The Directive of Deacons: Part I (Acts 6:1-7) | Jared Betts

Church in Crisis

May we begin our time today by reading the Apostle Paul’s words to Timothy in 1 Timothy 3:14-15. Paul says:

14 I am writing these things to you, hoping to come to you before long; 15 but in case I am delayed, I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth.”

The purpose of Paul’s entire letter is found in these words. We see very clearly that Paul wrote to Timothy so that he would know how the church is to be conducted.

Many of us understand that prior to making this statement, Paul has just laid out the qualifications for those who hold offices of leadership within the church. I believe that an important implication for us to draw from this text is that in order for local churches to be the pillar and support of the truth, and function in a manner fitting to the people of God, it must have willing, capable, and qualified elders and deacons.

Consider Paul’s words to Titus. Paul left him on the isle of Crete. Why did Paul leave him among the Cretan church? Titus 1:5:

For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you.”

He left Titus among the Cretan church because the church was in disorder, and it was in disorder because it did not have leadership functioning within it according to God’s design and purpose. God desires an orderly church.

Let us quickly recall that by God’s design, local churches are to be led by a plurality of willing, capable, and elder qualified men that make up what is known biblically as a presbytery.[1] A presbytery is a body of elders, and body of elders is known as an eldership.

Please keep in mind that whenever you hear me say the term “Elder” you understand that I am talking about a pastor. Elder is synonymous with pastor, and God has designed local churches to be co-shepherded by plurality of them as equals. This means that within and eldership one is not raised above the others. They may not all function in the exact same way, but each one is on the same plain of authority. For instance, when this church appoints other elders, they will be my equals. I will not be their superior, and they will not be my subordinates. We will be co-shepherds. They will not function exactly as I function, but they will still labor in such way where they fulfill their God-given duties as pastors within this church.

Again, within God’s divine blueprint for His church, it is to be co-shepherded by a plurality of willing, capable, and qualified elders. Consider the wisdom of Solomon. Proverbs 27:17, “Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Proverbs 20:18, “Prepare plans by consultation.” Proverbs 24:6, “in abundance of counselors there is victory.”

Let us also remember that by God’s design the church is to be cared for by a plurality of willing, capable, and deacon qualified men that make up what is known as a diaconate.

As was said last week, this text reveals to us the necessity of both elders and deacons functioning properly within the church. It shows us just how vital each office is. This means that if there is either no one serving in these capacities, or there are people occupying the office, but not serving within it according to their God-given purpose, then the church suffers. A suffering church is just what we see in the beginning part of Acts 6, and its suffering is directly related to the absence of one of these offices.

We are back in the portion of Scripture detailing a church in crisis. The church in Acts was in this situation because up until this point the Twelve Apostles were caring for every aspect of the church’s needs, both spiritual and physical ones. They were giving themselves entirely to the commission of Christ and devoting themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word so that they might thoroughly feed, lead, and protect the flock of God which He purchased with His own blood. We could say that through this, they sought to meet the spiritual needs of the church.

Now, we took the time last Sunday to deal specifically with the office of elders. It is the duty of pastors everywhere to exercise oversight in the church and ensure that Jesus Christ retains His headship over it through their devotion to Him in prayer and the careful study and exposition of His Word; and it is the churches job to ensure that only willing, capable, and qualified men fill this office, for such men will not usurp Christ’s headship. They will understand that the church’s greatest need is not them, but Christ, and they will understand that the only way that they as pastors can ensure that Christ reigns over His blood bought people is when they devote themselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word. As one person states:

“When pastors neglect the Word of God, they sabotage the work of God.”[2]

This is the priority of pastors everywhere without exception.

As was said a moment ago, the Apostles were not just focusing on the church’s spiritual needs, but also on its physical needs. They had taken it upon themselves to care for the many practical demands of the church. As money was given to the church, the Apostles would seek to distribute it among the needy believers within it. Remember Acts 4:34-35:

34 For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales 35 and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need.”

Again, the Apostles were striving to give practical care and relief to the needy and suffering within the body of Christ.

May we see in this text that the Apostle’s had not ceased striving to care for the many practical needs of the church. What ended up happening as the gospel spread throughout the surrounding regions was that the disciples were increasing in number. The church was growing at a dramatic rate, which obviously brought on an increased workload thus preventing the Apostle’s from meeting the many practical needs of every needy person among the church. On top of this increase in number, cultural bias and sinful partiality had crept into the church and in some way brought about the neglect of the widows among the Hellenistic Jews. Luke records for us in Acts 6:1:

1 Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food.” 

