The Wonder of the Church: Part 6 – Thinking about Leaders
42. The Servants – Deacons
1 Tim 3:8 deacons are to be worthy of respect…. They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.
Rom 16:1 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae
Acts 6:3 choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom
Who? What? Coming to the subject of ‘deacons’ we are in an area that is, in some ways, unclear. A concordance or Bible dictionary will tell you that the Greek word diakonos occurs some thirty times in the New Testament as minister or servant and diakonia meaning ministry occurs a further seventy times. In Greek culture diakonos is a servant. Paul used it of himself as a servant (Col 1:23,25) It sometimes comes up as ‘serves’ (e.g. 1 Pet 4:11) As a word it applies to Jesus (Mk 10:45) and in his teaching to every disciple (see Lk 22:26). So in one sense it is used generally to all believers. Having said that there are some features to be noted.
Distinction: The translated Scriptures clearly differentiate between deacon and overseer, e.g. “To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons.” (Phil 1:1) Similarly in 1 Tim verses 1 to 7 are about overseers and then verses 8 to 13 are about deacons. Paul would not have covered the same people twice. What is interesting in the 1 Timothy passage on deacons is that initially (v.8-10) Paul makes no mention of men or women in the role and in fact then picks upon women in v.11 within the overall brief and then goes on to indicate men in v.12. The fact that in Rom 16:1 Paul indicates that there is a woman who is a deacon(ess) suggests that perhaps his first inclination was that deacons initially are likely to be men but that is not exclusive.
Qualification: The only listing of qualifications comes in the 1 Timothy passage requires that they be people (we could imply men here) who are respected, honest, sober, and honest in business (again implying men) (v.8) and be clear and obvious committed Christians (v.9) whose background should be checked (v.10) before being allowed to serve. Women, who we may imply be included as deacons, should similarly be respected, not gossips, not extreme in any characteristic, and completely trustworthy (v.11). Following this there is the requirement for having a household free from dissension or upset, implying any form of immorality (esp. adultery) immediately rules out any such person (v.12).
Example of Acts 6: The only time there is anything that might be considered an example or even a model for deacons is that seen in Acts 6 although the word is not used there. The situation arose where, because the church was looking after the needy and there tended to be a Jewish faction and a Greek faction who had not yet learned to live very well as one, the Greek group complained that they were not being cared for as in the way the Jewish group were. It is at this point that the apostles make an important distinction: “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.” (v.2)
Distinction Again: These primary leaders clearly imply that there was a spiritual responsibility upon them to somehow ensure the ongoing growth and development of the Church through the means of spreading the word of God. When they speak of ‘waiting on tables,’ it is not speaking of this service in any derogatory manner but distinguishing a practical service from the spiritual responsibility that they held. In all else we have considered in the studies on local leadership, it is legitimate to distinguish between the spiritual responsibilities of the elder-overseer-shepherd and the non-spiritual material serving the church in practical ways.
Importance & Significance: I am aware that it is often said that everything we do should be as unto God and should therefore be considered ‘spiritual’ – and I agree – but the distinction here is between spiritual provision as we considered in the earlier studies, and material provision as we see here now in Acts 6. The fact that this is also to be considered a ‘spiritual function’ (because it is before God and for the church) is enhanced by the requirement that these ‘servants’ are to be “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom.” (v.3) The fact that there were to be seven of them indicates the importance the apostles gave to this – a plurality of deacons needed to care for the material well-being of the church which, as we’ve seen before, was a major characteristic of the early church. The apostles saw this as a significant ‘responsibility’ and it thus enabled them to, “give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word,” (v.4) i.e. getting before the Lord, keeping close contact with him and fulfilling their mission from Jesus to, “be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” (Acts 1:8) and, “make disciples of (or from) all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Mt 28:19,20)
Let me ask a pertinent question in the light of what I have seen in church life for over fifty years: How many spiritual leaders are NOT fulfilling their calling because they still have their hand on the tiller of the material well-being of the church, instead of leaving it to Spirit-filled, godly, humble, servant-hearted men and women? That poses two further questions? Where are the deacons who fit that description, and where are the leaders who give themselves to the spiritual ministry we’ve described above?
So what do the ‘deacons’ do? Perhaps more to the point is what do the elders do and whatever else needs doing to ‘run’ the church? With that thought in mind I am going to stop and pick up this thread in the next study, the final one in this Part on leadership of the church.