What Are Deacons? Acts 6
I read the following in a book this week:
“After the Netherlands fell to Germany in 1940, deacons in the Dutch Reformed church rose up to care for the politically oppressed, supplying food and providing secret refuge. Realizing what was happening, the Germans decreed that the office of deacon should be eliminated. Responding in a General Synod on July 1941, the Dutch believers resolves, “whoever touches the diaconate interferes with what Christ has ordained as the task of the church....whoever lays hands on diakonia lays hands on worship!” The Germans backed down.”
Nazis wanted to outlaw deacons! What was it about those deacons that scared the Nazis? The church being the church by caring for those around the was a threat to the agenda of an oppressive regime. When the deacons led the efforts to care for others,
We have been moving through this series on Biblical Church polity or Ecclesiology. We began by considering what is a church, last week we consider what are elders. This week we will learn from the Scriptures about deacons.
Like we did last week, We want to look at a few models that exist in our current culture and then consider what the biblical model is.
What are some models out there?
Let’s take a look
Do you remember this from last week? Some churches are structured with a single pastor/elder, and then they have their deacon board. Sometimes the deacon board actually functions more like an elder board, sometimes the deacon board are a group of yes men for the pastor, it can function in a variety of ways. We discussed some of the issues with this last week.
Often churches that have this structure and the deacons function more like elders will have a third office called trustees who often und up doing what deacons might do in other churches. I hope the obvious problem here is that trustees is not a biblical office.
In some churches, the office of deacon is viewed as stepping stone on the way to becoming an elder or pastor. The office of deacon is not a calling in itself, but just the first step toward another office you really were shooting for all along, kind of like how “youth pastor” is often seen as a stepping stone to “senior pastor” but notice, there is a never a “mid-life pastor” they go right from youth to senior. I haven’t figured that one out yet.
But the point is this: are deacons just men who are on their way to something else? Do deacons ever become elders? Yes! Is that okay? Yes! Is that the purpose of the office of deacon, to be nothing but a pipeline for elders? No.
Some people think of deacons as the handy men. You may have heard it said that the deacons, they take care of the physical things, while the elders take care of the spiritual things. I do think there is an element of truth to this idea, but I believe its starting at the wrong place. Just because someone is good with their hands or can manage money well doesn’t mean that they should be a deacon. “Can fix a ac unit” is not one of the biblical qualifications. We may end up in a place where there is a deacon of facilities, but we must not reduce the office of deacon to the handyman club, or the financial team.
These are some ways that some churches view deacons. Before we get into what I believe is the biblical approach, there is one more misconception to shoot down. What I am about to show you is compatible with the last two ideas, but it has more to do with the actual structure of how things run.
Some churches are structured in such a way that they are really borrowing from our American governmental structure for their polity. You end up with essentially three branches of power, checks and balances, with the elders and deacons and the pastor each vying for control, but all the while the congregation has ultimate authority based on how they vote. In this model you might have elders over spiritual things and deacon over the physical, but the two offices are equal in standing. While the elders might technically have the spiritual authority, the deacons hold the functional power because they have control of the budget.
This is a not a biblical approach to church governance. We don’t see anything near to this anywhere in the Scriptures. What do we see?
First, let me remind us what we discussed last week about Elders
Every elder is a pastor and every pastor is an elder. We believe a plurality of elders is preferred, but there is only one office of overseer/elder/pastor. There may be a staff elder and lay elders, a preaching pastor and lay pastors, but they all are to fulfill the same basic function of guarding the flock, and feeding and caring for the sheep. They are to equip the saints for the work of the minstry.
Where do deacons come in?
I believe that the biblical model looks something like this.
The elders are tasked with the spiritual oversight of the church that includes all the things I just mentioned a moment ago.
But from time to time, or perhaps even every day, there are a variety of things that may come into the life of a church that threaten to take a pastor away from his shepherding responsibilities. Deacons help by stepping in and taking care of that thing so that the elders are free to shepherd the flock.
I’m about to make the slide really messy with a bunch of arrows. Ready?
