RPM, Volume 17, Number 31, July 26 to August 1, 2015

The Deacon

Acts 6:1-7

By D. Marion Clark


In the month of June we are providing opportunity to nominate qualified men to serve as elders and deacons. This morning we will consider the role of the deacon, next Sunday the role of the elder, and two weeks later the biblical qualifications of both.


In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.

As hard as this may be to believe, there actually was complaining in the church! Consider the type of complaint: it was not over theology but perceived preferential treatment. What an unspiritual concern! Note, too, that the rift was between cultural groups: the Grecian Jews (who primarily spoke Greek and probably had assimilated more with the Greek culture) and the Hebraic Jews (who spoke Aramaic and retained their distinct Jewish culture). The Grecian Jews no doubt were the minority, thus another minority group complaining about not getting its fair share.

The actual complaint was over the mercy ministry established to provide for the church widows. There was no Social Security, no pension, no insurance, and minimal opportunity to earn a subsistent living for widows. It was Jewish custom and biblical law to provide for the widows and orphans. Most likely the temple authorities administered funds for such purpose and probably the synagogues in the outlying areas. It would have been natural for the early Jewish church to take on that role for its members, who possibly were excluded from the regular Jewish funds because of their beliefs. From what the apostles say in verse two, it appears that the widows would gather in a location, or perhaps several, possibly for a meal and/or to receive food to take home.

Apparently, the Grecian widows were not getting their due portion of the food. Perhaps, because they were the minority, this was mere administrative oversight. We know that the Jerusalem church met in houses, and it could be that the Grecian Jews met separately and were not in the loop when the system was developed.

Whatever the case, the church faced a situation that very well could have caused a split, and at the least, a rift in its unity. We know how the dynamics work and what should have happened next. The apostles should have complained that they were all being complainers and the people should realize that they were doing the best they can. The Hebraic widows also should have been defensive and have asserted that they were only getting what they could just live off of. The majority wing of the church should have accused the minority wing of being complainers. At this time, the apostles ought to exerted more attention to administering the program and trying to please everyone. But they came up with a new idea altogether.

2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, "It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word."

First, they perceived and articulated the danger at hand. It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Yes, there was danger of a growing rift in the church and of a vital mercy ministry collapsing, but, further, there was the danger of curtailing their calling to preaching and teaching the word of God in order to handle this duty. If they had taken over the responsibility of administering the mercy ministry, they would have had to neglect their teaching ministry.

John Stott says there are three ways that Satan attacks the church: persecution, corruption, and distraction. The first two are obvious; the third can be insidious. An insidious danger is one that seems harmless or simply isn't apparent at all. A mercy ministry to widows is a good, indeed, James would claim essential, ministry for a church. If it is in trouble, shouldn't the highest authorities give it their attention? Isn't that a healthy thing to do?

Think about it. We all know the problem of waiting in emergency rooms. Certainly more attention needs to be given to improve the process of receiving emergency care. But would you want a highly skilled doctor to set aside treatment of patients to handle the administration duties? Devoting oneself to one task doesn't mean that the other tasks are not important. The apostles were not saying that the widow ministry was unimportant; they were simply saying that it was not their calling. The church is growing because they are keeping focused on ministering the word; that is why they have widows in the church. They are doing their part. Now it is necessary for others to rise to the occasion and use their gifts for mercy ministry.

The apostles' solution is surprising, not for the idea of having others do the work, but for the manner in which they would be selected and their qualifications. 3 Brothers, choose seven men from among you. Shouldn't the apostles have done the choosing? Who better than they to select qualified men? I suppose if the Jerusalem church were small they would have done so, but this is a church of several thousand people that is at best only a few months old. The apostles certainly would know good men, but not all the men. This lack of knowing everybody was probably what led to the problem in the first place. Even so, it is remarkable that the apostles would relinquish control over the selection of the men is such a critical matter. If the wrong men are selected, the problem will only become worse. And surely this was a danger, as the people would likely choose the men they knew would protect their interests.

