Deacons: Servants in God’s House

Acts 6:1-7

October 15, 2017

Compared to the world, leadership in Christ’s church is upside down. Jesus said as much in Matthew 20:25-28 when he taught that the rulers of the gentiles lord their power over the people — they are domineering bosses, fascists and dictators at heart, saying “do this” and “do that” and expecting us to follow along, saluting all the way. They cry, “jump” and expect us to respond by asking how high to do so. And I suspect that most of us have worked for bosses such as these.

Yet, Jesus says that it is not to be done this way in his kingdom — the church. Instead, Jesus says, that if we will be great in the kingdom, we must become so by being servants. Pastor Victor, who married Denise and I, challenged us that in a marriage we should strive to out-serve the our spouse. Yet, a commendation like that is not restricted to a wedded couple, it should be how all Christians live toward one another. Jesus went on even to say that if we would be first in his kingdom, we must first become a slave to all — just as Jesus came to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.

With this in mind, I would suggest to you that one of the easiest ways to measure a person’s spiritual maturity as a Christian is by looking at their attitude toward service.

For the mature believer, service is a given. Whether it is in church, worship, or in the Christian life, life is not about the person, it is about God and all we do we do with a mind toward service to God and to man.

For the immature believer, life is about being served. “I want my needs me, I want this to make me feel good and I want to pursue my agenda” are the catch-phrases of those with this mindset.

Every decision that you make can be evaluated on this standard, even in terms of those things that are not necessarily bad to do. For example, many of you like to take vacation to the beach or to an amusement park. There is nothing wrong with that in principle, but why not take at least some of that vacation time and money and spend a week in the Dominican Republic with our Missions team, or go with me in a year and a half when I go back to Kenya, or with the work team to Huston — or volunteer at a local homeless shelter or with Tiger Pause, or come join with us at Friendship Ridge nursing home — the van leaves at 1:30 — we don’t preach a social gospel, but do not forget that justice is part of what God demands of us.

Paul writes in Philippians 2:3 that we are to do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility we are to count others as more significant than ourselves. And this is how Jesus calls us to order his church — we are to be servants to one another. We are to be deacons, really…

Why deacons?

First of all, that’s the word that Jesus uses…which our Bibles translate as “servant.” And second of all, that is what a deacon is…a servant.

Now, in Greek, a Deacon is a special kind of servant. You see, Greek has different words that refer to different kinds of servants. There is a doulos which refers to a slave and there is a misthios, which refers to a hired hand. But a diakonos (a deacon), most basically understood, refers to a person who serves others without being compelled to do so (as a slave would be) and without being paid (as a hired hand would be).

When I was a Boy Scout, we were taught to do a good turn daily. As Christians, we are to think that way, but we are not to stop after our first good turn of the day…we are to do good turns always. Yet, there are some people in the life of the church who have had a sacred calling placed upon their lives to lead the church in a life of service and good works…these we call “Deacons.”

Now, although the word deacon does not show up explicitly in Acts 6:1-7 that we read this morning, it is pretty universally understood that this is the origin of the office in the Christian sense of the term…recognizing too that, like Elder, the office goes back into the Old Testament, for when priests retired (age 50) and were no longer permitted to serve in the Temple, they would serve as temple guards as well as mentors for the younger priests (Numbers 8:25-26). Here, they are called “ministers” …or “deacons” in some manuscripts and discussions. And so, since all Christians are called priests, it seemed appropriate that those who would be ministers to the priests would be called Deacons, reflecting the levitical practice.

So, we find ourselves in Acts 6, in the early Christian church in Jerusalem under the leadership of the 12 (11 Apostles + Matthias) and you might be inclined to think that it was paradise…but it wasn’t. There was the case of Annias and Saphirah who were struck dead for lying to the Holy Spirit and there was strife between the widows — the Jewish ones were getting better allotments of food than the gentile ones. And the matter was brought to the Apostles.

And thus, the twelve were faced with a decision — when push comes to shove, and time is limited, what gets sacrificed? In verse 2, we are given their answer… “It is not right for us to give up preaching the Word of God to wait tables.”

Now, notice what they are not saying…they are not saying that the plight of the widows is unimportant. They are also not saying that it didn’t need to be resolved with some aide by the church. But they were saying is a matter of priorities and calling. Their calling was to preach and to teach and to address the matter of the widows would mean they are being pulled away from what God had called them to do. And anything that would compromise their calling had to be delegated to others.

I need to confess that as a pastor, this is one of the hardest lessons that I have had to learn. We want to do it all and we want to be willing hands anywhere that willing hands are needed. And, though all of these things are good, if it compromises the ministry of the word and prayer it needs to be delegated off to others. As Paul writes in Ephesians 4:12, my job is to equip the saints for ministry, not to do it all.

