Published: 29 August 2022

What Are Deacons And What Do They Do?


Deacons are servants. The word deacon is a transliteration of the New Testament Greek word diakonos. A transliterated word isn’t the same as a translated word. Translators “borrow” transliterated words from the source language and spell them with roughly equivalent letters in the target language. When the word diakonos appears in the New Testament it is usually, but not always, translated as servant.

In general, diakonos denotes “the service of slaves, underlings, and helpers.”1 The formal definition is “generally one who is busy with something in a manner that is of assistance to someone. 1. one who serves as an intermediary in a transaction, agent, intermediary, courier, 2. one who gets something done, at the behest of a superior, assistant to someone.”2

What did deacons do in the Bible?

As the name suggests, they were servants. The only passage we have in the Bible which details what deacons did is found in Acts 6. In this chapter, a problem arose in the early days of the church which resulted in the neglect of certain Christian widows in Jerusalem. The apostles recognized the problem, but concluded their top priority was to care for the spiritual concerns of the church. Therefore, they gave instructions to the Christians in Jerusalem to select seven men to care for the needs of these widows. 

Understanding the difference between the physical and spiritual needs of the church is crucial to understanding the duties of a deacon. The apostles had these first seven deacons appointed specifically to care for the physical needs of the church. This allowed the apostles to focus on the spiritual concerns of the church. This shows us that the primary role of deacons is physical in nature.

Were the men in Acts 6 really deacons?

Some argue that the job in Acts 6 is not the same role described in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. The main objection is that these seven men were never called deacons in Acts 6. It is true that they aren’t formally called deacons, but this is a distinction without a difference. It is clear from the narrative that the Jerusalem church selected these men to serve in a logistical and material function. Furthermore, when the apostles said in Acts 6:2 that others should “serve tables” they used the Greek word diakoneo. This is the verb form of diakonos meaning “to serve.”3 It is clear from the use of this word, and the service which is described, these men were servants. What else could we possibly call them?

Isn’t the role of a deacon primarily spiritual?

The short answer is “no.” There is nothing in the New Testament that would imply that the work of deacons is spiritual in nature. The only passage which describes the duties of deacons (Acts 6) clearly shows that their job is to care for the physical needs of the church.This, combined with the fact that the word deacon means servant, is enough to show us that their focus is primarily physical in nature. 

As we noted above, a diakonos is one who serves another. The role of deacon exists to free others to focus on spiritual matters. Churches assign deacons various duties depending on the unique needs of each congregation. They may see to the needs of widows and shut-ins. They may be responsible for the care and upkeep of the church building. A body of believers might task a deacon with transporting people to and from church services, etc. While their work is vital, it is not primarily spiritual. 

The role in the church which is predominantly concerned with spiritual matters is that of the overseer (aka pastor, elder, shepherd, steward). The pastors of a church are meant to be focused on spiritual matters. The deacons help the elders maintain their spiritual focus by taking care of the physical matters of the church. With good men serving as deacons, the shepherds of a congregation don’t have to be concerned with the logistics of the church – just like in Acts 6.

Aren’t deacons in charge of the church?

Again, the short answer is “no.” The deacons are only in charge of matters delegated to them by the church or by the elders. The New Testament does not give any indication that deacons are calling the shots about anything other than the matters which fall within their realm of responsibility. If trustworthy and Spirit filled men serve as deacons, we should allow them to make decisions regarding the tasks delegated to them. Neither the shepherds nor the church should micromanage them. 

The New Testament does not suggest that the role of deacon has inherent authority. They are only in charge of the matters delegated to them by the congregation. Deacons are servants of the church, not the church’s masters. They are not a board of directors who serve with authority under or alongside the pastors of the church. The Bible describes them as servants who take orders. They are not in a position to give orders.

Elders and deacons do not have separate but equal realms of authority. The authority of deacons is delegated by the congregation and/or elders of the church. Deacons are not a separate “branch of government” in the church. The New Testament does not give them the authority to dictate to pastors or the congregation. Any group of deacons operating in this way is acting outside the bounds of Scripture. 

So, deacons aren’t leaders?

They are leaders, but only within their specific area of responsibility. They are not leaders over the church. That is the overseer’s job. The deacons lead by example. While 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 does not tell us what deacons do, it tells us about the kind of character they must possess. Anyone who legitimately possesses the qualities which allow them to serve as deacons are leaders by example. They are people we should respect and emulate.

Are deacons allowed to be involved in spiritual work?

Of course they can, but they don’t do spiritual work as part of their service as deacons. For example, sharing the gospel of Jesus with the lost is a spiritual work; one that all Christians must do. Teaching the Bible is a spiritual work. Two of the seven men in Acts 6 were teachers of God’s word: Stephen (Acts 6:9; 7) and Philip (Acts 8:5). We should note that these men weren’t preaching and teaching the word of God in their capacity as deacons. Their role as servants in Acts 6 was related to distributing food to widows. Their preaching and teaching was separate from, and in addition to, their role as the deacons who supported the widows. 

There is no expectation in the New Testament that deacons will also serve as teachers or preachers. In fact, 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 lists no teaching requirement for deacons. In contrast, the ability to teach is a mandatory requirement for overseers. 

Deacons may certainly engage in spiritual work if God has gifted them to serve in additional capacities. However, the New Testament assigns no spiritual tasks to the role of deacon. Deacons can and have engaged in spiritual work, but this is outside of their role as deacons. 

Scriptural servants

There are a lot of misconceptions about deacons. Many churches have lost their biblical perspective on the role and function of deacons. It is all too common that congregations allow church tradition to set the expectations for the role instead of taking their lead from the Bible. 

The Bible describes deacons as servants. Servants don’t give orders, they follow the orders of others. Many churches have lost sight of this fact. Perhaps if the word diakonos appeared in our Bibles as a translated word (instead of transliterated), things would be different. Maybe we would see the role as an opportunity to serve others instead of a position of power and prestige for people to covet.


  1. W. A. HEIDEL, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Revised), s.v. “D,” 1:880.
  2. Danker, Frederick W., et al. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed, University of Chicago Press, 2000: BDAG, s.v. “διάκονος,” 230.
  3. Strong’s Greek Dictionary of the New Testament, s.v. “διακονέω,” paragraph 1257.