The Work of Deacons
In all honesty, the Bible says very little about the work of deacons. We do have the example of the infant church’s appointing the seven to oversee benevolence, but surely, we do not believe that the only service deacons can render to the church is benevolence. It is undoubtedly within God’s wisdom that he did not give a detailed description of the work of deacons; this way each congregation can determine what she needs her deacons to do.
Tonight, we’re going to discuss the work of deacons from two vantage points: the biblical and the historical. We will look at the biblical record to see what Scripture says concerning deacons. We will also examine what writers int eh early church understood about the role of deacons. Those early Christin writers are not our authority, of course, Only the Scriptures stand as authority. However, these writers who lived before the development of denominationalism shed some light on how the early church from about AD 100 to about AD 350 understood the Scriptures. Their understanding—unclouded by denominationalism—can sometimes aid us in our study.
The Biblical View
We have said repeatedly that deacons are primarily servants—that is what the Greek term means. But, how do they serve?
Deacons serve under the elders.
Elders and deacons are mentioned together: “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons” (Phil 1:1).
Elders oversee every aspect of the local church. The term “bishop” in Philippians 1:1—which you know is a synonym for “elder”—literally means “overseer.”
Elders oversee the local congregation. “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His ow blood” (Acts 20:28). “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor” (1 Tim 5:17). “Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls” (Heb 13:17).
Since elders oversee the work of the local congregation, they determine what works need to be performed by a certain deacon. It’s not up to the deacon to say, “I’m going to be over the Sunday school—that is my work, and I’m going to run it as I see fit.” I think it would be a mistake for the elders to micromanage everything a deacon does—if elders are going to do that, why have deacons?—but the deacons must work within the guidelines the elders provide.
Deacons serve the elders.
We noticed in this morning’s lesson why we have deacons in the first place. Acts 6:3-4—The apostles appointed the first seven deacons in order that they might have more time to devote to spiritual matters. We have deacons in this congregation so that the elders might have more time to devote to spiritual matters.
The work of an elder is not an easy task. “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you” (1 Pet 5:2). “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account” (Heb 13:17).
The elders have an obligation to attend to the spiritual needs of the congregation, “to shepherd” and “to watch out for your souls.” If someone is becoming unfaithful, the elders need to go to that brother or sister. If someone in the congregation is struggling spiritually, the elders need to go to that brother or sister. If there is any spiritual need I the congregation, the elders need to help those individuals. But, if elders have to care for the finances, the building, the Sunday school, the benevolence, and everything else, how will they have time to take care of the spiritual needs?
The elders need to appoint deacons to oversee the individual works in a congregation: the benevolence, the building, the finances, and the like, so that the elders are free to do their work.
Deacons should be free to fulfill their obligations. Notice what the apostles said concerning the first deacons: “Seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business” (Acts 6:3). Those Seven were going to have control over how the benevolence was handled; they were going to be appointed over that work.
Likewise, deacons today need to be appointed over a work. Elders have every right to set out guidelines, and they should set guidelines. But, as log as the deacon works within the guidelines the elders have given him, the elders need to step out of the way and let the deacon work. The elders may need to reevaluate the deacon’s performance in that area from time to time, but they should not be looking over his shoulder all the time.
The Historical View
Although, as I said earlier, these early Christian writers do not constitute Scripture (these writers were not inspired, and they were wrong on several issues), what they wrote can inform us of how the early church understood the office of a deacon.
Ignatius wrote about AD 110: “It is fitting also that the deacons, as being [the ministers] of the mysteries of Jesus Christ, should in every respect be pleasing to all. For they are not ministers of meat and drink, but servants of the Church of God.” Notice that Ignatius refers to deacons as minsters of the church, something we understand about their biblical function.
Polycarp wrote about AD 110: “The deacons are to be unblameable before the righteousness as servants of God and Christ and not of men.” Polycarp refers to deacons as servants of God.
The Shepherd of Hermas wrote about AD 130: “The stones which are square, white, and fit into the joints are the apostles, bishops, teachers, and deacons, who walked according to the holiness of God and did the work of overseeing, teaching, and serving the elect of God purely and piously.”
Justin Martyr wrote about AD 150: “A distribution and participation of the elements for which thanks have been given is made to each person, and to those who are not present it is sent by the deacons.” Justin writes of deacons being involved in benevolence, in helping those who were unable to attend the worship service—this is consistent with their biblical function.
The Apostolic Church Order written about AD 300 reads: “The deacons, doers of good works, searching about everywhere day and night, neither despising the poor nor regarding the person of the rich, shall acknowledge the oppressed, and not exclude him from a share in the collections of the congregation, but compel those having possessions to lay up for good works, in consideration of the words of our teacher. ‘Ye saw me hungry, and did not feed me;’ for those who have been deacons of good report and blameless purchase to themselves the pastorate [the eldership].”
What I find interesting about these quotations is how closely the church followed the biblical guidelines for deacons.
This is particularly interesting when you consider that the eldership was going through a great upheaval at this point in history. The church was changing the biblical eldership into the hierarchal structure we see in many denominations. When some of these sources were written, there was a difference in bishops and elders, and bishops were claiming to have authority over more than one congregation—something totally unknown in the New Testament.
However, the office of a deacon remains basically unchanged from what we find in the New Testament. I wonder if it’s not because some elders shortly after the establishment of the church became power-hungry. You get a glimpse of what happened from Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders: “Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves” (Acts 20:30). Some elders wanted power, and they wanted disciples to follow them instead of Jesus.
But the position of a deacon is primarily a position of service, not leadership. Servants, by their very nature, are more concerned with people than with power. Those are the type of men we need to appoint as deacons.
But what about you? Are you more concerned with power or people?
This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at the Alum Creek church of Christ in Alum Creek, West Virginia.