Is the Bar too low?

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?


6 Thoughts.

  1. In Acts 6, the elders say they need deacons so they won’t have to leave “the ministry of the word.” I think this implies “preaching” in the strict sense is reserved for elders. This is the ministry of the keys, the authority to teach the church what God says. “Teaching” more generally is not thus restricted, of course, and there is no reason teaching (or any other activity except preaching, sacraments, and discipline) could not be part of a deacon’s duties. The job of the deacon at the most basic level is to ensure the elders are free for the ministry of the word.

    • Agreed, but I find it noteworthy that all we see Stephen and Phillip doing is “ministry of the word” and that later Phillip is called Phillip the Evangelist. It also seems odd that the Holy Spirit and the laying on of hands would be unnecessary if all that a deacon entailed was giving food to widows. That’s what makes me think that maybe the early expectation of a deacon was more than simply waiting on tables.

      • Being a deacon myself, I can report that the Holy Spirit and the laying on of hands is critical to compassion ministry. You have to make a lot of spiritually difficult decisions.

  2. I fully agree with the necessity of the Holy Spirit for compassion ministry and the need of discernment. The part I’m struggling with is why Luke records three chapters of preaching on the part of those who were to handle compassion. I suppose my real question is whether we have set the bar too low for deacons and we should be expecting actions from deacons like those of Stephen and Phillip, or have we set the bar too low for everyone and we should be expect actions from all believers like those of Stephen and Phillip. Whichever the answer is, todays church seems to expect only Elders to behave like Stephen and Phillip, but they weren’t elders!

    • Your point that we never expect teaching, including public teaching (but not “preaching” in the strict sense, which is the ministry of the keys) from deacons and maybe we should is well taken. But it would also be a mistake to make teaching normative for the office of deacon. Instead, we need to break out of the one-size-fits-all mode of thinking that expects one prototypical “diaconal” role to which all deacons will conform, and open our minds to a much wider variety of diaconal roles. Deacons can take on anything that helps free up elders for the ministry of the word, sacrament and discipline. We should expect variety!

  3. I’m not suggesting that teaching should be a normative duty for the office of deacon. My bigger concern is that we seem to task deacons with many things that require nothing more than a warm body, such as vacuuming or spreading mulch. It seems that while the early deacons handled the distribution of food, they were not tasked with duties like washing camels or making sure the trash got taken out of the city. Instead, they handled compassion as the service arm of the church and assisted the apostles in other duties like teaching. By giving duties to our deacons that any one could do, I would argue that we’ve lowered the standard of what deacons could be doing and encumbered them with distractions from their high calling.

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