For the last few weeks, there’s been a whiff of new paint around our church building. Sometimes it’s been no more than a faint fragrance in the air. At other times it’s been very noticeable. Yes, there’s been some inconvenience. But it’s been worth it. We have a building that looks smarter, cleaner, brighter.
One of our deacons must take much of the credit for the project. He’s the one who realised that it needed doing. He’s the one who got on with it almost single-handed. And when the other office-bearers gently suggested that others might be persuaded to help, he’s the one who organised and co-ordinated the volunteers. Some of those volunteers have put in many hours and worked very hard. All honour to everyone’s who’s been involved. But it wouldn’t have been done without that deacon’s initiative.
Why did he think it was important to get the painting done at this point? Because we’re planning to have the church building recarpeted. Again, that’s been largely his inititative. Yes, we all knew that the old carpet was shabby and stained. And the lino underneath had warped, creating ridges. At an office-bearers meeting some months back, we all agreed that it needed doing. But it was he who started contacting carpet suppliers and fitters, getting quotes, sourcing tiles – and then standing back to let others make the final choice.
It was that same deacon who found the builder who replaces the windows last year. And it was he who found the right company to restore the roof and who oversaw that project. He’d be the first to thank other church-members who have helped him sort these projects out, but the fact is that he’s been the driving-force behind them.
Elders and Deacons
The New Testament talks about elders – senior men – who oversee the life of the church. (It sometimes calls them pastors or overseers). But it also talks about deacons. (The Greek word “diakonoi” just means servants). It seems that every properly functioning New Testament church had such servants. But we’re not told very much about them. Paul gives us a list of the qualifications that deacons must have (1 Timothy 3:8-13) and tells us that they must be tested before they are appointed (vs 10). But he doesn’t explain what they’re supposed to do.
Many commentators have pointed to Acts chapter 6 where the church in Jerusalem appointed seven men to sort out a practical problem in the church. There were many widows in the church who needed to be looked after. The church provided support for them which included a regular distribution of food. People were needed to organise that project and make sure it was done fairly. The apostles protested that they could not “give up preaching the word of God to serve (diakonein) tables…” (vs 2). They didn’t think it right for them to “deacon” in that way – not that it was beneath them, but that it would distract them from the work they had been called to do: preaching and prayer. So the church appointed seven spiritually-minded men to carry that responsibility. It seems likely that the first “deacons” were those men, appointed to serve the Jerusalem church by carrying out a particular practical task.
“Deacons shall be male or female members of the church, judged by the church to fulfil the qualifications of Scripture and appointed by the church to undertake its administration. The deacons shall under the direction of the elders be responsible to administer the finance of the church and the care of its property. Deacons shall be subject to reappointment after a period of 3 years.”
Three Things to Notice
1. Our constitution declares that deacons are chosen by the church. In Acts 6, the apostles “summoned the full number of the disciples” – ie all the church-members – and told them to pick out suitable men for the task in view. “And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen… Philip, etc” (vss 2,5). The whole membership had to approve this choice.
2. The deacons are appointed to serve the church under the direction of the elders. In Acts 6, the apostles “prayed and laid their hands on them (the new deacons)”. When the deacons made decisions about the food distribution, they were using an authority delegated to them by the apostles. They were not free agents – they were answerable to the spiritual leaders of the church.
3. The deacons are appointed to undertake the administration of the church – in other words to manage the practicalities of church life. Our constitution mentions particularly the finance of the church and the care of its property – but doesn’t limit the role of the deacons to those areas. We appoint deacons to take responsibility for whatever administrative tasks need to be done.
Again, we’re trying to follow the Acts 6 model. The church in Jerusalem drew a sharp line between administrative duties on the one side and spiritual leadership on the other. The apostles knew they had to “devote themselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (vs 4). Meanwhile the newly appointed servants were to take responsibility for looking after the food distribution. They were not appointed as “assistant apostles”, elders, preachers or counsellors. They had no more responsibility for the spiritual activities of the church than any other church members.
As time went by, it became clear that at least two of the men appointed had remarkable gifts in evangelism and preaching. Both Stephen and Philip went on to become outstanding spiritual workers, reaching out to unconverted people. But there is no hint that either man played any part in the spiritual leadership of the Jerusalem church. None of the seven, as deacons, had any authority in the spiritual affairs of the church.
Why do I emphasise that? Because in many churches, the deacons are viewed, or view themselves, as a group of spiritual leaders either to reinforce, or at times to challenge, the elders. Within the past year, I’ve heard sad stories from a number of churches where the latter has happened. The deacons have met – but their discussions have not been about the church cleaning rota, or the catering for the harvest supper, or the need for new carpeting. Instead, the deacons have talked together about how the worship of the church should be reshaped; or about how the Lord’s table should be regulated; or about what’s wrong with the pastor’s preaching. And then, they have confronted the pastor or elders with their findings or shared them with the other members – and called for their views to be implemented. And people have listened to them because they are the deacons! Just as the House of Lords functions as a second chamber to put checks on the decisions of the House of Commons, the deacons are seen in such churches almost as a rival body to the elders.
We have just two deacons in the church here. Thankfully, they have never seen themselves in that way. They understand the Biblical principles so well, and are determined to abide by them. Geoff and I, as elders, consult them on all sorts of things, including many issues concerning the spiritual life of the church – but that’s not primarily because they’re deacons. It’s because they’re wise and godly men whose counsel we value. And when we have listened to them, then they will say to us, “but you’re the elders: you must make the decision”. God will honour them for their humility and loyalty.
Deacons or Dogsbodies?
