(BaptistStart.com has a good bullet point page on the role of deacons in church history and some sage advice on how to return to a biblical role for deacons in an existing church. I wish I had seen it last year. It would have saved me some writing. another good resource link page for deacons is here.)
First, here is a rough draft of a possible bylaw regarding the requirements and role of deacons in a New Testament church. Below the outline, I have posted a more in depth study of the qualifications and role of deacons from which the outline was made.
Deacons should be persons who have as guiding principles in their lives the following verses and many other similar verses.
37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (ESV)
42 And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,  44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave  of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (ESV)
I Timothy 3:8-13 says that Deacons should be men who:
1. are dignified
2. are not double-tongued
3. are not addicted to much wine
4. are not greedy for dishonest gain
5. hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience
6. pass sustained careful examination of their lives
7. are one-woman men
8. manage their households well
and Deaconesses should be women who:
1. are dignified
2. are not slanderers/gossips
3. are sober-minded
4. are faithful in everything
Deacons should serve the church family in whatever way is needed. The kind of service in view is not voting on church matters and debating committee reports. It is service where you put a towel around your waist, roll up your sleeves and get busy washing feet if that is what is needed.
Deacons should devise a system to insure that the needs of the church family (i.e. service opportunities) are known and taken care of. One possible way to do this is to break the church roll into “platoons” where a deacon or deaconess is responsible for maintaining contact with a number of families to determine the existence of any service opportunities and possible ways to meet the need. Deacons could then band together in “pods” of three or so platoons to take care of larger needs requiring more manpower.
Deacons should be present and prepared to pass out communion as needed by the church and scheduled by the Elders.
Deacons should implement systems to insure that the members of their body are self-sustaining examples of the best of servant leadership. In other words there should be a mechanism for ongoing supervision of the deacons and their service to their “platoon” of church members, their continued living example of the biblical requirements for the deaconate as well as their willingness to readily and effectively activate their “platoon” for “pod” service when needed.
Here is the narrative background for the above outline.
I. Summary of Biblical Deaconate Points
A deacon or a deaconess is a man or a woman who is a fully committed lover of God, disciple of Christ and student of scripture who fully embraces the Biblical example of Christ who was a personal example of a model of leadership through service exemplified by washing the feet of His disciples, by willingly sacrificing the position and perks of His Godhood to become fully man, His human dignity and His very life for their benefit.
2. Not double-tongued
3. Not addicted to much wine
4. Not greedy for dishonest gain
5. Holds the mystery of the Faith with a clear conscience 6. Tested first (a track record through the fire) and proven blameless 7. A one woman man (or a man of one woman) 8. Managing their children and household well
I see a deacon playing a role similar to that of the men that Jethro encouraged Moses to appoint to take some of the load off of himself. See Exodus 18:13-26 and especially verses 21-26. Then compare Moses and Jethro’s situation to that facing the Apostles in Acts 6. I see the Seven chosen in Acts 6 as precursors to Elders more than deacons and that deacons would serve under the Elders as leaders of small platoons. Think of dividing our membership up in smaller units and assigning a deacon to be in charge of that group. Any prayer request, bible question, physical need, hospital visit, friend that needs the gospel, dispute with a brother in christ that any member of the assigned group has would be brought to their deacon first. That deacon would then either handle it himself or call in an appropriate staff member or ministry team of the larger body. Think of it as system wide care groups preferably divided up geographically so that the group can get together easily.
II. Short expansion of the above points
1. Summary statement
The summary statement above flows from the teaching of Jesus with regard to what it meant to be His disciple. Jesus taught in Luke 22:24-27 that the greatest among them would be the ones who followed His example and served the body. In John 13:4-17 Jesus washed the feet of the disciples. He taught them that as His students, they were not greater than Him and that as His disciples they were to follow His example and serve one another. The greatest commandment is that we love the Lord our God with all of our heart, all of our soul, all of our mind and all of our strength. The second greatest commandment is that we love our neighbor as ourself. Matthew 22:37-40.
If we are fully committed lovers of God, lovers of our neighbors and followers of Christ, then we will embrace the role of servant leader to His church. Such men and women are the ones who would have the good reputation among the body as being full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom such that they would be chosen to serve as deacons and deaconesses.
