The Duties of Deacons

A Short Treatise on Deacons
by James Guthrie (1612?–1661)

That we may also understand what doth belong unto deacons, we shall speak of them briefly, after the same order. (1.) Of their name. (2.) Of their institution. (3.) Of their calling. (4.) Of their duty and qualification.

Of the Name, Deacon.

The word “deacon” [διακονέω, διάκονος], largely taken, signifies any servant or minister (Matt. 23.11). Therefore in the New Testament it doth sometimes comprehend all church officers, even the apostles themselves (1 Cor. 3.5). Because every church officer is appointed of God, for perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry (eis ergon diakonias), and edifying the body of Christ [Eph. 4.12]. When we speak of deacons in the church, it is not taken in this large sense, for any church officer of whatsoever sort, but for a certain kind of church officers distinct from pastors, teachers, and elders, to whom the collection and distribution of the goods of the church doth belong, for the supply of the necessities of the poor.

Of the Institution of Deacons.

The institution of the office of deacon in the church of Christ, is divine. It is a special ordinance and appointment of Jesus Christ, that there should be deacons in his house. The apostle gives command to the disciples to choose out among themselves men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost, and of wisdom, whom they may appoint over the business of the poor (Acts 6.3), which was accordingly done, as may be seen in the 5th and 6th verses of that chapter. Neither was this a temporary institution upon this particular occasion, for the church of Jerusalem only, but for all the churches of Christ to the end of the world. Therefore the apostle Paul in several of his epistles to the churches, doth mention them. He exhorts “him that giveth” or imparts (i.e. the deacon, to whom the care of giving and distributing is committed) to “do it with simplicity” (Rom. 12.8). He recons “helps” (i.e. deacons who are appointed for helping the poor) among these officers whom God hath set in his church (1 Cor. 12.28). And writing to the Philippians he directs his epistle to all the saints in Christ, with “the bishops” (or overseers, under whom he comprehends ministers, teachers, and elders) and to “the deacons” (Phil. 1.1). To Timothy, wherein he gives rules concerning the qualification and carriage of all church officers, he treats of the deacon at large (1 Timothy 3.8-13).

From the divine institution of deacons, we gather that:

(1.) The deacon is a distinct officer from the elder. It is a defect and fault in some congregations that they put no difference betwixt these two, but so confounds and mingles them together as if they were both one, either appointing none for the office of deacon, but leaving that charge also upon the elders, or else giving the deacons the same power and employment with the elders. It is true, whatsoever the deacon may do by virtue of his office, that same may be done by an elder, as whatsoever is done by an elder may be done by a minister; because the higher and more eminent offices in the church doth include the powers of the lower. It is also true, that the deacons may assist in judgment with the minister and elders, and be helping to them in these things that concern the oversight of the congregation, by information and advice. Yet it is necessary that congregations should so far regard the ordinance, and reverence the wisdom of God, in appointing these officers, as to have both elders and deacons, and to preserve them distinct in their actings and operations, not giving to the deacon, or suffering him to assume the elder’s office.

(2.) Deacons are not to count light of this employment, or any others to esteem lightly of them, because they are called thereunto, and do exercise the same; but that they themselves, and all others ought to look upon it as one of these holy and honorable employments, which the wisdom of God hath thought fit to appoint in his house, for supplying the necessities of his saints. The Lord Jesus Christ himself did not disdain to wash his disciples feet; angels are all of them ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for their sakes who are appointed to be heirs of salvation. Why then should any think it below them to serve in the church of Christ, and to minister to the saints in this employment (1 Tim. 3.13)?

Of the calling of Deacons.

None is to step into this office, but he that is lawfully called thereto. Unto their calling it is needful:

(1.) That they have abilities and gifts fit for the charge, together with an honest purpose of heart to serve the Lord faithfully in the discharge of the same, by seeking his honor, and the good of the church.

(2.) That they be chosen by the congregation in which they are to serve, which choice is to be made after the same manner as that of the ruling elders.

(3.) That trial be taken by the minister and elders, [1.] concerning their conversation, that it be blameless and holy. And [2.] concerning their gifts, that they have that tenderness, discretion, dexterity, and prudence, that is fit for that employment. And that they be admitted to their charge with prayer and supplication, and opening of the word concerning their duty publicly in the congregation, where they are solemnly to engage themselves to be faithful in the trust committed to them of God (Acts 6.3-6; 1 Tim. 3.10).

Of their Duty.

Their duty is either that which concerns their conversation, or their office and calling.

Of their conversation & qualifications.

For their conversation, the apostle shews what it must be (1 Tim. 3.8-12).

(1.) They must not be double-tongued, nor liars, nor dissemblers, nor deceivers.

(2.) They must not be given to much wine, nor tipplers, nor drunkards, nor lovers, nor followers of strong drink.

(3.) They must not be greedy of filthy lucre, nor such as are covetous, and whose hearts run after the things of the world.

(4.) They must be grave men of a posed and staid carriage, and not of a light and vain behavior.

(5.) They must be such as hold fast the mystery of faith in a pure conscience, i.e. who do not only know the doctrines of the gospel, but do hold fast the faith thereof without wavering, and study to have a good conscience, in walking answerably thereto.

(6.) They must be the husband of one wife, such as abstain from all unlawful lusts, satisfying themselves with the remedy allowed of God.

(7.) They must be such as rule their own house and their children well, such as command and instruct their children and household to keep the way of the Lord, going before them in the practice of piety and godliness, and all holy and religious duties.

Of the Duties of their Calling.

The duties that deacons are bound to perform in their calling, may be reduced to these heads:

(1.) That they be careful to take exact notice of such as are poor in the congregation, and have not wherewith to maintain themselves.

(2.) That they be careful from time to time to collect and receive from the several members of the congregation and strangers that come among them, what the Lord shall incline their hearts to give for a supply of the necessities of the poor, and in a seasonable and Christian way to stir up and exhort to charity and liberality, that the more may be given.

(3.) That which is received and collected by them, be faithfully delivered that it may be put in the treasury of the congregation.

(4.) That they do timeously make known the several conditions and necessities of the several poor within the congregation to the church session, that provision may be appointed accordingly for each of them, that so the poor may not be put to begging, to the grief of their spirits, and reproach of the gospel.

(5.) That they be careful, honestly and in simplicity, without respect of persons, to distribute and deliver to the poor what is appointed for supply of their necessities; and if they be orphans and young ones, or such who have no knowledge or understanding, nor ability to dispose and order the things that concern their food and raiment; That the deacons honestly employ and bestow what is given for their use, that they may be supplied in these things.

(6.) That they be careful that what belongs to the poor be not dilapidated, nor applied to any other use: and if that there be any stock in the church treasure, it be improven to the best advantage, for the benefit and use of the poor. Yet so that the poor be rather always supplied, than moneys treasured up for a vain show.

(7.) That they be careful to take notice of these who are sick that they may acquaint the ministers and elders therewith for visiting of them, and if that they be poor their necessities may be supplied.

That deacons may the more conveniently discharge their duty: It is fit that some part of the congregation be assigned to every one of them, for the better inspection of the poor thereof, and that the diets of collecting for the poor be divided amongst them.

The number of deacons in every congregation is to be according to the proportion of the congregation, and of the poor therein: and though there be no necessity of an equal number of elders and deacons, yet it is fit that each elder have some deacon to be assisting to him in the bounds of which he hath more peculiar inspection, that so both the one and the other may discharge their duty, with the greater facility to themselves, and with the greater benefit and advantage of the congregation.

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