This article is part of our weekly series, “The Book of Acts and the Church Today.” You can see all articles in the series here.
Some people say that traditional, biblical Christianity is too other-worldly. Of what use is spirituality in a world of hurting people? Fair question. But it misses God’s concern for both our spiritual and material lives.
God designed a world in which his people could fully flourish. Before sin, people walked with God spiritually and enjoyed his goodness materially. Sin disrupted our thriving. Spiritually, sin sprang from our hearts; physically, thorns sprang from the ground. But God is fixing both problems. The book of Acts repeatedly stresses God’s will that people turn from their sins and become spiritually whole. In the appointment of deacons in Acts 6:1–7, God declares his concern for the physical well-being of his people and reveals several broad principles and applications.
The Problem and its Resolution
The early church grew so rapidly that the apostles became overworked and the congregation underserved. Specifically, the Hellenists—believing, Greek-speaking, Jewish widows—“were being neglected in the daily distribution” (Acts 6:1). As Christianity outgrew the cultural boundaries of traditional Judaism, the church received—and sometimes overlooked—Jews who spoke a different language and observed different customs from the first Christians. The challenge facing the early believers is ours too: How can the church grow without leaving anyone behind?
Part of the answer is wise administration. The church wasn’t deliberately neglecting the Hellenist widows. There is no evidence of cultural prejudice against them. And the early Christians were generous (Acts 2:44–45; 4:32–37). Administratively, however, the apostles were simply stretched too thin to properly fulfill the rich ministry of Christ. And the late-comers were the easiest to become overlooked. So the apostles established the office of deacon to oversee the church’s ministry to the physical needs of believers and outsiders.
Luke lists three qualifications for this important office (cf. Acts 6:3; 1 Tim. 3:8–13). These traits are essential for every believer. So, obviously, no one may lead the church without them.
First, deacons must be “of good repute.” Reputation is not a fool-proof indicator of a person’s integrity; the test of popular opinion will always yield false negatives and false positives. But how can God’s people trust those of poor repute to handle their hard-earned offerings?
Second, deacons must be “full of the Holy Spirit.” They must be born again, true believers. While deacons deal with physical needs, their calling is spiritual. Deacons are much more than shrewd money-managers or custodians. Stephen was a preacher. Philip was an evangelist. Only with the Spirit’s guidance can deacons relieve the distressed “both with kind deeds and with words of comfort and encouragement from Scripture.”[i]
Third, deacons must be “full of … wisdom.” Wisdom is the prudent application of knowledge. Deacons must have the ability to discern if and how they should extend the church’s help. They must possess “sanctified common sense.”[ii]
The congregation chose seven qualified men whom the apostles ordained into office through prayer and the laying on of hands.
Principles and Application
Deacons Teach the Need for Delegation
Delegation entrusts responsibility to a person who is typically less experienced. The apostles were doing worthy work that others could learn to do equally well and which was taking them from their primary calling. Deacons too should be delegators. They should “[supervise] the works of Christian mercy among the congregation,”[iii] drawing non-deacons into service under their oversight. In fact, all of us should strive to serve at that intersection of passion, proficiency, and calling that God has given. Because we don’t all have the same gifts (see 1 Cor. 12), delegation is the right way to handle the part of our load that lies outside of our service sweet spot.
Deacons Elevate Preaching
Deacons were appointed because the work they were called to do was encroaching on the apostles’ primary calling to pray and preach (Acts 6:4). So in the church today, ruling elders often take the lead “in the shepherding and discipline of the congregation,” freeing ministers to assist where possible and profitable.[iv] Deacons also promote preaching by ensuring that the congregation makes the minister “free from worldly care and employment.”[v] The sacred calling of preachers underscores the duty of the entire congregation to receive the preached word. Through preaching, Christ is set before us as food and drink for our hungry and thirsty souls. A low commitment to preaching is sub-Christian.
Deacons Reveal God’s Total Care for Whole Persons
God is not like those who say to the poor, “‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body” (James 2:16). The Lord Jesus preaches through ministers and rules through elders. Through deacons, the merciful high priest shows his might and willingness to “deliver from eternal misery and destruction.”[vi] Deacons are the open and sharing hands of Jesus who fed the hungry and healed every disease of the people.
After the appointment of the first deacons, Luke records another church update. “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem” (Acts 6:7). At the center of growing, caring, delegating, word-centered churches are wise, spirit-filled, well-respected deacons who serve as signs of God’s love for his dear children.
[i] Form for the “Ordination of Elders and Deacons,” https://formsandprayers.com/liturgical-form/#18.
[ii] G. Campbell Morgan, The Acts of the Apostles, 175.
[iii] URCNA “Church Order,” art. 15. https://www.urcna.org/church-order.
[iv] URCNA “Church Order,” art. 3. https://www.urcna.org/church-order.
[v] “Calling a Minister” in the “Form of Government” of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, https://opc.org/BCO/FG.html#Chapter_XXII.
[vi] William Heyns, Handbook for Elders and Deacons: The Nature and the Duties of the Offices According to the Principles of Reformed Church Polity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1928), 295.