Deacons: Servants that Strengthen the Local Church

Deacons: Servants that Strengthen the Local Church

Deacons: Servants that Strengthen the Local Church
Text: Acts 6:1-7

Main Idea: Deacons exist to actively promote the unity, maturity, and gospel impact of the local church through their diligent, Spirit-empowered administration of everyday ministry tasks.

Sermon Outline:

I. The Necessity of Deacons (Acts 2:1–7)

A. The Problem (6:1)
B. The Solution (6:2–4)
C. The Result (6:5–7)

II. Two Practical Implications

A. Deacons Are More Than Administrators, They Are Problem Solving Peacemakers
B. Faithful Deacons Nurture Spiritual Growth in the Local Church

Good morning. Before we turn to our passage in Acts chapter-six today, I want to take a minute to share with you my excitement about our upcoming sermon series in the book of Acts. On the one hand, we all know that the book of Acts chronicles the dynamic ministry of the apostles and the history of the early church. But, on the other hand, the book of Acts is so much more than a record of men and women who have long-since turned to dust. No, it’s so much more. It’s a book that awakens us to the consumeristic spiritual complacency that defines much of American Christianity BY reconnecting us with the life-changing power of the gospel, the true essence of our discipleship to Jesus Christ, and the Church’s fundamental mission to make disciples of our neighbors and the nations… the church exists for a purpose!

Yet, in the midst of all of this life changing impact, Christian discipleship, and gospel mission; the book of Acts is an honest history of the early church. What I mean is that Luke doesn’t shield us from the dirt and dysfunction of life in early church. We see this most clearly, in that, the utopian picture of church life in Acts 2 is quickly followed by two significant problems within the church. The first was an issue of outright sin, in the episode of Ananias and Saphira. While the second, as we will see today, was a matter of poor administration that boiled over into accusations of favoritism and discrimination.

But the most encouraging thing happens because of this second problem. Doesn’t it? Seven hands-on servants are appointed to bring peace and unity to a divided church. And even though these seven men are never referred to as deacons in the book of Acts, their appointment ends up providing both the pattern AND president for the biblical office of deacon that Paul prescribes in 1 Timothy 3:8–13.

Finally, if you are wondering what this topic has to do with our church given that we have a “Committee of Ministers” instead of deacons. This simple answer is this, this sermon is part of our effort to better align our ministry structures with God’s revealed Word. If Jesus founded the church and is building the church; it seems reasonable to conclude that the church functions best when it follows his instructions.

The Necessity of Deacons in the Local Church (Acts 6:1–7)

The Problem (Acts 6:1)

As we begin, I want to call your attention to something in this verse that is easy to overlook. This conflict occurs at the most unexpected and inconvenient. The church is rapidly expanding through the faithful gospel ministry of the apostles! Jews from every walk of life are coming to faith in Jesus and the church is growing leaps and bounds. But as we continue reading, it becomes increasingly clear that this this success is at the very root of the conflict, in that, the growing number of widows in the church are overwhelming its organizational care-structures. And while this may seem like a secondary issue in light of the gospel, it’s a critical issue for these women who are wholly dependent upon the church for their daily needs.[1]

For the most part, Jewish women spent their lives in a household that belonged either to their father or their husband. And even though a woman’s dowery was supposed to protect her if her husband died, few widows had access to the kind of money or resources they needed to sustain themselves after their husband’s death. In light of this, widows were particularly needy and vulnerable because government programs like welfare and social security simply did not exist. Notice, the church has been trying to uphold its biblical responsibility, it’s just not doing a very good job at the moment. And as a result, the early church falls into a conflict that could utterly destroy the unity of the church AND diminish its witness to the world.

Yet, as we press into the complaint itself, we are reminded of the age-old adage, that “the problem as stated is not always the problem.” What I mean by this, is that the present conflict is fueled by preexisting fault lines between these two groups of Christians. The Hebrews, for the most part, were Jews who grew up in Israel, spoke Aramaic, strictly observed Jewish culture, and attended Jewish speaking synagogues. While, the Hellenists were Jews that had grown up outside of Israel. And on account of this, they spoke Greek, followed aspects of Greeks culture, and usually attended Greek speaking synagogues. But, the truth of the matter is that they didn’t attend different synagogues merely because of their preferred language. They attended different synagogues because the Hebrews often treated the Hellenists with distain because they didn’t abandon every aspect of Greek culture.

This is what I mean when I say, “the problem as stated is not always the problem.” Were these widows being overlooked? The answer seems to be yes. But, what’s the underlying cause of the conflict? The Hellenists wrongly believed they can attribute sinful motives to the observable disparity in food and financial support. So why did this issue blow up? It blew up because, even though these people were real Christians who loved Jesus Christ and were learning to love one another. They were still struggling overcome their preexisting trust issues.

