Actually, the Bible gives us surprisingly little information. That it is a formal office is of little doubt. Paul addresses the letter to the Philippians to “the overseers and the deacons” (Phil. 1:1), and requirements for the office are laid out in 1 Tim. 3:8-13. Yet very little is directly stated as to the nature of the office. In general, the word refers to a servant, with special emphasis on the work he (or “she”; cf. Rom 16:1) carries out. In this way, a deacon (Greek: diakonos) is similar to a bond-servant or slave (Greek: doulos), except that doulos focuses on the servant with emphasis on his relationship to his master.
Even the idea of service is used broadly. The NT uses it to describe domestic servants (John 2:5) civil rulers (Rom. 13:4), Jesus Himself (Rom. 15:8), Christians as they serve on another (Matt. 20:26), and, of course, servants in the church (Rom. 16:1). Whatever, then, the deacon is to do exactly, the basic concept is one of service to the body of Christ, which is distinguished from the role of the overseer, who is to watch over and shepherd the church.
Although the seven men chosen by the first church in Acts 6:1-7 are not called deacons specifically, their function seems to serve as a prototype of the office as it developed. They were in charge of seeing that the poor were taken care of. The concept of caring for the poor in the church was extremely important in primitive Christianity, though sadly this is often less of an emphasis in the western Church (indeed, we are at times more focused on the world’s poor than our own!). If we take that model and extend it, the formal role of a deacon should likely be understood as one who assists those in the church with their practical needs, particularly those who cannot easily help themselves (i.e., widows, the sick, the elderly, the poor, etc.).
In other words, deacons are ministers in the most practical way. In one sense, of course, all Christians are deacons. Yet God has also provided a particular office so that the church may have a special means for helping those who most need help in the body of Christ. In some ways, then, the deacon is God’s answer to poverty and need. The office is the tool by which God expects the church to take care her less fortunate. Though deacons may not be looked at as such by many, if we reclaim this high calling, the church would once again become not only a place of spiritual growth, but a model for community and fellowship.