Reading Time: 14 minutes

God’s power for God’s purpose: Deacons

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

facebook twitter instagram

Topical Scripture: Acts 6:1-7

The date was Monday, March 11, 1991, and the president of the United States was desperately trying to prove that he was somebody. President Bush was visiting Anthony Henderson’s school, and sat down beside Anthony to read him a book. Suddenly Anthony asked, “Are you really the president?”

Mr. Bush was surprised by the question. “You mean you didn’t know that? How can I prove it to you?” He showed him his driver’s license, but the boy wasn’t convinced. He showed him his American Express card, then a picture of his grandson playing baseball, then pointed to the black limousine outside. But nothing worked.

The picture in USA Today told the whole story: Anthony sitting with a puzzled president, examining his American Express card. Wondering if he’s really somebody or not. We all want to be somebody special.

Jesus taught us how: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:14-15). We are special to the degree that we are servants—to the degree that we serve our Lord and his children.

When Dr. Herbert Howard came to Park Cities in view of a call to be pastor in 1948, he preached a sermon entitled Everybody’s Somebody. It became famous. The church asked him to preach it each year. I have listened to it with great gratitude and profit.

This week we’ll learn how to preach it ourselves.

Find a need (Acts 6:1)

Today we travel back in time to A.D. 35 and the greatest crisis which would confront the first Christian congregation: “the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food” (v. 1). What was the problem?

Some in the first congregation were from Palestine, and spoke Hebrew and Aramaic. Others were from the Hellenistic world, so they spoke Greek. Many of these had become Christians at Pentecost, and stayed in the city. Others of them had moved to Jerusalem to retire.

The Jewish people had long cared for their widows, since they had no one else to help them. When a woman married, her father no longer bore responsibility for her support; if her husband died, his family was no longer responsible for her. And employment options for first-century women were extremely limited, as you might guess. So the Jewish people took a daily collection for their needs, called the Tamhui or Table, and a weekly collection every Friday as well, called the Kuppah or Basket.

If someone left Judaism for Christianity, he or she forfeited this support system. So the apostles took it over. However, the church had outgrown the care the apostles could provide. And these families not from Palestine became convinced that their widows were being discriminated against. They “complained”—the Greek word means to “murmur” or “grumble.”

This was a very serious state of affairs. Not only could widows starve to death if the church didn’t act, but the fragile racial coalition which was early Christianity was in danger of failing. And this splintering of the Christian movement would doom it.

Service begins with a need, something we can do, a person we can help. Ask the Lord to break your heart with what breaks his. Ask him to make you aware of those around you and their needs, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual. And he will.

Meet the need in the Spirit (vs. 2-6)

The apostles were the leaders of the church, so that responsibility for meeting this crisis fell to them. They quickly “gathered all the disciples together” (v. 2), not just the 120 or the larger leadership of the church. Here we find early evidence for congregational governance, and indication of the seriousness of the situation. How would they resolve the challenge?

Know your gifts and calling

The apostles began with what they knew: “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables” (v. 2). Their statement in no sense minimized the severity of the situation. “Wait on tables” conjures in our minds the picture of a restaurant waiter or waitress. But their words were literally “serve the tables.” “Tables” were the means by which they distributed the daily food offerings. The word is plural, indicating that several distribution centers were used. This fact may explain the need for “seven men” (v. 3).

The apostles knew their calling in the Spirit was to the “ministry of the word of God.” And they knew they could not serve the word and serve the tables both. They must choose. So must we. God will call us to meet those needs which are within our gifts and ministry. If you find a need which does not match your calling, find someone whose calling it does match. A dear friend once helped me with this statement: “Their need does not constitute your call.” Our call is first to be obedient to God and his larger purpose for us, then to meet needs as a means of answering that call.

If you do something which is not within God’s calling for you, you cannot fulfill the purpose he does intend for your life. And you prevent the person who is called to that task from answering the word and will of God. So know your gifts and calling, and match them to the needs which you find.

