The New Testament does distinguish between the qualification between elders and deacons, though I think the difference pertains primarily to the areas of giftedness needed for elders to be able to carry out their roles or functions as shepherds. This difference is spelled out in 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1. Elders are to be apt to teach, which includes both the desire and ability to study and teach. Further, Titus shows they should be those who truly know and hold fast to sound doctrine and are able to communicate the Word (Tit. 1:9) in varying conditions. Hebrews 5:14, of course, is something all believers should be striving for, but certainly, this should be true in the life of those leading the church. Compare, for instance, Hebrews 13:7 and 17 and 1 Thess. 5:12f. These verses also suggest elders should be very mature in the Word and in their walk with the Savior. While we should seek this in deacons as well, it is a necessity for elders due to the nature of the role and function of elders as shepherds.
Concerning deacons, no passage really describes their function. They are those who serve as helpers in a variety of functions according to the need and their gifts (which should always be considered). Acts 6 and serving tables is sometimes used as a model for what deacons should be doing, and though this may give us an illustration of the kind of thing they may do, the ones chosen to take care of the widows in that passage are never officially called deacons. Of those chosen to do that work in acts, one was Philip who is later seen doing the work of an evangelist. Further, being responsible to care for the widows suggests a certain amount of oversight in an administrative capacity, and while, under the leadership of the elders, deacons may be given administrative responsibilities that include some oversight, it is probably best not to think of deacons in such a limited capacity.
Though there is some repetition, I will insert a portion of the study, “Qualifications for Evaluation of Elders and Deacon” which is on our web site in the “Bible Studies / Theology / Ecclesiology” section.
Our English word deacon comes from the Greek diakonos meaning “servant,” and specifically, “a table servant.” In the New Testament it has a general use in which it refers to all manner of ministries (the vast majority of occurrences), and a technical or official use. When used in the official sense of someone appointed as a “deacon,” the concept of a servant is united with that of an office. The term “deacon” thus refers to an office which involves the basic duty of rendering service to others. A deacon is one who is placed in an official position for a ministry of service to benefit others in the body of Christ. We should also bear in mind that Paul defined his apostolic ministry as a servant (diakonia, a word derived from diakonos) ministry (1 Tim. 1:12; Acts 20:24; 21:19; 2 Tim. 4:11). Compare the use of diakonos in Col. 1:7, 25; 4:7; 1 Tim. 4:6.
Concerning elders and their qualifications, two specific functions are mentioned within this list of qualifications, (1) teaching (1 Tim. 3:2), and (2) management or leadership with personal care of the church (1 Tim. 3:4-5). However, no such functions are mentioned in the qualifications of the deacons and this seems to be significant. Why is there no mention of specific functions? What are the implications?
It seems Paul did not associate any fixed duties with the office of deacons. The implication is that deacons served as assistants to the overseers under their leadership and direction. They are supporting, relieving officers. Very often Acts 6:1f is used to define the function of deacons, but it is important to note that Acts 6:1f does not use either of the terms “elder” or “deacon.” So we need to be careful about using this passage in such a restricted way to define the work that deacons do. However, since the ministries of the apostles was in many ways replaced by the ministry of the elders, this passage may provide us with a good illustration of one of the ways deacons may relieve and help the overseers in their care of the flock of God. However, since the terms “deacon” is not used in Acts 6, it should not be used to limit the work or ministry deacons may be called on to do by the elders. They may aid in visitation, evangelism, or other spiritual duties according to their gifts and burden.
For instance, remember that Stephen and Philip were two of those chosen to aid in the task of Acts 6, but in the very next chapter we find Stephen engaged in preaching, and in chapter 8 we find Philip involved in evangelism.
Acts 6 also illustrates some other important concepts regarding not only the role of elders, but it also may illustrate something of the relationship of the elders and deacons. It teaches the concepts of: PRIORITY, FUNCTION, OVERSIGHT (or LEADERSHIP), SUPERVISION, DIRECTION, and DELEGATION. In Acts 6 we see:
(1) The priority of the role and function of prayer and the ministry of the Word (6:4). To carry out their primary role, elders need the aid of the entire body (Eph. 4:11f), but this includes some who are chosen to operate in an official capacity (like deacons) for special needs that arise.
(2) The responsibility and role of oversight—planning and goal achievement, leadership and supervision, organization and control, delegation and motivation (6:5-6). Please note that the Apostles (later to be replaced by elders) are not limited in their responsibilities to matters like teaching. They had oversight or management of all areas. Elders, then, don’t do everything else, but they are responsible, are to function as overseers, make suggestions, give guidelines, make appointments, delegate responsibility, encourage, etc.
This concept of management of the all matters of the flock is clear not only from the illustration of Acts 6, but also from the words used to describe the office of elder, and from the functions and commands given to this group in the New Testament . With responsibility comes a certain degree of authority to see that the responsibilities are carried out, but not in an authoritative or dictatorial way.
The primary qualifications for deacons would then be godly character as set forth in 1 Timothy 3:8-12 with a concern for the body and a desire to serve. Possessing the gifts of helps and showing mercy would obviously help one serve as a deacon, but may not be mandatory.
What are some of the implications of this on our lives as individuals and corporately as elders and deacons? Let me add the following suggestions:
(1) Elders and deacons are not two independent offices with each doing its own thing. Both are to be supportive of one another, working together to accomplish God’s purposes for the church. The elders are to support the deacons through encouragement, instruction, leadership, guidance, and proper delegation according to gifts, burden, and interests. The deacons support the elders by relieving them to carry on their primary ministry and by cooperation. Both should give input to one another concerning problems, needs, and ideas for accomplishing the goals of the church.
(2) Communication of ideas, problems, needs, concerns, etc., along with a commitment to work together is very important to the overall ministry of both offices.
(3) Ultimately, God holds the elders responsible for the ministry of the church and this includes the deacons and the work they are asked to do. Deacons are under the leadership of the elders and the elders are responsible to see that things are done according to the principles of Scripture. If the elders make suggestions or ask for things to be done a certain way, they are not trying to interfere, they are simply doing the job God has called them to do. The elders are not to be dictators, however, and deacons have the right and responsibility to evaluate the suggestions of the elders and give input. And the elders need to give serious consideration to their input.
(4) We must all evaluate our ministries, our character, our attitudes, our motives, our agendas, and our involvement in the work of the church. Are we doing all things decently and in order? Are we following through with the our responsibilities?