post-Modernism more glaring than in language.
Language is hard. The meanings of words evolve over time. For example, four centuries ago a “stew” was a reference to a bathhouse or brothel. Today a “stew” is a thick soup that is especially popular in colder months. But you can see the relationship between the archaic meaning and the current understanding of “stew.”
However, in our Post-Modern day the meaning of words has become almost completely fluid. Consider this somewhat absurd example in the meaning of the word literally as it is currently understood according to Oxford Languages:
“in a literal manner or sense; exactly.”
“used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true.”
So what does literally mean? I literally don’t know.
There seems to be similar trouble over the meaning of the word deacon in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).
I. Deacon in Scripture
The word deacon (and its feminine, deaconess) simply means servant. I am not going to do an exhaustive study of the word here; that has been done by others elsewhere. Nonetheless, a brief survey will help set the context.
It is used of Nero by Paul in Romans 13:4:
for he is God’s deacon (διάκονός; diakonos) for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
Later in Romans, the Apostle Paul uses the same word to describe the woman who apparently carried Paul’s epistle to the church at Rome:
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon (διάκονον; diakonon) of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well. (Rom. 16:1–2)
So it seems in Romans the word deacon does not have at technical, official sense (i.e. referring to a church office), but is used to describe both men and women who serve, whether in government or the church.
B. The Acts of the Apostles
Acts 6 is generally understood by Reformed Christians to explain the origin of the office of deacon by Christ through His apostles. Although the noun often translated deacon does not actually occur there, the verb form is used to describe the work the apostles and elders will not do, but to which ministry they will set apart seven men elected by the 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 (διακονεῖν; diakonein) tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. (Acts 6:2–3)
Interestingly, a noun form of the verb translated serve in verse two is used in verse four to refer to the ministry of the apostles and elders:
But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry (διακονίᾳ; diakonia) of the word.”
The words appearing in Acts related to what is elsewhere translated deacon don’t seem to have taken on a technical or official sense.
C. First Timothy
Upon concluding the qualifications for elders/overseers, Paul immediately says, “Deacons (Διακόνους; Diakonous) likewise…” indicating there is similarity between the men called as elders and those called as deacons. Presbyterians have historically understood this similarity to be in that Paul is describing the two types of church officers: elders and deacons.
In contrast to the other uses of the word deacon, in this Pastoral Epistle, Paul seems to use the word in a technical sense to refer to an official group of men.
II. Deacon in Church History
From ancient times, churches have recognized the office of deacon, but understood it in various ways. My uncle by marriage - for example - is pursuing ordination as a Roman Catholic deacon. In that office he will be able to perform many priestly functions, but not all.
Other faith communions likewise consider the deacon to be a lesser priest. Methodism originally viewed deacons as an order of ordination prior to becoming an elder.
In some Lutheran traditions, the deacon is an ordained person who encourages those in need bodily and spiritually. Similarly, the Reformed have understood the diaconate to be an office not leading up to the eldership, but one with a distinct calling, a distinct gifting, and distinct graces that is focused on “sympathy and service.”
III. Confusion in the PCA
Given the wide variety of the uses for the word deacon in the Scripture and the range of translations, it is understandable there may be some confusion in the PCA regarding what a deacon is.
In some PCA congregations a deacon is an ordained man called and elected to an office of “sympathy and service.” But in other PCA congregations, a deacon is an unordained man or woman serving in that role.
For example one PCA congregation explains it this way:
“…All of our deacons are appointed and installed by the Session. The following men and women are currently serving in these roles…”
Other churches do it still differently; the host of the PCA’s most significant podcast, Brad Isbell, noted how Timothy Keller described the process of “commissioning” deacons at Redeemer New York some years ago.
Given the various ways the Scripture uses deacon, it might not be surprising that PCA congregations view that role differently. In some congregations a deacon is a church officer (cf. First Timothy), but in others a deacon is simply someone who serves (cf. Romans).
IV. Clarity in the PCA
Confusion regarding what a deacon is would be understandable except that our constitutional standards define deacon clearly. The deacon is a church officer and therefore subject to the qualifications of church office:
BCO 9-1 The office of deacon is set forth in the Scriptures as ordinary and perpetual in the Church…
The office of deacon is open to men only:
BCO 9-3 To the office of deacon, which is spiritual in nature, shall be chosen men…
The ordained office of deacon is a divine calling, and ordination is a recognition of God’s calling on those men:
BCO 16-3: Upon those whom God calls to bear office in His Church He bestows suitable gifts for the discharge of their various duties…every candidate for office is to be approved by the court by which he is to be ordained.
Those who are called and elected by the congregation to be deacons must be ordained, not merely commissioned or appointed:
BCO 17-1: Those who have been called to office in the Church are to be inducted by the ordination of a court.
The BCO recognizes deacons are often assisted by godly women and men in their work, but these people are not deacons, are not church officers, and are not necessarily elected by the congregation:
BCO 9-7: It is often expedient that the Session of a church should select and appoint godly men and women of the congregation to assist the deacons...These assistants to the deacons are not officers of the church and, as such, are not subjects for ordination.
Our church standards are clear on the following about what a deacon is and is not:
Deacons are elected (chosen) by the congregation.
A Deacon is a church officer.
Church officers may only be men.
Church officers are to be ordained.
A person who is not an officer of the church, not elected by the congregation, and/or not ordained is not a deacon in the PCA, but may assist the deacons.
While language is difficult in the postmodern age, we must be precise and careful about the words we use in the Church. We are Christians, and not only believe words have power, but we have experienced the power of the Word. We must not yield to the fluid definitions so common in a relativistic society.
While the use of the word deacon is somewhat varied in Scripture and Church history, our constitutional Standards define that word for use within the bounds PCA. Why then is it the word is used in such diverse and contradictory ways by PCA congregations?
If some Sessions disagree with the PCA Constitution on this point for biblical reasons, then they should work within the church courts to change her Constitution.
But for now, and until all church courts abide by our Constitution on this matter, we will be left without an answer to the question with which we began: In the PCA, what is a deacon? Maybe I’ll just ask my wife.