Why Deacons Who "Learn on the Fly" are Bound to Have a Crash Landing
You are in the operating theatre, requiring urgent by-pass surgery. You chat to the surgeon, and ask him where he went to medical school – and he answers, as he reaches for his scalpel, “well, I’ve never had any training, I think it is best to ‘learn on the fly’.” Would you sleep peacefully?
It’s time for that family trip which you have planned for years. You’re flying over the Pacific Ocean, when the stewardess announces that the captain is opening up the cockpit for travellers to catch a glimpse of what really happens in an airplane and how the plane flies. As you’re looking around, you ask the pilot about the buttons on the control panel and what they are for, and are surprised to hear the response ... “oh those, I’m not really sure yet, but I’ll find out eventually, shall we press one and find out?” You are a little taken aback, but regaining your composure you ask if the pilot could share some things with your children about what it is that a pilot does. The pilot responds, “well, that is a good question, I don’t really know, but I’ve been told that I will learn on the fly. You better go back to your seats now, I see there is a red light flashing and I should probably find out what it means. Enjoy the flight!” Would you finish your flight with a sense of joy and peace and confidence in your pilot?
No! You would not. In fact, you laugh at the absolute foolishness of such an idea! A surgeon who learns on the fly! Never! A pilot who learns on the fly! Never! And yet, what if I told you that we accept a situation in the church of Jesus Christ which is even more foolish than such a scenario?!
1 Timothy 4:7-8 says “have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.”
In other words, when it comes to training for fields of physical labour, that’s good. It has value and we understand the need for training, whether it’s a rugby match, football game, your career, whatever. You train. You practice. You learn. You prepare. But you know what? The Bible says, THAT training only has temporary value. The Rugby World Cup will come and go. Your career will come and go. But godliness has value for all things and is for this life and the next! And because it endures forever, it requires all the more training, all the more practice, all the more learning, all the more dedication, all the more time. The things of God and godliness last forever and demand training, effort, blood, sweat, and tears. And yet, when it comes to the calling of a deacon, or the calling of an elder for that matter, I have heard more than once someone say, we don’t train, we simply learn on the fly! You would not give yourself to a pilot, to a surgeon who operated on such a philosophy, and make no mistake about it, no child of God will give themselves in trust to you as a deacon, if that is your view of the calling of a deacon. It is a high calling. Higher than a surgeon. Higher than a pilot. Why? Because being a deacon, like godliness, has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come!
Two things I want to do in this essay. First of all, I want to impress upon you the AWESOME PRIVILEGE OF THE CALLING TO BE A DEACON and secondly I want to impress upon you the BIBLICAL PORTRAIT OF THE CHARACTER OF A DEACON.
The awesome privilege of the calling to be a Deacon
To be a Deacon is a CALLING!
The Belgic Confession, Art.31 says this ... “We believe that the ministers of God’s Word, the elders, and the deacons, ought to be chosen to their respective offices by a lawful election by the Church, with calling upon the name of the Lord, and in that order which the Word of God teaches. Therefore every one must take heed not to intrude himself by improper means, but is bound to wait till it shall please God to call him; that he may have testimony of his calling, and be certain and assured that it is of the Lord.” Here, we see, the calling of God to the office of deacon is a calling through the church, but it is a calling of God Himself.
To be called to be a deacon, like a call to be a Christian disciple, begins with God! In speaking to His disciples in John 15:16, Jesus makes clear that He is the One who calls us to discipleship... “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last.” In Acts 6:3, seven men are chosen and then presented to the apostles who pray for them, lay their hands upon them, appointing them to this ministry. Though elected by the church, a deacon is called by God to this service.
This means two things of great importance for us when it comes to the office of deacon in our churches. First of all, no one appoints THEMSELVES a deacon. No one has a born natural right to be a deacon. No one is to “intrude” himself into the office of deacon, or presume he should be, – unless called by God, and to do so would be to rush ahead of God and presume upon God. We wait upon Him, recognizing that our calling may be elsewhere. On the other hand, if God calls you to be a deacon, you can be certain and assured that it is not the congregation’s will, not the session’s will, not simply the fate of the ballot, but you are a deacon because it is of the Lord. As Ephesians 1:11 tells us, the Lord “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of His will.” You are not a deacon by accident. You are not a deacon by default, but in conformity with the purpose of His will. That means that any deacon, or any elder for that matter, who says in his heart or says out loud at a session meeting – I can’t wait to end my term as elder or deacon, is really saying, I can’t wait to be done with this burdensome calling of God upon my life! I wish He hadn’t called me. I wish I could give up serving Christ. I don’t want to serve Him anymore. Such sentiments are a shameful reflection of our lack of understanding of the fact that to be a deacon is a CALLING from God. It is not something we pick up and throw down like a sack of tomatoes.
