The office of deacon is one of two ordinary and perpetual offices that are given to the New Testament church. In context of church leadership, deacons are shown to be a part of the team. Paul addresses them specifically along with elders in Philippians 1:1, and gives the qualifications for each office in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. Deacons are called to serve a very important purpose. The church displays its idea of that purpose through how it prioritizes the duties of deacons. Before looking at the most prevalent view of what deacons do in our churches, consider what Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion:
“As to the order of the diaconate, I would raise no dispute, if the office which existed under the apostles, and a purer Church, were restored to its integrity. But what resemblance to it do we see in their (Roman Church) fictitious deacons?”In the same paragraph, regarding the ordination (of deacons) by the bishop, Calvin writes,”But they act just as if one were to say he was ordaining apostles, when he was only appointing persons to kindle the incense, clean the images, sweep the churches, set traps for mice, and put out dogs…After this, let them not pretend that those whom they appoint to mere stage-play are deacons.”
These are indeed stinging words for those who denigrated the office of deacon through the centuries. In the years leading up to the Reformation, the church had strayed far from the teaching of Scripture on the ministry of deacons. How do we view the duties of deacons in our times? We live in a vastly different culture from that of the early church. Today, churches often own large properties and buildings and deacons are delegated the responsibility of their care. In the PCA Book of Church Order, the duties of deacons are spelled out. “They shall have the care of the property of the congregation, both real and personal, and shall keep in proper repair the church edifice and other buildings belonging to the church.” Over the years, I have found that deacons readily admit that this is the duty that occupies most of their time and energy. According to Scripture and Calvin’s comments, this ought not to be.
Alexander Strauch has written a book, Minister of Mercy, The New Testament Deacon in which he writes, “Thus the work of the deacons, the servant-officers of the church, is to oversee people’s practical, material needs. This necessitated the administration of church funds. 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.”(Italics added)
Calvin also addresses what he calls the squandering and diversion of funds by the church from a true diaconal ministry. “I say, that what is employed on the adorning of churches is improperly laid out, if not accompanied with that moderation which the very nature of sacred things prescribes, and which the apostles and other holy fathers prescribed, both by precept and example…Meanwhile, so far are they from taking due care of living temples, that they would allow thousands of the poor to perish sooner than break down the smallest cup or platter to relieve their necessity.”
There is the danger of reducing the office of deacon from what the BOCO says is “spiritual in nature” to one of caretakers of property and buildings. We overburden deacons with upkeep of material structures that require nothing of the qualifications outlined in 1 Timothy 3:8 and Acts 6:3. Consider briefly the description of the office of deacon in BOCO 9-1, “The office is one of sympathy and service.” These descriptive words are relational and people oriented. One definition of “sympathy” is the capacity to enter into and share the feelings of another. It is also a feeling of compassion and pity. The primary ministry of deacons is to people, people, people, not property, property, property. Repeatedly, the Scripture speaks of God’s concern for the poor, for widows, orphans, those who are hungry, in prison, unclothed, and the fatherless. Deacons need to learn the heart of God, and reflect that as they do their work.
The next phrase in the BOCO goes on to say “…after the example of the Lord Jesus.” What a high calling to be commissioned to follow the Lord Jesus Christ’s example. In Mark 10:45, Jesus said, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The Apostle Paul concurred in 2 Corinthians 8:9, “Yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” Jesus was a man of compassion, and he has provided for his compassion to be carried on, through the office of deacons. The disciples on the Emmaus road describe Jesus of Nazareth as “a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people.” The challenge for deacons today is to be known as men who are mighty in deeds of mercy before God and all the people. “For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.” (1 Timothy 3:13)
The very first duty set forth in BOCO 9-2 is that deacons are to minister “to those who are in need, to the sick, to the friendless, and to any who may be in distress.” Each of these categories can be found in every one of our PCA churches. This duty is first in the list, and should be first in priority for every board of deacons. Because this ministry is so vital and large in scope, the Session should study well BOCO 9-7:
“It is 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.” Here is where the spiritual gifts of mercy and giving are practiced in the communion of the saints.
In conclusion, the church should be warned against undermining the office of deacon by establishing separate committees of mercy without the inclusion and oversight of the deacons. This goes against the very nature of the church government as set forth in Scripture. Deacons are assigned the responsibility for mercy ministry. Dr. George Fuller says in the introduction to his book, Resources For Deacons, “They must organize the ministry of mercy. They must become God’s channel for mobilizing the members of his church to minister in the lives of others.” By doing so they will multiply the blessing of God in the lives of multitudes of suffering people. Dr. Fuller also states that “the low estate of the office of deacon today is what we brought upon it, not what God intended.” It behooves the elders of the church to issue a fresh call and challenge to deacons to reclaim their rightful role in the church. Calvin might say this would mean breaking down some traditions in the church and breaking loose more resources for mercy ministry. Only then will the church see deacons acquire a good standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.
As deacons gain vision for mercy ministry and pray for the Holy Spirit to fill them, they will lead the church in showing the mercy and love of Christ, both in the Body and in the community.
Minister of Mercy The New Testament Deacon, Alexander Strauch
Resources for Deacons, Tim Keller
Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin, Book IV
The Handbook for Deacons, Gerard Berghoef & Lester DeKoster
Book of Church Order, Chapter Nine
Ministries of Mercy, Tim Keller
Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXVI