Sunday 16th of May 2021
Local Church Leadership Pt. 2
Grab your Bible and turn with me to Acts 6. This morning, in our consideration of the infrastructure of the church, we come to a study of Deacons. We've been considering the church, who she is, what she's for, what Christ has died to make us, how we live into those things, and who Jesus has commissioned as officers in His Church to see to the implementation of His aims within local churches. Last week we discussed the responsibilites and qualifications of the elders, today we'll discuss the responsibilities and qualifications of the deacons.
To begin I'll restate a question and answer that we began to explore last week: "Who has God appointed to make sure that what is supposed to be happening in Jesus' Church is actually happening?" Answer: Elders, who are assisted in implementation by Deacons. We saw last week that the Elder's role is one of oversight and instruction. They teach the Word and serve as Christ's under-shepherds, leading the local church where Christ would have her go. Today we'll see that the Deacon's role is one of service and implementation. The Deacon's handle the logistical and functional concerns of the church that must be attended in order to operate.
Perhaps an analogy is helpful at this point. When planning a vacation outside of the US, many Americans hire travel agents to assist in their planning. The travel agent will have access to information about the area, ticket pricing, sights to see and events to attend. Travel agents provide a very helpful service for folks who are traveling to places with which they are unfamiliar. Having a great travel agent, however, doesn't get you to your destination. After the course has been charted, the flights and hotels have been booked, and the travel plan is squared away, there yet remain all sorts of logistical concerns that fall to the families Deacons to handle. For the sake of this analogy, we'll call those Deacon's Mom and Dad.
Thanks to the travel agent, the trip is planned, the schedule is printed out, and everyone has clarity regarding the trip. Now, bags must be packed, cars must be filled up with gas, the individual travel needs of each person must be considered (this kid needs an inhaler, this one needs something for motion sickness, this one has been known to take necessary items out of his bag in order to pack more toys, so someone needs to go behind him and check his ratio of necessary to unnecessary items, etc...). These are all of the things that must be done in order for the well laid plan of the travel agent to be carried out successfully. That's what Deacon's do for the local body. They gas the car, check the engine, and attend to the tangible needs of the family as we head out on our journey.
This morning we'll cover the origin of the role of Deacon, the qualifications for the role of Deacon, and the responsibilities of the Deacons. Having set the table, we come now to the meal.
This verse begins with a positive report. The trip is going well. The disciples are increasing in number because as the Apostles preach the Word, the Spirit is converting people to Christ and adding to the Church. Excellent. Enter logistical problem: "...the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution." The Hellenists were Greek speaking Jews who had returned to Judaea after having been dispersed. They have Jewish linage, but they were raised and enculturated as Greeks.
So, these Hellenists were disgruntled because the widows in their ranks were being overlooked, "in the daily distribution." The daily distribution is a reference to the distribution of resources, most likely food, but possibly money as well, to the widows in the church. The early church, in obedience to God's law cared for the believing widows among them. As we touched on briefly last week, God has a unique concern for His daughters. That is why he has given Fathers and husbands as heads over them, to protect and provide and secure. As such, when a woman's husband dies, she's lost her head- her protector, her provider, her security, so God has commanded in both Old and New Testament, that the covenant community, God's people, fill that gap for these women. God no where, in any text of Scripture celebrates in women what modern Western Culture celebrates. I'm referring to the independent, "I don't need no man," woman. This mentality is sub-feminine and constitutes an attack upon God's design feature for women. But, we'll cover masculinity and femininity as it relates to the Christian household in our next teaching series, so we'll let that lie for now. Just know that the care of widows assumes the theological foundation of male headship, that is protection, provision, and leadership. There is no biblical counterpart instantiating the care of widowers because men are expected to provide not receive provision and protection in the context of the family.
