© 2007, American Journal of Biblical Theology
www.biblicaltheology.com Scripture quotes from KJV
What is God’s plan for the organization of the Christian church? Is it to be organized like a secular company with a CEO and a battery of upper-level and mid-level administrators who have authority over the rank and file of the membership? There are some Christian churches and Christian denominations that hold to this model because it allows the church and its leaders to wield power over those who they consider to be lower on the social or spiritual class than them. In this model the authority of the organization is held by those in charge. It is they who are the lord of the church.
Though this model may be efficiently applied to the running of many types of secular organizations, this is not the model that Jesus taught and was never the intent of the first-century church. Where this business model places the authority, the lordship over others, in the hands of its leaders, the church recognizes that there is only one LORD, Jesus Christ. Conflict and chaos both enter the church when that lordship is usurped by its leadership.
Jesus taught quite a different model of leadership and authority when He taught us how to organize as a church, a body of believers. He demonstrated this model for the disciples after they were bickering among one another concerning who would be the greatest in Jesus’ new kingdom.
Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poureth water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded. John 13:3-5.
The disciples were quite taken aback, and almost offended by this act of Jesus. The task of foot-washing had always been reserved for the most humble, or most debased, individual in the home. Jesus was answering quite directly this question of leadership in the Kingdom when He showed that the greatest in the Kingdom of God are those who humble themselves and serve others in God’s name, serving in the most menial of tasks, tasks that bring no glory, fame, or even respect in and of themselves. After Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, He taught them,
Know ye what I have done to you? Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. John 13:12-15.
In this one event Jesus defined the very nature of servant ministry in the Kingdom of God. Where the disciples wanted rank and power, Jesus demonstrated that the appropriate expression of leadership in the Kingdom is through the most humble service to one another that is expressible. When Jesus washed the feet of the disciples He took upon Himself the most menial and demeaning of tasks that were common in the ancient Hebrew household. Yet, by so doing, He did not surrender any of His nature or identity as Master and LORD. He did not give up his position as LORD and Master by ministering to the disciples. Jesus’ very character was that of humble service, humble to the point of taking His place on the cross. This for us is an example of how we are to serve one another.
It is clear that the Apostles finally began to understand the nature of Jesus’ teaching. From that point on the bickering stopped, and following the work of the Holy Spirit at the Pentecost event, each of the Apostles were characterized by this same form of servant leadership. They dedicated their lives to sharing the gospel and meeting needs of those who came to the LORD.
This was a relatively manageable task when the body of believers numbered about 120 prior to Pentecost. However, as the church experienced such explosive growth with new believers added in groups of thousands, the ministry of the Apostles took on a completely new perspective. The task of ministering to the daily needs of the body was daunting, but as the Apostles continued to teach, the people responded by ministering one to another so that all of the needs of each of those in the church would be met. They shared with one another so that no person in their fellowship would be in need.
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.
An unexpected phenomenon took place within the body as it grew: Gentiles were coming forward and professing faith in Christ. Where the body of Jewish believers was wide-open in their generosity to one another, their old un-surrendered prejudices that accompanied their profession of faith led them to tend to ignore the needs of the Gentile believers.
Who is expected to perform those areas of the ministry of the church that its members are not willing to do?
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 Apostles were not about to see the needy Gentiles ignored, so they left much of their ministry of the word so that they could minister to the body (Acts 6:1). The benevolence ministry that is described is that of “serving tables,” an excellent metaphor for the ministry of deacons, the individuals whom the church will select to assist the Apostles in the ministry. Serving tables is the foundational task of the deacon.
The word, deacon, is simply the English form of the Greek word, diakonos. Paul uses this word when he describes the deacon. He also uses this word when he refers to himself in the beginning of his letters when he calls himself a servant and a slave. This word, diakonos, is the identical word that describes a bond-servant, one who takes the humble position of a servant or slave by choice. This is not a forced slave, but rather one who chooses to serve his master.
The ministry of the bond-slave is described as “serving tables.” If one has eaten at a fine restaurant, they are familiar with the ministry of a skilled waiter. This waiter will intently watch your table, looking for every opportunity to serve you. This waiter knows everything that is on the menu, but does not tell you what to eat. The waiter is intelligent and adept at his job, yet he has chosen to humble himself and minister to your needs so that you can enjoy your meal. This waiter will always demonstrate patience, and will clean up after you when you leave. This waiter, this one who serves tables, is an excellent example of the deacon, so much so, that when the translators of the English Bible rendered the work that the Apostles were doing as “serving tables.”
