[This article was written jointly by Redeemer's elder's Ross Odnokon and Vince Kuipers]
Redeemer is a growing church. And that in more ways than one. We have more people attending our services then we did a year ago and even more if you compare two years ago when we first planted. We are also growing in the depth of our fellowship, our sanctification, and our commitment to serve the Lord. But another key way that we are growing is in organization, leadership and structure. As time goes on we have more and more believers equipped and engaged in the various ministries of the church. And the more we grow in this way the better it is for everyone.
Now there are many ways to serve the Lord in the body of Christ. For the body does not consist of one member but of many (1 Corinthians 12:14). We all have giftings, and we all have a role to play, and it is good to see that more and more. But beyond that basic call to serve, God has also established two main offices of leadership and service in the church – Elders and Deacons. And as we grow as a church we want to follow the Scriptures on these things and grow God's way. We already have elders as a church, but we do not yet have deacons. And this is something that Vince and I, as elders want to see established among us.
So let us take some time to explain what a deacon is.
Deacon comes from the Greek term διάκονος (diakonos) which simply means servant. So, while we are all called to serve the Lord and serve the church, a deacon is one who serves in an official capacity in the church. We see that in 1 Tim 3:8–13 where the office of Deacon is described:
8 Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. 9 They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. 11 Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. 12 Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. 13 For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 3:8-13).
This passage describes not just a regular servant in the church but someone tasked with a particular office. And we should note that these qualifications come on the heels of those for the office of Elder. In this way we see that there are two primary classes of church leadership offices in the New Testament: that of the overseer/elder, and that of the deacon (Philippians 1:1; 1 Tim 3:1–13). These two offices are also affirmed by the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith (26:8).
So, the diaconate is an office. But what do deacons do? What are they for? Well first, we have seen even within the name itself the nature of the task: to serve. Deacons are to be servants in the church. Second, we notice that deacons do not hold teaching or ruling authority in the church like the elders do, but instead exercise responsibility for the physical needs of the congregation. This is clear from looking at the differing qualifications for elders and for deacons. But thirdly, we see that deacons are meant to serve as a help to the elders. This complementary service of overseers and deacons is analogous to that of the apostles and the Seven deacons chosen in Acts 6:1–6. There we read of a practical issue that was causing trouble among the believers:
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists 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, 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.
What we see here is that the deacons serve as a help to the whole church, but in a very specific way. Their service is in helping the elders not become overly burdened by practical concerns, and thereby they help them to not neglect the ministry of the word and prayer. The apostles recognized that their primary responsibility was to preach and teach the word of God and to be men of prayer, so they appointed seven men to oversee the distribution of food to the widows. These men were chosen from among the group of believers and were described as being of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit, and wise.
This passage in Acts 6 is significant because it shows how the early church handled a problem related to organizational structure and the distribution of resources. The apostles recognized the importance of delegating responsibilities to others so that they could focus on their primary calling of preaching and teaching the word of God and of prayer. The selection of these seven men to oversee the distribution of food was a practical solution to a practical problem, and it helped ensure that the needs of all the widows in the church were met.
Reading on in Paul's letters we see that this solution was not just limited to the Jerusalem church and these first seven deacons. Paul instructs local churches to be led by elders and to have the added help and benefit of deacons.
In 1 Timothy 3, a passage we already looked at, we see that Paul is giving instructions to Timothy, a young pastor who was leading the church in Ephesus. Paul lays out for him a series of qualifications for those who would serve as deacons, emphasizing that they must be men of good character and reputation, who are faithful and sincere in their faith. These qualifications include being: dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain, holding the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience, having been proven, the husband of one wife, and managing their children and their own households well.
These qualifications are important because the deacons serve in a position of leadership and responsibility within the church. Although they do not have the same leadership and teaching responsibility that elders do, they are nevertheless required to meet a similar high bar of character qualifications. Evidently the Lord is not just concerned with getting tasks done in the church by those with the skills to do so; character matters. And so it is that we follow the wisdom of God in selecting deacons who are qualified and trustworthy and faithful. With the help of such deacons the church is able to function more effectively and efficiently in carrying out the great commission.
As the elders select deacons, it is important to uphold all of these qualifications. We do not want to simply fill a role, we want to appoint men who are qualified and gifted for this service. We especially want to follow the wisdom of v. 10: "And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless." It is important to take the time and effort and test and evaluate potential deacons before appointing them to serve in the church.
So to sum this up: the role of elders is to provide spiritual leadership and oversight for the church. This involves preaching and teaching, providing pastoral care and guidance, and making decisions on behalf of the church. The qualifications for elders, as outlined in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3, emphasize his character, spiritual maturity, and his ability to teach and lead others. Deacons, on the other hand, are responsible for serving the practical needs of the church. This could involve things like distributing food and resources to those in need, managing the church's finances, and organizing and managing various ministries and programs. The qualifications for deacons, as outlined in 1 Timothy 3, emphasize his character, reliability, and ability to manage his own household. While elders and deacons have different roles and responsibilities, you can see how they are both important offices in the church and how they are complementary.
So as we grow as a church, this becomes a key area to focus on. We have elders already, but now it is time to seek out and to appoint qualified deacons. We hope to see our church blessed and built up by filling this biblical office in our local church. And we trust that in this God will be glorified as we seek to obey His word and grow His way. Let these words from Ephesians be our prayer, that we would, grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love (Ephesians 4:15-16).
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