This was not good. A portion of the needy among those who were viewed as second class citizens in Jewish society where not being properly cared for. The very ones the church is instructed to look after and practically minister to were being neglected.

What do the Apostles do to correct this crisis among the church and to ensure that it is being properly cared for both spiritually and physically? Acts 6:1-4:

So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

The Apostles recognized it was not good for them to ignore the Word in order to meet the physical needs of the church, so they guide the church in appointing willing, capable, and qualified men to accomplish the task. They have the church appoint deacons.

If we are honest, most Christians know very little about the office of deacon. Sure, many have heard of deacons, but very few have actually applied their minds to understanding what Scripture reveals about them. It is crucial that we understand this to be a danger to the health of the church. As Alexander Strauch says:

“If we don’t adequately consider the texts of holy Scripture or limit ourselves to biblical teaching on deacons, we invariably corrupt God’s design and invent a diaconate of our own imagination.”[3]

This is exactly what a majority of churches have done. They have invented a diaconate of their own minds, which is disastrous because it is, therefore, not according to the mind of God, who is the One that established it in the first place and gave it a clear and objective purpose. If a diaconate is not functioning according to the mind of God, then it is incapable of fulfilling its intended purpose. If this is the case, the church suffers.

If I went around the room to ask every person, “What is a deacon, and what are they to do?” What would I find? Would I receive answers that reflect the mind of God, or more often than not I would get answers that reflect the mind of man?  

Friends, we have the mind of Christ.[4] We have His all-sufficient Word, which is enough to instruct the church on its structure and conduct.[5] His Word is to be the only authority that governs us. We affirm this truth! Do we understand, however, that we can affirm the Bible as the authoritative Word of God until we are blue in the face, but our view of the authority of Scripture is not measured by our mere affirmation of it. Our view of the authority of Scripture is measured by our submission and obedience to it. In other words, our practice either confirms our affirmation, or it betrays it and reveals we really do not believe God’s Word to be the authority over us. This does not only apply to our individual walks as Christians, but also as a corporate body of believers. Do we as a church do what God requires of us? Does our church polity match His divine blueprint for His church?

Time will not permit me to exhaust the riches this text possesses on the matter of church polity but understand that there is a fountain of truth to consider in this portion.

Today, we want to specifically focus on the topic of deacons. On several occasions I have spoken of how vital they are to a church body, and that without them churches suffer in various ways. So far, the only thing we understand in regard to deacons is that we need them, but what are they? What are they to do? Who should become deacons? How does an individual even become one? All of these questions will be answered.

It is my prayer and hope that as we consider the truth of God’s Word as it pertains to deacons, that we will begin to understand why the Apostle Paul says to Timothy that “those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.” In other words, not only will they greatly increase in their faith in Christ as they serve well, but because of their Christ-centered service they should be held in honor among the church. May we see God’s beautiful and wonderful design for a diaconate amongst His people, and desire to see it implemented among us.

Dissecting Deacons

So, what does the Scripture reveal to us about deacons? What many do not realize is that directly, it says surprisingly little. This does not mean, however, that it does not say much indirectly, or by implication. Let us never forget that God speaks to us through His Word both explicitly and implicitly. Both explicit and implicit truth is to be drawn out of the Scripture to understand the meaning of it. One of the greatest examples of this is the doctrine of the Trinity. The Scripture does not explicitly say that there is One God who eternally exists in three distinct Persons. One, however, comes to the conclusion that God is Triune by the insurmountable implications within the Scripture. Our understanding of deacons will be derived in a similar way.

The first time we ever see the word “deacons” appear in the Scripture is in Philippians 1:1 when Paul says:

“Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons.”[6]

We see it again in Paul’s first letter to Timothy. 1 Timothy 3:8, 10, 12, and 13 say:

Deacons likewise must be men of dignity… 10 These men must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach…12 Deacons must be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households. 13 For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.”

This is every place in the Scripture where you will find deacons mentioned. As you can see none of these segments either tell you what a deacon is, or what a deacon does. They only speak of what qualifies them and what the results of their service are. As far as what exactly they are to do, these areas of Scripture are silent.

We could consider the word “deacons”, and then we find that it is a transliteration of the Greek word diakonos, which speaks of one who executes the commands of another.[7] Simply put, it means servant or minister. Now, do not conflate minister with pastor as many people do. In other words, being a minister does not equate to being a pastor. A deacon is not a pastor. They are an entirely distinct entity. Both are servants, but each in their own specific category.