To be a Deacon is a privilege!
To see our calling as a deacon as a burden rather than as a privilege is to dishonour the God who calls us into the service of Jesus Christ. 2 Corinthians 8:4 is helpful here as the apostle Paul describes the attitude of the folks in the Macedonian churches as they considered the needs of God’s people elsewhere: “they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints.” They pleaded with Paul for the opportunity to give, to serve, to minister, to deacon. They sought this special opportunity! Kind of like people around New Zealand this year in anticipation of the Rugby World Cup. Volunteering to have something to do during the games just so they can be near the players, near the excitement, and people are eager, urgent, looking for the privilege. The opening verse of 1 Timothy 3:1 speaks specifically about elders, but can be applied to deacons as well ... “Here is a trustworthy saying: if anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task.” The biblical picture of the office of elder, the ministry of the word, and the office of deacon, the ministry of service, is one for which men plead to have the opportunity to exercise! We are to have men that set their “heart” on service, and who “desire” this task. In other words, to be a deacon is a privilege we beg for, we have a heart for, and we desire! It is not simply a duty to be borne with for a few years until you can get out...
And why is it a privilege? Colossians 3:22-24 helps us here.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you, and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.
It is the Lord Christ you are serving! Notice, the Bible doesn’t say “pretend it is...” or “imagine that it is...” It says, IT IS the Lord Christ you are serving. And this was to slaves in the Roman Empire! I know brothers, to be a deacon in our churches can have its challenges, but never will it be like slavery in the Roman empire. And if Christian slaves were called to understand the privilege of serving Christ in the Roman Empire, Christian deacons are called to understand the privilege of serving Christ today. Remember those words from Matthew 25:34-40 where Jesus speaks of the sheep and the goats? “Whatever you did ... you did for me.” You did for me! Jesus says. Visiting that widow – for Christ. Bringing that meal – for Christ. Encouraging that church member – for Christ. What a privilege!!!
To be a Deacon is awesome!
There are not many passages of Scripture that deal specifically with the qualifications for deacon, so you would think that we would know them backwards and forwards and that they would inform our understanding and practice of the diaconal ministry. One verse, though, that sometimes is overlooked in many conversations of the diaconate is a crucial verse in 1 Timothy 3:10 which says of the deacon ... “They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.” The word “testing” there means “to evaluate, to put to the test, to examine, to scrutinize.” Now, when we find a “must” in the Bible, I think you would agree that we need to give it full weight and consideration, and that is why, of course, we never ordain a man to the office of deacon in the Reformed Churches of New Zealand until he has first been tested as to his qualifications and gifts for the office and only after such a period of testing, do we actually ordain a man to such an office. OR DO WE?
Now the Bible doesn’t say how long, or in what form, a man should be tested, but listen to what John Calvin says at this point on this verse ... “and this proving process is not for a single hour but consists of a long period of trial. In a word, the appointment of deacons should not be a rash and random choice of any who come to hand, but men who have commended themselves by their past manner of life should be selected, so that as a result of full inquiry they are found to be suitable.”1
Why a period of testing? The same reason you do not ordain a minister who happens to be male and available, but has never studied what it means to be a minister, how to preach and teach the Bible, or minister to God’s people. A man who desires to be a minister must train, be tested, and we don’t just ordain any man with a pulse. Unthinkable you say! Just as unthinkable for a deacon, according to Scripture.
Sometimes, you would get the impression from some churches that the main qualification to be a deacon, or elder, is a willingness to raise your hand. If you are male, alive, and not over the age of 95, you’re in, if you’ll take it ... please?! Brothers, that is a shameful indictment of our view of SERVICE in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is not the man who must decide, “am I willing to serve Jesus Christ as a deacon?” ... It is Jesus Christ who must decide, “is this man qualified to serve in my army!”
He calls men to serve Him whose hearts burn with love and passion for Him. Jesus Christ does not beg men to enlist as servants of the King, He calls them by His sovereign grace, equips them by His Word and Spirit, and gives them a heart that is willing! The calling of a Deacon is AWESOME because it is God who equips us for service. That is an AWESOME calling and one that we dare not take lightly, speak of lightly, prepare for lightly!
