Both elders and deacons are servants.
They are servant leaders.
They have that in common. The difference comes down to where exactly God’s called them to FOCUS when it comes to serving and leading the church.
With elders, their focus is more on the spiritual needs of the church. Where deacons, looking at just the word itself, their focus is more on the earthly or physical needs of the people in the church.
In a sense, they serve the elders, by helping lead the church in very practical an urgent matters, thus, enabling the elders to maintain their focus on teaching God’s Word.
To show you that let me turn with you to Acts 6.
And answer a second question: why do we need deacons?
Now, I have to say, that this passage is a little controversial.
For one thing, Acts is telling the story of the early church, and obviously not everything that happens in the book of Acts we are supposed to imitate. You can’t just say, if it happened in Acts, we are supposed to do it. But for another, while this passage uses the word deacon, this is pretty early on in the life of the church, the church is just getting started, and so it may not be, that the men we are about to read about here, were officially deacons.
But, even with that said. I think this passage is an important passage for understanding the work of a deacon, one, because, there’s really nowhere else to go in Scripture.
I don’t think Jesus is going to give leaders to the church without a role.
He’s not just going to say have elders and deacons. And elders, we know what they are supposed to do, but deacons are just a title. That doesn’t make sense. They have a role. And if they have a role, Jesus is going to reveal what that role is. Obviously. He has to. It’s his church. And there’s nowhere we can go besides the Scripture to find out, what Jesus has to say about, what a deacon is do, and there’s nowhere else in Scripture, where, their role is really illustrated as clearly, as it is in Acts, chapter 6.
In fact, I think the reason Paul didn’t have to give much explanation as to what a deacon was supposed to do, was because, what happened back here in Acts, was such a huge PARADIGM forming moment in the life of the early church. And one thing it shows us first, broadly or generally is why we need deacons.
“Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose.”
And Hellenists were Jewish people who only spoke Greek, and culturally, were more like Greeks, and here of course, they are believers, and part of the church, and yet they are complaining.
“Against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.”
And we are going to talk about that problem, more specifically, in a moment, but for now, I just want you to notice that it’s a problem, and so verse 2 tells us, “The twelve summoned the full number of the disciples.”
And the twelve are the apostles.
And here they are functioning in a role like elders of the church.
Not every elder now and days is an apostle. In fact, no elder now and days is an apostle in the technical sense. But, back in the early church, the apostles had two roles. They were apostles, which was its own role, and they were also elders, and here they are functioning more like elders in the early church, and they call the church together, and they say.
“It is not right that we should give up the preaching of the Word to serve tables. Therefore brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word.”
And again, we are going to talk about this more specifically in a moment, but for now I am just wanting you to see that broadly, what’s happening here, is that the church got started, and all they had in terms of leadership were apostles, who were functioning like elders, and at that point, everything was falling on them, in terms of leadership responsibilities, and that was just impossible, even for these really supernaturally gifted men, and so because they didn’t want to fail in their most important responsibilities, the responsibilities they were primarily given, the ministry of the Word and prayer, they identified godly men, and they delegated leadership responsibility in those other areas to them.
Which very broadly, I think, is why the church has deacons.
The Word of God and prayer are so important.
Obviously, in the life of the church, there are a million other things, that have to happen, if that church is going to function well, and so God has the church identify godly men to help the elders do their job well, by taking responsibility to lead the church in some other necessary areas.
Let me get a little more specific.
Because this is actually pretty specific here.
There’s a problem.
But it’s a specific kind of problem.
The Hellenists were complaining against the Hebrews because what? Their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.
Which is huge.
That there even was a daily distribution of food for widows, because here the Christian church is just getting started and yet, they are already caring for the physical needs of the suffering people, who were among them, and I want to highlight that, because sometimes we talk about the church as if their only responsibility is to minister to people’s spiritual needs, and their physical needs don’t matter, and that’s just not completely true.
The gospel creates a heart in us for those who are in vulnerable difficult situations like nothing else can do.
Especially when those people.
Are part of Jesus’ church.
Because when someone is suffering physically, they remind us of what we experienced spiritually.
