The Underutilized Deacon

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by Berry Kercheville

When God gives a name to himself or to his people he always uses descriptive terms. A shepherd shepherds. A deacon ministers and attends to duties to which he has been commissioned. The name speaks to what they do. When we look at the qualifications of shepherds and deacons, there are very few differences. There are differences in age and experience (thus the word “elder”) and in the ability to teach – since teaching is the primary work of a shepherd. But the real difference is in their work, not in the qualifications. A person could meet all the qualifications of an elder but still not be an elder because of his inability to shepherd. The same is true of deacons. We want someone who reflects the character of Christ, but we especially want someone who can do the work assigned by God.

Acts 6, and the Practical Side of a Deacon’s Workwidows

I realize the seven men chosen in Acts six were not technically called deacons, but the apostolic example of having men chosen to serve at the very least fits the description of deacons and gives us insight into areas of a deacon’s work that are often neglected.

First notice the need: “their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.” The issue is greater than simply widows that needed food. There was an issue in the church concerning loving one another and correct attitudes. It is not that occasionally a few widows were not getting fed, it was that a particular class of widows, the Grecian widows, were being neglected. It just so happened that the Hebrew speaking widows were not being neglected. So whoever was involved in taking care of the widows were purposely favoring the Hebrew widows over the Greek speaking widows. This gives us a reason the men selected needed to be of high character and the reason later for the qualifications given by Paul to Timothy. Further, this goes beyond serving a meal. The seven men appointed needed to understand the personalities and background of these widows, their specific needs, and even how they fit within the larger dynamic of the local body. This was a potentially divisive situation and these servants were called upon to solve it.

The character of the men to be chosen: “of good repute full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom.” These men were to be mature believers having adopted the character and teachings of the Spirit. Though Paul gets more specific in his qualifications in First Timothy, we could easily follow the principle given here and choose men who would also meet Paul’s criteria.

The scope of their appointment: “Whom we may appoint to this duty.” The NET and NASB translate, “Whom we may put in charge of this task.” The ASV translates, “Whom we may appoint over this business.” Sometimes we get the idea that these seven men personally delivered food to all the widows. But this is not the idea of the text. These men are overseeing the work. They were making sure the work was done and was accomplished fairly so that none were neglected.

The purpose for their appointment: “serve tables.” We read this phrase and think of a waiter, but that is not necessarily the idea. In Luke 19:23, Jesus condemned the slothful man for not putting his money “in the bank.” “Bank” is the same Greek word used in this text for “table.” Literally, Jesus said, “You did not put the money on the table.”  The table was where bankers sat and where money was managed. This fits the meaning of Acts 6. It certainly does not take men with the qualifications listed to be “waiters” of tables. These special servants were to manage the money and provisions necessary to provide for a large group of widows.

The reason the appointment was necessary: “it is not right (acceptable, deemed proper or fit) that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.” Verse four adds, “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” Two important points should be noted. First, the apostles were not divesting themselves of this work because it was unimportant. Instead, the work was so important that it needed men who were specially appointed to make sure the task was accomplished with quality and efficiency. Paul later talked about this principle in First Corinthians 12 by saying, “The body is not one member but many.” No one person has the time or ability to do all that needs to be done in a local church. Second, the apostles recognized what many do not recognize today: prayer and teaching lost souls takes a significant amount of time and effort. The apostles knew they could not devote themselves to teaching the word and to overseeing the work with widows. For both tasks to be done, special servants were needed. Nothing has changed. Those who teach, preach, and shepherd today are not inspired as were the apostles, and need even more time to study and teach. This is the reason there are deacons and this is the reason the body is made of many members.

Practical Conclusions for Usmen

  1. Do you believe these seven men met together to figure out the best plan to solve the widow problem? Certainly. I would submit that is exactly what deacons need to be doing today to more efficiently identify and solve needs in the church.
  2. Do you believe these seven men enlisted the help of other members to solve the widow problem? Certainly. Do you believe they bothered the apostles or got their permission to do such. No. This is why they were appointed. This is why they had such high qualifications. They were trusted to get the job done. Great leaders (in this case, God) delegate tasks and then let those appointed accomplish the tasks.
  3. Deacons should be men who have a close enough connection to the church that they are able to aid the shepherds in seeing after the flock. Deacons can open their eyes to those who are new to the church, who are visitors, who are weak, and who need encouragement. They are uniquely equipped to serve these spiritual needs and report to the shepherds so shepherds can improve their pastoring skills.
  4. Deacons can oversee a church’s ability to connect and followup on those who visit. They can design guest packets with guest cards, and even an invitation card to a neighborhood study. Deacons can be those who help train greeters to discover when someone is from the area and decide on a plan of action.
  5. Every church has similar needs as in Acts 6. We have elderly members who need physical help from time to time and some who need to be regularly checked on or just could use some company. Deacons can make sure there is some plan in place to make that happen.
  6. Because of their high qualifications, deacons can help shepherds in setting goals for the church. Deacons can help build a five year plan for the church and then develop an outline of how that plan will be implemented in each of the years. Without a plan, the church will have gone nowhere and accomplished nothing.

Look again at the qualifications for deacons. These are nearly identical to that of the elders. Deacons have too often been underutilized. Active deacons who take the initiative can make a huge difference in the effectiveness of a local church.