Service of God demands the same attitude as the worship of God. Hebrews 12:28 “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire!” We worship in awe of God, we serve in awe of God, we “deacon” in awe of God.
As verse 13 of 1 Timothy 3 says, “Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus.” Serving well as a deacon leads to great assurance of faith! What a calling!
The story is told that when during World War II the Netherlands were occupied by Germans, the deacons of the Reformed Church assumed the care for the politically persecuted, supplying food and providing secret refuge. Realizing what was happening, the Germans decreed that the elective office of deacon should be eliminated. No more deacons! said the Germans. The Reformed Synod on 17 July, 1941 resolved this: “Whoever touches the diaconate interferes with what Christ has ordained as the task of the church ... whoever lays hands on diakonia lays hands on worship!” The Germans apparently backed down.[2
Would you stand up to the Nazi regime to uphold your office!? If John Key said give it up today! Would you head for the door, back in the car, go home, and say thank you, it’s over?! Or is it too AWESOME for you to consider giving up?! Is it that important to you? It will be, if you understand the AWESOME PRIVILEGE OF THE CALLING TO BE A DEACON.
The biblical portrait of the character of a Deacon
To Serve as a Deacon demands a certain character!
Now, it’s interesting to me, that whereas our church order has an article on the ruling elder and the deacon, both articles deal with the “TASK” of the office-bearer, but not the character. “The task of the deacons is; to diligently collect alms and other contributions of charity, to faithfully and diligently distribute the same to the poor as their needs may require after mutual counsel, to visit and comfort the distressed, to encourage the congregation to show Christian mercy to those in need at home and abroad, to render an account to the session.” Now that is all about what the Deacon DOES, but not about who the deacon IS. Article 3 of the church order does mention the “biblical requirements for office-bearers” but does not go on to define them. When we turn to Scripture, we find that the overwhelming qualifications of a deacon are a matter of who a deacon IS – his character.
Take Acts 6 for example.
What is the qualification for deacon in this passage? Well, of course, a deacon has to be young ... a deacon has to be good with numbers ... a deacon has to be good at walking up and down the aisle and be nimble in passing a plate or offering bag, and all those other kinds of things ... NO NO NO! Men who are “FULL OF THE SPIRIT and WISDOM” (Acts 6:3). Stephen, “A MAN FULL OF FAITH and of the HOLY SPIRIT” (Acts 6:5). The deacon is not a spiritual amateur. He is not a spiritual wimp. Sometimes you are given the impression that the elder is supposed to be the spiritual one and the deacon is the practical one ... NO NO NO. Faith filled. Spirit filled. Wisdom filled. Rock Solid Trust in Jesus Christ (Faith filled). Spirit-filled, which means of course, someone who has the fruit of the Spirit hanging all over Him – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Not knowledge filled, wisdom filled – one who applies the knowledge of God in an obedient life.
And when we turn to the classic passage in 1 Timothy 3 which lays out the qualifications of the deacon, again we find that the main emphasis is not on what a deacon DOES, but who a deacon IS! Note especially 1 Timothy 3:9, “keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience.” The word “deep truths” there means “mystery.” It is the same sense that is conveyed by the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:7, 8, 10. The “mystery” is revealed by the Holy Spirit of God to His people. It is the deep things of God, the deep truths of the Christian faith that the Holy Spirit reveals through His Word. It is the truth of God. The deep things. A deacon holds to the deep things of God. The Deacon is not a spiritual dwarf, but a spiritual powerhouse! The Deacon is not compared to the elder here as a novice in spiritual things compared to one mature in the faith. The deacon doesn’t swim in the kiddie pool and the elders in the deep end. On the contrary ... a deacon is to keep hold of the “deep truths” of the faith! And he does so with a clear conscience.
This means that a deacon not only subscribes to the four forms of unity but has read them. Not only has he read them, but he believes them with a clear conscience. Not only does he truly believe them, but He “keeps hold” of them, lives by them. He is not a hypocrite.
Now, interestingly enough, if you compare the list of qualifications of an elder and deacon in this passage, there is a difference, or an emphasis shall we say, with regard to the deacon. It is pointed out in verse 8 that a deacon must be “sincere” – it actually means “not double-tongued.” Imagine that! Gruesome. Talking out of both sides of your mouth. Saying one thing at the session meeting and another thing when you’re visiting widow Vanderhoving-schaffstrabroek. It is especially important, the Bible says, that a deacon’s speech be trustworthy, true, free of deception, that he may have a clear conscience.
