Believe it or not, I can read some of your minds. Some of you have been thinking, “The pastor is saying that our church needs to have some deacons. But after five lessons, I have yet to figure out WHY we need those deacons. All of this is much ado about nothing.” This evening I’d like to address that thought.
First and foremost, we ought to have deacons because Christ’s first church had deacons. And the church in Philippi had deacons, because apparently Paul had set them there under the direction of the Holy Spirit. He also instructed Timothy to set apart godly men as deacons in the churches where he was ministering. There appears to have been a Biblical, ecclesiastical office called “Deacon.” If we find them in the Bible, I think, we, as a Bible believing and Bible practicing church, should have deacons as well.
There is nothing in the Bible which declares that you and I have to understand the reason for every command which the Lord gives to us. If God says it, that settles it. “But wait a minute,” someone says, “I don’t read where God actually COMMANDED us to have deacons. Christ didn’t ordain deacons, when He instituted His church. The leaders of the church in Jerusalem ordained them.” While it is true that Christ didn’t establish this office during His earthly ministry, it doesn’t mean that He, as the Head of His Church, didn’t leave that to Paul or the other Apostles. Deacons are not the only things which AROSE after the Lord Jesus arose and ascended into Heaven. For example, how about the practice of meeting on the first day of the week.
But still – WHY do we need deacons? What is their PURPOSE?
Over the past few weeks, I have been scouring my library for material on this subject. I’ve been looking through commentaries on Acts and I Timothy. I been re-reading most my books on Baptist doctrine and scanning thousands of pages of Baptist history. I’ve even spent a little time on the interconnect. The Bible tells us a few things, and theology tells us a few more reasons for deacons – but not many. I will say what I have found has been generally been an extrapolation of what we read in God’s Word.
As we have seen, the church in Jerusalem was growing by leaps and bounds. Not only were souls being saved – but as it should have been – lives were being completely revolutionized. People like Barnabas were selling their personal properties and giving those moneys to the church to be used as the Apostles saw fit. And apparently the Apostles “saw fit” to care for the destitute among their members. They really had few other financial obligations. However, the widows of the Grecian Christians were being overlooked in the daily “diakonia” – ministration. And as John Gill says, in his “Body of Divinity,” this neglect “greatly affected the Apostles, and embarrassed them in the spiritual part of their ministry.” So “the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve (or ‘deaconize’) tables.” Then, at the command of the Apostles, the church sought out seven men “of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom” whom the twelve set over the business of “deaconizing” the Hellenist widows. And they added, “But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry (‘diakonia’) of the word.”
I believe Acts 6 teaches us that the seven deacons had a SINGLE multifaceted ministry, which flowed over into an important second result. After their installation, the seven apparently set up shop at a table somewhere, perhaps in rotating shifts, with one alternate. At this central location people brought their tithes and generous offerings. I wonder if it was over against the treasury in the temple grounds, or perhaps opposite the tables of the money changers? By this time, the Romans had introduced their money into Israel, and both Roman denari and Jewish shekels were being put into some sort of cash box at the deacon’s table. Then, along with receiving this money, the seven weighed the needs of the poor and gave that money out.
In other words, these deacons became the treasurers of church. I think this is one part of the duties of the deacons, and all my research agrees. “But,” someone says, “we already have a treasurer and an assistant, so why do we need deacons?” I counter with, “Why do we have treasurers – an extra-Biblical church office – when we could have deacons doing that work as the Bible teaches us?” The pastor of the church – or the elders of Christ’s churches – should not manage the funds of the church. It creates problems on many levels – temptations, accusations – as we see in this text – and hurt feelings. These seven “servants” of the church became the treasurers of the congregation. And that is why it was so important they be men “of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom.”
The secondary effect of passing this duty on to the deacons, was freeing up the Apostles for the ministry to which the Lord had actually called them – prayer and the teaching and preaching of God’s Word. At this point, I’m going to be as guilty as so many of the authors in my library – by extrapolating just a bit. I’m going to say that one of the duties of deacons in a church is to free up or to assist the bishop in his work. But how? That is where the unofficial expansion comes in. As I’ve said before, I am not afraid to get my hands dirty in the maintenance of this building and property. There are times when I have to go to the county court house on church matters. I am often buying supplies, servicing the church van, or doing a hundred other physical things. All of which I am glad to do, and some of which I will probably continue to do. But I ask you, is it the best use of my time? You might think this sort of thing is the work to which the Lord has called me, but I ask you to find a scripture or two which prove that idea.
According to Acts 6, the primary duty of the DEACON was, and is, to SERVE TABLES.
