“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." And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of
faith, and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.”
Acts 6:1-6 ESV
The first deacons are chosen and ordained early on in the Book of Acts. Biblically, what they do and who they should be is quite clear. Since then, however, the position and the role of the deacon in the church has been far from clear. Almost every different denomination of the church has a different idea of what the deacon is. Before 1996, the United Methodist Church had what is called a transitional diaconate. What that means is that when someone is preparing for ministry, they are first ordained a deacon and then, following a probationary period, they are ordained an Elder. This is how the Episcopal Church still functions. In this polity (a fancy word for church structure), deacons are probationary ministers who will eventually graduate out of that position. When you look at the New Testament, there is nothing transitional about being a deacon. It is a specific calling for a specific purpose to make certain that no one gets left behind.
Since 1996, the United Methodist Church has had what is called a vocational diaconate. That means deacons are people who are called to something different than elders. There are two orders of the ordained who have different functions within the life of the church. Yet because the order of deacons is relatively new in the life of the church (even though the practice of ordaining deacons is so ancient) there is still learning going on among deacons and churches about the full scope and possibility of the order. Many deacons are chaplains or music directors or children’s ministers. The practical distinction between elders and deacons come down to the sacraments and appointments. Elders have guaranteed appointments but must be open to itinerate or move at the pleasure of the bishop. Deacons don’t have to move but also do not have guaranteed appointments. Thus, they must find jobs themselves. As well, unless there is specific approval by the Bishop, deacons cannot consecrate the sacraments of communion and baptism. Otherwise, deacons can serve in any capacity.
If you read the passage from Acts 6 again, you will see that the distinction historically has been clear. Deacons connect the church with the world. Deacons make sure people do not get left behind. Deacons serve.
In every position of church leadership, there are a lot of expectations from all parties involved. Some of those are based on theology, most are based on past experience. I am proud to be a part of a church that has a vocational diaconate. I am proud to know and serve with deacons and support the reality that deacons are not less than elders. In many ways, they are more. Jesus never ran a church. Jesus did heal the sick, feed the hungry, seek the lost. Jesus did the things deacons do. That is something that should never be lost.