[This is post 11 in an ongoing series exploring ministry in the New Testament world.]
What comes to mind for you when you think of a deacon?
Acts 6 is often one of the first places we look. Here is the situation:
“In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 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. Brothers and sisters, 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 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” 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. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.” Acts 6:1-6
The reason this text is sometimes used is perhaps because of the Greek verb that’s behind the translation here ‘wait’ as in ‘wait on tables.’ Deakoneo.
The situation is that the apostles wanted to prioritize ‘the ministry of the word.’ Remember, there are no written Gospels and no New Testament. These folks who had been with Jesus and discipled by him were THE source of knowledge of Jesus’ life and teaching. They were the only New Testament that existed, so we can see particularly why that word based ministry was vital.
We should be careful, I think, about equating elders/overseers (as described in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 etc) with the apostles. The apostles were in a unique situation that has not been the same since that day.
Also, note this: the ministry of the apostles here is also a deacon ministry. The ‘ministry’ in ‘ministry of the word’ is diakonia.
Our common understanding is typically that elders (at least one) teach and deacons serve. I will show clearly in this post that that understanding is too simplistic and doesn’t bear out in Scripture. And Scripture itself must be our guide, always looking back to it with fresh eyes to see what we might have overlooked or assumed.
In the following sections of the book of Acts, we will see some of the activity of two of these 7 ‘deacons’ chosen to ‘wait on tables.’
Stephen’s story continues right away:
“Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen. But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.” Acts 6:8-10
Stephen, one of those chosen to ‘wait on tables’ (the verb form of deacon) is right away a bold proclaimer / preacher. He has one of the longest sermons/speeches in the book of Acts (almost all of Chapter 7) and subsequently becomes the first Christian martyr! Not because he served tables but because of his public preaching.
Philip becomes known as Phillip the evangelist and understands how to connect the Old Testament to Christ when he proclaims the gospel to the Ethiopian Eunuch and baptizes him. The last time we hear about him is in Acts 21 when we learn that his daughters are prophets. Quite a robust proclamation ministry for this deacon and with his daughters as well!
The Greek word for deacon – diakonos – simply means servant. What’s interesting is that English bibles sometimes translate the same word servant and other times deacon. There is no distinction in the text itself.
So who is a deacon?
You might be surprised to know that Paul calls himself one on several occasions. Here are a couple:
“I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power.” Ephesians 3:7
“I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness” Colossians 1:25
Again, the word used here for servant is the very same word used elsewhere for deacon. Perhaps surprisingly, Paul even more often uses the word for slave service (doulos) for himself.
This, friends, is because the Kingdom of God is a completely upside down kingdom from anything else that exists in this world. Until we grasp this, any understanding we have of ‘leadership’ is going to be way off track. Leadership may well be a thing, but it is not a priority. Jesus tells us what is:
“Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:42-44)
Again, the word Jesus uses that’s translated servant is diakonos (our word for deacon). Jesus – the Lord of the Universe – says with crystal clarity that in his kingdom the servant / slave is the greatest of all.
Is there any society or church who says that the role of servant or slave is reserved for men only? Yet Jesus authoritatively declares that this posture is the greatest. Nobody is above the deacon / servant / slave and the invitation is open to all.
It’s essential that we understand that any over/under positioning is antithetical to the kingdom of God and we cannot allow it in our churches. Yet we often think of elders as over deacons and pastors as over congregations and sometimes men over women.
Frankly, sometimes it seems like we have allowed the hierarchical structures of the fallen world to dominate rather than the in-breaking the kingdom of God.
As we read through the New Testament, it seems as though some who exemplified this way of kingdom service were particularly noted as deacons.
Pheobe, who carried and likely read aloud the letter of Romans, is a deacon.
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.” Romans 16:1
1 Timothy 3 is a place that gives some guidance about those who exemplify this Jesus soaked way of living as deacons:
In the same way, deacons are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.
In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.
A deacon must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well. Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus. 1 Timothy 3:8-13
This guidance regarding deacon servants, not found in Titus 1, is really interesting and has caused a lot of questions over time.
Notice here in the NIV translation, unlike with the previous section on elders, they translate the characteristics with ‘they’ rather than ‘he’. Remember, neither of these (he or they) are in the Greek New Testament. The NIV translators likely do this because it’s more common for churches to hold that women can be deacons, sometimes called deaconesses (an odd word in my view). Again, the only thing possibly specific to men in this section of the text itself is ‘faithful to his wife’ (literally ‘one woman man’)
Interpreters haven’t quite known what to make of ‘the women’ in this section that’s clearly on the same subject. The same Greek word is used for women and wife in the New Testament. Is he talking about a separate group of female ministers? He is talking about male and female deacons? Is he talking about deacon’s wives? Perhaps it was more normal than we think to have strong ministry couples like Priscilla and Aquila and Andronicus and Junia. Truthfully, we really don’t know for sure.
I think at the end of the day, as we’ve explored the New Testament ministry world, we should synthesize by asking, what really mattered to Jesus and his apostles when it comes to ministry?
My reading of the Bible and through my study that I’ve invited you into in these posts suggests the following priorities…
Humble Christlike service comes first – flowing directly from Jesus’ clear teaching. Christians live under Jesus’ authority alone and wholly. He is the only head of the church, our master and he shows us that his way is walking the extra mile, washing feet and carrying one’s cross. Whoever does this is the greatest in his kingdom regardless of particular gifting or role. There is no one above the kingdom deacon.
Shared ministry and Spirit gifting is one of the baselines of New Testament ministry. We have seen that the Holy Spirit gifts each believer for ministry and that there are no gifts reserved for only men or women. Discerning and using your gifts for the building and strengthening of the church and mission in the world is of fundamental importance.
Knowing for and standing in the truth of the Gospel – a good grasp of the big picture of what God unfolding throughout the Scriptures – is extremely important. This is the goal for every believer and those who are responsible and accountable to oversee the church absolutely must be solid here.
The citizens of the kingdom of God are deacons. There is no greater position to be had, according to Jesus. We are those who serve in practical ways and get our hands dirty. We, like Stephen and Phillip, can move from bussing tables to proclaiming the big biblical story that leads to Jesus. We can baptize new believers. We are a kingdom of deacons.