Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Byron Center, Michigan.
In writing on the nature of the diaconate, we are explaining how the characteristics of an office in the church of Jesus Christ apply to the diaconate. We defined an office as “a position given by God to men, in the sphere of the covenant, in which He authorizes them to serve Him in that sphere.” The characteristic of office which we have already examined is that of authority. Deacons have authority. Authority implies service. Authority is never simply glitter and glamour, merely a respectable position, devoid of any responsibility. A father has the title and privileges of father, but must also perform the duties of fatherhood. A policeman does not merely possess the title of “officer” or “sergeant,” but exercises this authority by working. Likewise the officebearer in the church has authority to serve. The diaconate, then, is an office of service.
At least eight different Greek words are translated “servant” (or “service,” or “serve”) in the New Testament. By far the most common is doulos, which means “slave.” This word emphasizes the relation of the servant to his master – the servant is not free but owned, bound to the service of his master in every way. A second word is diakonos, “servant.” It emphasizes the official nature of the work which a servant does – official work of service to the master by executing his will, or administering his rule. In fact, this word diakonos is more often translated “minister” than “servant.” These two words give us a general idea about what service is. Service is first of all work. A servant does not sit, but busies himself with his work. If he does not, he is not serving! Second, service is work which is done for a master. One is not serving if he works for himself. A licensed contractor who owns his own construction business, though he is busy in the work of building a house, does not serve, for he is his own boss. His hired employee, however, being busy in the same work, serves. He works to please not himself, but his master, knowing that he is responsible to his master and will be judged by his master. Third, one specific kind of service is called administration. An administrator is a servant who is given a specific mandate from his master, which mandate must be fulfilled exactly, particularly, and completely. In the way of fulfilling this mandate exactly, the administrator is nothing else but a means by which the master carries out his work. This kind of service differs from service generally, in that many servants are given commands to do some activity, or accomplish some goal, but left to their discretion as to how specifically to accomplish that goal. They work for their master, but have freedom how to work. An administrator is given no freedom in these matters.
The service of an ecclesiastical officebearer is particularly that of administration. The officebearer must serve God and Christ by administering God’s Word and Christ’s rule to the congregation. That officebearers must serve God is clear enough. God has called pastors, elders, and deacons to office and has authorized them to function in His name. The need to serve is implied in the fact that they hold office. Rev. K. Sietsma writes in his book The Idea of Office that
office means that someone does not rule by virtue of his own authority but that he has authority and the right to exercise an office in the service of God and therefore in the service of his fellows according to God’s command. Whoever assumes power for his own, rather than for God’s sake, loses sight of the essential service character of office.*
How quickly we can forget that the officebearer serves not himself, not the people, but God! Or, to rephrase it more accurately, that his service of the people is really service of God! When pastors, elders, and deacons think they serve themselves, they become tyrants, impose their own rule, and make decisions based on their whims. Church government becomes political. When pastors, elders, and deacons think that they serve only the people, they find themselves in the impossible position of trying to cater to everyone’s requests. And when the people think that the officebearers must serve them, they become political in choosing officebearers (ignoring God’s qualifications, selecting men who will best help their agenda), and they think that they are free to obey or disobey, to listen or not to listen, according as the officebearers have done what they want or do not want. Let us beware of these dangers! They are abuses of office, for which officebearers will be held accountable and be judged. Officebearers serve God above all. They must be busy in His work, seeking His glory. They must serve in the consciousness that they will stand in judgment before Him, and give account for the souls of the people (Heb. 13:17) as well as for how they have handled those souls. But now notice: their work is administrative work—work which God does officially through them! It the work of serving the church by teaching, by ruling, and by showing mercy! And this is not work which God simply commits to their charge with the command: “Go out and serve My church,” as a builder might tell his servants, “Here is the blueprint; there is the building site; go build a house,” leaving them to do it in their way and at their time. Rather, God calls them to office, and gives them this task: “Bring My Word to My people! Teach it to them, rule them by it, show them My mercy in light of it.” Officebearers are not free to do another work than that which God commanded, or to accomplish the goal God desires in a different way than that which God commanded; they must bring God’s Word to God’s people in feeding them, ruling them, and administering the mercies of Christ to them. In that way, God builds His house through the officebearers!