I don’t know how many times over the last few weeks I have read good men who said that this speaks of three kinds of tables – one even suggested four tables. Maybe John Gill was the first, and a dozen others quoted him, until everyone assumes that it the way it is. After a short paragraph which I will share with you a moment, Gill said, “But their PRINCIPLE business is to serve tables,” and I fully agree. So “the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and ‘deaconize’ tables,” and eventually they set the seven over those tables.
Then, as I said, after correctly saying that deacons should serve tables, Gill speaks of three kinds of tables. He says, first, they should serve over the Lord’s table – administering the Lord’s supper. They should buy, or prepare, the bread and the wine. And they should take the elements from the Pastor’s hands and “serve” them to the members. Certainly, during an observation of the Lord’s Supper, assistance is needed, and deacons would be good candidates for that service. But I fail to read of that specifically here in Acts 6 or anywhere else in God’s Word. It’s an extrapolation, as I said earlier. Appropriate perhaps, but still an extension of what we read. But then some of Gill’s disciples have gone on to say that the Deacons should judge the congregation at the time of the Lord’s Supper, and not serve those whom they think are not living properly. They should rule over the Communion Service, deciding who should and who should not participate. Furthermore, when they notice members who are not in attendance or refuse to participate, it is their job to discover the reasons – reproving, rebuking and exhorting them as the case may demand. Where is this in the Bible? Are these things really duties of the Biblical deacon?
Gill says that a second table falls into the deacon’s baliwick – the minister’s table. He says it is the deacons responsibility to make sure the preacher is being well treated and well-fed. It is not appropriate for the minister of God to beg his people for money to buy food and pay the mortgage. Gill and his followers say that it is the duty of the deacons to go out and collect, if necessary, the tithes of God’s people so that the bishop’s family doesn’t starve. And – even if it is the church which decides on the amount of the preacher’s salary, it is the deacons who determine if it is paid or not. Once again, this is not exactly something we find in the Bible.
AFTER those two tables, Gill finally gets to the table which is mentioned in the Bible – the table of the poor. As I’ve said, they were originally to collect and then distribute – “almonize” – those funds. Gill said the deacons need to serve this table with impartiality, cheerfulness, and compassion. I know for a fact that many of my resources took their material from Gill, because they cite these same three aspects of the deacons service.
Now, I have no problem cautiously saying that the deacons could, or should, serve in these ways, but I don’t want people to think we find all of this in the Bible. In fact, most of what I read under the heading “Duties of Deacons” in my research is not found in the Bible.
For example, Edward Hiscox authored a book called “New Directory of Baptist Churches.” It was published in 1894 to act as a guide for Southern Baptist Churches. Hiscox wrote: “Their duties – They are to be chosen by a free vote of the Church and are to be faithful, prudent, experienced and devout men. They are to HAVE CHARGE of the sick and needy members, and whatever temporal affairs may require attention. They are also to act as counselors and assistants of the pastor in advancing the general interests of the body, both temporal and spiritual.” How many things are practiced in Baptist churches, having a general foundation in the Bible, are really expressions of the imagination of well-meaning men?
J. Clyde Turner was pastor of several Baptist churches in North Carolina, Kentucky and Georgia. He says, “Some of the duties which deacons are supposed to perform are: looking after the finances of the church, assisting in the administration of the ordinances (plural), ministering to the poor, exercising a watch care over the congregation, giving attention to discipline, and taking a leading part in all of the activities of the church.”
Getting back to John Gill, before he said, “But their principle business is to serve tables,” he said this – “Deacons may and should be assisting the pastor or elder in the care of the church; as to watch over the walk and conversation of the members of the church, and to observe that they keep their places in it; and to exhort, admonish, and reprove, as they may find it necessary and to visit the sick, and such that are in distress of any kind; and to report the state of the church to the elder or pastor; and to reconcile differences between one member and another, and to prepare matters to be laid before the church at church meeting, when needful.” I’m sorry, Brother Gill, but I can’t agree with you about all these things. How can you logically go from feeding the poor of the church to tattling to the pastor about the erring brethren?
And then there is this statement about the deacons of the Bottenkill Baptist Church. In a regular business meeting in 1822, the church authorized the deacons to examine and determine how much each member would be required to give to the church based on his or her annual income. The voter approved point said that the obligation for each church member to give a specific amount for the “support of the gospel” was a stipulation in the church covenant. So if any member refused to pay what the deacons assessed, it was the duty of the church to put them away as covenant breakers – excommunicate them based on the determination of the deacons. Come on, Bottenkill, give us a chapter and verse.
