The office of deacon is one of the most misunderstood and under utilized offices in the Church today. In many congregational churches the deacon functions as an elder and there is no deacon. In most Protestant churches where there are deacons they are in charge of the church picnic, or lawn care, or the finances. But are these things within the proper function of the deacon office? Let’s take a look at the creation of the office in Acts 6: 1-7 and let it be a guide to us in forming our understanding of this important leader in the New Testament Church.
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists[a] arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2 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. 3 Therefore, brothers,[b] pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 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. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
7 And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
A problem arose in the early Church. Widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. This causes us to pause and ask, “Is the church suppose to take care of its widows?” The answer is yes. This is not something that is common only to the Church in Jerusalem or Judea. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, gives Timothy, in his first letter to him, the requirements a widow must meet in order for her to be added to the number of widows under the Church’s care. Timothy is in Ephesus, and Ephesus is the most important church in Asia Minor. Timothy was strategically placed there by Paul to establish the work and to properly organize it according to the Apostolic model. There are some who will say that the book of Acts is descriptive in nature but not prescriptive in order that they may wiggle out of the Church’s responsibility to care for widows. To this we answer, if that was the case why would Paul say this to his young protege’ left in the Ephesus.
“3 Honor widows who are truly widows. 4 But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God. 5 She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day, 6 but she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives. 7 Command these things as well, so that they may be without reproach. 8 But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
9 Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband,[a] 10 and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work.“
Paul is prescribing the function of the New Testament Church and the providing the specific requirements for enrollment of widows into the care of the Church. What does this have to do with deacons? Everything, as you can see from Acts 6:1-7, the purpose of the creation of the Deacon office was to administrate, under the Apostles, the care of the widows in the Church. These persons were not to set up chairs at church picnics, children and teenagers can do those good and necessary works. Deacons are to carry out the incarnational ministry (serve tables Acts 6:2) of the church to the legitimate poor. The legitimate poor are defined as widows, orphans, and strangers (refugees). These family-less, property-less, disconnected persons are referred to in countless Old Testament passages as being in need of inclusion and care in the wider community of believers. Below is a list of important passages that the reader can review. They demonstrate, beyond all doubt, that God’s desire is that His people care for the legitimate poor, widows, orphans, and refugees, in their midst.
In our next blog we will further explore the ramifications of rediscovering the proper role of the Deacon in the modern church.
Deuteronomy 10:18 God’s attitude toward the legitimate poor
Deuteronomy 14:22-29 Tithe Feast
Deuteronomy 15:7-11 Sabbatical Year
Deuteronomy 16:9-12 Feast of Weeks
Deuteronomy 24:19-22 Harvest Practices
Deuteronomy 26:1-15 First Fruits (Free Will Offering) & Tithe (Obligatory Offering)
Deuteronomy 27:19 Curse upon those who pervert justice for the legitimate poor in the believing community
As well as the following Old and New Testament passages