That all this is true of the special offices of the church is clear both from the example of Jesus’ service and from several instances of the use of the word diakonos in the New Testament. Jesus served the church by giving His life for it: “Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). And again: “I am among you as he that serveth” (Luke 22:27). Note that the words “minister” and “serve” are both verb forms of the noun diakonos. Jesus’ service to the church, however, was not something He did merely for His own sake. Though His service was willing and voluntary, the decision to come into the flesh to serve was not ultimately His. How He should serve was not something He was free to decide. Rather, His service was commanded and commissioned! God sent Him not merely as servant, but as administrator, with a specific mandate: not merely a general mandate to save His people, but a specific mandate to die for them, and teach them about salvation and the kingdom of heaven (John 12:49). Should Jesus have turned aside from this mandate, He would have ceased at that moment to serve God and the church. And in the way of carrying out His mandate, it was not merely Jesus that saved the church, but God who did it through Jesus! Jesus was not merely servant, but administrator, because He was the Mediator, the promised prophet, priest, and king, the chief officebearer in the covenant and church of God. Of this He was always conscious. He taught the people that He was the Christ, the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah. He told them that He came not to do His will, but the will of His Father which was in heaven (John 4:34, John 5:19-47, John 6:38-40). He reminded them that those who despised Him despised not Him, but His Father which had sent Him (Luke 10:16). In all these ways and more Jesus showed that He was on earth to serve God first, and that His service of God was that of administering the blessings of God upon the righteous and the judgment of God upon the wicked. Because Jesus served God by administering God’s blessings to His people, so pastors, elders, and deacons, given authority by Christ Himself to perform His work, must serve in the same way. The apostles were to devote themselves to the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4). To Paul was committed the ministry of reconciliation (II Cor. 5:18ff.). Timothy was a minister of Jesus Christ (I Tim. 4:6). So in our day pastors serve God by administering the Word of God, preaching it to the church. Elders serve God by administering the rule of Christ to the church. Deacons serve God by administering the mercies of Christ to the church. And every child of God must serve God by serving others. We all can and may and must do this, because we are all partakers of Christ’s anointing. So the noun diakonos and its related verb diakoneoo (serve) and related noun diakonia (service) are used in the New Testament with reference to the work Christians must do. Women served Christ by ministering to His needs (Matt. 8:15, 27:55; Luke 10:40). Christian discipleship is service (John 12:26). We must minister to others of the gifts we have received (I Pet. 4:10, 11).
Having examined general uses of the words diakonos, diakonia, and diakoneoo, we must now see that they are used also in a specific sense to refer to the office of deacons and to the service which the church performs for the poor and needy through her diaconate. In a particular way, the office of the diaconate is an office of service and administration! The word diakonos is used in Philippians 1:1 and I Timothy 3:8, 12 to refer to one holding the office of deacon. By now you have no doubt noticed that our English word “deacon” comes from the Greek diakonos. Even our English terms then – deacon, diaconate, diaconal – convey this same idea of service. Deacons are servants! The word also refers to the church’s work of caring for the poor. The “daily ministration” and serving tables (Acts 6:1, 2) refers to this work. In response to the prophecy of a great dearth, the disciples “determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea” (Acts 11:29; “relief” is diakonia). Paul tells the church of Rome (Rom. 15:25ff.) that he goes to Jerusalem to “minister unto the saints,” by which he does not refer to the ministry of the word, but of money for the relief of their poverty. The words “ministering,” “administered,” “administration,” and “ministration” are used in II Corinthians 8 (II Cor. 8:4, 19, 20) and 9 (II Cor. 9:1, 12, 13) to refer to the work of bringing relief to the poor saints. The diaconate, therefore, is an office of service, and particularly of administration of the mercies of Christ. Briefly we can spell out the implications of this fact for deacons. In the first place, as soon as the deacon is installed—no, already when he accepts nomination for office!—he must be willing and ready to serve. Being in the diaconate does not mean, primarily, that one has a greater voice in how the church affairs are run; or that now one is able to see for himself that the church monies are spent wisely. It means serving God, by caring for the poor! And the deacon, or man nominated to the diaconate, must want to do that. If you do not want to do this, do not accept nomination! In the second place, he must remind himself of this fact whenever he prepares to make a benevolence call, or when he is ready to discuss a benevolence need at the deacons’ meeting. And it must govern and guide him as he determines whether the need is genuine, and how much to give. He must remember that he is serving God in this matter. Even more, it must make him realize the importance of bringing the Word of God, not only money, to the family who has need. Thirdly, it requires him to understand that he must be Christ-like in all of his conduct. He must deny himself, not considering the requests of the poor to be “bothersome,” and their phone calls to him to be “intrusions” on his family time, but sympathetic and ready to help. He must in every aspect of his life live as the Word of God requires him to (I Tim. 3:8ff.). Lastly, it requires of him diligent study of the Word of God in his own life, and much prayer, for faithful servants of God must speak oft with their Lord, to seek His guidance and the knowledge of His will. Deacons, remember: above all else, you are servants of God! And you serve the church for His sake.
* K. Sietsma, The Idea of Office, tr. Henry VanderGoot (Jordan Station, ON: Paideia Press, 1985), page 58.