The first qualifications for deacon are usually recognized to be contained in Acts 6:2-6. Some scholars dispute whether this episode actually was the calling of deacons as that term is used in I Timothy 3 by Paul in reference
to an office within the Church. Given the role these seven men were to
play, functionally they appear to be the first elders more than the first deacons. There is no reference to the “office” of deacon or of a deacon playing a role in that capacity prior to the writings of Paul later. Most particularly, when relief is sent by the church at Antioch back to Jerusalem in Acts 11:30, it was sent to the Elders by Barnabas and Saul and not to the Deacons. In Acts 15:6, the Apostles and Elders were gathered together in a council to determine how much of the law under which to put the gentile converts. No reference to Deacons as an office of the church. If the Seven were to have been deacons, then they surely would have been called that sometime later in Acts. Instead the leadership consisted of the Apostles and Elders.
If we assume that the Seven in Acts 6 were deacons (which I don’t. I think that given their assigned role and what happened immediately afterward when two of them (Stephen and Philip) were proclaiming the Gospel these were more like elders than deacons) then we should view the requirements set out here as Men, from among the body, of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and Wisdom.
(interestingly, as a side note, the first reference we get to a person called a deacon is in Romans 16:1-2 and her name was Phoebe. Her title is deaconess of the church at Cenchreae and she is called by Paul “a patron (benefactor, helper, succourer) of many and of myself as well.”)
Men is self explanatory, as is from among you. Good reputation was essential given that their role was to be the arbitrator of disputes and the authorities in charge of organizing charitable handouts. Full of the spirit means full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Galations 5:22-23. Full of wisdom means having the gift of the proper application of knowledge. This could mean the gift of discernment as well.
The list of qualifications given by Paul to Timothy in I Timothy 3:8-13 definitely applies to deacons.
Paul first says deacons must be dignified/grave/worthy of respect. The Greek word is semnos. It means serious, stately, awe-inspiring. Persons chosen to serve as deacons should be serious minded awe-inspiring people and recognized as such by the body.
Secondly, they should be sincere not double-tongued or hypocritical. The Greek word is dilogos. It means having two words. Persons chosen to serve as deacons should be consistent in their message regardless of the audience.
Thirdly, they should be temperate, not given to much wine, not drinking a lot of wine, not addicted to much wine. The Greek here is prosecho polus, oinos. Not pre-ocuppied with or giving attention to a lot of or much wine. Persons chosen to serve as deacons should have control of themselves in the area of alcohol and must not be characterized by an undue amount of attention toward getting a drink. Interestingly, there is no flat prohibition. Much like he did in Romans 14, Paul leaves alcohol in the gray zone. It is one of those things that we are free to do, but must not do if it causes our brothers to stumble. Deacons in particular should not be people who are characterized by the pursuit of alcohol.
Fourthly, they should not be greedy for dishonest gain. The Greek here is one word, aischrokerdos. It means greedy for sordid/base gain. Persons chosen to serve as deacons must be reliable and trustworthy in financial matters. Their lives should not be characterized by the pursuit of money at all costs.
Fifthly, they should hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.
Paul talks about the mystery of the faith in Ephesians 3:3-6 and 6:19. To hold it means to be deeply aware of the gospel. It means to be able to explain at a moments notice the reason for the hope that we have in Christ and how others without hope can have it as well by simply believing. To hold it with a clear conscience means to live in accordance with our profession of faith in Christ and to be faithful to share the gospel with others as we have opportunity. Persons chosen to serve as deacons should be intimately familiar with the gospel and should live it out and speak as they have opportunity on its behalf.
Sixth, they must be tested and proven blameless. The Greek is dokimazo and the verb tense is ongoing. This indicates that a prospective deacon should have their life and christian service evaluated over time rather than as a snapshot. Perhaps others should be interviewed about the candidate rather than the person themselves. Persons chosen to serve as deacons should have
lives that are open to inspection over time and that will pass inspection as lives worthy of the gospel.
Then the passage in I Timothy gets controversial. Verse 11 starts with the Greek word gune. This word is translated as a variation of the word “wife” or wives 84 times. It is translated as a variation of the word “woman” 130 times. The New American Standard picks “women” to start verse 11. The ESV, KJV, HCSB and NIV are unanimous in choosing wives. The ESV says in a footnote “or women”. The NIV says in a footnote “or deaconesses.”
I have come to the conclusion that the correct translation here is “women” and that this verse sets out the qualifications for deaconesses. John MacArthur’s exposition of I Timothy 3:11 is persuasive to me. I set it out herein:
“Qualifications for Deaconesses
“Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things. (3:11)
“Whether the women in view here are deacons’ wives or a separate order of female deacons has been much disputed. The following points show that women in general, not necessarily deacons’ wives are in view here.
First, the use of likewise (cf.. 1 Tim. 2:9; 3:8; Titus 2:3, 6)argues strongly for seeing a third and distinct group here in addition to elders and deacons. Second, there is no possessive pronoun or definite article connecting these women with deacons. Third, Paul gave no qualifications for elders’ wives. Why would he do so for deacons’ wives?