The Solution (Acts 6:2–4)

You know, one of the most surprising aspects of these verses is that the apostles didn’t wade into the conflict and issue ultimatum or chastise the Hellenists for their accusations against the Hebrews. No. They do two important things. They highlight the priority of their gospel-calling. They acknowledge the seriousness of the problem by laying out a job description AND asking the church to help them identify the right people to oversee the day-to-day administration of this vital ministry. (This is a beautiful picture of elder-led congregationalism.)

But, let me slow down to ask a question. Have any of you ever felt like the apostle’s answer seems kind of callous and aloof? “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve (diakonia) tables” (v 2). Well, I’d like to demonstrate that it was the most God-honoring and congregation-loving response they could give. To begin with, there is no hint what-so-ever that the apostles thought social work was beneath their dignity or inferior to pastoral work. Rather, their answer is simply this: you need to identify seven qualified men to oversee this need BECAUSE we do not have the liberty to be distracted from OR abandon our calling to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Notice, it’s an issue of gospel priority not shirking their responsibility these widows. In fact, this very truth becomes even more clear when we get to verse 4, “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry (diakonia) of the Word.” Did you catch that? The Greek root word “deacon” is behind “serve tables” and “ministry.” This helps us see that the apostles are NOT saying, “apostles don’t ‘serve’ people.” No. They are saying that they have a God-given responsibility to “deacon” (to serve) of the Word of God.

Notice, what are they doing in this answer? One, they are telling the early church that there is not just one but two necessary categories OR offices of “service” within the local church. Which is why we see the official office of elder and deacon come into being as the church spread into every corner of the Roman Empire. Two, they were making it clear that they could not and should not do everything in the church. Because the fundamental essence of their calling was to be witnesses to the gospel of Jesus Christ and oversee the spiritual welfare of the entire church.

As Matt Smethurst helpfully points out in his book on deacons, “a church whose elders are chained to the tyranny of the urgent —which so often turns up in “tangible problems”— is a church removing its heart to strengthen its arm.” Simply put, deacons exist because elders cannot and should not be doing everything in the local church.

Yet, as we turn our attention from the apostles to the selection of “the seven” what is the most important attribute of these hands-on servants? Well, much like the qualifications for eldership, it’s not their experience or their leadership skills. It’s the church’s unified recognition of their Christian character. First, the requirement that they be men of “good repute” (μαρτυρέω) highlights the fundamental importance that the congregation has actually witnessed their life and behavior over time. And that as a result of this very behavior, they have been recognized as mature and godly men. Secondly, the requirement that they be “full of the Spirit and wisdom” emphasizes the fact that the apostles are not drawing an arbitrary line between physical and spiritual ministry in the local church. No, they are saying every task in the church is a ‘spiritual’ ministry. And as such it requires a person whose heart is ruled by the Holy Spirit and wholly dedicated to the pleasing the Lord Jesus Christ.

And by the time we get to 1 Timothy 3, Paul spells it out much more clearly:

1 Timothy 3:8–12 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. 10 And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. 11 Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. 12 Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. 13 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.

But, all this talk about character and Christian maturity leads us to another question: “Are the apostles saying that hands-on skills, leadership training, and administrative abilities are not important?” The answer is clearly no! Because the very heart of the problem and solution to this conflict is capable and trustworthy administration.

The importance of mature, Christ-like character is that:

  1. It guards the congregation from overbearing deacons.
  2. It enables the deacon to minister to difficult people as they solve difficult problems.
  3. It protects the deacon from perverting their ministry into a personal fiefdom.

The Result (Acts 6:5–7)

Now, at this point it would be really easy for us to jump to the end of the story. After all it’s just a list of names. Right? Well, the list in verse 5 helps us see true beauty of the gospel in action. The church didn’t just divide the positions between the Hebrews and Hellenists and hold a “coin toss” for the “tie-breaking” seventh position. No. The church appears to have chosen seven men from the Hellenist Jews because every one of these men have Greek names! This is utterly amazing, in that it helps us see that the Hebrews are entrusting their widows to the watchful care of a social group that they once despised… Nothing can do that but the gospel of Jesus Christ!

And what does Luke want us to see in this final verse? He wants us to see that this solution didn’t merely defuse the conflict. No, this solution expanded the gospel-impact of the Jerusalem church: “the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (v. 7).[2] Did you catch that? Even more disciples! But even more, a great number of priests came to faith in Jesus Christ as a result of this event. They didn’t come to faith when Peter healed the lame man outside the temple, nor did they come to faith after hearing him preach in the temple. No, they came to faith after a significant conflict was resolved within the early church between the Hebrews and the Hellenists.