It is important to also note that though the word “deacons” appears in our translations within these texts in an official sense, we find the Greek word being used a plethora of times elsewhere in a general sense. Here are three examples of how it is used to describe different people and things:

  1. All genuine believers in Christ.

Mark 10:43-44:

“Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant (diakonos)44 and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all.”

John 12:26:

26 If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there My servant (diakonos) will be also; if anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him.”

  • Civil Government.

Romans 13:4:

“Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister (diakonos) of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister (diakonos) of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.” 

  • Agents of Satan.

2 Corinthians 11:13-14:

13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 Therefore it is not surprising if his servants (diakonos) also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds.”

As we can see, this word is commonly used in a very general sense to refer to servants and does not speak in anyway to the office of a deacon. It is important to understand this because a failure to has led some to either erroneously conclude that only deacons of the church should be in positions of civil authority, or that women are permitted to occupy the office, such as Phoebe in Romans 16:1. It is true that every believer is to be a diakonos in the general sense, but not every believer is to be a diakonos in the official sense and capacity. There is a very clear office of deacon within the church. An office requires:

  1. Certain qualifications.
  2. Examination before entry into it.
  3. Being appointed to the position.
  4. Being delegated limited authority to accomplish a specific job.

What then are deacons to do? How are deacons to serve? If you have not caught on yet, the book of Acts is what provides us with definition. Acts 6 introduces us with a prototype of deacons. It is here that we can clearly see their purpose within the church as well as their need to not only be qualified, but also approved by the elders and appointed by the church.

Some are adamant that this text has nothing to do with deacons, and their primary argumentation for this is that the word deacon is nowhere to be found on the pages. I believe such thinkers are greatly mistaken. Remember what I said early, our understanding of deacons is not derived necessarily from what is directly said, but what is indirectly revealed.

There are a couple of reasons to acknowledge our portion in Acts to be a pattern for deacons throughout the life of the church:

  1. Reputable men throughout the history of the church have recognized this section of Scripture to detail the first deacons of the church.

The 2nd Century church father known as Irenaeus referred to the Seven in Acts as deacons. Irenaeus by the way was the disciple of Polycarp, who was the disciple of the Apostle John, one of the Twelve who commissioned the appointing of the Seven.

There is also the renowned 4th Century church historian, Eusebius. He affirmed this in his work entitled Ecclesiastical History when he chronologically records the work of the Apostles after the ascension of Christ as it is revealed in Acts. After he speaks of the Eleven appointing Matthias to become the twelfth Apostle in the place of the traitor Judas, he says:

“There were appointed also, with prayer and the imposition of hands by the apostles, approved men unto the office of deacons for the public service; these were those seven of whom Stephen was one.”[8]

  • Though the English word deacon is not written anywhere in this text, the corresponding noun and verb for diakonos are.

Luke uses the feminine noun, diakonia, in verse 1:

“Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving (diakonia) of food.”

He then uses the verb in verse 2 when the Apostles were discussing the task that needed to be accomplished:

“So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve (diakoneo) tables.”

Diakonia and diakoneo are used specifically to convey practical service to those in need among the church body.          

This is something that should not be overlooked or ignored, especially when reputable men throughout history make the connection for us. The book of Acts describes for us the duties of those Paul instructed Timothy to examine and appoint. It defines for us the directive of deacons.

The Duty of Deacons

In order to discern the duties of deacons, we must look more closely at the words of Luke and those of the Apostles. Acts 6:1-4 reads:

1 Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

We can see here that there is really a simple twofold purpose to deacons, provide relief for the elders by providing relief for those in need among the body of Christ.

            Jesus said, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.”[9] We need both spiritual and physical nourishment. By God’s design for offices of leadership, His people live by bread and the Word. Both offices are distinct from one another but complement each other and ensure the church is spiritually and physically cared for. Though deacons are subordinate to elders, they are necessary to the life of the church. When they both function properly the church receives pastoral oversight and practical care.

The ministry of Pastors is more verbal, whereas the ministry of deacons is more practical. Elders are appointed to the ministry of the Word, and deacons are appointed to a ministry of deeds. It was Peter that said in 1 Peter 4:10-11:

10 As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. 11 Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God; whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”

            By God’s wisdom, deacons are to assist the elders by relieving them of the many practical needs that arise within the body of Christ, so that the shepherds can give their fullest attention to the ministry of the Word and prayer.

