Periodically, it is important to revisit the basics of our work in the Lord’s church. Marriage partners should re-read Ephesians 5:21ff; preachers should not neglect to preach on John 3:16 or Ephesians 2:1–10 on a regular basis so as to remind God’s people of the fundamentals; and elders and deacons should review the basic Scriptural foundations of their office who they are for the Lord, what they must be and do for God’s people, and the spirit in which they are to do that work. Last month, we reviewed the nature and work of the office of elder. This month, that of deacon.
Over five years ago, when I began this column, I wrote these words about the office of deacon:
None among us would deny that God has richly blessed His church with gifts, talents, resources (or leaves, if you prefer the analogy of the fig tree). We have material resources beyond measure—buildings, money, access to media….
But a tree that produces no fruit is like a sheep that produces no wool, is like a gifted church that does not produce living service to God and others! The whole point of God’s equipping gifts is that we must use them sacrificially in His service….
Just here is where the work of the diaconate becomes urgent. God’s people must be reminded by His Word to believe, challenged by His Word to produce the fruit of faith. But how to apply them? The deacons are God’s appointed managers of congregational stewardship! I can think of no better definition of the office.
DEACONS: APPOINTED BY GOD
The first point of review is that the office of deacon is God’s idea. There seems to be a popular notion these days that the offices in the church are self-appointed, designed according to local needs, but temporary, always adjustable if needs change. I believe that to be an inaccurate reading of the Scriptural material. To be sure, the opening verses of Acts 6 report that the Twelve appointed 7 men “full of the Spirit and wisdom” to assume the responsibility of “diakonia” in response to a specific and peculiar need in the early church of Jerusalem, and to diversify the ministry, thus enabling the apostles to continue in prayer and the ministry of the Word. However, we should be careful not to presume we may follow their lead and “create an office” because we think the apostles did. On the one hand, such presumes that the office of deacon was not given by divine appointment. On the other, it fails to take into account the unique character of the Twelve, believing we have the right to do what they did. We do not. Apostles, after all, were themselves specially chosen because they were eyewitnesses of Jesus, and given to the church to establish the New Testament foundations for the coming generations. When they speak or act, it is unique, divinely-appointed, authoritative. Their “local need initiative” was God’s design for the care of the church in every age.
I Timothy 3 makes that quite clear. By insisting that there are specific qualifications for both overseers/elders and deacons, including the duty (in regard to deacons) to “test them first,” the inspired Apostle makes clear that these offices are God’s appointed way to care for His flock. This is especially emphasized by the requirement, for holders of both offices, that they must manage their own families and households well (v. 4, 12). Since the church is God’s household, the elders and the deacons are those He appoints to manage His affairs.
Why is this introductory point important? Because it helps us avoid the loosy-goosy definition of the offices (in our case, the office of deacon) that shifts like the sand in a blowing wind. The office of deacon is not undefined, evolving, adjustable according to the needs of the moment in the church of the Lord. In today’s world, it is simply not so that the office of deacon is the church’s contemporary answer to the burgeoning welfare state. Rather, God established it as an answer for every generation. Our age doesn’t need to “develop” it; we must, rather, “rediscover” what it should always have been!
DEACONS ARE MANAGERS
In the citation quoted in the beginning of the article, I argued that deacons were “managers of congregational resources.” Where does such a notion come from? What does it mean?
If you look at the big picture, the overview, of the New Testament church, you will find several ideas painted in bold colors. THE CHURCH IS THE LORD’S is one idea, perhaps a deep red. THE LORD GIVES THE CHURCH SPEGAL OFFICES (pastoral elder and deacon) is another, possibly a bright blue. THE SPEGAL OFFICES EQUIP ALL BELIEVERS TO SERVE THE LORD SACRIFICIALLY is yet another; let’s make it neon orange. You see, the New Testament description of the church is that all believers are ministers. All members of the body of Christ are expected to give their lives sacrificially to Him who bought them with His blood. The “special offices” of minister, elder and deacon are appointed to enable each and all members to give their lives in such sacrificial service. That’s the point of Ephesians 4:11–13.
Where does the idea of sacrifice come from? In the Old Covenant, sacrifices were animals or grain, testimony to the awful cost of sin to be borne in the future by the coming Messiah. In the New, they are living sacrifices given in response to His accomplished atonement: gifts of our bodies, our time, our talents and our treasures. Romans 12:1–2 makes the point powerfully. And it is important to observe that Romans 12:1–2 is inseparably linked to verses 3–21. Read the passage through. In the opening verses, each believer is charged (“therefore… in view of God’s mercy”) to answer God’s sacrificial love in Christ with a living sacrifice of his own; in the next section, the Apostle details specific ways that can and should be done.