Respond in the direction and wisdom of the Spirit

The apostles knew they were not called to this particular ministry, so they knew God would call others who were: “Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word” (vs. 3-4).

“Choose” translates the Greek, “look you out,” or “seek out.” The church was to nominate “seven” men; some suggest that this number was chosen for its Hebrew significance as a symbol for completion and perfection (cf. the seven-fold Spirit of Revelation 1). A more practical reason may well be that the Jerusalem church may have been gathered in seven house-churches, and each needed someone to help that cell group minister to its own.

They were to find seven “men.” There is no clergy-laity distinction here or anywhere else in the Bible. Their only qualification: they must be “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom.” “Known” means “to have the reputation for.” In other words, their lives and witness were to give testimony to the fact that they are filled with the Spirit and wisdom. They must have proven it. Paul later made the same requirement of “deacons”: “They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons” (1 Timothy 3:10).

To be “full of the Spirit” means to be controlled by the Holy Spirit, to be submitted to his leadership and will. This is God’s command for us all (Ephesians 5:18), our daily surrender of heart, soul, mind and strength to his guidance and power. We are to confess every sin he brings to mind, ask his cleansing and forgiveness, and consciously turn our lives and work over to his will. This is to be a lifestyle, a continual process and experience.

When we are “full of the Spirit” we will also be “full” of “wisdom”—a particular gift and skill which brings about the efficient and effective accomplishment of a ministry task (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:8). “Wisdom” is a gift of the Spirit, and the result of the Spirit’s control of our lives. Those called to the task of leading the church in caring for its widows would need the Spirit’s guidance, and the wisdom and skill which the Spirit alone could produce.

Then the apostles could “give our attention” to prayer and the ministry of the word—the Greek means “devote ourselves exclusively to.” These would be the first priorities of the spiritual leaders of the church, in this order. We must listen before we speak.

The “whole group” affirmed the apostles’ leadership as from God (v. 5), another indication that the earliest church governance was congregational in nature. And so they nominated seven men. Stephen, the first on the list, was considered by early church tradition to have been among the Seventy-two sent by Jesus to minister to the Samaritans (Luke 10:1-24). Philip would become an evangelist as well (cf. Acts 8:5-40 and 21:8, where these men were still called “the Seven”).

The only other name on the list to be described in Scripture beyond his name was “Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism.” He was a Gentile who became a Jew and then a Christian. He was from Antioch, the Gentile city which would soon become the missions headquarters of the apostolic movement (Acts 11:19-26; 13:1-3).

Commentators note that all seven men had Greek names and thus may have represented the Greek side of the church, since it was the group which first raised the problem leading to their selection (6:1). But others point out that it was common in the first century for people to bear Greek names even if they were from Hebrew background and culture.

The apostles prayed (v. 6), indicating that the selection of these men was ultimately up to God. They then “laid their hands on them,” continuing the priestly act of conferring blessing and endorsement for ministry. Some believe that only the apostles performed this function, and see their action as indicative of a specialized clergy and even an apostolic succession (the Catholic model). Others suggest that the Greek grammar connects the “whole group” (v. 5) to the act of laying on hands. Acts 13:3 is a clear example of congregational “ordination,” where the entire church fasted and prayed for Barnabas and Saul, laid hands of blessing on them, and sent them to their global ministry.

The church saw the need to be met, and the Spirit called and empowered those intended by God to meet it. This is precisely the process God still uses in advancing his Kingdom and building his church. Where has the Spirit called you to serve?

Expect Kingdom results (v. 7)

The Spirit’s strategy led to two significant results. One changed apostolic Christianity; the other impacted the Church from then to now.

The word of God spread

First, “the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith” (v. 7). The word of God “spread,” a Greek tense which indicates an ongoing and continual process, not occasional spurts and starts.

The number of disciples in Jerusalem “increased rapidly,” literally “multiplied.” This was always God’s plan for reaching the world. Remember the math: if you were the only believer in the world today and you won me to Christ; tomorrow we two won two more; the next day we four won four more, and so on—in 31 days more than eight billion (more than the world’s population) would be Christians. You say, “I can’t win one a day.” Could you win one a year? In 31 years the entire world would follow Jesus. That process started here.

