Freeing Elders For Word and Prayer: The Deacon's Objective
We’ve drawn, so far, two important truths about deacons from the story of the Seven in Acts chapter 6. First, the intent behind having deacons is to foster congregational unity. And second, deacons are appointed to care for the practical needs of the church.
The rapid growth of the very first local church in Jerusalem caused problems, as we saw last week. Unity was fracturing as the needs of some of the poor were not being met. Yet there was a third problem, one that posed an even longer-term threat to the church. That problem was the threat of distraction.
Church unity is a crucial thing and must be carefully nurtured and jealously guarded. And yet, unity is not an end in itself. The fact that, from time to time, members of the church must be disciplined (cf. Matthew 18:15-20) shows that the holiness of the church and her witness to Christ is an even higher consideration than simply “keeping everyone together.” The Apostle John commented about false teachers that “they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19), meaning that one sad fact about life in a fallen world is that sometimes unity with members of the church who fail to uphold the truth must be broken. The story of the Tower of Babel illustrates the grave consequences of unity that is not centred around advancing God’s glory (Gen. 11:1-9). Furthermore, neither does the care of practical needs take the place of highest value. Jesus warned his followers that “the poor you will always have with you” (Matt. 26:11), but that Jesus Christ himself is more valuable and must take first place. That is the very reason why Paul places limits on the support local churches are to give widows (1 Tim. 5:3-16), not only recognizing that the church has limited resources, but that the care of practical needs must be consistent with the principles of God’s Word.
Both unity and the care of needs are to be pursued not as ends in themselves but as they are consistent with the Word of God. And that Word tells us that the mission of the church is not to create social clubs where anything or everything goes, and that the mission of the church is not to become the world’s relief agency. Rather, the mission of the church is to make disciples (Matt. 28:18-20) through baptism and teaching. It is the Word of God that gathers God’s people, not the church’s unity or services: “And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Rom. 10:14). And when that people gathers, it is around, and for the purpose of hearing, God’s Word: “Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so” (Deut. 4:10). Furthermore, the fact remains that without the work of Jesus himself there would be no church: “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18), underlining the crucial importance of prayer. No wonder Paul tells another local church, “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes. 5:17). The ministry of God’s Word and of prayer, then, is not only utterly indispensable to the local church; this ministry is the only indispensable thing.
We see in Acts 6 that even in the earliest church the temptation to be distracted from this ministry is strong. The apostles put it in blunt terms: “it is not right that we should give up the preaching of the Word of God to serve tables.” Pastors and elders may, from time to time, need to tend to practical matters, but when it begins to threaten the ministry of Word and prayer, it is the responsibility of the congregation to relieve them of that burden, coordinated by recognized deacons. Deacons are to “prevent the tail from wagging the dog,” ensuring that secondary matters in church life do not start affecting the regular preaching and teaching ministry or the devotion of the elders to prayer. This, then, tells us that the objective of deacons is to free elders for the ministry of Word and prayer.