A Servant of Servants
Note: To properly understand the position of the writer please read the author's message "To The Reader".
The church of Christ, also called the church of the apostles, was never meant to be big and ostentatious especially when we think of its smallest component, the local assembly. It was meant to be a small, intimate family, one that could be found in every neighborhood around the world. It was never intended to accommodate hundreds or thousands under one roof but rather small groups resembling families, numbering on average, between seven and fourteen adults, depending on the size of the home being occupied. Each church was filled with saved and sanctified disciples not curious believers or unbelievers coming to be entertained. It is in this small, intimate, family type, atmosphere that we find Christ. In this atmosphere, the Spirit of God may flow freely between each of the family members. In a little church of seven to fourteen adult members, you’d likely find one or two elders in partnership with one or two deacons, hopefully at least one of the deacons would be female. You can see how, with just two elders and two deacons, in a church of seven adults, the personal attention given to each member could almost be one on one. Each elder would be busy spiritually equipping each member, developing their spiritual gifts for the work of the ministry. The deacons are charged with the responsibility of caring for the day to day, practical, physical needs of each member, making certain that each has sufficient food, clothing, housing, income and medical attention not to mention various other practical needs. The roll of deacon has been so twisted, perverted and forgotten that in most churches this office no longer resembles what it was originally intended to be.
27 Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.
14 What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?
15 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,
16 And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?
We don’t make deacons, God does. We merely learn to recognize them. In Acts 6:3, the apostles told the brethren to seek out seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom. This clearly tells us that these men were not in training to achieve these things, they were men who were already among them, men who already possessed these attributes. All that had to be done at this point was to recognize them, call them forward and seek their help. The same holds true for the church today. Deacons don’t need a paper of ordination any more than a pastor does. Missionaries and evangelists don’t need them either and I think a true prophet would be offended if we even suggested such a thing.
We, as church leaders, cannot arbitrarily select a specific number of deacons from among the brethren but rather, we must know in advance how many of the brethren already qualify as deacons. If we find only two, then that’s all we have. Next month or next year, we might have less or more. What is that to us? It is God who gives them to us. It is for us to recognize and use them when He does.
The Word Deacon
The word deacon in Greek is “diakoneo” and means to attend or minister to. It also means to procure goods and services by retrieving them as one sent on errands of importance. The office of deacon was given birth in chapter six of Acts when a dispute arose between the Helenist and Hebrew widows concerned about favoritism in the distribution of daily food. The apostles made it clear at this time, that they would continue to wait upon the Lord, giving themselves to the word of God and prayer but gave direction to seek out trustworthy men of good report, filled with the Holy Spirit, to oversee the daily distribution of food. Through this, we discover a number of things. We discover the deacons were chosen to bring about peace and end disputes. We find that they were supplied to make certain that each of those in need received their fair portion. We learn that each of those selected were picked from among trustworthy men, men who were well thought of, who were filled with the Holy Spirit. We also learn that initially, they were exclusively male. It might well have been assumed that this was a temporary position designed to deal with a temporary issue but we discover later that it was God’s intent to add this office to the church as a permanent position. Those who first occupied this office brought honor to it. Men like Stephen, the first Christian martyr and Philip who later became an evangelist. There were others also like Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, who according to tradition, was martyred at Philippi, and Nicholas from Antioch; all in all, seven were chosen.
A Unique Office
It is obvious that this church office had one dimension that the others, i.e. apostles, prophets, evangelists, teachers and pastors, didn’t have. The roles of the other offices had duties that, for the most part, remained unchanged. The volume of their ministry might grow or shrink but its scope, its parameters, remained the same. Not so with the office of deacon. The deacon’s office entails an expanding range of ministerial assistance, one that remains flexible enough to adjust to the times in which these deacons serve. As stated previously, those originally chosen to carry out the duties of the deacon were men but females were later included as we note in Romans 16:1, 2 where we find Phoebe serving in this capacity. The very word, “deacon” can be understood as meaning “servant” and women, have long distinguished themselves, in this capacity.
1 I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea:
2 That ye receive her in the Lord, as becometh saints, and that ye assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of you: for she hath been a succourer of many, and of myself also.
Some might argue that Phoebe did not hold the office of deacon because she was not a man. Paul was simply using the term to describe what she was doing, i.e. serving, not referring to her holding an office. The argument might come from Paul’s list of qualifications of deacons in 1Timothy 3:12, “A deacon must be the husband of one wife.” It is difficult for a "woman" to be the "husband" of one wife. It would be unthinkable in almost any society, whether ancient or modern, for a woman to have more than one husband. It is a common practice in many nations, both ancient and modern, for a man to have more than one wife; nations in the Middle East practice polygamy, some nations in Africa still practice polygamy and I’m sure there are other nations in this world that still continue this practice. Because of this, it is only fitting that a Middle Eastern nation accustomed to this practice guard against it when setting the requirements for a deacon and thus, would address the message to men rather than women. This would explain why this message is written the way it is in 1 Timothy, chapter three. We should realize that most things in scripture are stated in the masculine when they apply to Christians in general.
