13 September, 2021

Where Have All the Deacons Gone? (Part 2 or 3)

by | 7 September, 2021 | 0 comments

Part 2 of 3: Who to Select and How They Should Function

By Jim Dalrymple

In Part 1, I urged deacons to trade in ballots and boardrooms for a basin and a towel. Deacons serve. But what else can we learn from the Bible about how deacons were selected and how they are to function in the church? Unfortunately, here, too, we often mimic secular structures rather than the patterns of Scripture.

Four texts help shape our understanding: 1 Timothy 3:8-13; Philippians 1:1; Acts 6:1-7; and Romans 16:1. From these, I want to make three practical observations. But before I do, I feel I must make a case for my use of Acts 6 in relation to the “office” of deacon.

Scholars debate whether we should connect the narrative in Acts 6:1-7 to the more formal office of deacons found in Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3. This disconnect is symptomatic of our prioritization of titles and offices over tasks and responsibilities. Notice that those “serving” in Acts 6 are “appointed” to meet needs—it is an official assignment to serve—the very thing implied by the title in 1 Timothy and Philippians. Second, the appointment complemented the teaching responsibility of the apostles—a role eventually delegated to local elders/overseers. The appointment was then made official by prayer and the laying on of hands (Acts 6:6). This has all the makings of a commissioning to a task.

Should this Acts narrative be used to help us determine what was normal? As for the core principles, I believe the answer is yes. Luke had a reason for choosing and arranging his text. While not every detail should be considered normative (e.g., choosing of seven men with these seven specific names), the text was given a place of prominence for our benefit. I believe Luke intended to describe how the early church flourished (6:7) so that we might follow their example as we work to serve both the Word and various needs that arise—often accompanied by complaint (6:1).

As we continue, we will use both Acts 6 and 1 Timothy 3 to inform us on how we should select deacons and how they should function in our context.

We look to outward appearances, but the Lord looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). We look for a job description, but the Bible focuses on the heart’s condition. We test for evidence of success, skill sets, and savvy—but the Bible tests for an authentic faith (1 Timothy 3:10). Why? This is not merely a utilitarian role! The surface work might “get done,” but we might not make disciples in the process. We must never settle for the work under the work. Deacons lead like Jesus so that they can lead more to Jesus.

Scripture urges us to look for those who have a reputation of an authentic faith. This is the banner trait we discover in phrases like “good repute” (Acts 6:3*), “dignified” (1 Timothy 3:8), “hold[ing] the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience” (1 Timothy 3:9), or “blameless” (1 Timothy 3:10). This is the metal we are testing for (1 Timothy 3:10). But does this imply a deacon must be perfect? No! This is a test of authenticity. And the best way to test for an authentic life with Jesus is to look for fruit.

First Timothy 3:1-13 is not a checklist, yet we’ve treated it as such to our own detriment. Instead of a checklist, this passage is a character sketch of the kinds of evidence we should find in an authentic disciple. Notice, too, that the list of characteristics in 1 Timothy 3 stands in parallel to the phrase “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” in Acts 6:3. When we follow Jesus, the Holy Spirit will bear fruit in our lives, making us self-controlled (with regard to speech, alcohol, and money, for examples) and faithful (in marriage, parenting . . . in all things). So, what if an individual is a fruitful disciple but not married, not a parent, or has a past with alcohol or greed?

Can a believer have a past but also be an authentic disciple of Jesus? Yes! There is no other kind. Earlier in 1 Timothy, Paul admitted, “Formerly I was a . . .” (1:13). He went on to say, “But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1:16). We need more authentic “examples” of gospel transformation. Does it strike you as odd, then, that we look for individuals without a checkered past? This tendency has caused one of two results: (1) no one is qualified or (2) no one is honest.

When we turn 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 into legalistic checklists rather than a core sample of one’s character in Christ, we too readily concoct inconsistent Pharisaic rules. Like all ancient virtue and vice lists, this is meant to be a picture of one’s character as seen by the community. Having said this, we should not simply dismiss the past, but we should test it for evidence of repentance and an authentic relationship with Jesus in the present. The central question is clear: Is this individual an authentic follower of Jesus who, in turn, will lead others to follow Jesus? Unfortunately, I’m convinced some churches would rather have a successful and connected businessperson as a deacon (possibly overlooking symptoms of greed) rather than the person with a messy past who now serves those just like them with the love of Jesus. Hypocrites are great at checking off checklists. Just ask the Pharisees.

Deacons meet any needs that, if left unmet, might hinder the gospel (Acts 6:1). Where Jesus would serve, deacons go serve. There is great flexibility. Perhaps this was God’s design. Deacons serve to meet needs so that the apostles (Acts 6) and overseers (1 Timothy 3:2) can effectively carry out their responsibility of teaching the Word. This is not to say deacons never proclaim the gospel or that elders never serve (see Stephen in Acts 7). However, deacons are not merely junior elders. Their role is complementary to the elders. This dual leadership ensures a holistic impact of the gospel in the community. Notice in Acts 6:7 that the appointment of deacons to meet a specific need led to the advancement of the Word. We should expect the same in our context.

I find it ironic that we call the primary preacher/teacher a minister (deacon) and then overwhelm him with both the tasks of preaching/teaching and with serving the various needs of the congregation. Can you see the problem? We have conflated the two roles and divorced them both from the elders and deacons. When this happens, everything is neglected on some level—healthy preaching of the Word and the various needs of the people. We have hired out the work to a few but stifled the discipleship of the many. As the apostles said in Acts 6:2, “It is not right. . . .”

No matter the title—deacons, ministers, ministry leaders, or servant leaders—deacons serve. Isn’t every disciple called to serve? Yes! But deacons lead the way. It is a responsibility to not only meet needs, but to do so like Jesus. Do you think Jesus is more impressed by honorific titles or the example in serving others? Where Jesus would serve, deacons jump in and serve.

Which tasks are deacons intended to do? What needs cause complaint or threaten a healthy teaching of the Word (Acts 6:1)? Which needs capture the heart of Jesus? Widows and orphans just might be a great place to start (see James 1:27; it is perhaps even more mission-centric than buildings and grounds). The genius of God’s design is that this role is highly adaptable, transcending context or culture. Your church has a variety of needs that require someone to serve like Jesus. Deacons live out the gospel in a vast array of work clothes as they feed, visit, shovel, fix, clothe, plan, help, and counsel.

Make it official. In Acts 6:6, the apostles prayed and laid hands on those who would serve the Greek widows. Likewise, we are called to test for character, commission deacons to a task, and pray for them to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. If we have carried out our mission of making disciples, we should not have much difficulty identifying those who are authentic in their faith and ready to lead the way in serving others. If no one can be found, then perhaps it is time to make disciples. 

Paul informed Timothy, “I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God” (1 Timothy 3:14-15). What an honor it is to serve in the household of God! I pray that this study is helpful to you and your church. May you be full of the Spirit and wisdom, holding the mystery of our faith with a clear conscious (Acts 6:3; 1 Timothy 3:9). May the deacons among you serve well (1 Timothy 3:13).

*All Scripture verses are from the English Standard Version.

Read the conclusion (“What the Bible Says About Deaconesses”) of this 3-part article next week at ChristianStandard.com.

Jim Dalrymple serves as executive vice president of advancement and professor of New Testament and leadership with Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Mo.

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