After the church was formed, it was some years before we appointed deacons. But when the time came to appoint our first deacons, we agreed that we should choose people not just to be generally useful, but rather to fulfil specific tasks. Again, we saw that principle in Acts 6. The seven men there were appointed not just to be general dogsbodies, but to carry through a specific task. But of course, once people have recognised as deacons, it’s almost inevitable that other tasks start to default to them.
I started this letter by talking about the deacon who takes responsibility for the upkeep of the church building. I don’t suppose he realised when he was appointed that he would finish up playing that role. (In fact, we didn’t have a church building at that time). His original designated roles included recording the sermons, editing the bulletin, managing the website – but gradually his portfolio has expanded.
Ditto with the other deacon. He’s the church minutes secretary. He’s the chief steward at our services. He’ll get down to the church building before each meeting and make sure that everything’s in order. He hands out hymnbooks and welcomes visitors as they arrive. He knew when he became a deacon that he’d have those duties. But he also covers a host of other practical matters – in fact, he’s our great gap-filler. If someone needs a lift and there’s no-one else available to do it, it will fall to him. If a pipe is leaking at the church building and no-one else is there to tackle it, he’ll make it his business.
Once I start thinking about the practical tasks that the deacons fulfil, the list gets longer and longer. Who organises the cleaning rota? Who plans the big spring-clean? Who sorts out building priorities at the manse? Who set up my pension scheme? Who sorts out my computer problems? Who do I turn to first to host visiting speakers? Who cooks the food for our Men’s Breakfasts? You’ve guessed right.
Yes of course, almost everybody in the church is involved in some way in practical service. We owe thanks to everyone who makes tea and coffee; prepares the communion things; offers hospitality; gives lifts; takes their turn in cleaning the building; keeps the garden in order… does all the unglamorous, unrewarding tasks. We owe special thanks to our treasurer who keeps the church’s accounts so efficiently. But never forget: it’s the deacons who keep the whole machine running smoothly from week to week.
Practical Service; Spiritual Gifting
ve pointed out that the men who were appointed for practical service in Acts 6 went on to serve in other ways. Stephen became a powerful evangelist and preacher before he was stoned to death. Philip when he was driven out of Jerusalem by persecution, became the first missionary to Samaria (Acts 8:4). Later he went on preach the gospel to the Ethiopian eunuch and then to all the towns from Azotus to Caesarea (Acts 8:40). Such work was no part of a deacon’s calling, but I have no doubt that the Lord used Stephen’s and Philip’s diaconal service as preparation for that wider service. “Whoever is faithful in small matters will be faithful in large ones…” (Luke 16:10).
One of our deacons has led our Missionary Prayer Meeting for many years now. He’s also organised our outreach at one of the local nursing homes. The other heads up our street outreach to teenagers, takes a Sunday Bible-class for young people, preaches regularly, and for years led a Bible-study for his colleagues at work. Both men are ever-present at our evangelistic book-table – and at almost every other meeting we plan. The Lord is using them in all sorts of ways that have little to do with their position as deacons. We have seen their gifts grow and grow. But remember, these “spiritual” tasks aren’t part of their diaconal work. They do these things not because they’re deacons, but because they’re godly men who are zealous in all good works.
Looking to the future
I’m sure that as the years go by we will need more deacons. These two men will not be there forever. Who knows? When the next three-year review comes up, either or both of them may decide they need a break. That’s one of the reasons why the constitution says that the deacons’ term of office is for three years: it means that they can step down without embarrassment after that time if they choose to. But even if these men continue for many years to come, we may decide that some of the duties they carry should be handed over to others. And fresh needs may arise.
The Acts 6 deacons were appointed especially to care in practical ways for needy believers. In our prosperous society, most churches have not needed to set aside workers for such ministry. But as society disintegrates, we may need deacons who are equipped especially to help vulnerable, poor, or disadvantaged believers to sort out practical problems – finance, housing, looking for work, child-raising… If we ever undertake a major building programme, we may need deacons with the know-how to carry through the scheme. We should be praying now that the Lord will be preparing and equipping the workers we may need for the future.
Some of them may be women. Our constitution says that deacons may be male or female members of the church. Paul talks in 1 Timothy 3:11 about women deacons (that is the most likely translation of an ambiguous phrase); he commends Phoebe: a deacon of the church in Cenchrea (Romans 16:1). The Bible forbids women to teach or to exercise authority over men (1 Timothy 2:12) but there is nothing in the Bible to forbid a woman from doing works of practical service. And there are some diaconal tasks that can only be done effectively and appropriately by women – especially in the realm of caring for the physical and emotional needs of other women.
Reasons for Writing
Why am I writing this now? Well partly because of the smell of the paint. But mostly because I was asked to. A pastor from another church phoned me yesterday to ask what I thought about women deacons. Would it be in order for the church he serves to appoint a woman as a deacon? “Well”, said I, “it depends what the church means by the word ‘deacon’ and what it expects a deacon to do”. So he suggested that I should write a “letter from the manse” on the subject of deacons and spell out what I think the word should mean. So I have. I hope, Sir, you find it useful.
And for us, the members of this church? Well, if nothing else, I hope we’re stirred to give thanks – to our faithful deacons – and much more, to the Lord who has given them to us. How grateful we should be for them! How often Geoff and I have been grateful for their counsel and support! May the Lord preserve them and reward them. “Those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith which is in Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:13). “And the Lord said, ‘Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find doing so, when he comes!’ ” (Luke 12:42).
And let’s seek to follow their example. Don’t stand back and say, “well it’s wonderful that they’re there to do the work”. Rather, ask how you could better serve the Lord and his people. What talents have you got buried? What burdens could you be lifting from our deacons? Make it your business to share their work – and their reward.