And in this, I think they recognized that the gospel message they were hearing day after day in the temple produced something that simply did not exist in first-century Judaism— a community that rightly reflected the true intent of the Torah and the very heart of God.

The Principle

Church, what I want you to see in this account is that, as important as elders are to the spiritual life of the church, in that, we are called to: (1) fearlessly proclaim God’s Word, (2) selflessly guard God’s flock, and (3) tirelessly equip the local church for ministry. The elders cannot and should not be doing everything in the church. But, this is not because they are so “focused spiritual matters that they are of no earthly good” OR too important to be troubled by the mundane administration of physical needs. No, this passage makes it incredibly clear the office of deacon and elder are intensely spiritual AND necessary for a church’s health and gospel impact in the world.

In addition to this, I want you to see is that while it is absolutely impossible to have a healthy church apart from qualified elders who fearlessly proclaim the whole counsel of God and faithfully shepherd the people of God. Healthy churches require a host of qualified, diligent, and passionate deacons to facilitate the day-to-day ministries of the local church so that the needs of the entire congregation can be addressed.

Simply put, Deacons exist to actively promote the unity, maturity, and gospel impact of the local church through their diligent, Spirit-empowered administration of everyday ministry tasks.

In light of this, I’d like to conclude with two practical implications that I discussed with the COM at our meeting this last week.

Two Practical Implications in the Local Church

Deacons are more than Administrators, they are Problem Solving Peace Makers

We see this described most clearly in our passage today. The seven were not selected simply because the church needed some “bean-counting administrators” to solve a food problem. They were appointed to cultivate peace and unity in the midst of a heated conflict that could have easily split the early church. And while it might be easy for us to look back and chastise the Hebrews and the Hellenists for bringing their preexisting conflict into the church, we struggle with the very same problem today. In fact, these last two years have exposed the fact we are being forced to navigate an ever-increasing number of issues that divide gospel-loving believer

Yet, what does this account show us about the church?

One, it shows us that even though, church splits happen AND are occasionally warranted, they not a model of gospel-centered church-planting. No, these churches usually carry the baggage of their past conflict for decades.

Two, it shows us that the solution to conflict is not planting new churches that are rigidly defined by our social, ethnic, or philosophical fault lines. No, when we plant a church that is primarily defined by our personal preferences, we plant a church that is prone to struggle with significant imbalance.

Three, it shows us that the Bible’s solution to conflict in the local church is a cadre of front-line gospel-loving, ministry-leading peacemakers that we call deacons.

Church, what I want you to see is that the best deacons are so much more than business managers, decision makers, or able-bodied handymen. They are servants with gospel-centered “conflict radars,” who love solutions more than drama and make every effort to promote peace in creatively constructive ways. Which is why the character qualifications for this office is so important… quarrelsome people make poor deacons because they only compound the kind of headaches that they are called to relieve.

Faithful Deacons Nurture Spiritual Growth in the Local Church

Maybe you have heard someone say: Well, while it’s up to the elders to oversee the spiritual needs of the church, it’s the deacons job to lead and oversee the practical needs of the church. Well, that statement is not really accurate.

One, when it comes to the church, everything is “spiritual.” I’m rather sure that we would agree that teaching, missions, and worship is spiritual. But budgets are spiritual in that they must reflect biblical ministry priorities and biblical stewardship. Property and facilities are spiritual, in that, they exist to serve the ministry of the local church. Nursery and children’s church is spiritual because it gives busy parents the ability to fully participate in worship and the give their full attention to the preaching of the Word. Everything we do is “spiritual” in one way or another.

Two, Acts 6 points us to the glorious truth that there is an inseparable link between the labor of faithful deacons and the flourishing of the Word. Were the apostles capable of administering the distribution of food? Yes. But, if the seven had not freed the apostles to focus on teaching and prayer (v.4), it’s very likely that the conflict would have been resolved but the gospel would not have spread like wildfire through Jerusalem (v. 7).

Simply put, the public ministry of the Word is virtually impossible without the private, hands-on service of faithful deacons in the local church.

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard a Christian say: Pastor, I love my church and I want to serve my church; but I just don’t know what that even looks like. I don’t like being in front of people and I’m no Bible teacher. But I love helping and serving people. I just don’t know what God called me to do.

Well in many cases I ask the person a few simple questions. Do you notice practical needs in the church and move toward them with humble solutions? Do you tend to anticipate ministry needs before they occur and have possible ideas how to address them? Do you love Jesus and want our church to have an ever-greater gospel impact in our community and (through our missionaries) around the world?

Well, if the answer is yes. These very attributes may be an indication that God is calling you serve this church —not as an elder— but as a deacon.

[1] Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, 230.

[2] David Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 229. Luke wants us to see that the gospel growth in verse 7 might not have happened if the apostles had tried to solve the problem themselves