So, the Apostles gathered men of character — the qualifications are included in the list that I handed out last week — and these servants would be called deacons, entrusted with the care of the widow and then by extension to mercy ministries in general.

This permitted the Apostles to focus on the ministry of word and prayer and the church flourished. Thus, as our constitution is structured after this, deacons are instructed to:

1. Assist the other officers in their duties

2. to promote the general welfare of the congregation

3. to assist the pastor in the caring for the sick and needy

4. handle special collections for specific needs

Now, unlike the office of the Elder, the Bible does not go into a lot of detail about the activities of deacons, though several deacons are mentioned by name in Paul’s letters. Now, we will talk about a few of these shortly, but before we do that I want to highlight a blessing that Paul gives in 1 Timothy 3:13…at the end of his listing of qualifications for the office of deacon.

Paul writes:

“For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Jesus Christ.”

So, why does Paul just write this of Deacons and not of Elders and Deacons?

Two answers:

1) He begins with the statement that to be an overseer (an Elder) is a noble task, so literarily, this is a nice way to close out the section…having begun by honoring Elders and closing by honoring Deacons.

2) By the nature of the work that the Deacons do, they operate largely behind the scenes… and if they are really doing their job well, the work they do is unnoticed except by the ones whom they are serving. And that is good as they often have the opportunity to speak with people and assist people in times when they are most vulnerable and where a wide knowledge of their work would give fodder to the busybodies and gossips that are in the congregation and in the community.

Sadly, sometimes people think that because they do not see the Deacons doing their work that the Deacons don’t do much, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. So, while you should show your gratitude to each member of the Church Council for the work they do, make a special point to say “thank you” to the deacons for all they do.

With that said, I would like to make a few comments about some of the Deacons who are listed by name in the Bible…

The challenge we face with this is that our English Bibles translate the word diakonos in several different ways. Sometimes it is translated as “deacon,” sometimes as “servant,” and sometimes as “minister”…and this all in the same translation of the Bible. So, to discern whether Paul is speaking of one who is simply a servant or whether he is speaking of one who holds the office of Deacon. So, context as well as parallel references is essential to look at.

For example, we have Tychicus who is referred to in Colossians 4:7 as “a beloved brother,” a “faithful servant” (minister or deacon — diakonos) and “fellow servant” (slave, doulos). The repetition of the language implies that the middle reference is a title. He is similarly spoken of in Ephesians 6:21. In addition, we find him accompanying Paul — as a servant — at his side in Acts 20:4, Titus 3:12).

A similar argument can be made about Epaphras, who is mentioned in Colossians 1:7; 4:12; and in Philemon 23).

But the same argument should not be made about Phoebe, who is mentioned in Romans 16:1. This is worth noting because those who hold that women should serve in office in the church usually appeal to Phoebe, who is described by the feminine version of diakonos, which is diakonon.

Given the presence of this debate, which is even reflected in some of the translations of the Bible (and being debated even by conservative denominations like the PCA), it seems appropriate to address this morning.

So, why should we hold that Phoebe is a servant (as is rendered by the ESV, the NASB, the KJV, and the old edition of the NIV) and not as a deaconess (as is rendered by the New Living Bible, the NRSV, and the new edition of the NIV…often called TNIV)?

1. When qualifications are given for those in the office of the Deacon, they are always in the masculine (husband of one wife) and for the Deacon there is a special reference to rules for the deacon’s wife. Clearly this cannot be understood to apply to men or women.

2. Paul plainly states in 1 Timothy 2:12 that he does not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man.

3. Wives are called to submit to their husbands’ authority as to the Lord (Ephesians 5:22) and that the husband is the head of his wife as Christ is head of the church (Ephesians 5:23). That would be a hard model to follow if the wife were an officer in the church.

4. We don’t have records of the early church ordaining women as deacons.

5. As we have already mentioned, diakonos can be translated in a variety of ways as it is a broad term. One of the ways it is used in the Ancient Greek culture was that a person who opened their home up for a body of people to meet within was also called a deacon or a deaconess. So, given her role as the hostess of the house church in Cenchrae, it seems appropriate to understand Paul to be using this term in this specific way when speaking of Phoebe.

So, while debates rage in the world around us, if we are to stand squarely on the Scriptures, then we must recognize male authority in the house of God.

And so, we commission mature men as deacons to a work of mercy, done mostly behind the scenes (though not hidden from God)…and as we practice this, we pray that God will see fit to bless us in the same way as is spoken of the church in Acts 6:7…that the Word of God increased.

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