Question 33What are the deacons of the church?

AnswerApproved men chosen by the church to take care for the necessities of the poor belonging thereunto, and other outward occasions of the whole church, by the collection, keeping, and distribution of the alms and other supplies of the church; set apart and commended to the grace of God therein by prayer.

Acts 6:3,5,6; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8-13.

Explication– The office of the deacon, the nature, end, and use of it, the qualifications of the persons to be admitted unto it, the way and manner of their election and setting apart, are all of them plainly expressed in the Scripture: Acts 6:1-3,5,6, “There arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen,” etc., “whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them.” 1 Tim. 3:8-13, “Likewise must the deacons be grave, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre; holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless; the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.  For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.”

These things are thus plain and express in the Scripture. But whereas many have grown weary of the observation of the institutions of the gospel, this office hath for a long time been lost amongst the most of Christians.

By some the name is retained, but applied to another work, duty, and employment, than this to which it is peculiarly appropriated in the Scripture. Their proper and original work of taking care for the poor, they say, is provided for by others; and therefore that office being needless, another, unto another purpose, under the same name, is erected. Such are deacons that may read service, preach, and baptize, when they have license thereunto.  But this choice, to reject an office of the appointment of Christ, under pretence of provision made for the duties of it another way, and the erecting of one not appointed by him, seems not equal. But whereas it is our duty in all things to have regard to the authority of Christ and his appointments in the gospel, if we claim the privilege of being called after his name, some think that if what he hath appointed may be colourably performed another way without respect unto his institutions, that is far the best; but omitting the practice of other men, the things that concern this office in the church are, as was said, clear in the Scripture.

First, The persons called unto it are to be of honest report, furnished with the gifts of the Holy Ghost, especially with wisdom, Acts 6:3, and those other endowments useful in the discharge of their duty mentioned, 1 Tim. 3:8-13.

Secondly, The way whereby they come to be made partakers of this office is by the choice or election of the church, Acts 6:2,3,5, whereupon they are solemnly to be set apart by prayer.

Thirdly, Their work or duty consists in a daily ministration unto the necessities of the poor saints, or members of the church, Acts 6:1,2.

Fourthly, To this end, that they may be enabled so to do, it is ordained that every first day [of the week] the members of the church do contribute, according as God enables them, of their substance for the supply of the wants of the poor, 1 Cor. 16:2; and also occasionally, as necessity shall require, or God move their hearts by his grace.

Fifthly, Hereunto is to be added whatever by the providence of God may be conferred upon the church for its outward advantage, with reference unto the end mentioned, Acts 4:34,35.

Sixthly, These supplies of the church being committed to the care and charge of the deacons, they are from thence to minister with diligence and wisdom unto the necessities of the poor; that so the needy may be supplied, that there may be none that lack, the rich may contribute of their riches according to the mind of Christ, and in obedience unto his command; that they which minister well in this office “may purchase to themselves a good degree and great boldness in the faith,” and that in all the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified with praise and thanksgiving.

It belongs, therefore, unto persons called unto this office, —

First, To acquaint themselves with the outward condition of those that appear to be poor and needy in the church, whether by the addresses of such poor ones, who are bound to make known their wants, occasions, and necessities unto them, or by the information of others, or their own observation.

Secondly, To acquaint the elders and the church, as occasion requireth, with the necessities of the poor under their care, that those who are able may be stirred up by the elders to a free supply and contribution.

Thirdly, To dispose of what they are intrusted with faithfully, cheerfully, tenderly, without partiality or preferring one before another, for any outward respect whatever.

Fourthly, To keep and give an account unto the church, when called for, of what they have received, and how they have disposed of it; that so they may be known to have well discharged their office, — that is, with care, wisdom, and tenderness, — whereby they procure to themselves a good degree, with boldness in the faith, and the church is encouraged to intrust them farther with this sacrifice of their alms, which is so acceptable unto God.

The Life and Works of John Owen Vol.15