Jesus Christ, the sole Head of the Church, gave to his body the perpetual office of deacon. He did so because he cares for the poor and the needy. He gave the office of deacon because our Lord is a good Shepherd and cares for his church. The diaconate presents a constant reminder that Jesus Christ displays compassionate interest in the temporal needs of people.
Ministry and the Mission of the Church
If the mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ by the means of declaring and proclaiming the good news that God saves sinners through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, what role does mercy ministry play in the preaching and teaching of the church? Are means-of-grace and mercy ministries mutually exclusive? I don’t think so, and the office of deacon is the reason. Elders are tasked to shepherd the flock and to declare the whole counsel of God. Deacons are tasked to engage in service and mercy ministry. The PCA’s Book of Church Order describes the office and its duty in the following way:
“To minister to those who are in need, to the sick, to the friendless, and to any who may be in distress. It is their duty also to develop the grace of liberality in the members of the church, to devise effective methods of collecting the gifts of the people, and to distribute these gifts among the objects to which they are contributed.” (9-2)
Unfortunately, the diaconate can easily drift into little more than maintenance men. To be sure, part of their responsibility is to keep in good working order the property of the church. In this way, they are not less than maintenance men, but they are so much more. We can too easily take for granted the lights that are turned on each week. We may never even notice it until a dead bulb went unchanged or the AC wasn’t turned on in time to cool the sanctuary. These are mundane but meaningful tasks for which we ought to be more consciously grateful. However, the diaconate serves the church and its surrounding community in mercy ministry and mobilizes the congregation in caring for the poor, the sick, the widows, and those in distress. This being the case—rather than being undervalued—the office of deacon is vital to the thriving and flourishing of the church.
This vital influence explains the importance of the spiritual qualifications of the office (1 Tim. 3:8-13). To recognize needs in the body there must be spiritual maturity and Christ-like eyes to see and discern those needs. There is also the need for spiritual wisdom to know how best to care for those in need. As a (mostly) thankless office performing (mostly) unseen acts of mercy, the deacon must perform his calling for Christ’s sake. It’s not always easy to minister with little recognition. What is true for all acts of kindness done by believers, in general, is true for deacons in particular. Deacon, God is not unjust to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do (Heb. 6:10).
Leading the Congregation in Service
The diaconate leads the congregation by demonstrating a living faith. As we all sit under the ministry of the Word we are to be hearers and doers. The faith of the church is to be a faith with works (James 2). The office of deacon clearly demonstrates the distinct and inseparable relationship between the ministry of the Word and the ministry of mercy. A strong diaconate that cares for those in need helps clarify the priority of the church’s mission. The church’s mission is to make disciples by proclaiming the gospel in Word and sacrament. This primary mission does not lead to idleness; it leads to action. And Christ gave to us deacons to lead in this way, to be the hands and feet of caring for others.
Ministers shepherd the flock well by teaching from God’s Word the importance of the diaconate to both deacons and the congregation at large. This can be done in several ways. First, when preaching through biblical passages on justice and mercy, make application to its importance and the role of the diaconate to perform it, and encourage the congregation to be conscious of their role as well. Second, just as we encourage sessions to continue their education regarding their role as shepherds, the diaconate can participate in reading through books to increase their understanding of their office. Third, when teaching officer-training classes, invite those already serving to come and participate. Fourth, focus on the nature and purpose of the office prior to officer nominations so that the congregation may have a better understanding of the diaconate as they pray for potential nominees.
May God embolden our deacons to perform their task with vigilance and faithfulness. And may those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 3:13). Maintenance does matter, but a robust diaconate is much more than maintenance. Christ instituted the office of deacon because he cares for justice and mercy.
 For a recent helpful book, see Cornelis Van Dam, The Deacon: The Biblical Roots and the Ministry of Mercy Today (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2016).