Some years ago, a pastoral assistant conducted training for deacons at an urban church. As part of her preparation she telephoned the director of the Philadelphia Restaurant School and asked, “What qualities are you looking for in a waiter?” The director explained that, above all else, a good waiter is someone who notices what people need and gives it to them even before they ask.
It may seem strange to compare deacons to restaurant personnel, but the connection is biblical. The first deacons in Jerusalem were appointed to serve meals:
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:1–4)
The word the apostles used for “serving tables” is the Greek word for “deaconing” (diakonein). Deacons are the waiters of the church. So the seven men chosen by the apostolic church to serve food were the first deacons.
The election of the first deacons explains the primary difference between elders and deacons. There is a practical division of labor between the only two ordained offices in the church of Jesus Christ (see Phil. 1:1). Like the apostles, elders devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4). They labor in the spiritual work of intercession and proclamation. Meanwhile, as their title indicates, deacons serve. They take care of people’s material needs in a spiritual way. “The office of deacon is not one of rule,” says one book on church government, “but rather of service both to the physical and spiritual needs of the people.”1 According to Martin Luther, the diaconate is a ministry “for distributing the Church’s bounty to the poor, in order that the priests might be relieved of the burden of temporal concerns.”2 So deacons mainly assist God’s people in tangible ways. They “wait on tables,” according to one use of the biblical term, which explains why a restaurant school might have something to teach a board of deacons.
Philip Graham Ryken, 1 Timothy, ed. Richard D. Phillips, Daniel M. Doriani, and Philip Graham Ryken, Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007), 58–60.
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