As the Book of Order puts it, “The office of deacon as set forth in Scripture is one of sympathy, witness, and service after the example of Jesus Christ. Persons of spiritual character, honest repute, of exemplary lives, brotherly and sisterly love, warm sympathies, and sound judgment should be chosen for this office” (G-6.0401). It is a ministry of caring; a ministry of love; a ministry of compassion; and a ministry of prayer, and community service (G-6.0402).
Deacons’ hearts go out to those in distress, to members who have suffered loss, to neighbors in the hospital, to prisoners, to friends who have lost their jobs, to new parents who are confused by a wonderful, sudden, and challenging change in the responsibilities of life, to new members who need a word of welcome, to members who are shut-in and lonely and cannot leave their homes, to people in the community who have lost their way and can no longer find God, to those who are economically oppressed and do not have adequate places to live or enough to eat, to any people who need to experience the love of Christ in concrete ways.
Clearly deacons are not the only Presbyterians who provide these ministries of sympathy and caring. All Christians are charged to love their neighbors and care for one another. But the deacons provide an organized way of bringing the love of Jesus Christ to the church and the community. Deacons, by assisting the pastor(s) in pastoral care, by working closely with the session to bring justice to the village, town, or city in which they are located, by taking seriously the admonition to love one another from the heart (1 Pet. 1:22), fulfill the command of Jesus to love one another as I have loved you (John 15:12) in ways for the whole world to experience and see.
After the positions of apostle and elder, the office of deacon was one of the first ones established by the New Testament church.
According to Acts 6 the early Christians faced an enviable problem of church growth. Disciples were increasing in number and the Hellenists (Greek-speaking Christians in contrast to those who came from an Aramaic- or Hebrew-speaking background) complained that their people were being short-changed in a ministry that had been established to distribute food. The twelve disciples of Jesus (by this time Judas Iscariot had been replaced by Matthias, Acts 1:23-26) called a meeting of the church leaders and it was decided that a new group of seven should be chosen to “wait on tables” (diakonein trapezais) so that the others could continue in the work of preaching and praying. It is not a coincidence that all of the first deacons (diakonoi) had Greek names. Obviously it was true already in the first century: if you complain you get the job! The fact that the leader of the initial group of deacons (Stephen) was stoned to death for teaching and preaching demonstrates that initially the start the church had more in mind for them than menial tasks.
It is an interesting phenomenon that the early church decided to give one of its most important groups of church officers a mundane, commonplace name. In the modern world we would no doubt want people to feel important in their new position and give them a dignified title, something like Social Service Provider, Caring Minister, Enabling Coach. But the church chose the title diakonos that, in its most literal sense, means a person who serves food to other people in a home or a restaurant, perhaps even “slave.” Since their duties required them to meet the needs of others, even washing the feet of travelers, it was not always the most enviable of jobs.
Why did the early church choose such a humble title for their new officers? Obviously they took it from the ministry and example of Jesus Christ who taught his disciples that if anyone wants to be first in the Kingdom of God he or she has to be the servant of all (Mark 9:35; see Is. 53 and the concept of the Suffering Servant).
The Board of Deacons might be described most generally as “the caring arm of the church.” Most Americans are incredibly busy and even church members may forget to regard one another with genuine concern and love. It is a regrettable fact that in churches of all sizes, members and friends can be absent from worship without being missed or can go through an illness, a family tragedy, or a financial crisis without getting the comfort and attention they need. At such a times it is often necessary for the deacons to step forward in an organized way to marshal the love and concern of the whole congregation to help members endure pain and tragedy.
In addition to ministering to members who need special pastoral care, and welcoming new members, deacons may also
• lead the congregation in worship and assist with the Lord’s Supper (G-6.0402
• serve as the Stewardship Committee, or as is the case in many congregations in the former PCUS church, function as trustees (G. 6.0406)
• become involved in reporting instances of physical or sexual abuse in the church or the community (G. 6.0402)
• or take on special tasks, as directed by the session.
At the beginning of the 21st century, of course, it is likely that the role of deacons will change as society and the world change at explosive and exponential speeds. Deacons may be called to take on some of the roles as pastors in churches that are suffering from the current economic recession. Or the board may work with the Worship Committee to help the church become wired as new technology is used in worship and parish communication. In many congregations deacons may see the need to advocate for those who are in crisis or suffering injustice (when no one else will stand up for them), work actively for peacemaking when violence is often the most common response to conflict, become primary promoters of environmental justice in a world that faces radical threats to our health and our planet, or become involved in the organization of front line response teams to deal with increasingly common natural and human-caused disasters.
If deacons really are people persons and represent the heart of the church then there is almost no limit to what they might do together in the name of the compassion and justice of Jesus Christ. As those called by him to care for others they are only limited by their own imaginations and the direction given them by the Holy Spirit.
Earl S. Johnson Jr. is the pastor of First Church, Johnstown, N.Y., and adjunct professor of religious studies at Siena College. Portions of this article are taken from his book The Presbyterian Deacon, An Essential Guide (Louisville: Geneva Press, 2003), and are used by permission of Westminster John Knox Press.