Were the seven men of Acts 6:1-6 deacons?
Let’s look at the two relevant passages:
Acts 6:1-6 (ESV)
1 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.
2 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.
3 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.
4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
5 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.
6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
1 Timothy 3:8-13 (ESV)
8 Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain.
9 They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.
10 And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless.
11 Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.
12 Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well.
13 For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.
When one compares the two passages, there are similarities and differences. The similarity that sticks out in my mind is that a derivative of the Greek word for “deacon,” diakonos, is used to describe the responsibilities of the seven men: diakoneo (“serve tables”). Deacons by definition of the name given to their office are servants. Diakonos means “one who executes the commands of another, especially of a master; a servant, attendant, minister…” (Strong). The apostles did not have the time to serve the needs of those widows because of their responsibilities to evangelism and edification. They would appoint these seven men to do so. It reminds me of how wise elders who are given the responsibility to shepherd and oversee the flock and watch out for their souls delegate the task of serving the other needs of the flock, such as benevolent needs, to deacons who can serve in ways the elders do not have the time to do.
The differences that stick out revolve around comparing the qualifications given by the apostles for these seven men to meet (Acts 6:3) and the qualifications of deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. It’s clear that while in some aspects there are similarities, they are not the same. Since Paul had said that deacons must meet these qualifications and different qualifications were given to the men of Acts 6, it’s clear that they aren’t deacons per se.
However, I personally hold that one could consider the men of Acts 6 to be the prototypes of the deacons who would come later. This took place in the early days of the church, long before the biblical record indicated the existence of elders and deacons in local congregations (cf. Phil. 1:1). The apostles were the leaders of the Jerusalem congregation, and thus could be considered prototypes of the elders that would come afterward (the ranks of whom at least Peter would join – 1 Pet. 5:1-4). Acts 6:1-6 can therefore serve as a model for elders and deacons today in the ways discussed above.