God is the gracious Giver of the gifts to the church, His body. That much is clear from Romans 12:6. Members of the body manifest different gifts to be used in service to each other (note: “let him use it,” v. 6). But, as we learned from Acts 6, coordinating the use of the gifts of God requires some effort, especially in churches with many needs to be addressed, and many gifted members with talents/time/treasures to be used.
It is here that the deacons fit in. Their own work is sacrificial; no other word really describes the character of “diakonia,” which is translated in Acts 6:2 as “waiting on tables.” But their sacrificial work is to give of their time and talents to coordinate and manage the use of all the other member’s gifts so that we who are the body of Christ live in the awareness that “each member belongs to all the others” (v. 5).
THE MINISTRY OF “THE TABLE”
A careful look at the Acts 6:2 passage is warranted if we are to understand all this properly. Let’s start in the context of early Acts. The early church in Jerusalem was experiencing, by God’s grace, explosive growth. You can trace it easily: from the 3,000 added in the one day of Pentecost (2:41), to the daily additions that, although unspecified, appear to have been substantial (2:47), to the report (4:4) that the number of men grew to be about 5,000. No matter how you cut it or play with the numbers, the Jerusalem church had become large! And with its size came pastoral nightmares. They loved each other, to be sure: Acts 2:42f. describes their love and its sacrificial nature; 4:34–35 describe some of the shape of how they demonstrated that love. But note too the central position the apostles played in the administration of the sacrificial love and giving of the huge congregation: they received, they distributed, they administered. They held the reins of the spiritual “machinery” of the body of believers. And they did it well, until the church became too large to manage effectively.
That’s the point of the opening words of Acts 6:1. “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing….” Because of such divinely-appointed growth, a ministry crisis arose. The Grecian Jews complained that their widows were being neglected in this administrative nightmare in which the apostles were entangled.
In answer, the apostles appointed deacons, so that they themselves could keep their first priority of “the ministry of the Word of God.” The men selected were to “wait on tables” (v. 2). The traditional reading of this phrase (the English translation of the Greek word “diakonein,” the root of the word for “deacon”) is that the deacons took over the ministry of food distribution. Indeed, it would fit comfortably with the last part of v. 1. Yet, there is a dimension of “waiting on tables” that needs to be explored. In the Greek, the word here for “table” is “trapeza.” It is a word that refers in the New Testament not only to a 4 legged piece of furniture, but to a “bank,” a “table at which the money-changers sat” (Moulton and Milligan) (cf. Mt. 21:12; Lk. 19:23). The point that may well be drawn is that the deacons did not only receive and distribute foodstuffs. They were receiving and distributing sacrificial gifts of many kinds. The story of Ananias and Sapphira in chapter 5 supports this interpretation. They gave (albeit sinfully and deceitfully) land. We may assume others did too. Others gave money. There is no reason to doubt still others gave food and/or clothing. And the deacons were to manage it all. They were to sit at the table of the “banker,” serving as resource and investment managers for the sacrificially generated currency of the Kingdom!
It is my argument in this article that today’s deacons ought to occupy the same position, with the same sense of purpose. By understanding their duty to be that of managing the resource bank of the congregation, including the sacrificial gifts of time, talents, financial resources, and yes, food and clothing, they can function to meet the specific but changing needs of the people of God in a growing and changing world. And, as they do, they will free the pastoral elders for the ministry of the Word and for prayer, which the next verses make clear (cf. v. 4). By so doing, the health of the body and the ministry of the church in the world will both be enhanced immeasurably.
It is no accident that the next verses report the result: “So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.” Folks, that’s significant! Not only growth, but growth by conversion, and that among perhaps the toughest audience to reach! When God’s people function the way they should, when their ministry is arranged efficiently, spiritually, and effectively, wonderful and blessed things will occur. And the proper functioning of the office of the diaconate is central to such blessing.
If you wish to study the materials raised in this article more fully as an individual deacon, or in group diaconate study sessions, I suggest you do a Bible study on the passages I’ve referred to: Acts 6:1–7 and Romans 12:1–8. Then get out a piece of paper. Ask yourself these questions: what resources has God given this congregation that are currently untapped, or being unwisely or ineffectively used? How can I, as a deacon, help the people of God locally to use their God-given gifts sacrificially for Him and for each other? What ways could my ministry free up the elders to concentrate on the “ministry of the Word and prayer”? Make a list of all the specifics that come to mind. Share those lists with each other.
Dr. Sittema is pastor of Bethe! Christian Reformed Church in Dallas, TX.