A couple of my sources, appropriately pointed out, that the Bible knows nothing of a “deacon board.” “Deacon boards” are common in Baptist churches in the south and in Southern Baptist Churches. In some churches, the deacons in their board-meetings have evolved from “servants” to “masters.” Instead of listening to the pastor and doing things which free him up for the spiritual aspects of the ministry, they have become his superiors and the rulers of the church. But there should never be a meeting of the seven without the presence of the eighth – the pastor whom Christ has placed over that “ecclesia.” Perhaps there should be a monthly or quarterly meeting of the deacons, but it should be under the direction of the man whom Christ has made the under-shepherd of His flock. The deacons are not to become the Baptist version of a Protestant presbytery – ruling over God’s church.
But what if there is no pastor of the church? Then I think there would be good reason to have the deacons act as a temporary “pulpit committee.” Someone should contact other churches, asking for names of potential new pastors. But of course, all they should do is contact and invite. The actual call should be extended by a vote of the congregation. If for no other reason than that some day a church might be without a pastor, to have a few men “of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom” to act as deacons and to temporarily help guide the church would be highly advisable. Can I see that in the Bible? Admittedly, I do not. It is an extrapolation on my part.
At this point, it might be expedient to introduce the question of “DEACONESSES.”
As a nineteen-year-old missionary in Canada, I ran across something I’d never met before. A woman proudly told me that she was an ordained “deaconess” in a Canadian Baptist Church – the most liberal of the Baptist denominations in that country. I didn’t know what to say, but the Lord gave me wisdom enough at the time not to invite her to our little work.
Are there “deaconesses” in the Bible? Indeed there are. Richard Clearwaters in his book “The Local Church of the New Testament,” after talking about deacons, says without explanation, “Local churches also had deaconesses – Philippians 4:3; Romans 16:1.” But ask yourself, “What is the meaning of ‘diakonos’?” Isn’t it servant or minister? And that word is applied in several ways throughout the New Testament. In fact, the Lord Jesus is called a “diakonos” in Romans 15:8 – “Now I say that Jesus Christ was a MINISTER of the circumcision for the truth of God.” Despite being the servant of the Father, would it be proper to call Jesus a “deacon?” Matthew 20:28 – “Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered (“diakoneo”) unto, but to minister (“diakoneo”), and to give his life a ransom for many. In Romans 13:4 Paul says that governmental rulers are “diakonos.” “He is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” Furthermore, many different people ministered to Christ – including Peter’s mother and other ladies. Approximately a hundred times variations of “diakonos” are found in the Bible, and only a handful speak of the OFFICE of the deacon. Nearly always we see those various kinds of deacons serving the Lord in a variety of ways usually without the official livery of a “deacon.”
Then as Paul was concluding his Epistle to the Romans he acknowledged someone who appears to have been emigrating to Rome. “I commend unto Phebe our sister, which is a SERVANT of the church which is at Cenchrea.” The Apostle even gave to her the responsibility of carrying his letter those 750 miles to the church in the Roman capital. As you might guess, the word “servant” in Romans 16:1 is the female form of “diakonos” – servant or deacon.
It is sometimes argued that Philippians 4:3 speaks of an official church office of deaconesses. But I ask you to listen to the verse and determine if you see a church office – “And I entreat thee also, true yokefellow, help those women which labored with me in the gospel.” T.P. Simmons commented on this verse, “There is less evidence here for the office [of deaconess] than there is the former case [of Phebe]. Not the slightest hint is given here that these women were deaconesses. There were some women who assisted Christ in His work; wonder if they were deaconesses too?” There is a sense in which every Christian should be a servant of God. And if you want to express that in the original language of the New Testament – then we should all be “diakonos” – deacons and deaconesses. I believe it is to that service Paul was referring when it came to Phebe and others who assisted him from time to time.
You do not have to wear a uniform to be a soldier for Christ. As we see with Philip and Stephen, you don’t have to be an Apostle to share the gospel with others, either on a one-to-one basis or publicly. And you do not have to be ordained as a church deacon in order to be a highly useful servant of the Lord. You might not even be qualified for the office, but if you are a child of God you are still qualified to spend your life for the glory of the Saviour.
Going back to our original question – What are the official duties of the deacon? Basically, deacons are to do those things which come up in Christ’s churches, which might keep the pastor from his own duties of prayer and the ministry of the Word. They should do those essential things which might cause the Grecian members to murmur against their pastors. And much of that has to do with financial matters.
I’ll close with a statement made by Thomas Montanye on behalf of the Warwick Baptist Association in 1796 – In addition to the care of the poor and needy – the widows and orphans, “the Deacons … should duly inspect the wants of the minister; stir up the people to their duty, (not charity); to assist him with the necessities and the comfort of life, that his attention and time may more freely devoted to the work of the gospel.”