So, in Acts chapter 6, the Church is filling the headship gap for widows in her ranks. But not all of the widows receive care. The Hellenist widows were not being cared for, while the Hebrew widows were receiving care. Now I want you to know that modern social justice warriors and woke Christians insist that this neglect of the Hellenist widows was owing to discrimination. They claim that the Hebrews, who had primary influence in the early church, were ethnically motivated and intentionally deprived these Hellenist widows of care. Their insistence upon this reading of the text is not owing to anything endemic to it, but is a result of having been poorly educated, but very successfully indoctrinated. Indoctrination rather than education is surely afoot when every social ill from every epoch of time receives the same diagnostic assessment. The woke, social justice diagnosis is the same for every disparity in every society. Anytime they see a group of people who has, and a group of people who has not, they will not abide a multi-variant proposal for causation, instead, they insist upon a singular explanation: discrimination/injustice/oppression.
When some outrageous, far-right, knuckle-dragger has lost enough social sense to suggest something silly like: "Is it possible that the high rate of poverty in the black community is owing not to systemic oppression, but rather to a defective culture that promotes values which lead to poverty?" They are quickly met by their utterly rational and therefore thoroughly woke interlocutor with something like, "Its racist and discriminatory for you to have even suggested such a thing!" So not only is the sole explanation for black economic failure discrimination, but any other proposed explanation is itself discimination. When all you have is a hammer, you'll treat every problem as a nail. I only bring this up because reading Scripture through the lenses of the modern woke paradigm is becoming increasingly popular, and it would behoove you to know what it sounds like and why it is stupid, lest you be carried away by it's hollow and deceptive philosophical assumptions.
While it is possible that the native born Hebrews in Acts 6 were antagonistic toward the Hellenists on ethnic grounds, it is also possible that the administrative burden of caring for a very large church led to administrative failures and oversights, but modern interpreters care little for this understanding of the text because teaching it this way is out of step with the current cultural moment and would constitute a missed opportunity to endear our faith to modern cultural sensibilities. Again, there is nothing inside the text that indicates anything other than oversight due to a heavy administrative load, and the one who attempts to force this to become an index of injustice is demonstrating an ideological commitment that is stronger than his commitment to Scripture. So what is the Apostolic solution to this logistical problem?
The Apostles acknowledge that this is a real issue. They don't tell the Hellenists to stop complaining or to get over it, but they do say, this is not and indeed cannot be our personal responsibility. We must entrust this task to another group of faithful men. The Apostle's identify their personal responsibility as the teaching of God's Word and offering prayers for the church. With that as their primary responsibility they don't have time to, "serve tables." The word here is diakoneo meaning to be a servant, or to wait upon, and it is the word that we have transliterated as Deacon. The division of labor is clear. The Apostles handle oversight and instruction, but they employ deacons for implementation. Within the framework of Acts 6 we could say it this way, "the Apostle's taught the principle of caring for widows (even as James does in his epistle), but these deacons are tasked with carrying that principle out in the local church.
Most people see this text as the origin of what's called "Diaconal" ministry, or the ministry of the deacons, although it's basic form can be deduced from the Old Covenant ministerial structure wherein the Levites served the covenant community in the management of the temple, as they served under the high priest. So the structural origin of diaconal ministry can be traced back to the Old Covenant priesthood, and the New Covenant expression is first seen here in Acts chapter 6. Having seen the origin of the office, we'll turn to the qualifications.
We do receive an abbreviated list of qualifications here in verse 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." As a brief aside, let me draw attention to the selection process for deacons in this passage- "...brothers, pick out from among you..." The congregation will recommend men for this office. "...whom we will appoint to this duty." The Apostles would make the final determination as to appointment and installation. This is one of the texts from which we get our practice of congregational recommendation and affirmation for elders and deacons.
The qualifications listed in verse 3 are, "of good repute, full of the Spirit, and of wisdom." We're about to take a closer look at a longer list of qualifications, but notice that these are themselves robust! Highly thought of among the congregation, full of the Spirit, meaning that he demonstrates the fruit of Spirit, and wisdom. This is no throw away role in the church for people who aren't gifted enough to be elders, nor is it a position that was simply invented to create a sense of congregational belonging or buy-in to the organization of the church. I bring that up because it's a modern strategy of church growth that is frequently employed in our time. You make up roles and positions to make people develop a feeling of importance that is tethered to your church organization. This makes them become more invested in your church because you've made them feel special by giving them a title or position- church growth 101. There are even many conversations among modern pastors about what roles they will allow non-Christians to fill in their churches. I've heard some pastors say, "at my church a non Christian is welcomed to fill any role that isn't on stage, we want people to belong before they believe."
