Deacons: What They Do

As most of you know, we are in the process of selecting deacons to serve here at Cruciform.  This is a huge step in the growth of this congregation and I’m excited as we take this step.  For the past couple of months, the elders and their wives have been meeting together to talk about deacons, to study and pray together.      

            And it’s now my job to share with you some of the things that we’ve learned.  But I want to begin by asking you to do something.  I’d like for you to consider everything you’ve ever thought about and learned about deacons from previous churches that you’ve attended and let me encourage you to basically forget all of it.

            And the reason for that is this — many churches have adopted practices for their deacons that aren’t actually based on the Bible.  Now that’s not to say that anyone had evil intentions in what they were doing.  It’s just to say that I don’t know of many congregations who have studied in depth the topic of deacons.  And I don’t know of any elders of any congregation who have taken it upon themselves to study the topic of deacons.

            And if you don’t sit down and study what the Bible has to say, then you end up making all of your decisions based on tradition.  “Here’s how the last church I attended appointed deacons, so I guess that’s the way we ought to do it.  Here’s what the last church I attended gave their deacons to do, so I guess that’s what we should give our deacons to do.”

            Here at Cruciform, we are blessed to be a church that doesn’t have any traditions to worry about, so we have the opportunity to look at what the Bible says and develop our doctrine regarding deacons only from Scripture, which is what we want to do this morning.

            So, I’m going to ask you to forget what you think you know about deacons, because all we’re concerned about right now is what the Bible says about deacons.

            Now the difficulty with that is this – the Bible doesn’t say a lot about deacons.  In fact, deacons are only mentioned in two passages in the Bible.  In Philippians 1:1, Paul addresses his letter “to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.”

            And then, in I Timothy 3, Paul gives Timothy a list of qualifications for deacons.  That’s it.  That’s all we have, at least in the English Standard Version.  If you’re using the NIV or the New Living Translation, you’ll find one more verse in Romans 16:1 where the apostle Paul sends greetings to “our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.”

            Now, in addition to these three passages, there is one more passage, Acts 6:1-7, where seven men were chosen by the church in Jerusalem and we sometimes hear them referred to as deacons, even though that word is never used in that passage.  But it seems clear that, even if those men weren’t specifically called deacons, they most certainly did the work of deacons.

            And so, my plan is this.  I want to cover the topic of deacons this morning and next Sunday morning by looking at two passages in detail.  This morning, we’re going to look at Acts chapter 6, which will tell us what deacons do.  Then next week, we’ll take a look at I Timothy 3, which will tell us who deacons are, what their qualifications are.

            But before we can do any of that, I need to ask and answer the question, “What is a deacon?”   To put it plainly and simply, a deacon is a servant.  The Greek word that’s used in the New Testament is diakonos.  Sometimes that word is translated as “deacon”, but most of the time it is translated as “servant”.  So, a deacon is a servant.

            But that can be a little bit confusing because all of us are supposed to be servants, aren’t we?  Jesus taught us to serve one another.  He said in Matthew 23:11, “The greatest among you shall be your servant.”

            So, what’s difference between a deacon in the church and all the rest of us who are servants in the church?  I’m going to answer that question at the end of this lesson, but for now, let me just say that deacon is not just a title, an office, or a position.  It’s a job, it’s a responsibility.  I’ve been in some churches where you would be hard pressed to figure out exactly what the deacons do.  They were called deacons, but they didn’t really do anything.  It was a title.  But, in the church, deacon is not a title, it’s a responsibility.

            And if a deacon isn’t fulfilling the responsibility that he has been given, then he is no longer a deacon.  He may have his name in a list of deacons in the church bulletin, but he’s not really a deacon.

            So, please understand that, while I may refer throughout these lessons to the “office” or “position” of deacon, what I mean by that is not just a title but a responsibility.

            So, let’s turn to Acts chapter 6 and find out, based on this passage, what it is that deacons are supposed to do.  Beginning in verse 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. 

