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.
Like other things regarding church governance, we do not have specific commands on how to identify, assess, and affirm a deacon into office. There is no detailed procedure manual or set of bylaws in the New Testament. It seems that God was intentionally ambiguous when it comes to certain issues of church practice so as to allow for adaptation among different historical and cultural contexts. We have only the command to test deacons (1 Tim. 3:10), and a brief example of how particular servants were selected and appointed in Acts 6. While we cannot draw from these passages detailed instructions, we can discover principles for best practice that should inform our process.
Principle #1 A Time of Testing
As mentioned previously, the New Testament is clear that deacons should be tested first before they are appointed to their official service. It seems appropriate that this testing requires both a formal and informal period of testing. Informally, deacons are tested over time. They should more naturally do the work of serving throughout seasons of difficulty and ease. They should obviously meet the qualifications outlined in previous chapters no matter the situations they find themselves in. This type of testing can only happen organically. When a potential deacon is recommended to the congregation, there should be a universal acceptance because this individual has already been doing the work of a deacon consistently without having the title of deacon.
There is, however, a point where formal and more intentional testing should be implemented. There should be a moment in the congregation and in the church leadership where special attention is given to the individual with an eye for their qualifications for the work of deacon. Some churches have utilized application processes where deacons have to articulate primary doctrines of the Christian faith. Other churches meet for face to face interviews where personal and spiritual questions are asked of potential deacons. Whatever the case may be, a time of testing is necessary. I will give a brief breakdown of how our church does this at the end of this article.
Principle #2 Congregational Affirmation
However a church decides to appoint new deacons, there must be congregational affirmation. In Acts 6, the members both suggested certain individuals for the role, and gave approval to the final line up of people who were chosen for the task. This element is important because it provides extra assurance that the deacon does in fact meet the qualifications. There could always be certain individuals who appear godly in the public sphere, yet particular church members will know otherwise based upon more personal interactions outside of the church setting. God affirms the calling on a deacons life through the affirmation of the gathered congregation. There is divine certainty and affirmation that occurs when an entire local body of Christ agrees in the Spirit of unity about an individual’s call and qualification for a particular office. When a deacon is proposed for the affirmation, the whole church should nod in agreement based upon what they have seen in their life.
Deacon ordinations should not be universal positions for all times and all places. Just because a deacon is ordained in one church does not mean that he can change his church membership to a new church and immediately begin to serve in the office of deacon. He must again be observed and affirmed by that local congregation. With the constant threat of false teaching, wolves in sheep’s clothing, and the lack of discipleship in churches around the world, there can be no guarantee that someone understands the role and meets the qualifications based only on the fact that they served with that title elsewhere.
Principle #3 Pastoral Affirmation
In Acts 6, the congregation was pleased with the individuals chosen, and the apostles publicly laid their hands on these servants as a sign of affirmation. This is not the only time that the laying on of hands is utilized as the symbol of affirmation. Paul and Barnabas were prayed over with the laying on of hands when the church at Antioch sent them away as endorsed missionaries. Paul urges Timothy not to be hasty in the laying on of hands when it comes to affirming new elders into a congregation. (1 Tim. 5:22) Just as the office of pastor is affirmed by the laying on of hands, so the office of deacon is affirmed by the pastors of a local congregation through the symbol of laying on hands.
Again, it is important that there is agreement between the congregation and the pastors when it comes to the affirmation of a deacon. There may be certain things that disqualify a particular person that the congregation is totally unaware of. Certain pastoral issues are confidential, and cannot be discussed with the whole congregation so it is possible that there may be potential deacons who appear outwardly qualified, yet the pastors know otherwise.
Pastors are charged by God to shepherd the flock, to watch carefully God’s church, and to lead them into the way of peace and blessing. The appointment of deacons undoubtedly falls under this category. The spiritual oversight of under-shepherds who are able to spot and rebuke false doctrine (Titus 1:9) must offer their affirmation of a deacon who is called to hold the mystery of the faith with clear conscience. The necessity of both pastoral and congregational affirmation serves as a system of checks and balances. Pastors can be wrong about an individual, and congregations can be wrong about an individual, but when both the congregation and the pastors are pleased to appoint someone to an official office in the local church it is a beautiful display of spiritual unity and it makes more obvious that moving forward is in fact the will of God.
How Does Our Church Put These Principles Together?
While it is not written into our bylaws, potential deacons are not traditionally considered for public affirmation until they have been a member of our congregation for at least a year. Potential deacons are most often modeling servanthood organically before they are ever approached about becoming a deacon officially. The pastors are constantly watching, waiting, and praying for God to raise up individuals to serve as deacons over particular ministries. Often, elders, will ask church members to offer recommendations to help in the search process when a new deacon is needed.
Upon significant consideration and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the potential deacon is approached and his or her interest inquired of by the elders. If the individual aspires to serve the church in this position, an interview process set by the elders will begin. This could be formally in a meeting or informally over coffee. The potential deacon will begin a weekly training based upon the material found in these blog posts on deacon ministry. After the training, the elders must unanimously agree to move forward with recommending the potential deacon to the church.
This formal recommendation happens at a regularly scheduled member meeting and the congregation is then given a period of at least four weeks to examine the individual’s life and report back to the elders any concerns they might have regarding the candidate’s qualification for the position. At the end of the four weeks of observation, the congregation will vote whether the individual should be ordained and affirmed as one of the church’s deacons. Upon congregational affirmation, the current elders will schedule a date on which the they will publicly pray for and lay hands upon the candidate to symbolize the affirmation of his or her new place of responsibility.
This is the way we have sought faithfulness to Biblical principles, but there are of course other ways to be faithful to these principles based upon your context.
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