Office and Work of Deacons
We begin a study on the office and work of the deacon which should prove most interesting in the light of modern perversions of that office. Generally speaking, the office of deacon today is no more like that of the New Testament than darkness is like unto light. Acts 6:1ff: “And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason (or reasonable) that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.”
Notice first of all that trouble arose when the disciples increased in number. One of the problems of having a large church is the multiplicity of troubles. Now the conflict here was not between Jew and Gentile, not between saved and lost, not between black and white, red and yellow, not between Protestant and Catholic. The trouble was between two groups of Jews, the Grecian Jews and the Judaistic Jews. The New Testament speaks of Greeks and of Grecians. A Greek was one who was born in Greece, or a native born Greek, and as such was a Gentile. But a Grecian (or as it is sometimes translated, Hellenist) was a Jew born in Greece. The Hebrews, so-called, were Jews born in the land of Israel. As such they were very proud of their heritage and discriminated against Jews who were born outside the land of Israel. This produced a great deal of jealousy between the Jews born in Greece and those born in Israel.
In those days, the church took care of their own poor. There were no such things as Social Security or welfare rolls, no relief lines forming at the governmental buildings. But the poor members of the church were cared for by that church. The church also took care of all the widows until they remarried. Paul, under the power of the Spirit of God, urged the young widows to remarry and rear a family.
In the course of events as they took care of the widows and the orphans, there was a murmuring on the part of the Grecian Jews against the Judaistic Jews. The Jews from Greece said that the Jews from Israel neglected the Grecian widows. “You give more and better food, as well as more and better clothing, to the widows of the Israelitish Jews than you do to the widows of the Grecian Jews.” That was the trouble that arose that led to the appointment of the deacons. I always contended, and still do, that according to the practice of the modern church, there is no need for the office of deacon, simply because I do not know of any church that takes care of its own widows and orphans. I simply call your attention to that so that you can understand this as we study it.
If someone in the church needs help today, he is sent down to the employment agency, or to the welfare board, or Salvation Army, or some gospel mission. I know of no church that takes care of its poor, its widows, its orphans. The church has no money for such purposes. For what then is all of the church money collected? And what is the purpose of all of the hundreds of millions of dollars that are in endowment funds, that are in stocks and bonds, that are in big ranches and farms, and that are in big industrial plants? Why is it that nearly every denomination has hundreds of millions of dollars stored up, and then they send their widows, orphans, and poor to the governmental welfare agencies to obtain help?
“Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables.” The leaders of the church have something more important to do than to serve meals and distribute clothing and provide shelter and housing for the widows and orphans. That is important, but we have something more important to do, and that which is more important is to give ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word.
Here again we see the stroke of genius, which is possible only through the Holy Spirit of God. Verse 3: “Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among YOU . . .”Here the apostles were talking to these Grecian Jews. They were the ones who were complaining, so they said to them, “Pick you out seven men from among YOU. You do not like the way the things are being administered and cared for. So we will let YOU take care of your own widows and orphans yourselves.”
The late Dr. A. T. Robertson, professor of Greek and New Testament at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky, said one way to solve many problems in the church today was to give the complainers the responsibility and charge over the things in which they were displeased.
“Choose you out seven men from among you and we will put them over these things and we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the Word.”
THE OFFICE AND WORK OF DEACONS: PART II
In the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 6, the first deacons of the New Testament church are brought to our attention. The word “deacon” itself does not occur in this passage, but that they were deacons is evident by subsequent use and custom. The word deacon itself means servant; and deacons were the servants of the church.
That is a far cry from the thought of many concerning deacons. Many today think that deacons are to rule the church. I have pastored churches where the deacons thought they were an official board whose chief duty was to hire and fire pastors. In one church where I was pastor, the deacons thought they were a kind of college of cardinals or Supreme Court to whom the pastor went weekly to see what to do and what to preach. But in the New Testament, they were servants and were chosen or elected to take care of the widows who were on the church roll.
The early church took care of their poor, and also of the widows and orphans. That was before the day of the W.P .A., the Social Security, and the relief work of the government and the Poverty Program. All of the offerings that the Apostle Paul solicited and received were for the poor. First Corinthians 16:1, 2, which is used so often today to raise money, describes an offering Paul received for the poor in the church at Jerusalem.
The office of deacon also enters into what we call church government. There are several forms of church government. There is the episcopal form, there is the presbyterial form, there is the form of the general superintendent; and then there is the form of government commonly referred to as the congregational form of government. The first congregationalists known by a denominational name were called Baptists. There were many independent groups of a congregational form and the thought back of that was that the church was a democratic body and that each member of the church had an equal voice in the ruling affairs of the church.
But we do not find that so today. Churches have erred grievously in forgetting that the Holy Spirit is the President of the body called the church, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself is the Head. In the early days of Christianity, the church sought the leadership of the Holy Spirit of God. In our text in Acts 6, these men who were talking about the appointing of seven men to take care of the widows of the Grecian Jews were men who were filled with the Holy Spirit of God; hence what they did was not by the apostles as a ruling body but according to the leadership of the Holy Spirit.
Today many congregational bodies have ruling boards instead of being governed by the congregation. Some churches have what they call the board of deacons-something unknown in the Scripture as an organized ruling body. Many of these meet regularly behind closed doors, sometimes with the pastor and sometimes the pastor is not invited to attend. There are some pastors who will not permit the deacons to meet without their permission, and some so-called deacon boards will not allow the pastor to attend. Once when I went to a church as pastor and attended the first deacons’ meeting, I was told very summarily that I was not a deacon and did not have a voice in the affairs of that meeting. Well, what do you do in a case like that? I did nothing, and never attended any more of their meetings.