That's never what we see the early church doing. You won't see the Apostle's using church community life and service as an evangelistic tool for reaching non-Christians. The Church isn't for non-Christians, and it is laziness that leads modern churches to seek to attract non-Christians to them instead of going to where they are to proclaim the Gospel to them. This is another expression of the modern misunderstanding of the church that sees itself as an organization that exists to reach people. If the church is an organization that exists to help people feel a sense of belonging so that after some period of time, participation in community life and service may engender belief, then you can see the motivation for creating positions and ministries that "plug people into the church." But you don't do non-Christians any favors when you make them feel like they belong before they believe, because they don't. If non-Christians feel at home, at ease, a sense of belonging in Christian churches, then what would cause them to realize that they are a part of the kingdom darkness and we are a part of the kingdom of light? To treat someone who is a slave to sin as if they belong among those who have been made slaves to righteousness is to perpetuate the non-Christians delusion that he is okay as he is! In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul says that on the off chance that a non-Christian stumbles into the worship gathering he should experience conviction that leads to repentance, not an overwhelming sense of belonging and acceptance as he is.
We don't make or fill ministry positions in order to garner support for our church or in order to engender a sense of attachment to our church that incentivizes people to stay with us. In Scripture, we see qualified men stepping into necessary roles, not administrative and organizational bloat to staff ministries that are no where to be found in the pages of the New Testament that we've added because they make people feel more connected to the church than worshipping together, taking the Lord's Supper, confessing our sins, and sitting under the teaching of God's Word together. In fact, I would suggest to you that if having matching volunteer t-shirt's makes you feel more a part of the body of Christ than taking the Lord's Supper with your blood bought brothers and sisters, then you've got a low view of the Supper and too high a view of t-shirts. Turn with me now to 1 Timothy chapter 3 to see a longer form list of qualifications for Deacons.
1 Timothy 3:8-13
A cursory look at this list tells us something off the bat, that being that the difference between elders and deacons is not a difference in caliber, it is a difference in calling. The overlap between the list of qualifications for the elders and the list of qualifications for deacons tell us this much. Elders and Deacons are identified as such on the basis of possessing differing competencies, not differing character. That is to say that Deacons are not second string Elders who represent a lower class within church leadership.Elders and Deacons should always be representative of the highest caliber men in a given local body. But, within this representative group there is a distinction based on gifts, skill set, and disposition. The gifts, skill sets, and dispositions of these high caliber men will inform whether or not the congregation recommends them for the role of Elder or Deacon. More on that distinction later, after we walk through these qualifications.
"...not double tongued..." meaning he must not be two-faced. You're allowed one tongue and one face, not two. A Deacon can't be the kind of man who speaks one way in front of this group of people, and another way in front of that group of people. I don't mean by that he must be a one trick communicative pony who always addresses every group or individual the same way. There is a way that John addressed the Church, "beloved," and there is the way he addressed false teachers, "anti-christs." There is a way that Paul addressed the faithful Thessalonians and the way that he addressed the unfaithful Corinthians. This change in tone is not being double tongued, it is simply awareness of who you're speaking to. This practice I commend to all men, but this text about being doubled tongued is referring to a slippery man who determines the content of his speech based on what is expedient in a given moment rather than determining his speech based on what is faithful.
Paul uses the phrase, "mystery" to refer to the Gospel throughout his writings, so this is saying that a Deacon must hold the Gospel with a clear conscience. That is, he must not simply profess belief in it, but he must also submit to the Lord of it. After all, it is the Gospel of the Kingdom announcing the arrival of the King. One cannot in good conscience hold the believe that the rightful King has revealed Himself in the Gospel and then annex authority from that King to himself in certain areas of his life. A Deacon must not simply be one who claims to believe the Gospel; he must be one who obeys the Gospel, otherwise his conscience is defiled.
This verse also ground our installation process for elders and deacons. The congregation nominates, but then there is a probationary time of assessment before installation. What's being assessed during that time? The qualifications laid down in verses 8 and 9 as well as 11 and 12 which we'll read now.