Fourth, Paul did not use the word “deaconesses” because there was no such word in the Greek language; the masculine form of diakonos was used of both men and women (cf.. Rom. 16:1). A different term, diakonissa, was used for “deaconess” in post-biblical Greek (Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946], 3:176). Using the term women was the only way Paul could distinguish them from the male deacons.
Finally, their qualifications parallel those of the male deacons.”
MacArthur, J. (1995). 1 Timothy (128). Chicago: Moody Press.
Persons chosen to serve as deaconesses therefore must be dignified (same as the men), not slanderers (temperate with their tongue and not malicious gossips), sober minded (temperate, serious and not flighty or governed by
emotion) and faithful in all things.
Seventh, they must be one woman men. The greek here is that they must be the aner of hen gune. They must be the man of one woman. The issue seems to be moral purity in thought and action more than marital status. Persons chosen to serve as deacon must be faithful to their wife in their thought life as well as in their action. There must not even be a hint of sexual immorality about them.
Eighth they must manage their children and households well. Persons chosen to serve as deacons must be consistent and godly managers of the persons and things that God has entrusted to them in their households.
According to I Timothy 3:13, two outcomes are promised for those who serve well as deacons. First, they will be placed on a pedestal and second they will be responsible for affirming the certainty of the faith in Christ for themselves and among the ones they serve.
To summarize, I think that the qualifications of Deacons are consistent with the persistent admonition of scripture that God wants the heart of men and not outward appearance. Deut. 10:16, Deut. 30:6, I Sam. 15:22, Jer. 4:4, Hosea 6:6, Romans 2:28-29 along with many many many other verses including the first four of the ten commandments and Jesus summary of those in Matt.
22:37 as well as Jesus’ extended pronouncement of woes on the Pharisees in Matthew 23.
If we choose as deacons or deaconesses men and women who are fully devoted lovers of God, disciples of Christ and students of the scripture, then we will be following the requirements laid out by Paul in I Tim. 3:8-13. Whether or not such men and women have a divorce in their past or occasionally drink a glass of wine with their meal is almost certainly irrelevant to the issue of whether or not they are, after an appropriate period of testing, proven to be blameless single minded passionate followers of God and His Son Jesus.
III. The Role of Deacons
Here is where there is very little guidance from scripture. It is clear from the name that deacons are to serve the body. There is no indication in scripture that deacons as an office were part of any decision making. As stated above, the council in Acts 15 consisted of the Apostles and the Elders.
But I have an idea. Maybe I am crazy, but the idea I have flows from the qualifications set out in I Timothy 3:8-13 and is consistent with what men and women who meet those qualifications could bring to the body as useful service.
We know that the Seven chosen in Acts 6 were put appointed to the task of the distribution of food to the widows. Clearly seven guys couldn’t physically serve 20,000 believers or even a subset. What if we view these guys as elders. They would then divide up the large body into smaller groups and put trustworthy folks in charge of the smaller divisions. Look at how Moses organized the children of Israel at the suggestion of his father-in-law in Exodus 18:13-26. If it was good enough for God’s people then, why wouldn’t it be good enough for the true Israel, God’s church?
What if we see the local church as a God led, God directed body led through the Elders chosen by God and the congregation? See Hebrews 13:7 and 17. What if the job of meeting the physical and spiritual needs of the local body could be parcelled out to faithful trustworthy men and women?
Suppose we take qualified men and women make them deacons and deaconesses.
We then train them in some pastoral basics. They are already respected by the people they will serve and awe-inspiring. We then divide up the congregation and assign them in an appropriate (men in charge of married couples, and single men, women in charge of unmarried women with or without children) and geographically wise manner and assign to each smaller group a deacon. That deacon would be the go to guy or gal for his or her smaller group. That deacon would make sure that prayer needs were prayed for. That deacon would answer bible questions that arise in his or her group. That deacon would resolve disputes among the members of his or her group. That deacon would be available to explain the gospel to friends and family members of persons in his or her group. That deacon would make sure that the physical needs of his or her group members were met whenever a need arises. The deacon or deaconess would have to be able to discern whether a particular matter could be handled by themselves or a member of their division or whether the matter needs to be escalated to a staff member, elder or ministry team of the larger body.
Can you imagine the example of loving and sacrifice that we could show to our city and the world if this system were put in place and functioning well? In John 13:34-35 Jesus gave us a new commandment. He said we are to love one another. He said that the whole world would know we are His disciples by our love for one another.