You end up with something like this
The elders are to feed the flock and equip them for the work of the ministry by giving attention to the ministry of the word. They are to be example to the flock regarding what that looks like, so the the yellow arrows up top make it clear that the elders don’t get to avoid do the work of the ministry, only that their primary goal is that of quipping others.
The congregation are to be active in the work of the minsitry, and that includes ministering to others within the body through the use of their spiritual gifts, but also reaching out to the community with the Gospel.
As mentioned before, there are times when situations arise either on temporary basis or as a regular aspect of church life, and it may lead the elders away from giving time to the ministry of t he word. The deacons are to step up and address that need in order to keep the elders free to shepherd.
That’s the model I want us to consider. Is it biblical?
Let’s find out.
If you would, open your bible to Acts chapter 6.
While you’re turning there, I do have to make a few more preliminary comments.
First, we need to understand that the word for “Deacon” comes from a greek word family that literally means service or ministry.
Just to show this to you in a visible form:
the greek word diakonia refers to service or ministry. Serving others. ministering to others. Helping someone change a tire, that is a service to them. Giving someone their first bible. Praying with someone as they go through a difficult time. That is minsitry. Diakonia.
For the person performing the task, there is the noun diakonos. This is the servant or the minister, or Deacon.
And then there is the action of serving or ministering. diakoneo.
These words are obviously all related words.
The struggle with seeking to understand deacons is that the word for the work of deacons shows up all. over. the place in the NT. The word is a very general word that refers to all kinds of ministry and service.
But in a small group of texts, the middle word is used in a technical way to refer to the office of Deacon.
When it comes to the office of Deacon, we really don’t have a ton of information in NT. There is lots on Edlers....but very little on Deacons. In fact, there are really only two passages where it is abundantly clear that the technical usage of “deacon” to refer to the office of deacon is what is meant....and Acts 6 isn’t one of them.
How’s that for a segue?
Most bible commentators don’t believe that Acts 6 is the beginning of the office of deacon. There are many reasons for that. However, most of those same commentators also argue that there is some form of a model presented here and we can learn a lot from this passage that is informative for the office of deacon, even if deacons aren’t technically in this passage. As I have sought to study this out, I find myself in agreement with that approach.
Even though whats happening in this passage isn’t the beginning of the office of deacon, there are principles here that can inform how the office of deacon should function.
With all that stated, lets read the text and develop some conclusions.
1 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 faith.
A few things to note about how we got to this place in the book of Acts. In the early portion of acts, tens of thousands of people have traveled to Jerusalem for the Jewish festival of pentecost. At this time God pours out his Holy Spirit and amazing things are happening. After Peter’s preaches a powerful sermon, 3,000 people came to faith in Christ. Acts 2 says this new group of people “devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…all who believed were together and had all things in common…and the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved”
There are so many people from out of town in Jerusalem, all of them hungry for the word of God. But because they are from out of town, their usual means of work of ability for to fund their stay is not available to them. So these new converts are generously sharing whatever they have to help one another.
In acts 4 we see the same thing repeated.
32 Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. 33 And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
Again, we still have displaced people who are new converts and have no way to support themselves. The believers are caring for one another by selling their property, giving it to the church, and its being distributed to those in need.
In chapter five we read how things continue to grow. Acts 5:14 “14 And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women,”
I was reading some commentaries this week that were estimating that by the time we get to Acts 6, there may have been as many as 20,000 people who made professions of faith in Christ. That number is impossible to verify. But the number is certainly in the thousands and thousands of people.
So, when we come to Acts 6, we find and intersting problem. Here we have a complaint by the Hellenist that they are being overlooked in the daily distribution.
Who are the Hellenists?
Hellenists were individuals who were Jewish by decent, but had become so immerse in Greek culture that many of them didn’t even speak Hebrew any more. They only knew Greek and for all practicle purposes they were Greeks. Though they were Jewish by blood, in nearly every other way they were Greek.
Well, a bunch of Hellenists living in Jewish Jerusalem, they are being overlooked when money is being dispensed to those in need. This may be because of a language barrier, it may be that those who were doing the distributing were favoring the Hebrew people, it may be simply because there were communication issues. We could speculate all day long, but the reality is it was happening.
So there is a problem. How will it be addressed?
And here is where we start seeing the prinicples that will help inform us as we think about deacons.
