Does Acts 6:1–7 tell us anything about deacons, technically speaking? After all, the word deacon is not used, some of the seven men appointed to ministry also preached (Stephen and Philip), and the seven’s appointment was for a singular task, not serving the church’s tangible needs as a whole.
While such a description may push us towards describing the men in view as something other than deacons, it is fair to conclude that Luke was indeed describing the first appointment of deacons within the church. The task given was managing the distribution of food to widows, an example ministry of how deacons minister to the church. While deacons are not required to teach (cf. 1 Tim 3:8–13), neither are they forbidden from doing so. As for the word deacon, their ministry in Acts 6 was to “serve tables,” and the word serve is translated from diakoneō, the verb form from which we get our title deacon (cf. 1 Tim 3:8, diakonos).
When compared to 1 Timothy 3:1–13, Acts 6:1–7 provides further indicators that deacons are in view. One contrast between an overseer in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and a deacon in 1 Timothy 3:8–13 is that an overseer was to be able to teach, but not a deacon. In Acts 6:1–7, the apostles were unique as apostles, yes, but they also functioned as the church’s first overseers and were thus given to the “preaching of the word of God” (Acts 6:2), which is also described as “the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). The seven, however, were appointed in order to keep the apostles from being distracted from this focus, and the preaching of Stephen and Philip was something in addition to and did not take away from their ministry to the widows. Just as overseers and not deacons have to be able to teach, so also the overseeing apostles needed to give their time to teaching and not the seven who were appointed to serve the widows’ tables.
A comparison between Acts 6:1–7 and 1 Timothy 3:8–13 also shows that, just as the seven were to meet certain character requirements, so also are deacons in general. In Acts 6:3, being “of good repute,” being “full of the Spirit,” and having the “wisdom” necessary to oversee a practical ministry is simply shorthand for the more detailed requirements for deacons found in 1 Timothy 3:8–13.
Having explored the above, we see something of the amazing unity and diversity that Christ has ordained for the church. Just as some members may be the mouths who speak the word of God, so also others are the hands that tend to the church’s specific, tangible needs. One ministry could not exist without the other, and when these ministries work in harmony, the word of God increases, disciples multiply, and many become obedient to the faith (cf. Acts 6:7).
Pastor David Huffstutler
Pastor Huffstutler regularly writes articles for our Sunday bulletin. See his bio on our pastoral bio page.