Drink Beer and Watch the Church Grow or Why Deacons? (Acts 6:1–7)

“But we will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.” —Acts 6:4

The church has legitimate physical needs that are being neglected. The apostles don’t deny this, but they say they’re not going to give up their time for it, and, this pleases the church. Certainly, they did lead the church so that the seven are chosen to deal with the problem, but the church is pleased by the apostle’s word as a whole.

Protestants have forgotten what they protested; what they should be protesting. The Roman priests devoted themselves to everything but prayer and the ministry of the Word. Much of what they did should have been the responsibility of deacons. John Eck was a defender of Catholicism who squared off against Luther in debate, but he knew this much:

He [the cleric] should focus on the ministry of the Word of God and entrust the worldly things to the deacons, [city] servants and local government, as the apostles did in this passage. Now, however, our own prelates turn the matter upside down. Whatever spiritual matters there are is too much for them. …If they are supposed to preach, then they shove forward some monk. If they are supposed to absolve a distressed sinner, then there is the confessor. However, whatever concerns gold, money and interest, that we must bring to ‘my most merciful lord.’

Many evangelical pastors neglect the ministry of prayer and the Word because they too are more concerned with money and empire building. In contrast, Derek Thomas comments,

It is fascinating to observe that the church agreed on the need for preaching. In an age when Christians desire ‘less preaching and more programs,’ it would be well to observe the opposite in the early church. These Christians felt the need to prioritize a Bible-based instructional ministry to feed their souls and instruct them in the way of truth.

The reason deacons were installed in the church was so that the Word would continue to be proclaimed unhindered. It is good to want deacons because you love the body and want their needs to be provided for. It is better to primarily, though not exclusively, to want deacons so that the Word can go forward without encumbrance to the glory of Christ’s name and the growth of the church. Because deacons were appointed, and the twelve were able to devote themselves to prayer and the Word, “the word of God continued to increase, and the number of disciples multiplied greatly (Acts 6:7).”

Advising against those who wanted to use physical means, such as smashing alters and destroying images, to advance the Reformation, Luther warned,

Give men time. I took three years of constant study, reflection, and discussion to arrive where I now am, and can the common man, untutored in such matters, be expected to move the same, distance in three months? Do not suppose that abuses are eliminated by destroying the object which is abused. Men can go wrong with wine and women. Shalt we then prohibit wine and abolish women? The sun, the moon, and stars have been worshiped. Shall we then pluck them out of the sky? Such haste and violence betray a lack of confidence in God. See how much he has been able to accomplish through me, though I did no more than pray and preach. The Word did it all. Had I wished I might have started a conflagration at Worms. But while I sat still and drank beer with Philip and Amsdorf, God dealt the papacy a mighty blow.

Fellow pastors, may this be our uncompromising glory, “I did no more than pray and preach. The Word did it all,” and praise be to God for men of good repute, full of the Spirit and wisdom, who for love of the church and God’s Word, free us to do so.

Awful Deacons (1 Timothy 3:8–13)

Ever try to define a word, a word you thought you knew really well, a word you use all the time, only to find yourself dumbstruck? This can be because you know the meaning so well. For instance, try to define “it.” You may stutter, but your usage likely indicates that you undertand “it” perfectly well. I’m afraid that this isn’t the case with the word “deacon.” The word is part of our churchy parlance, but, as Inigo told Vizzini, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what yo think it means.” When a definition is readily offered most often the description better fits an elder. “Whereas the office of overseer is often ignored in the modern church,” writes Benjamin Merkle, “the office of deacon is often misunderstood.”

Why are we so confused? “How Sweet and Aweful is the Place,” may be my favorite hymn. It would be a mistake to understand the meaning of that title according to today’s usage of “aweful.” The word meant awesome, which is yet another word lying on its death bed. “Deacon” suffers a similar malady. We read our modern traditional idea of deacon back into the Bible, instead of reading the Biblical idea into our churches.

“Deacon,” in reference to the office, only occurs three times in the New Testament (there is a fourth instance that I believe should also be translated deacon, but that would require another, and much longer post). It occurs twice in 1 Timothy 3, and if you’re hoping for the their instance to be more illuminating, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons (Philippians 1:1 ESV).” After you survey every explicit mention of deacons in the New Testament you are left with the predicament of knowing that deacons should be, but not what they should do.

But, though the word in reference to the office is only used three times, the noun is used another twenty-nine times in a general sense, most often translated “servant.” For instance, Jesus is said to be a deacon in Romans 15:8. Further, the verb form is used thirty-seven times. Jesus is said to deacon, that is, to serve us in Matthew 20:28. The word originally refers to one who waits tables, and with that our ears perk up when we read Acts 6 in regards to the problem of hellenistic jewish women being neglected in the early church. “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 [deacon] tables (Acts 6:2 ESV).” The seven chosen to serve the church are never called deacons, but it is what they do, and I believe that the division between the twelve who minister in word and prayer, and the seven who minister to the physical needs of the body, is the same division we see in regards to overseers and deacons.

So what is the distinction between the two offices? What are their respective tasks? Overseers oversee, and deacons deacon. Or, in an attempt to be more clear, yet, at risk of being misunderstood, we could say overseers oversee souls, whereas deacons deacon bodies. The only thing I mean by that language is that overseers look after the souls of their flock, whereas deacons serve the physical needs of the flock. The church needs both offices, and not some conflagration or hybrid of the two. She needs multiple elders, and multiple deacons, and when she has them, the church is a wholesome family, well ordered, well behaved (1 Timothy 3:16, Titus 1:5).