The Churchly Authority of the Office of Deacon: Part 1 – Acts 6, Elders, and Deacons

The churchly authority of the office of deacon is a specific subset of the authority of the office of elder; it does have a specific kind of authority in the church.

The churchly authority of the office of deacon is a specific subset of the churchly authority of the office of elder. We have now the first piece of the puzzle for us to begin to see how, contrary to many arguments which have tried to evacuate the office of deacon of any sort of authority in the church, the office of deacon does indeed have a specific kind of authority in the church. That authority certainly does not completely overlap with the all the various kinds of authoritative church powers which belong to the office of elders, and it is an authority exercised in submission to the authority of the oversight of elders.



If we are to arrive at any satisfactory conclusions about the question of the ordination of deaconesses and its theological merits it is not sufficient for the discussion to remain at the level of exploring the exegetical ambiguities of two Greek words (γυναῖκας in 1 Timothy 3:11 and διάκονον in Romans 16:1). Certainly, this exegetical data must be studied and incorporated into the larger ecclesiological treatment of the question and there have been many such studies. However, for the church to arrive at any substantive conclusions about the doctrinal question of the office of deaconess something more is requisite than a narrow treatment of these two passages. This is apparent, especially among complementarian strands of the modern Presbyterian tradition.[1] Committed complementarians who wish to affirm the doctrinal soundness of ordaining deaconesses in parity with male deacons invariably must also engage the question of the authority of the office of deacon. In order to maintain an unequivocal complementarianism in their ecclesiology, such proponents must evacuate the office of deacon of the sort of ecclesial authority which would conflict with Paul’s prohibitions in 1 Timothy 2:11-12.[2] The question of the office of deaconess is, after all the exegesis has been conducted, still ecclesiological in character. That is to say, it is a question which finally must enter into the domain of systematic theology. This means then that any consideration of the systematic theological merits of an office of deaconess must be pressed for its interconnections with other features of Presbyterian ecclesiology (i.e. the nature of church office and ordination, the nature of church power and authority, the relationship between church offices, etc.).

As already noted, the conversation has already made some incursions into the synthetic, systematic questions involved in a consideration of deaconesses and the office of deacon. These articles will be an attempt to advance that theological task further, in particular to bring into better light the nature of the churchly authority which has been invested by Christ in the office of deacon. First, in the remainder of this article I will take up the question of the New Testament basis for the diaconate as a perpetual office of the church, in particular whether or not Acts 6:1-6 can be taken as the establishment of this perpetual office and then consider the implications of that establishment as it relates to the office of elder. In the second article, I will consider how the office of deacon functions as a representative organ of the Body of the church. In my third article, I will explore how this representative office exercises its own specific kind of church power, and thus a specific kind of churchly authority. The overall goal then is to set in clear relief the ecclesiological reality that the office of deacon is authoritative in its own unique way, and thus that it is inescapably problematic for Presbyterian complementarians to try to ordain women to this office.

Acts 6 and the Establishment of the Office of Deacon

It may seem unnecessary to dyed-in-the-wool, divine right (jus divinum) Presbyterians to retrace the exegetical and systematic-theological case that the office of deacon is a perpetual office in the church established by the apostles in Acts 6:1-6. However, the current state of the conversation indicates that this seemingly redundant effort is quite mandatory. Strands of the conversation surrounding the deaconate and deaconesses call into question the exegetical case that the deaconate is a distinct church office established by the Apostles in Acts 6:1-6.[3] Consequently, rather than being a sheer redundancy, a case for this needs to be taken up as a task of theological retrieval.

The position that the choosing of the seven men in Acts 6 represents the first establishment of the office of deacon certainly has a pedigree stretching back into the antiquity of the church. Irenaeus held that Stephen was the first deacon chosen by the apostles.[4] But, while ancient historical pedigree is a weighty factor to be considered in theology, it does not of itself establish a doctrine. Precious to the Reformed faith is the conviction that Scripture alone has the ultimate and exclusive power of deciding theological questions. So, an exegetical examination of Acts 6:1-6 is perennially requisite for this question.

One argument that has been marshalled against the episode of Acts 6:1-6 being the origination of the office of deacon is that the word “deacon” is never used to describe the men who are set apart by the laying of hands in the narrative.[5] But taken by itself this argument appears simply to be an instance of the word/concept fallacy. That is to say, just because the word “deacon” is not used in the passage does not, by itself, establish that the concept of the office of deacon is not present in the events of the narrative. Even though the specific Greek noun for “deacon” is never used to describe the men in Acts 6:1-6, other words in the same family as the word for “deacon” are. In Acts 6:1 the daily distribution to the widows is called a “diaconia” (διακονίᾳ). Then in Acts 6:2 the Apostles say they cannot abandon their work of the ministry of the Word in order to “serve tables.” That task of serving in Greek is “diaconein” (διακονεῖν). We should zoom out and note the fact that the “diaconia” word group sometimes has a broad meaning in the New Testament to refer to service in general (hence the debate over Paul’s description of Phoebe in Rom. 16:1), but there are many places where the word group instead has a very specific sense. It seems to be almost a technical term in a certain pattern of usage which refers to ministry to the physical and financial needs of the poor. For example, at the end of Acts 11 prophets foretell a coming famine and in response the disciples in Antioch determine to send relief to the Christians in Judea. The Greek word in Acts 11:29 to describe that financial relief is “diaconian” (διακονίαν).  At the conclusion of Romans 15 Paul talks about a collection which he is taking up in order to alleviate the needs of the poor among the church of Jerusalem. There in Rom. 15:25 he calls that collection of money a “diaconon” (διακονῶν).Other examples could be multiplied but the point should be clear that the word group of the term “diaconia” in the Greek of the NT at times had come to refer specifically and almost technically to the care of the physical and financial needs of the poor.

Such a specific/technical usage of the word appears plainly to be Luke’s intent in Acts 6:1 and Acts 6:2. Consequently the task to which the seven men are appointed by the laying on of hands in Acts 6 is to the “diaconia,” that is the focused care for the physical and financial needs of the poor. So, while the title of “deacon” (diaconos) may not be applied to the seven men who are appointed in Acts 6, versions of the technical term of “diaconia” are used to describe the work they are appointed to oversee and administer. Hence, it is not hard to see the plausibility of why the historic view of Presbyterian church government has appealed to Acts 6:1-6 in order to explicate the church offices Paul references in Phillipians 1:1 and in 1 Timothy 3:8-15. It is natural to assume that the men called “deacons” (diaconos) of whom Paul speaks about as officers in these passages are officers who are called to oversee and administer the official task of “diaconia” which is spoken of in Acts 6 and other places, that is the ordained task of focused care for the physical and financial needs of the poor.

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[1]For an overview of Evangelical Complementarianism see the representative essays in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism(ed. by John Piper and Wayne Grudem; Wheaton, IL: Crossway).

[2]See James B. Hurley, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective,(Grand Rapids: MI: 1981), pgs. 224-233 for an example of this.

[3]For examples see Edmond Clowney, The Church, pg. 213.

[4]Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.12.10

[5]For an example of this see A.F. Walls, “Deacon,” in The New Bible Dictionary,3rded., (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2004), pg. 262.