The Seven were tasked with the daily serving. Luke records them being appointed to serve tables. It is important we grasp that this word does not just imply the distribution of food, but also funds. The word for tables, trapeza, is also used for money changing tables. This is why some translations render the Apostles saying:

“It is not right that we should have to neglect preaching the Word of God in order to look after the accounts.”

We should understand the distribution of money being a crucial aspect of this ministry because this is exactly what we saw the Apostles were taking upon themselves before this.

When we consider what is occurring in this text, we see the deacons being tasked with the following things:

  1. Accumulate all the charities that had been given to aid the needy, whether it be money or goods.
  2. Distribute the charities to whoever was in need, as the Apostles had been doing among the body.
  3. Ensure the charities were being justly and impartially distributed throughout the body.
  4. Direct the churches care for those in need.

If we could sum up the duties of deacons, it could be summed up as this: Deacons within the church are to care for the poor, needy, and suffering among it in a Christ-like manner. They are to humbly display Jesus Christ’s care, compassion, and love for His people through practical means.

They are to exemplify for the church the first aspect of pure and undefiled religion in the sight of God, they visit orphans and widows in their distress. They care for those believers who are poor or those who are sick, those without jobs or homes, those who are advanced in years or disabled and confined to their homes. What a beautiful duty, and a necessary one at that.

Just as a pastor are not given to the community at large, neither is the deacon. Both are given by Christ to the church and for the church. This does not mean we should not care for the community at large at all, but it does mean that those within the church are our first priority. We should be caring for those among us before we care for those without us. Galatians 6:10:

10 So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.”

Jesus said:

35 By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”[10]

What greater way for a church to demonstrate its love for one another then when it provides relief to the needy and suffering among it? When it appoints godly men to provide genuine care for its own by seeking to alleviate them of their hardships.

May we see that they are to have nothing to do with being the churches grounds keepers or being a body of executives that exercise oversight in the church. We should never want to see them be diminished or distorted to these things, because that is never what God intended for them.

They are to be ministers of mercy. They are to be not only possessors of compassion, but practitioners of it. True compassion is when one is sympathetically conscious of another person’s hardship and strives to alleviate it. Mercy has been defined as:

“A disposition to spare or help another. This disposition, although inwardly felt, manifests itself outwardly in some kind of action. It is evident that mercy combines a strong emotional element, usually identified as pity, compassion, or love, with some practical demonstration of kindness in response to the conditions or needs of the object of mercy.”[11]

The work they do is worthy of the highest honor. They demonstrate and reflect the heart of God.

The Compassion of Christ

It was Jonathan Edwards, the man who has been hailed as Americas greatest theologian, that said:

“I know scarce any duty which is so much insisted on, so pressed upon us, both in Old Testament and New, as this duty of charity to the poor.”

This week I read about an old legend that truly captures the essence of what it means for deacons within the church to prioritize and care for its own. The story states that:

“In the days of the terrible Decian persecution in Rome, the Roman authorities broke into the Christian church. They were out to loot the treasures which they believed the church to possess. The Roman prefect demanded from Laurentius, the deacon, ‘Show me you treasures at once.’ Laurentius pointed at the widows and orphans who were being supplied, ‘These,’ he said, ‘are the treasures of the church.’”[12]

May we desire to see this church being properly cared for by a plurality of men that make it their mission to demonstrate the heart of God and meet the many practical needs of the members of this church.

May they be men that look to the One whose ministry was marked by caring for the suffering and needy and seek to walk in His footsteps.

May they be minsters of mercy that serve well because they never cease to gaze upon the riches of God’s mercy towards us in Christ. When we were dead in sin and suffering under its penalty and power, He made us alive. He gave of Himself to relieve us of our sin debt and to grant us life. He who knew no sin became it so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. May they be men moved by the compassion of Christ as it is beautifully displayed in His gospel, understanding that if God so love us, ought we not to love one another? So, I end by saying, “Lord, give us such men!”

[1] 1 Timothy 4:14

[2] Minister of Mercy: The New Testament Deacon, Alexander Strauch; Page 24

[3] Minister of Mercy: The New Testament Deacon, Alexander Strauch; Page 9

[4] 1 Corinthians 2:16

[5] 2 Timothy 3:16-17

[6] Philippians 1:1

[7] Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance; NT Number: 1249

[8] Ecclesiastical History: Complete and Unabridged, Eusebius; Translated by C.F. Cruse; Page 35

[9] Matthew 4:4

[10] John 13:35

[11] C.E. Armerding, “Mercy, Merciful,” in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. M.C. Tenney, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975), 4:188.

[12] William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, 2 Vols. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1958), 1:244.

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