Someone is financially poor.
We were spiritually poor.
And God’s shown us such grace.
And so we want to show that grace to others.
Which is why.
It’s not surprising.
As we look back.
At the early church, they had a passion for helping the poor.
Poor believers, eEspecially.
These widows are one example. They had a daily distribution of food.
So the issue for us as a church is not whether we should care for people’s physical needs and suffering. Of course we should care. Instead, the issue is how. Because you see their physical needs are not the only way they are suffering, and ultimately, whatever physical problems they are facing are not even the most serious kind of suffering they face.
There’s suffering now. And there’s suffering later, which lasts forever.
And so coming back to Acts chapter 6, verse 2, the apostles came up with a plan.
“And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples, and said, it is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.”
Or literally, to deacon.
The apostles are not saying that caring for the physical needs of widows was unimportant, or that they were too important to serve tables, but instead, that serving the physical needs of these widows could distract them from the primary way God had called them to serve, through the preaching of the Word and prayer, and as we look at the elder’s role later in Scripture, overseeing, and shepherding, which is why they made a plan.
Pick out seven men of good repute whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word.
Which I am saying is how I think it’s supposed to work now in the church in terms of elders and deacons.
This specifically is why we need deacons.
The way Jesus loves us is so big.
That He doesn’t only want to take care of us now for a little while, physically, he wants to take care of us forever, spiritually, which is why he gives the church elders, and yet, that doesn’t mean he somehow doesn’t care about those who are hurting physically now, which is why he gave the church deacons.
This is an important balance.
That’s easy for us to get wrong.
Sometimes people and even churches act like all that matters is right now, which is why they don’t care so much about truth, and that’s a tragedy, because our life right now is such a small part of our lives really, and so we need the church to be the church, and point us towards eternity, and proclaim the gospel and make disciples.
We know there’s a heaven and a hell, and so, we would be the most heartless, cold people in the world, if we didn’t do everything to get the gospel out, that’s got to be priority number one.
And yet, at the same time, it’s possible to swing so far in the other direction, that you start speaking like now doesn’t matter to Jesus.
Whenever someone wants to help someone who is hurting, there are churches that are like, you better be careful, we can’t get distracted.
Which can’t be completely right either, because their present suffering does matter to Jesus, because He loves us, and so the question is, and this is important, how do we as a church, help people with the way they are suffering now, without somehow getting all tangled up in the complexities of it, and part of the answer, God enabled the early leaders of the church to come up with, is the role of deacons.
Elders are set apart to help lead the church in terms of the Word. And they help us enjoy Christ’s love. They teach. They counsel. They oversee. And they help us understand what it means to be a church family. And they equip us so we can serve others.
Also, help lead.
But not so much in terms of the Word.
But in terms of service.
Now that we know Christ’s love, they help us show Christ’s love. First, to one another. Then to the world. They help us practically, live out our lives, like a family, and so as we appoint deacons in the church, we are appointing servants who broadly will help the elders by leading the church in some other areas that are not are so Word centered, but also really important, and then specifically by helping us maintain our mission of proclaiming God’s Word, while still caring for people who are hurting and having lots of needs.
Which is so important.
Because obviously the elders are just men.
And we are blessed if we have elders, who are, actually full time. But even still, the elders are limited, in what they are able to do, and it takes a lot of work for them to do their job, and meet with people, and study Scripture, and prepare messages, and oversee the work, and counsel, and yet, there’s more going on in the church’s life, there are practical issues, and financial issues, and crises. There’s picking people up. There are offerings. There are people who get sick. There are people who lose their jobs. There are people who need visited. There are new visitors to the church. And as an elder, you think, if I go after all that, and try to do all that, I am not going to be able to do the studying I need, and that’s true, and yet this other stuff is important, because we are a family, and you are like, how do we do all that, and the way we do all that, we need men who will lead us, in terms of service and those men are deacons.
That’s their job.
They are servant leaders who help us make the gospel we’re proclaiming here look beautiful by freeing up the elders and by leading us in loving sacrificial service.
That’s why we have deacons.