            “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. 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. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’

            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. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.

            And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem.” (Acts 6:1-7)

            Let’s take a look at the background to this passage.  The church began in Acts 2 when 3,000 Jews were baptized into Christ, and we read that “all the believers were together and had everything in common.” (Acts 2:42).

            In chapter 4, the church is still growing.  And “all the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had…and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 4:32)

            To this point, everything is running smoothly.  But then we come to chapter 6 and the church is still growing, but now, some of the members are upset. 

            “A complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.” (Acts 6:1)

            The church is growing rapidly.  And within that large number of disciples was a large number of widows. When the Bible refers to widows, it’s typically referring to women whose husbands had passed away and for whatever reason, their children were unable to take care of them.

            Keep in mind, this was the first century — there weren’t any government programs like Social Security.  There weren’t any Food Stamps.  There was no such thing as Meals on Wheels.  Typically, if a woman’s husband passed away and she was unable to provide for herself, she had no choice but to resort to begging.

            But thankfully, the early church recognized that need and so the church would step in to take care of the widows with all their needs, especially making sure they had enough food to eat — which is what verse 1 calls the “daily distribution.”

            Members of the church would regularly go to distribute food to those in need, but it’s obvious that whatever system they had organized wasn’t quite working, because there was a complaint that arose from the Hellenists because their widows were being neglected.

            Let me explain a little bit about the cultural situation here.  All of the members of the early church were Jews, but there was a difference between the Hebrew Jews and the Hellenistic Jews.

            Both groups were part of the Jewish people, but the Hebrew Jews were those who were raised in Israel, around Jerusalem and they spoke primarily Aramaic which was the native tongue of the Jewish people.  On the other hand, the Hellenists were those who were raised outside of Israel, and they spoke primarily Greek instead of Aramaic.  

            Perhaps it will help for you to think of it like this.  Suppose you have a church in Alabama composed primarily of people born and raised in Alabama.  And they talk like people in Alabama are supposed to talk.  But there are a few members of this church who moved down from up north, one of them there Yankees.  And they don’t talk quite right.  And they may have trouble fitting in and they may feel like they’re treated like outsiders.

            If you can imagine that situation, then you’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s going on in the church in Jerusalem.  Most of the congregation was made up of Hebrew Christians.  They all grew up around that area.  But there were some Hellenistic Jews in this church who grew up in other places, and they don’t talk quite right.  And so, they have a little trouble fitting in, and they feel like they’re treated like outsiders.  “You guys are taking care of all your widows, but you’re neglecting our widows!”

            Now, we don’t know whether this was an intentional oversight based on prejudice, or whether it was simply a matter of everyone took care of the people they knew about and these Hellenistic widows weren’t known as well. 

            But, in the end, it doesn’t really matter.  The point is this – those widows were being neglected, and because of that, they were struggling because they didn’t have enough food.  So, this complaint comes to the apostles and it’s obvious that they needed to figure out a better system of handling all the needs of all the people.

            So, in verse 2, “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. 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. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’”

(Acts 6:2-4)

            To their credit, the apostles recognized that this was a legitimate complaint and something needed to be done.  But they also recognized that they couldn’t do it all.  They weren’t able to fulfill both their teaching responsibilities and the responsibility of providing proper relief to all the widows. 

            And so, the only way to solve this problem was to enlist the help of someone else.  It’s not that what they were doing in teaching others was more important than the work of meeting the needs of the widows.  It’s just that teaching was the task that God gave them to do, and that’s where they needed to focus their time and attention.

            And so, in verse 3, the apostles told the church to pick out seven qualified men.  The church then selected those men, the apostles prayed for them and laid their hands on them, and the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly.

            There are several things that I want us to notice here:

1.         The apostles recognized a need

            This may seem obvious, but before the deacons could be selected and appointed, there had to be a need.  Up to this point in time, there were no deacons in the Jerusalem church.  The reason for that is they weren’t needed.  Only after the need was identified were the deacons selected.

