pecaspers: a Blog in transition

November 20, 2012

Prospective Pastor Questionnaire – Part 4

4. What do you believe the role of those in the office of Deacon should be?

I follow in the tradition held from the ancient church that Acts 6:1-6 describes the setting apart of the first deacons.

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.

In fact, these men aren’t called deacons at all in Scripture–they are appointed to handle the “distribution” (Greek diakonia) to widows so that the apostles can be devoted to “prayer and the ministry of the word,” (ministry = Greek diakonia). Luke choosing not to call these men deacons isn’t that significant because it likely only shows that this wasn’t immediately considered to be a specifically named office of the local church–remembering that the idea of a “local church” wouldn’t even make sense until after persecution broke out and the believers were scattered beyond Jerusalem. Luke goes back and forth in his use of “Saul” and “Paul” in reference to the same man until he reaches a certain point in the story of Acts when one can assume everybody only thought of the man as Paul. The term “Christian” isn’t used until Acts 11:26 when the disciples are first called it. All that to say, we can learn something about the office of deacon from how these men are described even if they were only prototypes for the office.

In light of that, this text is still instructive, but it doesn’t tell us all that we might need to know about the office of deacon. We do learn here that they were “men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” who were selected from among the body of believers and appointed to serve to preserve the unity of the body so the apostles would be free to devote themselves “to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And so, I believe the role of deacons is to foster unity within the body by attending to all matters which are important to the ongoing ministry of a local church but would divert the pastor(s) from their primary tasks of prayer and the ministry of the word.

The only other major passage in Scripture about the office of deacon is 1 Timothy 3:8-13.

Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

And here’s the problem, this text doesn’t tell us much about what deacons actually do either. It is clear that it is an office of the church since Paul is careful to list out qualifications for being a deacon immediately after listing out the qualifications of being an overseer/pastor. It is also clear that this is a position of servant-leadership within the body, otherwise the qualifications would not be drawn up along so similar lines as those of being an overseer/pastor. The wonderful beauty of it is that God left great latitude in his word about the precise duties of the deacon. God knew that in some churches, some things would fall to the deacons that would not necessarily require their attention in other churches. O God, I love being a Baptist!

And so I say again. I believe the role of deacons is to foster unity within the body by attending to all matters which are important to the ongoing ministry of a local church but would divert the pastor(s) from their primary tasks of prayer and the ministry of the word. Let me unpack that a bit. The role of those first deacons wasn’t to keep widows properly fed, though that was their task; their role was to be a front line defense in maintaining “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” (Ephesians 4:3). And so today the role of a deacon is to handle issues of need within the body that would be a distraction to the pastor(s). In some churches, that might mean deacons see to the custodial and maintenance needs of the church building, and in other churches it might mean that deacons oversee all the financial matters from counting the offering to paying bills. It is those duties which are important to the ongoing ministry of a local church, whatever they may be for any particular church, which are the responsibility of deacons. And it is only those things which would distract the pastor(s) from their primary duties that must be the responsibility of deacons. On one level, pastors will find different matters distracting depending on their spiritual gifts, natural abilities, and personality. On another level, I read somewhere once that the average pastor of a small church (less than 250 members) spends around eight hours a week doing janitorial work; somebody’s deacons are failing them if that’s the case.

I believe in all churches it is the role of the deacon to intercept issues among the congregation and see that they are attended to before they become a point of either disunity within the body or a distraction from prayer and the word. I believe it is also the role of all deacons to shield their pastor from the distraction of criticism and attack by thoroughly vetting the major decisions regarding the goings on of the church body. Deacons must not be “double-tounged” because they must deal honestly with pastors, other deacons, and the congregation; they must not say they agree with the pastor to his face only to sow division within body when he isn’t around. Deacons must not be “greedy for dishonest gain” because they must not steal when entrusted with finances of the church in one way or another. Similar inferences could be made from each qualification, but the point is ultimately that deacons are to be exemplary Christians who defend the unity of the church by guarding the pastor(s) from distraction.

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