In order to meet this need, the church ordained a group of men to assist in this ministry to the needy, and referred to them as deacons. Acts, chapter six, records the calling of seven deacons to assist in the benevolence ministry. Though not referred to as deacons in the Acts passage, they and their ministry are referred to by this name in numerous other passages. Paul was particularly instructive of the concepts surrounding the ministry of the deacon. He gave this same advice to Timothy who was overwhelmed by the ministry task when he instructed Timothy in the calling of deacons. As the Apostles went about this task, they outlined many of the characteristics of the deacon and his ministry. These characteristics can serve as a challenge to us all, but are particularly meaningful to those who have been called out to serve in this ministry.
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.
When the Apostles gave instruction on locating those who would serve as deacons they first issued three important traits that would characterize one who is mature in the faith, and by that maturity be ready for the humble service of the deacon.
First, look for those who are of honest report. That is, they have demonstrated moral and spiritual integrity in their lives. Their life is not characterized by sinful habits or by deceit. They are known as dependable and honest.
Second, look for those who are filled with the Holy Spirit. It may be difficult or impossible to determine if the Holy Spirit is present in the lives of some people, and for these we do not have the capability to stand in judgment. However, there are others who demonstrate the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives in ways that are obviously real. These are those who demonstrate a growing love for God, and for people. These demonstrate that humble strength that comes from a life that has been brought under the control of the Holy Spirit. These are those who have already been doing much of the work of the deacon as a fruit of their humble nature.
Third, look for those who demonstrate godly wisdom. Within the context here, this wisdom refers to the godly application of knowledge. The scriptures frequently refer to the “Fear of the LORD” as being the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 9:10, e.g.). One who is wise brings himself under the Lordship of God, yielding to the control of the Holy Spirit, and to the teaching of God’s Word. Consequently, the deacon is schooled in sound doctrine and submits the application of his own knowledge and understanding to it. The deacon then applies that sound doctrine in his attitudes and actions.
But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.
The ministry of the deacon was established to assist in the ministrations of the Apostles so that they could concentrate their efforts in prayer and to the ministry of the Word of God rather than to what could be an overwhelming task of ministering to the daily needs of body. The ministry to the body became the primary ministry of the deacon. This is a ministry of benevolence. Originally one of their main tasks was to assure that the needy Gentiles were included in the distribution of gifts to the poor. The deacons were called to minister to those who the church neglected, those who many in the church considered outsiders or inferior.
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: 6Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them.
Those who were called out by the early church had already demonstrated Christian maturity in their lives. They were not called to serve and then expected to do something they were not already doing. Today when we call deacons we look for a similar pattern of Christian maturity, shown in the every-day lives of those whom we choose. Consequently, the church did not, and does not call deacons to a new ministry. The service of ordination is simply an affirmation that the individual has already demonstrated a humble ministry to others. It is a recognition of that ministry, appointing to them their support as they continue to minister.
The ordination of the deacon customarily is accompanied with the laying on of hands. The deacon was set apart for this ministry when chosen by the body of believers. The laying on of hands is simply an opportunity for each person to individually encourage and pray for an individual, letting the deacon and the church know of their agreement with the call and their promise of continued support and prayers.
Based upon the scriptural example of the deacon and the works that they demonstrated as recorded in the books of the New Testament, we find a pattern of ministry that is worth considering.
• The ministry of the deacon is one of humble service. The deacon is not one of the lords of the church. That role of Lordship is reserved for Jesus Christ alone. As Jesus demonstrated when He washed the feet of the disciples, the ministry of the deacon is the most humble of vocations.
• The ministry of the deacon is one of support for the church pastor, assisting him in the various needed ministries of the church so that he can spend more time in prayer and the ministry of the Word of God.
• The ministry of the deacon is one of benevolence, taking the initiative to serve those who are in need, and possibly those who have been neglected by others in the church.
• The ministry of the deacon is one of evangelism. We have the examples of Stephen, Philip, Aquila, Priscilla, Phoebe, and many others who used every opportunity to share the good news of salvation. The deacon is able to share his testimony and his knowledge of the gospel to bring others to Christ.
• The ministry of the deacon is one of unity. This is a ministry that works to reconcile conflict rather than create it. The deacon serves as a peacemaker, demonstrating that patience and self-control that comes with spiritual maturity. A deacon will not take sides on an issue, but rather will work to bring the body together in love.
• The ministry of the deacon is one of love. The heart of a deacon is one that is “filled with the Holy Ghost and wisdom.” This is a heart that truly loves the flock. What better calling could there be than to be ordained by the body of believers to a ministry of love and grace?
These ministries, and many others, are already evident in the life of the ones whom we call as deacons. The challenge for the deacon is simply to continue in submission to the Holy Spirit, to continue to be a student of the Word of God, and to be ready to exercise the gifts and talents that God in the ministration of the kingdom of God. Ordination is simply an affirmation of the calling of God to “let His light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify God who is in heaven.”