            In a lot of churches, their policy is, “We’re going to appoint a bunch of deacons, and then we’ll try to find something for them to do.”   I’m convinced that’s doing things backwards.  The biblical patten is that you need to first identify the work that needs to be done and then you find the right deacons to do that job. 

            So that’s what the elders here have been doing for the past couple of months.  We have identified three areas that we see a particular need in this church.  All of these are areas where we currently have different people getting the job done, but we feel that these responsibilities are significant enough that they need to be handled by a deacon. 

            Those three areas are Building and Grounds, Children’s Education, and Fellowship and Meals.  Later on, we’ll let you know exactly what responsibilities will go with each of these three areas, but for now, know that these are the three areas where we feel that a deacon is most needed in this church right now.

2.         The whole church was involved in the selection of these deacons.

            Notice that the twelve apostles didn’t select the seven men.  They gave that responsibility to the church.  Why would they do that?  It seems to me that the apostles could have picked the seven deacons and gotten it done a whole lot faster.

            But all the Christians in this church are directly invested in the outcome of this decision. This is their church.  The seven men who are chosen aren’t just going to have an effect on the neglected widows; they will have an influence on the entire congregation.  So, everyone needs to be involved in the selection process.

            And we believe the same thing holds true here.  The elders are not just going to pick out the three men we think would make the best deacons.  We want the whole congregation to be involved in this process.

3.         Deacons need to be people of character.

            I won’t spend a lot of time this morning talking about these characteristics because we’re going to focus on this in next Sunday’s lesson.  But the apostles told the Jerusalem church that the men they chose to be deacons needed to have three characteristics:

(1)      “Of good repute” — which means that they had a good reputation among the people.  The members of the Jerusalem church thought of these men as godly men.

(2)      They were to be “full of the Spirit” — which means that these were spiritual men with a spiritual focus.  It was obvious that God’s Spirit was working in them and through them.

(3)      They were to be “full of wisdom” — these were men who were able to make good decisions because a lot of decisions would need to be made to figure out how to get the job done properly.

            Sometimes, churches make the mistake of thinking that elders are the spiritual leaders, while the deacons are kinda like the janitor, just taking care of the menial stuff.  These three characteristics make it clear that deacons are to be spiritual people.  I like what Alexander Strauch said about this, “The congregation chose its best to care for its least.”

            And it is our intention that we choose the very best we have in this congregation.

4.         Deacons do a spiritual work by meeting a physical need.

            One of the things that I think is easy for us to overlook when we read about these deacons in Acts 6 is their role in preserving congregational unity. These seven men weren’t appointed simply to solve a food problem.  Food was the physical need at hand, but it wasn’t the real problem. The real problem was a sudden threat to this church’s unity.

            The apostles were faced with a problem that threatened to destroy the very unity that Christ died to achieve.  Because the message of the gospel is that our unity in Jesus Christ is greater than any differences we may have with one another.  So, make no mistake: the apostles did not delegate this problem to other people because it wasn’t important.  They delegated it because it was extremely important.

            And notice how the congregation responded.  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.”

            The names of those seven men are significant.  Because all seven of those names are Greek names, which means that they were most likely chosen from among the Hellenists, the ones who were being neglected.

            The Hebrews in the church apparently valued unity so much that they bent over backwards to take care of their Hellenist sisters — even to the point of entrusting their own widows to these brothers from an unfamiliar Greek culture.

            But the selection of these seven men was not about political correctness or meeting an arbitrary quota.  It was about everyone truly caring about everyone in the church and trying to meet the needs of everyone in the very best way possible.

            Because of this, Matt Smethurst has described deacons as “shock absorbers”.  They’re people whose job it is to deal with complaints in the church and help to stifle those complaints. 

