Updated: Aug 12, 2021
In our last post on Spiritual Leadership in the local church, we noted,
“So, if Pastors are not expected to be managers and CEOs, who is supposed to do these things in the Church? The biblical answer is: The Deacons.”
In this series of posts we want to explore the New Testament office of Deacon. And we want to begin by asking the question, “Where do Deacons come from?”
In future posts, we will explore the questions of, “Who are Deacons to Be?” and “What do Deacons Do?”
Where do Deacons come from?
-Deacons show up in the New Testament and are meant to be understood as a gift from God to His Church.
While there is some discussion about it, the consensus understanding is that the first deacons show up in the very first New Testament Church: The Jerusalem Church. In Acts 6, we find that the Jerusalem Church is growing rapidly, no doubt spreading throughout the city...numbering well over 5,000 people at this point.
Here’s how Luke records the situation…
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists[a] arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 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. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. 7 And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:1-7)
What an awesome experience this must have been! How exciting it must have been to be there, on the ground, seeing men and women hearing the gospel and responding in faith. Baptisms happening by the thousands! Whole households coming to faith!
But, like with any group of people, problems and issues come up. Luke tells us that as the Church grew, so did the needs of the people...specifically, the needs of the widows. In this day and time, widows did not work and were often entirely dependent on someone else for their livelihood and daily care. So the church, rightly, took on the responsibility to provide food for these sweet women. The problem was that those distributing the food were favoring some over others along ethnic lines—which is sinful—and this was a threat to the unity of this growing body of Christ.
-This was a real problem. A real threat to the growth and success of this Church. It demanded real action be taken both to meet the needs going unmet, but more importantly, to guard the spiritual health of the Church itself.
But, whose job was it?
It was a pressing need. It had to get done! Would the Elders do it? If they did it, they would have to give up the ministry of prayer and the Word (Acts 6:2). And if they took time away from the ministry of the Word, who would do that? That was not the solution.
So, the Elders and Overseers of the Church sought a godly solution to this problem...and that solution was Deacons.
-Luke is careful to point out that those sought to fulfill this role were to be people of good and godly reputation, and already full of the Holy Spirit. That is crucial! Essential! The word deacon, from the Greek diakonos, literally means “servant.” It means, “One who is oriented toward the good of another person.”
The word is used all throughout the New Testament in various ways (Romans 13:4; 2 Cor. 6:4; 11:14-15, 23; Col. 1:7; 1 Tim. 3; 4:6), but it always means “in the service of another.”
In order for this real and pressing need to be met, the Elders sought those who would serve the needs of others. But in order to meet this real need while also guarding the unity of the church, these deacons must be godly people through and through. The people who were distributing the food already were willing, but their ungodliness showed in their willingness to show favoritism.
Deacons are Needed and Valuable Leaders in the New Testament Church.
Too many times, the office of deacon gets wrongly defined. Churches can treat deacons like they are a decision-making body, or a board of directors for the Church. Some churches treat deacons as if they are just a group of handymen who do all the dirty work. Some churches think the deacons are just there to keep the church happy.
All of these things fall woefully short.
Matt Smethurst captures the necessity and dignity of the office of the New Testament Deacon well when he says,
“We shouldn’t elevate deacons to an executive board of pseudo-elders. It is an office of service, not oversight. But let us not reduce the role to savvy businessmen or skilled handymen either. Deacons are so much more. They are an influential cavalry of servants, called by the King and deputized by His Church to target and meet tangible needs. To protect and promote church unity. To enhance the ministry of the Elders. And, in doing so, to accelerate the mission of the Church.” (Deacons, 132-33)
-The real value of Deacons to a local church starts with getting our understanding of the office right, and then working to make sure qualified individuals are installed in that office to serve and strengthen the Church.