The role of deacons is critical to the ministry of the local church. However, for some time it has suffered from a poor image. In reformed circles the office is rightly seen as one of service and helps. But with the growth of church buildings and property, deacons are often viewed more as caretakers of property and less as caretakers of people. I have talked with many deacons in recent years who have confirmed that most of their time is spent on property and repair issues. Alexander Strauch makes this significant comment in his book The New Testament Deacon, “Since the first Christians did not have buildings to maintain, the first deacons were preeminently people helpers and administrators of the church’s charity. They were ministers of mercy.” Which of these two descriptions does the Bible and the Book of Church Order (BCO) teach? Let’s briefly consider this question.
In Luke 22:27 Jesus describes himself as a deacon when He says, “But I am among you as one who serves.” He even demonstrated service in the upper room with the towel and washbasin. His miraculous works were to heal and show mercy to those suffering in body as well as soul. After the resurrection, on the road to Emmaus, His disciples described Jesus with these words, “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people.” He was the perfect example of a Prophet/Servant. His redemption included the whole person and all of creation. What better incentive could deacons have than to realize that the eternal Son of God saw Himself as a deacon in the service of His heavenly Father. Nothing could bring higher esteem to the office.
BCO 9-1 says that the office of deacon is one of sympathy and service. This obviously places the significance of the office in ministry to people. In the introduction to Tim Keller’s Resources for Deacons, George Fuller says, “The office of deacon is a high calling under Jesus Christ. It is not a training ground for elders, although some deacons later become elders. It is not a secondary office; it is not unimportant. It is absolutely critical to the life of the church, in spite of often being ignored.” The last phrase of BCO 9-1 describes the office in these words, “it expresses also the communion of saints, especially in their helping one another in time of need.” This description of the office is in line with the sentiments of The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXVI, 1-2, on the Communion of the Saints. Deacons are called to lead the whole church in mercy ministry.
Within in the PCA, mercy ministry has taken on a rather high profile in the last several years. This has been partly due to several conferences organized by the Committee on Christian Education and Publications. The most recent conference in March 2001 was jointly sponsored by CE/P and Mission to North America. Almost six hundred people attended; only ninety-five were deacons. It seems there needs to be an awakening among pastors and deacons regarding the diaconal role in mercy ministry.
One clear wake-up call comes from BCO 9-2 where the duties of the office are described as follows:
- Minister to those in need, sick, friendless, and any in distress.
- Develop the grace of liberality in members.
- Devise methods of collecting gifts and distribute these gifts among objects to which they were contributed.
- Have care of property, and keep in proper repair.
This list of duties demonstrates again that the primary focus of deacons is ministry to people, and that property takes a secondary place. Whether you believe the seven in Acts 6 were actually the first deacons or were just the prototype of what was to follow, it is clear that they were chosen for ministry-to help the widows.
Finally, BCO 9-7 reads, “It is often expedient that the Session of a church should select and appoint godly men and women of the congregation to assist the deacons in caring for the sick, the widows, the orphans, the prisoners, and others who may be in any distress or need.” Deacons are to be out front, leading and overseeing the work of mercy ministry in the local church. It is a mistake to assign mercy ministry primarily to a team outside the diaconate. This will only reinforce the image of deacons as primarily groundkeepers and building maintenance workers.
James 1:27 says, “Religion that God the Father accepts as pure and faultless is this; to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” The words “to look after” are a good description of the importance of mercy ministry and the role of deacons. Many deacons may need to revisit their call and even be retrained to fulfill the role and responsibilities of that call. This review will help correct the way the congregation sees the office and will encourage the deacons in their ministry. Then they will be able to experience what Paul wrote in I Timothy 3:13, “Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus.”