When we deal with the subject of Phoebe, we must be careful, remembering that the scriptures, though presented to us by the apostles, are guided by the hand of God through the Holy Spirit and every word has significance. God says what He means and means what He says. Phoebe is called a deacon. In Strong’s Greek, #1249, the word used is “diakonos” and this word is only used in the New Testament when it applies to this spiritual office. The most common word for servant is “doulos” found in Strong’s Greek dictionary, #1401. Women traveled with the disciples offering servant’s duties when Christ conducted His earthly ministry. They opened up their homes, they ministered to Christ, i.e. Mary and Martha, they served the poor (Dorcus), they opened up their homes for the church (Lydia) and of course, they carried out the bidding of the apostles like Phoebe. As this word, in its purest form, means servant, I find nothing unbiblical or out of order when it comes to a woman serving in this capacity.
Let us note that those chosen to be deacons were picked from an exclusive group.
11 But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.
They were picked from among those who already excelled in their walk with the Lord. They were known to be honest and wise. They exhibited and exuded the fruit of the Spirit and in addition to this, they were serious about their service to the Lord. They were not two faced, i.e. men pleasers. They were not known to be prone to intoxication nor were they greedy. They were not hypocrites, their private lives were consistent with their public ones and they were not new to Christian service but rather had been tested and used previously to perform other services for the church. If they were married men, they were not to have more than one wife and they were to be recognized as having their families in loving subjection.
It might be well to note that the qualifications for a deacon are the exact same as those for an elder with one exception. The deacon does not necessarily have to have a gift for teaching. Deacons therefore, had changed from being exclusively male to now being both male and female. They had changed from being a temporary assignment to a permanent position. They had changed from supervising the distribution of food to being sent on important errands but the one thing that remained consistent was the main purpose for which the deacon existed. The deacon existed, as a servant, to care for the physical needs of the church family he or she served. None of the other roles like apostles, prophets, evangelists or pastors evolved. The parameters for each of these was established in the beginning but the office of deacon, unlike the others, evolved to meet the growing needs of a church facing ever increasing physical challenges and it continues to evolve today.
The position of the deacon cannot be emphasized or appreciated enough. This office plays a key role in the success or failure of any true church. To the shame of today’s church, Satan has been successful in reducing this position to relative obscurity. He has twisted it into something it was never intended to be. In some churches today, we find deacons functioning as elders, a responsibility never given them while in other churches, they more closely resemble the ushers in a theater who seat patrons and pass out programs as the audience waits in anticipation for the curtain to go up and the holy show to begin. It is a disgrace to the church that we have allowed such a precious and needed position, as that of deacon, to be treated with such disrespect and indifference.
In A Changing World
In a changing world with changing times, God has given us a servant equipped to meet our ever changing needs. Are today’s deacons doing this? How many deacons today serve the physical needs of the brethren? The fact is, many churches have done away with the office completely, robbing the poor and needy of their chief caretaker within the church assembly.
31 He that oppresseth the poor reproacheth his Maker: but he that honoureth him hath mercy on the poor.
The Deacon’s Book
The most important book in the life of any Christian should be the bible, God’s word, and this holds true for deacons as well. I would suggest, if I may take this liberty, that the deacon maintain another book, a little book in which the deacon records the various sources God has provided to lessen the burdens and ease the suffering of those who worship with Him in His spiritual family. This deacon’s book should be a resource book listing dental and healthcare facilities which offer services free or at a greatly reduced rate. The deacon’s book should always be considered the property of the church and not of the deacon. It should note employers who favor the hiring of Christians. It should list locations where food and clothes may be obtained for little or nothing. God has placed in our midst those who have resources to meet our most basic, physical needs but it is up to us to find them. Food stores often discard products which are still useable and if a church can find room in the house of one of its members, it can begin to develop its own food or clothing bank. Members of the church can bring various food items to the food bank to help build its inventory.
Often there are missionary groups or Christian church groups in our region who make such services available. We should know who they are, where they are and how they operate. Employers look for employees that can be trusted. Who better to trust than a proven, dedicated Christian? As a church, we need deacons to represent us, to speak on our behalf to employers and to make arrangements with other service agencies to supply those things we most need.
1 John 3:17
17 But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?
Each member of the church that is able to work should work; of course, when possible, women with young children should remain at home with them. Single parents with children should be given a chance to work and the elderly, who desperately need financial help, can often be used to care for the children of single parents in return for some financial assistance. Deacons should look for opportunities to place two single mothers together or two single fathers together to share expenses. Godly older men can be used to visit and mentor young male children; older godly women can do the same for young girls needing guidance. All of this can be accomplished through the intervention of the deacon. Female deacons should counsel females when such godly counseling is required. Male deacons or elders should counsel males only, so as not to fall into temptation. When marriages are troubled, a well established married deacon or elder, accompanied by their wife, should seek, through counseling, to restore the marriage with godly wisdom. Likewise, parents who are having trouble with parenting skills or children having problems with learning skills should be able to turn to their deacon or deacons for godly alternatives. Any among us who are mentally or physically disabled, should be able to seek help through sources developed by deacons.
