42. The Servants – Deacons

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.

53. Talents

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 53.  The Talents 

Mt 25:14-15   Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey.

We come to what I have to confess is my favourite parable, for a slightly strange reason that I will share later. Notice the start word: “Again”. Jesus is continuing on picturing what it will be like at the End and I suppose it can be summarised as “An Accounting”. The thrust is in the punch lines at the end but to get there we have to go through what is a fairly lengthy but simple story.

Remember the context of pointing towards the end time: Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them.” (v.14) That is the background scenario, in Part 1 of this parable, a property looked after by servants while the ‘master’ is away. In a sense Jesus is ‘away’ at the present time, as he reigns from heaven, seated at his Father’s right hand. He is ‘away’ and will come back at some point in the future; that is to be remembered at the heart of this parable.

However, before he goes the master entrusts each servant with a number of “talents of money”.  A talent would be the equivalent, I am told, of quite a lot of money. This is a rich master giving out generously. To one he gives five, to another two and to another just one, “each according to their ability” and then he went on his journey (v.15) The parable is about how each one used what they had and then the Master’s response when he returned.  The one who had five made five more, the one with two made two more but the one with just the one, “dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.” (16-18).

Now Part 2 of the parable is of The End: After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them.” (v.19) Each servant comes before the Master and accounts for what they have done with his money. (v.20) He praises the first one, “His master replied, `Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (v.21) A fulsome praise. The same response is given to the second man. (v.22,23)

Now the response of the third man is the thing that highlights this parable because I believe it portrays the response of so many Christians and needs addressing in these days. Indeed it may be one of the most significant things that limits the church today. So see his response: “Then the man who had received the one talent came. `Master,’ he said, `I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’” (v.24,25)

I will come back here in a moment, but notice the Master’s response. First of all the rebuke: “His master replied, `You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.” (v.26,27) IF, and it is an ‘if’, IF the servant believed what he said, then logically he ought to have done something with the money more than he did. Whether we respond to His love and generosity or we respond out of fear of the accounting, we NEED to be Doers, responders.

Second, observe the severity of his response: “Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” (v.28-30) Note two actions and sandwiched between, a two-sided principle.

First action: According to this parable what has been entrusted to each of us in life, will be taken away at the End if we don’t use it wisely, i.e. living with a focus on the Father (v.28). Second action: the removal of that life will mean being cast away from God.  The Principles: 1. When you come to God He will give you His blessings and as you use that, He will give you more.  2. If you don’t come to Him you will have nothing and even that will be taken from you!

Now I need to clarify something. Earlier I said the last man often epitomized what appears to be the response of so many Christians today. Now this man in this parable ends up being cast away from God. Does that mean hell? No, I believe that means into a place of severe disciplining. I don’t believe people will lose their salvation because of their attitude that God is a ‘hard man’ but they will be disciplined, and that in this lifetime.

So what does having an attitude that God is a ‘hard man’ mean?  First of all, it is an attitude about God. Some people get locked up by the thought that God is a God of severe judgment who is to be feared but as one person on the Internet has noted, “Only about 60 verses in total in the Gospels might be construed as either directly or indirectly referring to hell” (1.58%) whereas “192 verses have Jesus referring to heaven, eternal life, or his coming kingdom” (5%). i.e. hardly any of the Gospels are taken up with the thought of what happens to sinners after death and at the End. The Gospels are Good News! It was good news for those who encountered Jesus and it is good news as far as far as our ultimate eternal life will be concerned.

I have previously recommended learning three sets of verses from Ezekiel in this respect and I do so again. They are: Ezek 18:23 “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” and Ezek 18:31,32 “Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” and Ezek 33:11 “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?”  Our God is a God of grace and mercy!

But second, this attitude manifests itself in unbelief seen in passive Christianity that prefers to sit in the pews rather than risk stepping out in faith and maybe getting it wrong, and the ‘hard man’ mentality fears being slapped by this harsh holy God who cannot tolerate imperfection. Look again at Jesus meeting with the sinners! God loves His children stepping out in faith (and sometimes getting it not quite right!!!). He is NOT a hard man and He loves all of us, when we get it right and when we don’t. Aim to get it right, but risk His love!