Last Sunday night at Cornerstone we discussed the concept of deacons. If you were there, I trust it was a fruitful discussion. If you could not be there, I invite you to get the perspective of someone who was there. But here are a few salient points. I went out of normal order – I began with the biblical data, and only at the end did I disclose the practical, current reason behind why I am bringing up this ancient practice. So here are those points:
The New Testament Assumes There Will Be Deacons
Twice in the New Testament, Paul talks about elders and deacons together, assuming that they will be “there”, in a normal first-century church. The first place is in 1 Timothy 3. There Paul gives the qualifications for the congregation in Ephesus to select elders, and then, without skipping a beat, he moves into the qualifications for deacons. The only real difference between them of note is that elders must be able to teach the Word.
Though it’s a little off-point, I should note here, as I did on Sunday night, that none of the qualifications for either office are exceptional. All Christians should aspire to all of the qualifications. So then these guys (or gals, as we will see) should therefore be “above average” exemplars of the qualifications – yet still growing, not perfect.
Paul does the same thing when writing his letter to the Philippians – in 1:1 addressing it to the elders and deacons of this beloved church.
So clearly, to these two pivotal churches, Paul expects there to be two offices in place – elders and deacons. He does not mention deacons in Titus, after giving qualifications for elders. But this seems to be because Titus’ work lagged behind the timeline of Timothy’s. Titus was to simply find enough Cretans who had repented of their lazy gluttony to start up an eldership in the first place. Then we can assume he would move on to deacons.
But lastly, we must mention Romans 16:1 and Phoebe, a woman, whom Paul describes as a “servant” or “deaconess” of the church in Cenchreae. It’s very possible that Paul had entrusted Phoebe to carry his letter to Rome. Regardless, she was a benefactor to many (v. 2), including Paul – a true servant. In my opinion – and good men will differ – this passage is an example of a female deacon in the church. Such servants should be honored, as Paul does here.
So to sum up, Paul seems to assume that established churches will have two offices: elder, and deacon.
Again, a side note: what about pastor? The biblical data is sparse. Ephesians 4:11 speaks of pastors and shepherds. Some argue that this is the same office, but I think not, though there is great overlap. I suspect that when Paul speaks there of “pastors”, he’s thinking of a form of elder, just as “shepherds” are a form of “elder.” I conclude this because in 1 Tim. 5:17, Paul commands Timothy to make sure that certain elders be worthy of “double-honor” – that is, payment. Who exactly? Those elders that work hard, especially at preaching and teaching – the office we call “pastor”. Thus pastors are a subset of “elder”, and it’s most likely that, when Paul says “shepherds”, he’s talking about the other elders – what we now call the “lay” elders.
It’s worth then to consider where this structure came from. I will leave aside the concept of elders for another time, focusing solely on deacons.
From Acts 6
It seems best to me to understand the origination of deacons to be both an ancient practice outside Christianity, but one that found its distinctive Christian flavor in the church, at the moment described by Luke in Acts 6. There the church is thriving, but one problem has the potential to bring everything to a standstill. The church is now an amazing amalgamation of all races – both Jew and Greek.
But the Greek widows are complaining that they are being neglected in the daily distribution. There was no social security then. Then, as now, the church must take care of its own – the reputation of God as a good and powerful and generous God is at stake in that. So then the church voluntarily1 pooled its resources, and did just that.
But something at this point is broken, and a division is forming, based on race. Racial tensions are nothing new. So the elders exercise very practical wisdom to solve the problem. They have a very important job to do: the ministries of prayer and the Word – that’s what makes the whole thing go (v. 4). It would not be right, therefore, if they gave that up to wait on tables (v. 2). Even though waiting on tables is good and right, too.
So they called together the “full number” of the disciples – which begs the question how they knew what the full number was – is this a nod to what we would call membership? I think so. But at any rate, they call all the disciples together, and ask them to choose seven men of high quality to solve the problem. They don’t take the power for themselves – they spread it amongst the congregation. And the congregation then acts with earthy wisdom, choosing seven Greek men that those Greek widows will trust and love, and who will make sure things get done well.
Any of these men would undoubtedly have made a good elder, and that goes to the point. These first deacons were not only serving the widows; they were also serving the elders, being convinced of the importance of their calling. And in doing so, they served the whole church, and in doing so, served Christ.
And the result?
Acts 6:7 (ESV): 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 faith.
A great many. I suspect many priests converted when they saw that this Christ business was not just talk – that it produced earthy, wise love.
The point then is that deacons solve problems in the church that are
That is, they administer areas of the church that are important enough that, if left unaddressed, would be decisive, in a negative way, to the spread of the gospel. Because, if left unaddressed, they would distract the elders – and therefore all of us – from our primary mission.
Many churches have foundered on the rocks of distraction, drifting into the shores of social justice, social fun, or social divisions or infighting. Deacons serve the mission by wisely seeing to it that these decisive points do not become distractions, instead freeing all of us up to pray and propagate the Word with freedom and abandon. Shall it be so here at Grace?
More to come on that.