And then there are the qualifications the apostles noted necessary. These qualifications are not unimportant, of course, but they do seem limiting for the work to be done. Those chosen are to be men who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. These would be the same qualifications for the apostles. That they are full of the Spirit would mean men bearing the fruit of the Spirit and exhibiting lives that are guided by God's Spirit. Wisdom would be godly wisdom, i.e. discerning what God would have done. No doubt, the apostles expected the men to have the gifts necessary to administer the ministry efficiently and fairly, but they highlighted the spiritual character essential for such a position. Spiritual maturity takes precedence over spiritual giftedness.

We can see the wisdom in this. The men were not merely to be service providers, taking orders from the apostles. As the apostles said, We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word. In other words, the apostles were not going to give the matter more attention. The responsibility of this vital ministry in the church was going to be in the hands of these seven men. The apostles were going to keep their attention on what they had been called by Christ to do — to bear witness to his gospel.

As remarkable as the action of the apostles might be, it is the response of the church that is even more so. 5 This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism.

In the first place, it is remarkable that the proposal pleased the whole group. I could see the dangers in such a proposal; how come others didn't see the same problems? Such a proposal required a lot of trust in the apostles to know what they were doing and a lot of trust in one another to select qualified men, especially on the part of the minority group.

Then consider who was selected. It so happens that all seven men bear Greek names. In other words, it appears that the seven men chosen to administer the food were Grecian Jews. Indeed, one of them was a Greek who had converted to Judaism. He didn't even have Jewish blood. What happened? Did the majority get outmaneuvered by the minority? Did they rig the polling booths? Actually, we are not given the impression that a vote was taken. The men were selected, not elected. These men where evidently chosen by consensus of the people.

Why would they have done that? Why not four Hebraic men and three Grecian or some other quota system? I think that all we can conclude is that the Holy Spirit moved the people to make a significant display of love and trust for one another. Surely there were capable Hebraic men, but there must have been an overriding desire in the early period to express unity and harmony.

6 They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. What a meaningful experience this must have been for the men and for the church. Something new was taking place, and the apostles were passing their authority to these men for the work given to them to do.

The result? Interestingly enough, Luke does not tell us. Instead, he turns back to the ministry of the apostles. 7 So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.

That is nice, Luke, but what about the mercy ministry? How did it go? We can only gather it went well. There is no record of complaint, which I assume Luke would have told us about if problems had continued. He seems to record early problems with the intent to show how they were overcome.


Let's apply this story to our present situation. We are soon to be nominating candidates for the positions of elder and deacon. What do we learn specifically about the role of deacon? You may have noticed that I did not refer to the men as deacons. They are not given that title in this text. Indeed, they are not given titles at all.

What leads most to believe that this is the establishment of the deaconate office is the reference to deacons in 1 Timothy 3ff, the only clear instruction about church deacons. But there is also the use of the term in our text from which the word "deacon" comes from that lends to such a conclusion. It is used three times. The daily distribution of food is the daily "diakonia" (service) of food. When the apostles spoke of to wait on tables, they used the verb form of the same word. They also spoke of their own ministry as diaconal service, when they referred to it as the ministry of the word of God.

To be a deacon is to be a servant. It is to be a minister of service. Whereas my role as a Minister of the Word primarily is to serve the church through preaching and teaching the Word of God, the deacon's role primarily is to serve the church through…well, through what? Through meeting whatever needs may arise.

As far as we know, this position that the apostles' created was done out of necessity, not out of forethought about the offices of the church. A need arose; this was the solution. Undoubtedly as other needs arose, either these men took on more responsibilities or others were recruited to help. Evidently these seven did not consider themselves restricted to this one task. Stephen engaged in public apologetics, i.e. proclaiming and defending the faith, while Philip would become a noted evangelist.

