In the last few years, God has granted us growing awareness and opportunities to minister to those in need. While all believers are called to this kind of love (e.g. Js. 2:15-17, 1 Jn. 3:17), the biblical pattern is that deacons are to lead this charge, assessing the gifts, strengths, and assets of the body of Christ and coordinating the relief of those in need.
The Text: In the early days of the church, a controversy arose around the “daily distribution” to the widows (Acts 6:1). This is a specific instance of the kind of community the church was seeking to be: having all things in common, making sure no one lacked, distributing to those in need, gathered around the word and sacraments (cf. Acts 2:41-47, 4:32-37, cf. 2 Cor. 8:8-15). Initially, the coordination and organization of this community life was performed by the apostles themselves (4:35-37, 5:2). But with the significant growth of the church, the apostles determined that a division of labor was necessary, and that other ministers ought to be appointed to “serve tables” (Acts 6:2). The root word for “deacon” is used three times here: the “distribution” is the “diaconal service” (6:1), “serving tables” is literally “deaconing tables” (6:2), and the “ministry of the word” is literally the “service/deaconing of the word” (6:4). This breadth of usage implies the unity of the “ministry,” more on that later. Seven men are chosen who have good reputations, who are full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, and that means they are competent and creative managers (6:3). The apostles determine that the church will be best served if they give themselves continually to prayer and the ministry of the word (6:4), and as a result of the ordination of the seven, “the word of God spread and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly” (6:7).
The Ministry of the Church
The church exists to be the Body of Christ. The same Spirit that anointed Jesus at His baptism was poured out on the church so that our ministry would be the continuation of His ministry (e.g. Jn. 15:26-16:15, Acts 1:8). Jesus says that He was anointed by the Spirit to preach the gospel to the poor, heal the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to free those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the great jubilee of the Lord (Lk. 4:18-19, cf. Is. 61). Jesus calls this reality the Kingdom of God and commissioned the 12 and 70 others to go out to heal the sick and to proclaim this Kingdom (Lk. 10:9). In other words, Jesus came announcing the Kingdom of Servants, a way of life built on cheerful service. Jesus ultimately inaugurates this Kingdom in His own death, giving “His life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45). Jesus was the original deacon of God who served us by laying His life down in order to free us from every form of slavery and death.
Diaconal Ministry is the Ministry of the Church
The word “deacon” simply means minister or servant. A deacon is someone who assists in the ministry of the church. Thus, in one sense, every believer must be a deacon. Every believer must serve and minister Christ. All who would follow Jesus must give their lives away and be His deacons (Jn. 12:26). At the same time, throughout Scripture God instructs His people to recognize leaders who will coordinate this effort. These are called officers in the church, and there are specific qualifications for these offices (1 Tim. 3:1-13). Deacons must be reverent, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy for money, holding the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience, they are to be tested, husbands of one wife, and their families should reflect these qualities clearly (1 Tim. 3:8-13). But the point we want to emphasize is that the ministry of deacons is not secondary or optional. The ministry of deacons is the ministry of the church. Jesus said that He did come not to sit at the table but to serve tables (Lk. 22:27). It is not as though apostles and pastors and teachers are only concerned about “spiritual” things while deacons set up chairs and unlock buildings. Paul describes his preaching ministry as “deaconing” (Acts 20:24, Rom. 11:13, 1 Cor. 3:5). This is according to the pattern of Acts 6: the apostles “deacon the word” and the seven “deacon tables.” But it is the same ministry, the same mission: proclaiming and building the Kingdom of God in this world. There are different kinds of deacons but the same Lord (1 Cor. 12:5ff).
Proclaiming and Building the Kingdom
So then pastors and elders give themselves to the ministry of the word and prayer, and the word that they proclaim is that Jesus is Lord of all because He became the Servant of all. This service/diaconal ministry was centrally the offering of Himself on the cross to destroy the power of sin and guilt and death and Satan. For God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21). Pastors and teachers proclaim this and call the world to believe this and to live this; they equip the saints for the work of this “ministry” (Eph. 4:12). The cross is our justice; therefore go and do justice. The cross is our mercy; therefore, go and love mercy. And deacons are the assistants to the elders, the city administrators of this Kingdom life (e.g. Acts 6:8ff, 8:5ff, Mk. 10:43, Mt. 25:44).
Conclusions & Applications
There is a kind of serving/ministry that is busy but neglects more needful things (Lk. 10:40). Likewise, Paul says, there is a kind of sacrificial ministry to the poor that is useless because it lacks love (1 Cor. 13:3). The proclamation of the gospel of the Kingdom is first and foremost good news, news that brings joy and freedom. But this is an explosive joy, a revolutionary freedom that results in a city of sharing, a commonwealth of mercy, where the hungry are fed, the sick are cared for and healed, prisoners are visited, naked are clothed, the jobless find jobs, the rich and powerful become humble servants, and slaves become great in their service.