34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:
42 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:
43 I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.
44 Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?
45 Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.
What About The Future?
If elders, as instructed, give themselves to the word of God and prayer, then who will look to the basic material needs of the brethren? Who will bring the care and comfort they need in their daily lives? Who looks in on the widow or orphans to see if their needs are met? Who makes sure that the poor of our church family have enough food to eat? Who assists the unemployed to find jobs or the sick or injured to receive medical attention? Who will visit the infirmed or imprisoned offering comfort and keeping them from falling into despair? Who is making certain that each church member has a place to live or those in domestic turmoil find godly counsel? When the elderly are no longer able to work, who will find value in their lives? When a young woman is left alone with children, who will make it possible for her and her children to survive? The deacon may give new meaning to the life of an elderly sister, enabling her to earn a small income by arranging for her to provide day care for a working mother. A single working mother may be helped, indeed rescued from loneliness, by sharing her home or apartment with another single mother who has been found and matched with her by a deacon. A day care center, staffed by elderly, can provide a service to the community and jobs for elderly women. Elderly men can provide a volume of auto maintenance or handyman services for members of the community who are willing to pay them.
The only thing that can limit the ways in which a deacon can serve is lack of imagination. If a church begins a food bank, it should always maintain a level designed to meet the needs of its own church family first. When it has excess, then the excess should be shared with the poor of the community it serves. We see the deacon nature of Christ described in Psalm 23.
1 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
We might well consider the work of the elder as imitating the ministry of Christ, the ministry of “the word”. If this is so, we might consider the work of the deacon as imitating the ministry of the Holy Spirit bringing comfort, healing, compassion and provision to the church of Jesus Christ. If we intend to restore the church of the apostles, the New Testament church of Christ, then we must also restore that important labor of love found in the responsibility and life of the deacon.
Communication And The Work Of The Ministry
The computer has provided a tremendous ability to send modern epistles to each other by e-mail. This avenue of Christian correspondence should not go unnoticed or unused. Each house church should maintain faithful contact with local, national and international assemblies.
Small, portable recording machines have made it possible to exchange newly composed church music, music that should be sharing with others. The best of it will survive, as it should, and the rest will fade away. Can you imagine your home assembly singing new hymns written in Ghana, Nigeria or India?
Being faithful to answer each and every valid email received from a Christian source has in itself become a ministry for one of our most faithful church members. She loves the friends and contacts she’s made around the country and around the world. She makes it her mission to answer each within three days, never letting any pass unanswered.
Another female member of our assembly has made it her mission to document and store all new original music in our computer files. She further makes it her responsibility to publish it so that we, as a church, can share in its melody, message and spirit.
There are those within our church assembly that are gifted in playing a musical instrument and there are those who would like to learn. This too provides a ready-made ministry for those who enjoy sharing what God has given them. Those willing to share should make it a point to pass on whatever training they can and schedule an appropriate time to provide these lessons to others.
Those on our active e-mail list of sister assemblies we think of as our family circle, even though, in this life, we may never meet. Those individuals who remain faithful to this ministry are true knights of the Lord’s table. If an assembly fails to reply, we don’t give up on them, we continue to write until we’re convinced they no longer care to communicate.
Sitting among us are brethren gifted in music. Sitting among us are composers, poets and artists. There are singers and writers, teachers and counselors waiting to be released into ministry. We have needs for all such gifts. We need a continuous flow of short stories for children and young adults. We need parables to illustrate biblical truths and poetry designed to tell a story or inspire those who hear it. We need artists who can draw or paint, illustrating the stories that others have written or telling a complete story on canvas, a story without words. We need new music with messages of praise, commitment and adoration.
Some will say, I am neither story writer, painter or poet, what can I do? Perhaps you’re better at telling a story than writing it or perhaps you’re simply able to clip news articles, stories or parables that others have written. Perhaps you can share those fragments or pass them on for others to share. Gather up the fragments.
It should be understood that within any single assembly, the gifts, talents and skills within, are to be shared freely among those who have need, those unable to provide them for themselves. In this way, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, auto mechanics, computer techs and many others are brought into ministry as well as those who can provide professional skills like doctors, nurses, lawyers, etc.
We need those who can expand the Deacon’s book by providing additional viable resources that can be utilized in the service of our fellow brethren (see chapter 20 of “Sound Doctrine”, i.e. “The Servant of Servants”, paragraphs [20.13] through [20.16]).
Some needs are gender specific and require qualified men or women to fill them. Older men should be called upon, if qualified, to teach or counsel other men in areas of marriage, financial management, adolescent behavior, addiction and sexual containment.
Likewise, the older women who are qualified should be encouraged to teach or counsel younger women in the caring of children, homemaking, financial management, marriage, addiction and proper sexual behavior. Older women should encourage other qualified adult women to teach God’s word to women and adolescent girls. Those with a special ability to relate and teach young children should be mentored and equipped to meet the spiritual needs of these little ones. The unity, love, power and miracles of the New Testament church are waiting for us. All we need to receive them is to return to the simple, loving New Testament church of the apostles. The only question that remains is, are we willing to make the trip (Romans 11:29)?