Deacons: Their Duties and Character
There are two helps in remembering, first, how the deacon is different from the elder or the pastor-preacher, and second, what the deacons’ duties are.
1. A Three-fold Office
The church is the body of Christ, and our Saviour has a three-fold office, and so his body also has a three-fold office.
i] Christ is Prophet. He came from heaven to tell us all that his Father desired us to know and in his preaching he made the greatest impact on his hearers. Never did any other man speak like him.
His body is to be a speaking body, and the office in the church that principally does this is the pastor-preacher. He must teach the congregation everything that Jesus Christ has taught. He must also address the world with the gospel that centres on the Son of God.
ii] Christ is King. He has authority over creation, over the devil, over disease, and over death. He protects and keeps us; he works all things for our good.
His body is also a structured and governed fellowship; everything it does must be done decently and in order. That is the mark of the Spirit’s presence in a congregation. The elder governs in the church. ‘Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God’ (Acts 20:28).
iii] Christ is Priest. We have a great high priest who has passed into the heavens, and there he lives for ever to intercede for us. He is filled with compassion for his people. We have not a high priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities.
His body is also characterized by a ministry of compassion. The deacons come out of the concern of the people of God for those in their number who were in need. You meet this sympathy in the familiar events of Acts 6. We read,
In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian 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, 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. So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:1-6).
These seven men are customarily referred to as the ‘proto-deacons,’ and out of them came two who moved on to become mighty preachers, Stephen and Philip. But the other five continued in their work as deacons. We see the same pattern today. Derek Thomas became a fine preacher; Terry Loosley has continued in his vocation as our grand senior deacon.
But the body of Christ can also be divided up like this. There are these three Special Offices, the preacher-pastor, and the elders, and the deacons. There are also the General Offices. In other words every believer is an interceding priest to God (‘Pray without ceasing’), and also a prophetic spokesman for God, always being ready to give a reason for his hope in the gospel of Christ, and he is also a ruler over himself and his own heart, over creation replenishing and subduing the earth, over novices helping them to mature, and over his family. So that is one way of remembering the different offices in the church – by considering Christ.
But especially concerning the deacons, their particular function is three-fold and there is also an easy way to identify their ministries . . .
2. A Three-fold Responsibility
There are three ‘Tables’ where the deacons have responsibility.
i] There is the Table of the Poor. Who has need in the church? How can the rest of the congregation know and help? The deacons are in touch with the congregation at all levels. They can see what practical and financial help they are able to provide. In some churches there used to be an offering taken for this ministry of mercy at the close of each Lord’s Supper. A cheque-book would be given to the pastor to provide such assistance as he saw fit. It would be better if the senior deacon administered such a benevolent fund and shared his concerns with the other deacons. This ministry is a reflection of Acts 6.
ii] There is the Table of the Pastor (and also other people employed part time or full time by the church). No preacher should live luxuriously, because no Christian should live luxuriously, but preachers should be freed from financial concerns so that they can give themselves to the Bible and to praying, while there is yet food on the table for the minister’s family. So let the deacons ask if their pastor is getting a proper salary.
iii] There is the Table of the Lord. The deacons serve the people by taking to them the bread and the wine. In some churches this is done by the elders, but the public manifestation of the elders is their entering the congregation with the pastor carrying his Bible. The church does not see them interviewing new members or discussing the church’s moral and theological concerns. The deacons are presented to the church by serving the people at the Lord’s Table. The congregation does not see their private work of caring for the poor or for the pastor.
Who should be deacons?
Not novices, but people who by their lives show their concerns for these three tables. There is little about their duties that is described for us in the New Testament, but one judges that the collection for the famine in Jerusalem and meeting the needs of the apostle in prison and sending a gift to him, were vital diaconal functions. The emphasis in the New Testament is not on what the deacon does but who the deacon is and how he lives. That gives him considerable creativity in serving the church. His character is described in 1 Timothy 3:8-13:
Deacons, likewise, are to be men 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, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything. A deacon must be the husband of but one 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.
It is pretty basic isn’t it? Little that is mystical is found here. He is respected and sincere. Is he a drunkard? Good-bye. Is he a cheat and liar in his business? Good-bye. He has to know more than the ABC of the gospel – deep truths, the stuff of the Confession of Faith, and he is familiar with it. He has been tested by providence, and in the church there is nothing that anyone has against him. His children have a good reputation, and his wife is wise when she opens her mouth, not a ‘malicious talker’ running down others, temperate and trustworthy.
The blessing the deacons gain from their work is to possess a strong standing in the faith (the more he works as a deacon then the stronger will his faith become) and also great assurance that the Lord Jesus Christ ‘has loved an imperfect sinner like me and saved me.’
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