The Office of Deacon
We are reminded in the office of deacon that Christ continues to manifest his compassion and mercy for the weak and needy among us. As we contemplate the love of Jesus for the poor, let us briefly reflect upon the origin of the diaconate, the model deacon, the perimeter of diaconal ministry, and the ultimate basis of the diaconal office.
The Roots of the Diaconate
Even before men were set apart in order to 'serve (literally, deacon) tables' (Acts 6:2), the early church in Jerusalem was already engaged in the work of intense diaconal ministry. There was 'the daily serving of food' in behalf of the needy widows (Acts 6:1). A glitch, however, developed in the administration of this ministry in that the Greek-speaking widows were overlooked in the daily serving. The apostles, who were already overloaded in terms of their work schedule, recognized the need for additional workers. Under their general oversight the congregation selected 'seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom' (Acts 6:3) so that the apostolic preachers would not be distracted from their central task of prayer and of preaching the Word of God (Acts 6:2, 4).
The account of Luke regarding the establishment of deacons for the church has two vital lessons. First we are instructed concerning the blessing that good order can bring. This wise division of labour with the apostles giving themselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word and the deacons committing themselves to the service of tables – had a most beneficial effect: 'The word of God kept spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem' (Acts 6:7).
We are warned, secondly, that mere possession of an ecclesiastical office does not bring salvation to an individual. This lesson had already been made clear in the example of Judas Iscariot. Possession of the apostolic office did not save his soul. In Acts 6:5, in the reference to 'Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch', we are taught the same fundamental lesson once again. Although elected to the high office of deacon by the church in Jerusalem under the watchful eye of the apostles, church history teaches us that Nicolas became an apostate. The church father Hippolytus stated that he 'departed from correct doctrine, and was in the habit of inculcating indifferency of ... life' (The Refutation of All Heresies, xxiv). Calvin declared that 'he was the author of a filthy and wicked sect; forasmuch as he would have women to be common' (Commentary upon the Acts of the Apostles). May we never forget that the necessity of holiness – the 'sanctification without which no one will see the Lord' (Heb. 12:14) – applies not only to the congregation, but to officers in the church.
The Pattern of the Diaconate
The occasion in which Jesus called attention to himself as the supreme model of diaconal activity related to a request from the mother of James and John: 'Command that in your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit one on your right and one on your left' (Matt. 20:21). Jesus responded to the longings of a Christian mother for the honour of her sons by informing both mother and sons that it was not given to him to make a decision regarding the delegation of such an honour in the coming kingdom. This was the prerogative of the Father. Meanwhile, the other ten apostles became quite angry at the temerity of such a request (Matt. 20:24). Why should they be excluded from such prominence? Their pride – the root cause of their anger – was clearly wounded.
In response to this indignation Jesus drew a contrast between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world. There is a sharp distinction between the way of the world and that of the church. The great men of the world 'lord it down' and 'exercise authority down' upon their subjects (a literal rendering of Matt. 20:25). Political authority over time ever tends to degenerate into tyranny; nevertheless the man who crushes others beneath him is forever remembered. Every Ivan the Terrible finds a place in the history books. True, the faults of the tyrant are recounted, but so are his achievements. Thus in one sense even the tyrant becomes a great man.
Greatness in the kingdom of God is completely different. 'Whosoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant' (Matt. 20:26; literally 'deacon', from diakonos). Even stronger yet, 'Whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave' (Matt. 20:27; from doulos). The supreme model of such greatness is the Messianic king himself: 'Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many' (Matt. 20:28); the idea being, The Son of Man did not come to be served diaconally, but to serve as a deacon.
The Anointed King did not lord it down upon his kingdom. His authority was not exercised down upon his citizens. The lordship of King Jesus entailed service. He is the King who went to the cross on behalf of his people (Matt. 2.7:37). Carl Trueman has rightly stated that in Christ we are given 'a whole new understanding of Christian authority' ('Luther's Theology of the Cross,' New Horizons, Oct. 2005). We may even apply these principles to the office of elder. 'Elders', Trueman writes, 'are not to be those renowned for throwing their weight around, for badgering others, and for using their position or wealth or credentials to enforce their own opinions.' Instead, 'the truly Christian elder is the one who devotes his whole life to the painful, inconvenient, and humiliating service of others, for in so doing he demonstrates Christlike authority' (ibid.).
The Scope of the Diaconal Ministry
Misery and suffering are widespread. No city or village is free from need. Yet the resources of the church are limited. Is there a central biblical principle that may guide deacons in their administration of the mercy of Jesus? The teaching of Galatians is helpful at this point. In what may have been his first epistle, Paul makes his case that we as believers in Christ are to serve one another in love (Gal. 5:13) and to 'bear one another's burdens, and thereby fulfil the law of Christ' (Gal. 6:2). Practically speaking, this means that 'while we have opportunity' we are to 'do good to all people', but, 'especially to those who are of the household of the faith' (Gal. 6:10). This principle would indicate that deacons should not rule out the practice from time to time of a more general and widespread benevolence, but they should be especially committed to the priority of special benevolence. An example of this is seen in the practice of the church in Antioch. A collection was taken by the Antioch congregation 'for the relief of the brethren living in Judea', not for all the poor indiscriminately (Acts 11:29).
The Foundation of the Diaconate
In fulfilment of the Messianic expectation of the prophet Isaiah, the apostle Matthew reports the testimony of Jesus that through himself 'the poor have the gospel preached to them' (Matt. 11:5). Why does God so often see to it that the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed to the poor? James the brother of Jesus answers in a rhetorical question that contextually demands an affirmative response: 'Did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he promised to those who love him?' (James 2:5). We need deacons ultimately because of the pattern of God in redemption: 'God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that he may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God' (1 Cor. 1:27-29). In the office of deacon, we who are the foolish, the weak, the base, and the despised receive mercy and help from the hand of our risen Lord.