First, we see the Priority of Preaching
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.
The apostles were not seeking to minimize the problem as it was brought to light as if to say “look. its not that big of a deal, and I don’t have time for this”
No. They saw it as a big deal, which is why they will propose the solution they will. But even though its a big deal, they know they are not the ones to attend personally to the issue. They had to give themselves to task of preaching the word.
Here’s how one author put it:
“A church without deacons may lack health, but a church without biblical preaching cannot exist. There is, in fact, no such thing.”
—Matt Smethurst Deacons pg 47
The apostles had to prioritize the Word because without that, there would be not church. There would be no gospel! There would be no believers! A church that forsakes the preaching of the word has in reality ceased to be a church.
When we talked about the definition of a local church a few weeks ago, we noted the necessity that the Word be preached. When we discussed the office of elder last week, we noted that one of the primary responsibilities of an Elder is to Preach the Word.
But what happens when other issues come along and threaten to take time away from that ministry?
John Stott pastored the same church in London for 66 years. He once wrote on this passage:
“There is no hint whatever that the apostles regarded social work as inferior to pastoral work, or beneath their dignity. It was entirely a question of calling. They had no liberty to be distracted from their own priority task” -John Stott
quoted in a footnote of Smethurt Deacons pg 47 n5
So what is the solution?
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.”
Now, again, we aren’t making the argument that this passage is specifically about the creation of the office of deacons. But we are arguing that there are transferable principles to how we think about deacons.
The Apostles here encourage the congregation t o identify men who are reputable, full of the Spirit and wisdom, and the apostles would then appoint them to this task. That’s important. The apostles didn’t just give the people full reign, but sought their recommendation and then appointed them to address the issue.
They had to be qualified to serve in this way. 1 Tim 3 speaks of the qualifications for Deacons.
8 Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. 9 They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. 11 Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. 12 Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. 13 For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.
Can you see how these qualifications are fundamental to the ministry that deacons provide? If they are to be entrusted with things like the distribution of funds, they must be good, honest, trustworthy, skilled, and conscientious individuals. And unqualified individual would wreck havoc on the church if put into that position.
Let’s return to Acts 6 and finish what we read here.
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 faith.
The men they selected all had Greek names, likely indicating that they were Hellenists. Whoever was doing the distribution was overlooking the Hellenists, so they made sure they got some Greek Jews to help legitimately address the need and see to it that the Hellenists were overlook no more. The apostles prayed over them and appointed them to the service.
There are some pastors/elders who are somewhat of a control freak. They want to do everything themselves and be involved in everything because they can do it better than anyone else. But here’s the reality, as one pastor put it: The pastor who tries to do everything, ends up doing a disservice to everyone.
Pastor/elders. Delegate what you can to the deacons.
And notice how the story ends: The Word of God continued to grow. More people were coming to faith.
I think its easy for us to gloss over that, but think with me for a moment its significance.
If this issue isn’t addressed, that very well could have been the end of the church. Or at least, the end of reaching anyone but Hebrew Jews. You think any Hellenist would ever come to faith if word is being spread around that these new followers of the Way only care for their own, the Hebrews? Not a chance.
The reality is that this might have caused a split within the church if it wasn’t addressed, and then that would have negatively impacted the apostles ability to ministry to the lost.
But because of how things were handled, the apostles were able to prioritize preaching, and then deputize these men to address the issue.
So, in summary.
What Do Deacons Do?
Assist the Elders
What might this look like?
Any number of things, as needed and directed by the Elders. The office of deacon is service role…it is in the name, after all. Deacons should deacon! Servants should serve!
It may look like handling facility issues so the elders don’t need to. It may look like mercy ministry, distributing funds as needed. It may look like handling technical equipment and website management. It could be anything and everything that might call an elder away from the elder’s primary responsibilities of preaching the word and caring for souls.
We are a small church plant. We do not have deacons. There is a lot that I personally do that might be better done by a deacon. I don’t say that by way of complaint. I’m very happy to do what needs to be done so our church may grow. But also look forward to the day we do have men serving as deacons for the sake of health of the church, that I and the other future elders of the church may give themselves to the preaching of the Word and to prayer.