The Diaconate: a Ministry of Mercy

Dr. Wayne Spear writes, “The collection for the relief of famine suffered in Jerusalem occupied Paul’s attention and organizing skills for several years during his third missionary journey.  Since the apostle, with his great zeal for evangelism, gave his time and energy to an international and intercultural ministry of mercy, the church today ought to follow his example.”[1] The Lord Jesus through His apostles ordained deacons to ensure that we do. 

This calling of special officers was to see that the physical needs of God’s people are not neglected.  Such official work reflects Christ’s compassionate healing the hurting and feeding the hungry and is thus often called “Mercy Ministry;”[2] it is so important that Paul includes greeting the deacons in Philippians 1:1.

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s Book of Order explains: “Deacons are called to show forth the compassion of Christ in a manifold ministry of mercy toward the saints and strangers on behalf of the church.  To this end they exercise, in the fellowship of the church, a recognized stewardship of care and of gifts for those in need or distress.”[3]

Dr. Tim Keller points to Luke 10:25-37 as the key illustration of the function of deacons.[4]  Their initial duties, ordination, and contextual impetus is given in Acts 6:1-7.[5]

Deacons are not only to ensure the proper care of the physical wellbeing of God’s people, but also their spiritual welfare by freeing pastors and elders to focus on the Word and prayer.  Both body and soul are to be adequately attended, and our God of order wisely created different offices with specific duties to see that they are.

Citing the Westminster Assembly’s “Form of Presbyterial Church Government”, the Reformed Presbyterian Church General Assembly’s Book of Church Order describes the office and duties of deacons:

The deacon is a servant of the Lord … for the benefit of the congregation … particularly in the administration and distribution to the poor … Deacons … minister to the needs of the sick, to the friendless and to any who may be in distress. It is their duty also to develop generosity in the members of the Church, to devise effective methods of collecting the gifts of the people and to distribute these gifts for the purpose for which they are contributed. They shall have the care of the property of the congregation, both real and personal, and shall keep in proper repair the church edifice and other buildings belonging to the congregation …[6]

During my church internship under Place for Truth’s managing editor, I was asked to teach through Dr. Keller’s video course on the diaconate. Though no longer available, here are some highlights:[7]

The term diakonia [the verb form of the Greek noun for “deacon”] is “deaconing.”  It’s more narrow meaning of serving, ministering, or relieving is feeding someone or waiting on a table (Luke 10:40; 12:37; 17:8; Rom. 15:25; Acts 11:29); its broader meaning is meeting practical needs (Matthew 25:44; Luke 8:3).[8]


The office of deacon has a ministry of meeting felt needs through deeds.


The priority of deaconing is mercy, which is the alleviation of misery.


Mercy ministry should begin liberally, but add conditions for growth as time goes on.


The more covenant ties you have, the more responsibility you have with the mercy.


Develop a referral network in and outside the church (resources and needs).


Acknowledge Christ as the source of the healing resources.

Mercy ministry is offering grace as undeserved caring that intercepts destructive behavior.


Our mercy ministry must help people freely, yet aim to bring their whole lives under the healing lordship of Christ.

Diaconal service keeps the Session busy with their ordained work, as Keller noted the diaconate is a major contact to the community providing myriad church growth evangelism and pastoral opportunities for the minister and elders;[9] and this is what happened in Acts 6:7.  

Our diaconate’s responses to or extensions into the community have provided ample spiritual ministry and we as the Session are greatly indebted to all its vital work to which we would struggle to give proper attention (or neglect our own ordained governing duties).[10]

I once witnessed a college friend, essentially a single Mom, straying from Christianity into a cult due to its people helping her with her home.  Pray for our deacons to be sure that such mercy is ministered to keep the saints within the embrace of Christ and draw others to eat, drink, and be satisfied with His righteousness.

Grant Van Leuven has been feeding the flock at the Puritan Reformed Presbyterian Church in San Diego, CA, since 2010.  He also serves the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals as community engagement coordinator as well as assistant editor for  He and his wife, Fernanda, have six covenant children: Rachel, Olivia, Abraham, Isaac, Gabriel, and Gideon.  He earned his M.Div. at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA.

[1] Wayne R. Spear, Faith of Our Fathers: A Commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith (Pittsburgh: Crown and Covenant Publications, 2006), 138.  Here he makes a connection with the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 26, “Of the Communion of the Saints.”

[2] Not that the ministry of the Word and prayer by the minister and elders is not merciful: it in fact brings the eternal mercy of God to mankind. Still, the temporal ministry of the diaconate often receives this special designation as it demonstrates the needs Christ calls upon His people to be especially sensitive to serve with His parable of the Good Samaritan: that the Church, if it is truly spiritual with the mind of Christ and eternity, also has a heart for the physically hurting and comes to their aid during their earthly pilgrimage.   See also this booklet available from the Alliance on Mercy Ministry:

[3] The Book of Church Order of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Willow Grove, Pa.: The Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2011), 14.

[4] Tim Keller, “Mercy I: Biblical Basics, Session #3,” in Diaconal Ministry: A Video Course (Self-published with lecture handouts giving permission to copy for his work while a student at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia? 1988).

[5] Dr. Jeff Stivason’s earlier article in this series on deacons detailed their character requirements listed in 1 Timothy 3 (as well as more narrowly in Acts 6:3).

[6] The Book of Church Order of the Reformed Presbyterian Church General Assembly (2016 Edition), B 7:1, 2: see

[7] Tim Keller, Diaconal Ministry: A Video Course (1988).  It was used along with and is reflected in his book, Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road, 2nd Edition (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 1997).

[8] Ibid.  He adds: secondary meaning is assisting (Philemon 13; Acts 19:22; 2 Peter 1:12; Mark 10:45) and forwarding the Gospel (2 Cor. 3:7-9; 2 Cor. 8:1-19).

[9] Ibid.  Similarly, he advises that the ministry of pastors and elders often will learn of physical mercy ministry needs which they can refer to the deacons to efficiently and promptly care for.

[10] Please allow me to publicly honor our active Deacon Ron Renner (also still busy serving as needed regularly as elder emeritus).  I would need quite a few articles only to be able to summarize the amazing amount of diaconate service (and positive energy!) he provides for our church members and community.  Further, our church is deeply grateful to the incredible generosity of the diaconate of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Redlands, CA, for helping to keep our Gospel Ship afloat this year as they worked through our diaconate to do so.


Grant Van Leuven