Now for the first time in Acts, priests came to the faith, literally a “great crowd” of them. Perhaps they witnessed the church’s practical commitment to its widows and poor, were impressed with such practical faith, and wanted to join this movement of God. These priests would endure much opposition and persecution for their commitment. As Levites, their lands and houses were owned by the nation. This was much like a pastor and his family leaving a church and parsonage with no place to go. Nonetheless they “obeyed the faith” or “were being obedient” (a better translation than the NIV’s “became obedient”). They entered into a lifestyle of discipleship, and never left it.

Note that the widows and their needs are never mentioned again in the book of Acts. Clearly this program of personal ministry worked. It will still work today.

“Deacons” were created

The second legacy of this week’s text was the creation of the office of “deacon.” The Greek word means “servant,” and is found twice in our text: “wait” on tables (v. 2) and the “ministry” of the word (v. 4). Both those who served the widows and those who served the word of God would be diakonia, servants.

There is no indication in Acts 6 that these seven men were understood to be the first to occupy an ongoing office. They responded to a specific need at a specific time. However, the concept of called-out people to serve the needs of God’s people grew in apostolic Christianity, until thirty years later Paul set forth specific characteristics for those who would enter the office of “deacon” (1 Tim. 3:8-10).

Paul would also write to the Roman church, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea” (Romans 16:1). “Servant” is the same word, diakonia, here related to a female. The NIV translates the word “servant,” though it offers the footnote, “or deaconess.” The NIV Study Bible adds the note, “When church related, as it is here, it probably refers to a specific office—woman deacon or deaconess.” Some feel that the “office of deacon” was in full existence by that time, and that Phoebe was thus a female deacon. Others believe that the office was not yet fully developed, or that her role as a “servant” does not necessarily indicate that she was a “deacon.”

The topic of female deacons is further complicated by Paul’s admonition, following the characteristics of deacons, “In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect . . .” (1 Timothy 3:11). “Wives” is actually “women” in the Greek, so that many feel that Paul here refers to female deacons.

Not only is the gender of deacons a question in biblical interpretation. Their evolved role through church history has also been problematic and controversial. By A.D. 250, Cyprian of Carthage and others were suggesting that the “clergy” be separated from the “laity”; the Council of Nicaea affirmed this distinction (A.D. 325). After Constantine the Great legalized the Christian church, he and others began to construct buildings for the clergy and their congregations to use. The medieval church then used the diaconate as the first stage in advancement toward priesthood, and removed the office from the “laity.” As monastic orders took on servant tasks, the “deacons” became more administrative in function.

In the modern era, corporate structures became increasingly important for churches. The pastors became the Chief Operating Officer for many, and the deacons a Board of Directors. Baptists were part of this trend. In 1846, R.B.C. Howell, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, wrote a book called The Deaconship. Here he described deacons as a “Board of Officers” or the “executive board of the church.”

P.E. Burroughs’ book Honoring the Deaconship was used by Southern Baptists from 1929 to 1956. He further defined the deacons’ role as superintending the material holdings and finances of the church, functioning as a board of directors. Harold Foshee’s The Ministry of the Deacon in 1968 was a welcome attempt to return the ministry of deacons to its biblical foundations. He correctly defined deacons as partners and team members with the pastor. Today we find both models in Baptist churches—administrative managers and servant leaders. Our church strongly affirms the latter.

Conclusion

We have studied this week only seven verses, but find within them extremely important and practical principles for God’s people:

We are significant to the degree that we are servants.

We serve by first identifying a need which must be met.

We then engage those God has gifted and is calling to meet this need.

We expect the Kingdom to grow as the gospel is preached through the practice of servant ministry.

You may not be called a “deacon”, but you are called to be a servant by our Lord. You know someone whose needs you can meet in Jesus’ name. Find a need and meet it with God’s love this week.

As a result, you will be able to say, “the word of God spread.” There is no greater responsibility or privilege than this.