Recently I have been preaching through the book Acts, just in the last few weeks covering the key stories of Stephen and Philip. I’ve had this nagging question in the back of my mind ever since–Have we set the bar too low for deacons?
Technically, Stephen and Philip are never referred to as ‘deacons.’ However, most churches today consider the seven men of Acts 6 chosen to assist the early Apostles with caring for the Hellenistic widows as being the first deacons. Deacons, though, are mentioned in several others places in scripture, such as Philippians, which is addressed to overseers or bishops and deacons, and 1 Timothy 3 which lays out the qualifications for deacons. However, none of these passages gives specific duties for deacons.
Which leaves the church at somewhat of an impasse. The one passage that many consider to be a job description for deacons, Acts 6, never actually calls the men selected ‘deacons’ and only mentions caring for widows. On the other hand, the passages addressing deacons never give job duties. The church has solved the impasse by combining the passages and concluding that deacons are called to assist the elders (overseers) of the church. But what does it really mean to ‘assist?’
In many churches, it means caring for the church building. In other churches, it involves handling the mercy ministry of the church, caring for widows and orphans etc. What continues to nag at me is that Stephen and Philip, the first of the ‘deacons,’ are never recorded as actually caring for widows. Sure, that’s what they are commissioned to do, but Acts 6-8, nearly three whole chapters, is all about Stephen and Philip preaching! Stephen preaches to the Sandhedrin. Philip takes the gospel to the Samaritans first and then to the Cushite Eunuch before heading along the coast to Caesarea. Philip is probably “Philip the Evangelist” mentioned later in Acts. All of which raises the question, “Why don’t we expect our deacons to teach?”
In today’s church, we seem to have structured the offices of the church to be elders who shepherd and deacons who serve. However, the unspoken assumption in many churches is that elders are the teachers and the deacons are the handymen. But is this in keeping with the Biblical evidence? Stephen and Philip were not handymen but incredible evangelists! The fact that these men had to be filled with the Holy Spirit to be chosen and were commissioned through the laying on of hands leads me to think the church is guilty of setting the bar far too low if we only expect our deacons to care for the church building.
While the Bible is not extremely specific about what a deacon is called to do, the modern church needs to carefully consider that God gave the power of the Holy Spirit in a very special way to a specific group of people for a higher calling then just being handymen or only caring for the occasional material need. Should we be allowing and expecting deacons to put their God given gifts in action or are we holding them back from their Biblical task by setting the bar of expectation too low?