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. 7 And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faithActs 6:1-7
The above passage provides us with, at the very least, a prototype for the position that would later become the office of deacon. These men served the church and led service efforts in a way that both mobilized church members for the work of the ministry and allowed the pastors to focus on the ministry of shepherding. It is unlikely that only seven men were able to achieve the monumental task of collecting, organizing, and distributing food to the widows on a daily basis. It seems more reasonable that these men organized and oversaw the ministry of service by mobilizing church members to carry out the work of this ministry. They were servant leaders who both served and helped organize others to accomplish the work most efficiently.
In some instances, deacon ministry has been limited to include only the physical act of service such as cutting grass or mopping floors. The diaconate, however, is responsible for more than just carrying out the physical act of service. The specific qualifications as outlined in Acts 6 and 1 Timothy 3 are not needed for the physical act of serving food. Why would it be necessary that these men be of good repute, full of the Spirit, and of wisdom if their only responsibility was the physical exchange of goods to hungry widows? Their role and responsibilities must have been bigger and broader to require unique qualifications that set them apart from the rest of the congregation. The aim of this article is to explore those unique priorities that every deacon should have.
Stand for Truth in the Church
It has been falsely assumed that, because the deacons are not required to be “able to teach,” they are not Biblically sound. This is a false dichotomy. Deacons prioritized the centrality of the word and prayer by serving the congregation in such a way that freed church elders to focus on the task of teaching and prayer. This does not mean that deacons are by definition incapable of teaching nor does it mean that deacons do not pray. Among the seven servants selected in Acts 6, Stephen would go on to preach a mighty sermon in Acts 7, and Philip would masterfully explain the Scriptures to the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8. Furthermore, deacons are expected to “hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.” (1 Tim. 3:9) They had to be full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom. Their ministry was not primarily in teaching the word like the apostles, but it was the active applying of the word through the ministry of caring for the widows. You have to know and cherish the Scriptures to be able to apply the Scriptures with exemplary conduct and service.
A deacon’s responsibility is most certainly not less than that of every Christian in the local church. They are called to read, meditate upon, memorize, and teach the Scriptures to others. They are called, just as all Christians are called, to make disciples, lead their families in the way of the Lord, and evangelize the lost. In fact, deacons are not only called to these universal commands, but they are called to model true faithfulness to all of these commands for the rest of the congregation to see.
Symbolize Jesus to the Church
Unfortunately, not all church members are model church members. One can be a Christian yet still be in a state of spiritual immaturity feeding on spiritual milk rather than solid food. Christians need role models. They need trusted examples of godliness to look to and follow. Both elders and deacons serve this function by setting an example of godliness for the congregation. It is important, however, that churches have both the offices of elder and deacon as model followers of Christ. If the pastors were the only official role models then church members might mistake unique pastoral giftings as the epitome of godliness, but pastoral gifts are not more or less godly than other gifts. Members need mentors to look to with a variety of giftings that are not exactly like the gifting of the pastors. Not everyone is gifted to teach publicly, but this does not mean that they are any less godly. Deacons are walking models of the sound doctrine they hold to and they officially symbolize the servant leadership of Christ to the church through a wide variety of God-given gifts. All Christians are called to be servants, but deacons are models of that universal calling. (Mt. 20:26-28; Mk. 10:45) This is one reason for the qualification of blamelessness. They must live a life that is above reproach so that they might disciple the congregation to pursue a similarly faithful life. (1 Tim. 3:11)
Seek the Unity of the Church
When the first official servants were called to minister to the widows in Acts 6, they were called to an emotionally charged situation. Don’t forget that this issue was brought to the attention of the apostles because a complaint arose between two opposing parties – the Hebrew speaking widows and the Hellenists. These groups were very different from one another and had a history of tension. Greek speaking Jews were often viewed as outsiders by the Hebrew speaking Jews because of their conformity to GrecoRoman culture. Imagine how quickly such a complaint might spread among the widows if it was thought that one group was favored over the other by church leadership.
It may seem like a small matter, but disunity is no small matter. If Satan cannot destroy a church with outside devastation and persecution, he will certainly seek to destroy the church by way of inside division. He will use misunderstanding, miscommunication, envy, jealousy, covetousness, and pride. He will use differences of race, status, generational gaps, and even musical worship preferences to divide and thus cripple the church. Unity is a supernatural testimony to God’s glory and to the uniting power of the gospel so it is of course one of the primary targets of Satan’s scheming. If the church is divided it will not represent to the world what Christ accomplished. If the church is divided it will become distracted from the great commission.
The servant leaders of Acts were called to not only organize food distribution, but to bring about peace in a conflict between opposing groups. They were to defend the church leadership, reconcile the church members, and put an end to the turmoil. For such a work as this, it was going to take wisdom, the Spirit, and a high level of integrity.
Serve the Needs in the Church
As we have said already, the office of deacon primarily exists to serve the church in tasks that would otherwise divert the pastors from their primary tasks of teaching the word, prayer, and spiritual oversight. Deacons are in many ways official assistants to the elders carrying out leadership of church ministries. They serve the church by overseeing a wide variety of ministries. Modern expressions of deaconing may include, but are not limited to: welcoming and hospitality ministries, child-care, compassion ministries, building maintenance, grounds upkeep, administration, finance, member care, counseling, missions, etc. Because there is not a lot of specific instruction on what the office of deacon is responsible for, individual churches in their cultural context have some freedom in how deacons will be responsible for ministries of service under the leadership of the elders.
Deacons should not be automatically ordained because they have achieved a certain level of godliness. All godly men and women who meet the qualifications of a deacon should not be ordained into office as an accolade for their spiritual maturity. Deacons are affirmed because there is need in the church to which they commit themselves to for the building up of the whole church and the mobilization of members to do the work of the ministry. Likewise, deacons should not be ordained because they have a particular skill or gifting but lack the spiritual qualifications necessary for the office. All church members are called to serve, but a few church members are called to serve in the office of deacon. 1 Peter 4:10-11 says this of all Christians but it is especially true for the office of deacon:
“As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength God supplies – in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.”1 Peter 4:10-11
Strive for Multiplication of the Church
When the church came together in obedience to their unique giftings and areas of service, the word increased and the disciples multiplied. (Acts 6:7) Here we must pause and affirm what the purpose of the church is. The great commission of God for every Christ follower is to make disciples of all nations. (Mt. 28:19-20) We are all called to the work of Kingdom expansion. If this commission is applicable to every Christian it is essential for the deacon who is to be a model of faithfulness in all things. Deacons exist within the structure of local churches so that the church may more efficiently carry out their God-given mission of multiplication. If this is the aim of the church, then it certainly must be the priority of every deacon who serves the church. No one who prioritizes their own little kingdoms over and against the expansion of God’s eternal Kingdom is fit to hold the office of deacon. Every potential deacon should, therefore, have a heart for evangelism and disciple making. Their service will both model and enable the ministry of multiplication.
Questions for Discussion/ Reflection”
1 Why would knowing the word of God be an essential part of deaconing?
2 Why is it important for the church to have publicly affirmed and trusted servant leaders they can look to other than the pastors?
3 Have you ever seen a situation where disunity destroyed the missional effectiveness of a church?
4 In what ways could qualified deacons have helped to resolve that conflict?
5 Should all church members who meet the character qualifications of a deacon be ordained as a deacon? Why or why not?
6 How might a deacon lose sight of expanding God’s Kingdom and fall into building their own little kingdom?
7 How can you tell if an individual prioritizes the ministry of multiplication?
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