The nature of the Deacon's role requires that his wife be a godly woman who is clear headed and not given to gossip or slander. A Deacon's wife will find herself privy to situations and perhaps even serving in certain ways alongside her husband that bring her into "the know," so to speak. As such, she must be a woman who shuns the temptation to let others know that she knows things. We do so love for people to know that we know things, don't we?
Having seen the origin of the office of Deacon in Acts 6 and the qualifications of Deacons in 1 Timothy 3, we turn now to the responsibilities of the Deacons which is also clearly discovered in those two texts.
Acts 6:1-4 & 1 Timothy 3:8-13
Acts chapter 6 establishes, in principle, that the responsibility of Deacons is to provide logistical and material support that will allow the Elders to focus on teaching and shepherding the Church. Those who are responsible for the teaching and the shepherding cannot also be responsible for serving and administering. That's what we saw in Acts chapter 6.
At first glance, it may appear as if 1 Timothy 3 has little to offer us in the identification of the responsibilities of Deacons since it is just a list of character qualifications for the office, but when we compare the qualifications for Elders to the qualifications for Deacons, I believe that an instructive contrast emerges that points to the responsibilities of Deacons.
"Able to teach" is a qualification for elders, but not for deacons. This is because the deacons role is less about instruction and more about function. The Deacons role is not pedagogical, it is tangible. The deacon is called to live his faith, but he is not called to teach it to the gathered church. He is called to tangible service of the sort described in Acts chapter 6.
"Managing their children and their own households well" is a qualification shared by both offices, but their is an application of this qualification made to elders that is not made to deacons. To the elders Paul says, "He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church?" The comparison of ones household governance to their governance of the church is not made in the case of the deacons because the deacons are not called to governance in the way that elders are.
"He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil," is a qualification for elders, but not for deacons. The reason for the omission of this qualification for deacons is because roles of conspicuous service are less likely to puff you up than roles of conspicuous leadership and authority.
Even the titles that head these two lists of qualifications helps us to distinguish between the responsibilities assigned to each. We have a list of qualifications for overseers, and we have a list of qualifications for deacons. Overseer indicates high level leadership over the whole church, while deacon indicates tangible service to the whole church. Elders lead the church spiritually; Deacons serve the church practically.
Truth in Application
Deacons serve the church under the oversight of the overseers, or elders. Deacons are helping the church implement those things that the Elders are teaching and leading the church to do. Back to the Acts 6 example: the overseers (in that case, the Apostles) were teaching that the church should care for her widows. The Deacons are raised up to organize and coordinate the churches efforts to follow that biblical teaching. I see Deacons not only as men who serve personally, but also as men who can coordinate and administrate. In Acts 6 the Apostles call for the installation of 7 men to see to the care of all of the Hellenist widows. I don't know how many there were, but we do know that this was a large and growing church. That is to say that this group of widows was large enough, and the need for service frequent enough ("weekly distribution") that these men were clearly just responsible for seeing that the need was being met, not that they were expected to personally hand deliver every meal to every widow. This means that the diaconal position is one of authority which entails delegation to and conscription of church members to work together under the authority of the deacons to see needs met in the local body.
The need for deacons is massive in a local church. Gathering the church on a weekly basis, caring for people, distributing and collecting funds, getting resources out to the church...all of these things bring them them administrative and logistical tasks that constitute the responsibilities of the deacons. The deacons are the doers, the public servants, the logistics specialists, and the coordinators who come alongside the elders to make sure that the modern phenomenon of pastoral burn out doesn't exist in healthy local churches that are ordered as God commands in His Word.
In closing, I'd say that our modern understanding of the pastorate devalues the God ordained role of the deacons. In many churches, church members maintain an expectation of their pastors, that conflates their role with the role of the deacons. We often see the pastors role as being so extensive as to box out the deacons and often so extensive as to destroy the families of the pastors because the demands on their time are inappropriate because the church refuses to honor and the respect the role of deacon. We will have to fight the tendency to only esteem teaching elders and unthinkingly diminish serving or coordinating deacons, because if we do than the demands on the elders will be more than they or their families are intended to bear and they will be unable to accomplish what God has called them to, as will the deacons because the church will be looking to the elders to do the deacons job. Our God is all wise, may we follow His plan for His church and dispense quickly with any unbiblical church traditions that we've brought with us.