            Matt Dever has said, “You don’t want people serving as deacons who are unhappy with your church. The deacons should never be the ones who complain the loudest or jar the church with their actions or attitudes.”  And I think he’s right.  Quarrelsome people make poor deacons, because they only make worse the kind of headaches that deacons are meant to relieve.

            The best deacons are far more than just handymen. They’re people who love solutions more than drama, and they make every effort to get the job done to promote the harmony of the whole body of Christ.

            Deacons are doing a spiritual work by meeting a physical need.

5.         Deacons are problem solvers

            We’ve seen how the apostles saw there was a need in the church and how the congregation chose seven men to meet the need.  But then we notice that not only did the apostles not tell the church who to select, they also didn’t tell those seven deacons exactly how they were supposed to get the job done.  Those seven men were given the responsibility of solving the food-distribution problem, but they weren’t given any detailed instructions on how to do it.  No wonder they needed to be “full of wisdom”!

            Which lets us know that deacons need to be problem solvers.  A deacon should be skilled at spotting practical needs and then taking the initiative to meet those needs efficiently.

            But the very best deacons don’t just react to present problems; they also anticipate future problems.  They want to brainstorm creative solutions to anything that might potentially impede the work of the elders and the spread of the Word.

            The seven deacons in Jerusalem were given considerable freedom in how to get the job done. And our elders feel the same should be true of the deacons we select in this congregation.  We intend to tell the deacons what needs to be done and then leave it up to the deacon to figure out the best way to get it done.

            Again, I’ve been in congregations where the elders micro-managed the deacons and told them exactly what to do and how to do it and made the deacons get permission for anything they were thinking about doing.  But that’s not what the apostles did, and it’s not what we’re going to do either.

            We intend to tell the deacons what needs to be done and then leave it up to the deacon to figure out the best way to get it done.  But that arrangement only works if the deacons are known for solving problems rather than perpetuating them.

            It also means that we need deacons who are organized and reliable.  A member who fails to do what they say they will do, or never returns emails, or always needs to be told exactly what to do, is not a good fit for the office of deacon.  A deacon must be reliable and able to get the job done without a lot of hand-holding.

6.         Deacons help the church to grow.

            A deacon’s work is often quiet, but its effect is profound. Luke doesn’t want us to miss this.  Did you notice what happened immediately following the appointing of the seven deacons?  Verse 7,  “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem.” (Acts 6:7)

            That tells us that the work of deacons, even though it is often focused on physical and administrative needs, has enormous spiritual implications.  There is a link here between the work of a deacon and the spreading of the Word.  Public ministry is impossible without private service.  If those seven men hadn’t freed the apostles to focus on teaching and prayer, the gospel would not have spread as much as it did.

            Someone has described deacons as being like a congregation’s offensive linemen, whose job is to protect the quarterback.  They rarely get a lot of attention or credit, but their efforts are absolutely indispensable for both guarding and advancing the ministry of the Word.  Without effective deacons, elders will constantly be distracted and get sacked by an onrush of practical demands.

            I said earlier that I would tell you what makes a deacon different from everyone else.  Because, remember, a deacon is a servant, but every Christian is supposed to be a servant.  So, what makes a deacon different?  And the answer that we came up with when we studied is that a deacon is someone who is given a set of responsibilities so that he can take care of things that threaten to distract and derail elders from their primary responsibilities. 

            Alexander Strauch has described it this way.  He says that deacons are best understood as “formal assistants to the elders.”  Deacons take things off the plate of the elders, so that the elders can focus on those things that they are supposed to be doing.  And the result of that is that the church will grow.

            The Bible has a very high regard for deacons and their work.  Let’s not settle for less!

            Next week, we’ll turn our attention to I Timothy chapter 3, where Paul covers the qualifications of deacons.  And we’ll talk about who deacons are.  We’ll also see what the Bible has to say about deaconesses, so you won’t want to miss that lesson.

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