One church to which I was called as pastor sent a representative of the board of deacons to inform me that no matter could be brought before the church until the deacons has passed upon it and approved it. What did I do about that? For the first business meeting of the church, I made arrangements to have one of the young people make a motion concerning an order of business and asked another teen-ager to second it, Then I called for a discussion and a vote and the matter was passed. This was done simply to show the deacons that we had a congregational form of government and that any member of the church could bring a matter before the church and have it acted upon without some self-appointed group usurping the authority of the congregation.
These seven deacons of Acts 6 were chosen to care for the widows. “In those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians (that is, Jews born in Greece) against the Hebrews (the Jews born in the land of Israel), because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration.” They did not get enough food, their clothing was not cared for, their places of shelter were not as good as those of the others. And so the twelve talking about that said, “We have more important things to do than to feed, clothe and shelter the widows. We have been called of God to give ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word,”
One of the favorite discussions in the seminary among the seniors was whether or not they were going to spend their time taking care of the widows and orphans, ringing door bells, walking up and down the halls of hospitals, or give themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word. That these first things mentioned are important and necessary is evident. But which is the more important?
THE OFFICE AND WORK OF DEACONS: PART III
Continuing our study on the office of the deacon, in the sixth chapter of Acts, we note there were only seven chosen. This was in a church that could well have had between fifteen and twenty thousand members. On one occasion five thousand men were added, and three thousand on another occa- sion. The total count of eight thousand did not include women and children, An equal number of women and a few children very easily would run the total to about twenty thousand members. And they had only seven deacons. I know of churches with two to three hundred members that have forty or fifty deacons. They have senior deacons and junior deacons. They have deacons for Ii year, some for two years, and some for three years. How far from the Word of God some churches have strayed,
Seven deacons for about twenty thousand members. Chosen not to run the church but to be servants of the church. The word deacon means “to serve” or “a servant.” The multitude was pleased when the apostles said (verse 4), “We will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the Word,” I heard a very prominent, evangelical Christian state over television the other day that one reason so many people were leaving the churches today was because that when they went to church they did not get a ministry that was a result of prayer and ministry of the Word. It still seems to be true that the majority of people do go to a church for some spiritual help. Many leaders, instead of giving themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word, are so involved with civic and social programs that when Sunday comes they have nothing to offer a waiting, needy congregation.
“But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the Word. And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch.” Seven men and all of them with Grecian names. They were not Gentiles. Those who contend that Luke was a Gentile because he had a Grecian name should contend that all of these also were Gentiles. The only Gentile in the group was Nicolas but he was a proselyte; he had become a Jew by the embracing of the Jewish religion with its laws and customs. Jews with Gentile names- there is nothing uncommon about that. Many of the Jews in the world today have Gentile names, especially those who are prominent in public life.
“Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them.” From the expression, “laid their hands on them” comes the august ceremony called ordination. A man is not judged qualified to preach unless he has been ordained; a man is not authorized to baptize anyone unless he has been ordained; neither is he supposed to serve the elements of the Lord’s Supper unless he has been ordained.
What is the significance of what we call ordination? I think it is very plain from this incident. “They laid their hands on them.” This is an Old Testament custom and to understand it, one must return to the Old Testament. It comes out in the offering of the sacrifices. A sinner desired forgiveness. First of all, he would go to the tabernacle, and later to the temple after it was erected and the Holy of Holies was moved into the temple from the tabernacle. He would go to offer his sacrifice. After the animal had been judged worthy for sacrifice, having no spot nor blemish, the offerer would then place his hands on the head of the lamb or the bullock, as the case might be. That identified the offerer with the offering; that act made them one, so to speak; and the laying on of the hands was a simple case of identification. And here in Acts 6, when the apostles laid their hands on these seven men who had charge of feeding, clothing, and sheltering the widows, they were simply identifying themselves with these seven. If anyone asked, “Who are you? From whence have you come?” they could reply, “We have been appointed” or “ordained” (which is what the word means). We have that word ordained used in John 15:16. Jesus said, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you, and ordained (appointed) you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain.” (That is, it should last.) The word translated “ordained” also on other occasions is translated “appointed.” So that the ordination of these seven in fact was nothing more than official appointment by the group.
There were times later on when the apostles laid hands on individuals and bestowed certain gifts upon them when they did so. Paul wrote to Timothy on one occasion, “Neglect not the gift which was bestowed upon you by the laying on of the hands.” I have friends today in the ministry who try to bestow gifts on people by the laying of hands upon them. But I have never experienced, nor have I known any who have experienced the reception of gifts by the laying on of hands. Scripture teaches that the power to bestow gifts by the laying on of hands ceased when the last of the twelve apostles had died.
“Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them. And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.” The rending of the veil of the temple in twain, the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ in His body of flesh and bones, and the resurrection also of a large number of believers immediately following Christ’s resurrection had a great deal to do with the turning of many of the priests to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Even today, faithfulness in prayer and the ministry of the Word will bring about conviction of many by the power of the Holy Spirit of God.
I have tried in this brief study on the office of the deacon to emphasize the fact that they are to be the servants of the church and helpers of the pastor, and not an official board to dictate the policies of either church or pastor.