From the beginning of their service in the New Testament, we see that the primary task of deacons is to serve tables. But this is a wonderfully loaded job description since at the center of the Church’s life is the Lord’s Table. Thabiti Anyabwile says that deacons are the Church’s waiters, running all the functions of the front of the house.
The Widows & The Tables
The opening scene of the diaconate shows us a church that has grown exponentially overnight (over 3000 baptized at Pentecost, Acts 2:41), and this means there are immediate opportunities for divisions and strife. The initial job of the deacons was to oversee the distribution of bread for both the Jew and Gentile widows. The whole Jew/Gentile question was the key issue in the Church throughout the New Testament and shows up immediately here. As Paul will insist over and over again, this is not merely a practical issue, it is a gospel issue (e.g. Galatians). This indicates that deacons need to be able to see how the gospel applies to practical needs, and (vice versa) be able to see how practical problems relate back to the gospel. Though deacons are not primarily teachers, they need to be able to see and articulate these connections.
In Acts 6, accusations have arisen that may or may not have been true but needed investigating and adjudicating. We don’t have to insist that the apostles never said or thought anything related to this situation again (cf. Acts 15), but clearly the deacons were appointed to sort the whole thing out so that the apostles could give themselves to the ministry of the word and prayer. Deacons are the “shock absorbers” in the church. Anyabwile again: “They absorbed the complaints and concerns, resolved them in godliness, and so preserved the unity and witness of the saints” (Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons, 21). Faithful and diligent deacons go a long way toward preserving unity and protecting against church splits.
There was also very clearly a practical problem. How to make sure all the widows were cared for? In the early chapters of Acts it’s not at all clear that there was a sharp distinction between the Lord’s Supper and eating together (e.g. Acts 2:42, 46). We know from post-biblical literature that it was the practice of the early church to take the leftovers from the Supper out to the sick and the poor and the elderly. This is a direct line then from the gospel of Jesus, to the worship assembly, out to the strangers, the fatherless, and the widows. Deacons ensure that there is easy access to the table of the Lord, whether welcoming the world in or taking the life of Jesus out to the world.
Delegation, Delegation, Delegation
It is already self evident that seven deacons would need many, many assistants in carrying out the task of serving the church in Jerusalem. But I find it absolutely fascinating and exciting to see what happens right after the men are ordained: “And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). So the first lesson is actually for elders and pastors. When they delegate tasks to deacons the Word of God increases, disciples multiply, and even some of the least likely characters are converted to Jesus. When there is a thriving deaconate, the Church multiplies, sinners are saved, and enemies become friends.
But we should also not miss the fact that in the very next verse, Stephen shows up and he isn’t doing anything with the widows! And it’s clear that Stephen was not shirking his duties by preaching and doing miracles (Acts 6:8-10). Deacons should be the kind of managers of the various projects under their care that it leaves them plenty of time to dispute with the Synagogue of the Freedmen on Facebook or open air preach on the University Campus or run a soup kitchen on the side. In other words, we have every reason to believe that the new deacons acted quickly and decisively and solved the widow distribution problem and then moved on to other things while having sufficient monitoring and feedback loops in place. Even if not all deacons are as outspoken or articulate as Stephen, it is not an accident that he is highlighted so thoroughly right out of the gates (Acts 6-7). He is the first Christian martyr, and this is the model honor set before every deacon. It should be the goal of every deacon to emulate his passion, his boldness, his sacrifice. And he died and the church didn’t miss a beat because the men and women who served under his direction were very well equipped.
Finally, don’t forget that we’re given one more glimpse into the first diaconate with the brief episode of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40). Notice the theological significance here: not only was the Ethiopian not an ethnic Jew, he was explicitly excluded from sanctuary service (Lev. 21:20). But now in Christ, he may draw near to the throne of grace because the gospel is for all nations and all people. Secondly, Philip knows the Scriptures and explains them well. He can point the eunuch to Jesus from Isaiah’s prophecy, including a basic baptismal theology. But notice once again that Philip is not shirking his duties. He’s shows up later preaching in various cities leading to Caesarea. Why is this OK? Why is he not back in Jerusalem counting widows and tables? Because he has many people under him, organized, trained, and growing in grace, carrying out their tasks competently and with wisdom. This frees deacons to go out and find and create new needs.
Given what we see specifically in Stephen and Philip, maybe it would be better to modify our original image and suggest that the deacons are not necessarily themselves the waiters but are like the house managers, the maître d’s of the Church overseeing access to the bread of life.