While the use of the word deacon is somewhat varied in Scripture and church history, the constitutional Standards of the PCA clearly define that word for use within the bounds of the PCA. Why then is the word deacon used in such diverse and even contradictory ways by PCA congregations?
Modernism was characterized by a quest for objectivity and certainty, but it failed to deliver. Post-Modernism arose in response and questions all objectivity and certainty. Post Modernism thrives in the society of our exile.
Perhaps nowhere is the impact of Post-Modernism more glaring than in language.
Language is hard. The meanings of words evolve over time. For example, four centuries ago a “stew” was a reference to a bathhouse or brothel. Today a “stew” is a thick soup that is especially popular in colder months. But you can see the relationship between the archaic meaning and the current understanding of “stew.”
However, in our postmodern day the meaning of words has become almost completely fluid. Consider this somewhat absurd example in the meaning of the word literally as it is currently understood according to Oxford Languages: “in a literal manner or sense; exactly,” or “used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true.”
So what does literally mean? I literally don’t know.
There seems to be similar trouble over the meaning of the word deacon in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).
Deacon in Scripture
The word deacon (and its feminine, deaconess) simply means servant. I am not going to do an exhaustive study of the word here; that has been done by others elsewhere. Nonetheless, a brief survey will help set the context.
It is used of Nero by Paul in Romans 13:4 – for he is God’s deacon (διάκονός; diakonos) for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
Later in Romans, the Apostle Paul uses the same word to describe the woman who apparently carried Paul’s epistle to the church at Rome – I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon (διάκονον; diakonon) of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well (Rom. 16:1, 2).
So it seems in Romans the word deacon does not have a technical, official sense (i.e., referring to a church office), but is rather used to describe both men and women who serve, whether in government or in the church.
Acts of the Apostles
Acts 6 is generally understood by Reformed Christians to explain the origin of the office of deacon by Christ through His apostles. Although the noun often translated deacon does not actually occur there, the verb form is used to describe the work the apostles and elders will not do, but to which ministry they will set apart seven men elected by the Church – 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 (διακονεῖν; diakonein) 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 (Acts 6:2, 3).
Interestingly, a noun form of the verb translated serve in verse two is used in verse four to refer to the ministry of the apostles and elders – But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry (διακονίᾳ; diakonia) of the word.
The words appearing in Acts related to what is elsewhere translated deacon don’t seem to have taken on a technical or official sense.