Our Book of Church Order delineates three areas of ministry for deacons. First listed is the role of mercy. "It is the duty of the deacons to minister to those who are in need, to the sick, to the friendless, and to any who may be in distress." That last phrase is a catch-all to cover any condition and any person. The second area is the collection and distribution of funds. The third is to care for the church property.

Only the first duty is specifically taught in the New Testament. The second is inferred from their using funds to carry out the mercy work. The third is not mentioned at all, but then there was no church property to speak of in the New Testament age. Churches met in homes. You can see how deacons who are responsible to meet "whatever needs service" would take on this role as well. This is a practical solution for the church, not a biblically mandated one. Thus, other Presbyterian churches rely heavily on trustees and other such committees that have diaconal representation to do these things and free the deacons for service that directly ministers to people.

The essential element in diaconal ministry is serving people. That may be through mercy ministry, such as helping people in and out of the church with physical needs. It may be through the service given on Sunday, to assure that people are able to worship and participate in other activities. Whatever the case, a deacon must enjoy serving people. He ought to have the mindset of looking out for people. Indeed, a common sin that a deacon will struggle with is to give more attention to other people than worshipping God.

Another sin that a deacon (I'll mention the peculiar sins of elders next week!) might struggle with, if he is doing his job well, is resentment. How so? If a deacon does his job well in a public setting, as on Sundays, his service will not be noticed by most people. The very nature of his work on Sundays is to see that others are getting the attention, such as the minister preaching or the Sunday School teachers teaching. The times that he does get attention is when someone notices something wrong. When the worship service is over, most people who speak to me say nice things; rarely does someone bring up a complaint. If someone feels compelled to speak to a deacon, it is to register a complaint. I am not complaining about complaining. The deacons do need to know about problems, but you can see how the nature of their work brings particular challenges.

The third message will address the subject of qualification. Two other lessons will benefit us now. One is the insistence of the apostles that they not be distracted from their calling. One can imagine someone saying to them, "Why don't you help? Don't you think helping widows is important? What would Jesus do? Wouldn't he take time to help someone in need?" That kind of argument has a strong force. But what we have to consider is that in a church God has so ordered that only through us working together, with each using his or her particular gift and being obedient to his or her calling, can the wider needs be properly met. The apostles recognized that the tyranny of the urgent could destroy the very ministry they were called to do — viz., prayer and the ministry of the word. Luke clearly teaches that because others took up the responsibility for mercy ministry the word ministry was able to go forth. The apostles could not have done their work without the deacons. What this idea does, by the way, is elevate the work of the deacons. They are not simply the ones who clean up after the real work is done. Not only is their mercy ministry valuable, but they make the ministry of the minister and the teachers all the more effective. By each of us keeping focused on our tasks we strengthen one another.

The final lesson is more implied than taught. I am struck by the small number that the apostles thought necessary for the job. It could be that seven was adequate for the number of widows, but my guess is that the number itself was significant, rather than a ratio evaluation of deacons per widows. How could seven do all the work, especially considering that some of them were engaged in ministry of the word?

As we read through the New Testament epistles, the answer becomes clear. All the people were expected to serve the church. All the people have gifts, and all are being led by the Spirit to do something. As Paul told the Corinthians: Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it (1 Corinthians 12:27). In the context he meant that everyone has a vital role to play. Undoubtedly the seven deacons fulfilled their duties with the help of many others.

The beauty of the gospel is that when Christ calls us into salvation, he is not merely calling us to an individual relationship with him. He calls us to belong to his body, which is the church, not simply as appendages hanging on, but vital members who make a difference in the health of the whole body. Some he has given the privilege to serve as deacons, some elders, some ministers. But to all he has given the privilege to serve. You matter. It doesn't matter how old or how young, how healthy or ill, how educated or limited in formal education. Your Lord has called you into his service.

We are all called to be deacons, servants of our Lord Jesus Christ, who was himself the Great Deacon. He loved the church so much as to offer his own life as a sacrifice. What a joy to join in that service.

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