Mrs Deacon (some people have a similar surname 'Deakin') would not think of herself as a particularly unusual Christian lady. She has lived a full and useful life, and done what she could. While health permitted, she met regularly with her fellowship group, and took an active part doing whatever was needed. When a service was held at an old people's home she chose the readings and led the service. She is meticulous in giving her weekly collection money, she takes pride and interest in all her family (one of whom has become a preacher), she is concerned and prayerful about her neighbours in the wider world around her.
Why mention her name? The family name is said to have come from some who were deacons in the church. 'Deacon' today can mean different things - perhaps, 'a minister ranking below a priest', perhaps, 'a lay officer who assists the minister'. In one denomination a deacon would serve communion, distribute alms for the church, and be part of its advisory council. Long ago, 'deaconing' was a term for reading out one line or two of a hymn at a time for the benefit of a congregation who either could not read or did not possess any hymn books. 'Deaconing' also once described the practice of arranging fruit on a market stall with the best on top!
'Deacon' comes from the Greek word 'diakonos' which means 'servant'. This word in Scripture is translated in different ways. Sometimes the term 'deacon' is used to refer to someone appointed to serve a church. Sometimes the translation is 'minister' (we have the phrase ministering angels, or minister of the gospel). There was Peter's wife's mother ministering to her guests. Sometimes the translation is simply, 'servant'.
The servant might be just any ordinary servant, like those who obeyed Jesus' instructions and poured out water which became wine (John 2.5,9). It was servants who ejected the guest who did not come properly dressed for the wedding feast, in Jesus' parable (Matthew 22.13). Magistrates and civil rulers were described as 'servants' by Paul, because they did a useful and necessary job: in fact they were God's servants (Romans 13.4).
Various New Testament characters are referred to as servants. Tychicus (Ephesians 6.21) would bring news of Paul and carry his letter, something also probably done by Phoebe (Romans 16.1), servant of the church at Cenchrea. Epaphras (Colossians 1.7) was a servant who carried the news of the gospel to Colosse. Like Timothy (1 Thessalonians 3.2) he was more than a messenger, but a fellow servant with Paul in the gospel, doing the same work. His servant's work included reminding believers of what the new faith meant, and setting a personal example in his life (1 Timothy 4.6). A 'servant of God' is how Paul saw himself, a servant who was inspired to a life of hardship, sincerity, insight, kindness, love, living by the Holy Spirit and the power of God (2 Corinthians 6.4-10). But he did not set himself up as an empire builder in opposition to Apollos, they were both only servants 'through whom you came to believe as the Lord gave each man his opportunity' (1 Corinthians 3.5). Paul claimed to be a servant of Christ (2 Corinthians 11.23), a servant administering the new agreement in which the Holy Spirit transcended the old relationship with God based on law (2 Corinthians 3.6), a servant enlisted in the service of the gospel by God's effective and undeserved kindness (Ephesians 3.7-9).
In individual churches people were appointed to be 'Deacons', servants of the fellowship, perhaps in much the same way as the Seven in Acts 6 were chosen, whom we refer to as Deacons (but Scripture as it happens does not use the word for them!) Deacons, along with Overseers (= bishops), had a special standing in the congregation, so that Paul writing to Timothy (1 Timothy 3.8-13) describes what must be looked for in their faith and character - serious outlook, sincere conviction, not greedy for money, men with one wife and keeping their families well in order.
The desire to be a leader in the church must arise from the desire to serve. As Jesus had said, thinking of ambitious religious people, 'the only superior among you is the one who serves the others' (Matthew 23.11), and 'If a man wants to be first, he must be last and servant of all' (Mark 9.35). Just like the Son of Man who came 'not to be served but to serve, and to give his life to set many others free' (Matthew 20.28 JBP). As Jesus later said, 'If a man wants to enter my service, he must follow my path [to the cross and then beyond]; and where I am, my servant will also be' (John 12.26).
In the light of all this it is interesting to see what a modern denomination intend when they 'ordain a deacon'. Obviously each denomination has its own set of beliefs and its own rules about who does what and who is in charge (what Christian group has not, even if the rules are informal, and not set out in a constitution?) Leaving denominational considerations aside, consider the following:
"Deacons are called to work.... as heralds of Christ's kingdom. They are to proclaim the gospel in word and deed, as agents of God's purposes of love. They are to serve the community in which they are set, bringing to the church the needs and hopes of all the people. They are to work with their fellow members in searching out the poor and weak, the sick and lonely and those who are oppressed and powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, that the love of God may be made visible. Deacons share in the pastoral ministry of the church and in leading God's people in worship. They preach the word and bring the needs of the world before the church in intercession. They accompany those searching for faith and bring them to baptism. They assist in administering the sacraments; they distribute communion and minister to the sick and housebound. Deacons are to seek nourishment from the Scriptures; they are to study them with God's people, that the whole church may be equipped to live out the gospel in the world. They are to be faithful in prayer, expectant and watchful for the signs of God's presence, as he reveals his kingdom among us."
Those who are being ordained are told: "In the name of our Lord, we bid you remember the greatness of the trust in which you are now to share: the ministry of Christ himself, who for our sake took the form of a servant. Remember always with thanksgiving that the people among whom you will minister are made in God's image and likeness. In serving them you are serving Christ himself, before whom you will be called to account. You cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength, but only by the grace and power of God. Pray therefore that your heart may daily be enlarged and your understanding of the Scriptures enlightened. Pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit."
Before they are ordained, this prayer is made: "We praise and glorify you, almighty Father, because in your infinite love you have formed throughout the world a holy people for your own possession, a royal priesthood, a universal Church. We praise and glorify you because you sent your only Son Jesus Christ to take the form of a slave; he humbled himself for our sake, and in obedience accepted death, even death on a cross. We praise and glorify you because in every age you send your Spirit to fill those whom you have chosen, to equip your holy people for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ. And now we give you thanks that you have called these your servants, whom we ordain in your name, to share as deacons in the ministry of the gospel of Christ, who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
After they are ordained, the prayer continues: "Through your Spirit, heavenly Father, give these your servants grace and power to fulfil their ministry. Make them faithful to serve and constant in advancing your gospel in the world. May they follow the example of Jesus Christ your Son, who washed the feet of his disciples, and set the needs of others before his own. May their life be disciplined and holy, their words declare your love and their actions reveal your glory, that your people may walk with them in the way of truth and be made ready for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ....."
This quotation from an ordination service makes one realise that the calling to be a deacon is serious and demanding. So is the calling of any Christian, and all of us are called to be servants. Almost all of the quotation would apply to our own calling as rank and file Christians - ordinary, not ordained. (This is not unexpected if we accept the thought of the 'priesthood of all believers'!) Each of us is called by God to serve. And as we serve, as whatever 'part of the body', even if we are not ordained in a technical sense, our role is recognised by our brothers and sisters, however humble or great it may be. Any servant - diakonos - is called humbly to serve, in love, in obedience. What more can we seek? What more must we seek?
And so, Mrs Deacon, you have a good name. Keep up the good work, with the rest of us.