According to the form for the ordination of deacons ... “the deacons should set an example of godliness in their personal life, in their home life, and in their relations with their fellow-men. Thus conducting themselves as worthy representatives of Christ’s loving care, and faithfully ministering in His name to those who are the beloved of God.” Clearly the main qualification of a deacon is that he be God’s man not a numbers man!
To Serve as a Deacon demands a faithful portrait!
We see in the very establishment of the New Testament office of Deacon, even though there are deep roots in the Old Testament, we see the very heart of a deacon’s task is SERVANTHOOD. To display to the world, that the church of Jesus Christ, in imitation of its Saviour and Lord, has come not to be served, but to serve. In Acts 6:2 the apostles do not want to neglect the ministry of the Word “in order to wait on tables.” The word to “wait on” comes from the same root word which is translated to “serve” – diakonia. The diaconate is a “waiting on” others ministry – it is, at its heart, all about being a SERVANT.
Now immediately, you are asking yourself the question, why should I get all excited and fired up about a life which and calling which is dedicated to SERVICE? Mark 10:42-45 is, of course, the classic passage which deals with any deacons who may be suffering with a superiority complex in the church. This is the passage that demonstrates the utter antithesis between the principles of the world and the principles of the Kingdom of God. This is the passage that clarifies, for every deacon, your role in the church and in the Kingdom of God and defines for you what your ministry ought to portray to your brothers and sisters in the church and to the world we are called to serve. As Jesus says in Mark 10:44, “whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” Notice: the biblical portrait of a deacon is not one who lords it over the people of God and abuses their office and authority by seeing God’s people as MY servants, but rather the biblical portrait is a man who understands that I am here to serve them. And notice that greatness means being a servant “of all!” All kinds of men? All men – as in every man? In either case, servant without distinction.
Why is that so hard? Because it is difficult to serve, when instead of being appreciated you are criticised.
It’s difficult to serve because it demands time, organising, meetings, visits, reports, time away from family. And to be a servant of all?! Even the worst of people?
And the portrait that is held up to us? That of the Saviour! “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant” (Phil.2:6,7). Deacons are to be faithful portraits (or “likenesses”) of THE DEACON – the Lord Jesus.
The portrait of the deacon is not one of grasping, but of letting go. Not a portrait of a ruler, but a server. Not a portrait of a master, but a portrait of THE SERVANT!
According to our form for the ordination of deacons ... this is your task “the work of the deacons consists in the faithful and diligent ingathering of the offerings which God’s people in gratitude make to their Lord, in the prevention of poverty, in the humble and cheerful distribution of gifts according to the need, and in the relief of the distressed both with kindly deeds and words of consolation and cheer from Scripture.”
The deacon’s role is characterised by humility, mercy and kindness, in imitation of our Master. The Master who said “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11). To serve as a deacon demands a faithful portrait.
To Serve as a Deacon demands a return to the Bible!
We believe grand things about the Bible!
In the Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch.1, pgh.10, this is what we believe ... “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture.”
What is a Deacon? What kind of man ought he to be? What kind of ministry is he to perform? Ever and again, we must return to Scripture for the answer to that question. Do our congregations know the answers to those questions? Are they aware, for instance, that one of the most important qualifications of a deacon is that he be full of the Holy Spirit? Full of wisdom? Are they aware that he must keep hold of the deep truths of the Faith? Do you know that is who you are called to be?
Our definition of deacon must first of all come from God’s Word, not from the culture, not from our history, not from our tradition even, but the Word of God. And when we go to the Bible, we find the AWESOME PRIVILEGE OF THE CALLING TO BE A DEACON and the BIBLICAL PORTRAIT OF THE CHARACTER OF A DEACON. And when we test ourselves against these biblical truths, we pray to God that we would grow in the grace and the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ that we might fulfil such a high and holy calling, and when we find ourselves coming up short, we seek forgiveness, perhaps repent of our low views of service in Christ’s church, pray for a renewed sense of calling, a revival of the work of the Spirit, and look for our faithful God to use us as SERVANTS OF THE KING, that others might see JESUS’ love, Jesus’ mercy, Jesus’ grace, Jesus’ serving heart, through us ... to HIS GLORY and HIS HONOUR.
Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.1 Peter 4:10-11