While I won’t be discussing the rise of the office of deacon in Acts 6 in the sermon, I thought it would be helpful to use this reflection to think through this on-going office of the church. And so, considering Acts 6 as the text that gives rise to the office of deacon, let’s reflect on why this office was necessary.
And the best place to begin is the beginning. In the beginning, God made the body of Adam out of the ground, and Eve from the body of Adam, as the children’s catechism puts it. That is to say, part of God’s very good creation was the material aspect of our being. But the children’s catechism then goes on: What did God give Adam and Eve besides bodies? He gave them souls that can never die. That is to say, we also have a spiritual aspect to our being.
Taking these two ideas together, you and I are both spiritual and material people. We are bodies and souls, both of which are very good in the estimation of our Creator, and both of which are essential. Consequently, it should be no surprise to us that God would call and equip officers who have authority within the church to serve both spiritual and material needs.
Up to this point in the book of Acts, the apostles have been serving in both capacities. The voluntary and sacrificial offerings of people like Barnabas had been laid at the apostles’ feet for distribution to those who had need. But the growing size and complexity of the church had become an opportunity for disorder to creep in and cause trouble. Wisely, the apostles recognized two things: the importance of material service and their own limitations. Out of this recognition, the first deacons were chosen and set apart for service alongside the apostles (who in this regard were acting as elders of the early church). This development then allowed the apostles to devote their time and energy to the ministry of Word and prayer knowing that the ministry of mercy would not be neglected.
As we think about the development of the office of deacon as well as its use in the church today, we need to see first that division of labor in the church is not a bad thing. In fact, the rise of the office of deacon is an acknowledgement that the Holy Spirit gifts variously and according to his will. Just as some are gifted by God to lead in spiritual matters, so also God gifts others to lead in material matters.
This division of labor reminds us that no one man can be everything to the church; it also quietly warns us to be cautious when a church has not acknowledged this leadership position. Though it is right for the elders to temporarily lead in materials matters, it is not right for both spiritual and material leadership to be under one office. In the end, either mercy ministry or the ministry of Word and prayer—or both—will be hindered.
This is why the apostles presented the matter in Acts 6 as an either/or option. Either they wade into material matters of leadership and “give up preaching” (Acts 6:2) or they rightfully acknowledge the Spirit’s gifting of others who can be appointed to this important duty (Acts 6:3). Now, this doesn’t mean that the apostles stopped attending to the material needs of the church. It simply means that the deacons, rather than the apostles, had the leadership responsibility to encourage and promote the supplying of material needs.
Second, the office of deacon is a constant witness to the importance of our material needs. We are usually good at emphasizing the importance of our spiritual needs, but not usually our material needs. And yet, such a deemphasis of the material at the expense of the spiritual, unintended or not, has the potential to deemphasize the comprehensive nature of Christ’s work of salvation and to undervalue material needs. This should not be so, for Christ saved us body and soul from God’s wrath. Just as we have spiritual benefits through our union with Christ, so also Christ’s saving work has made a difference in the material realm.
Our deacons serve as witnesses that God cares about our bodies as much as our souls; he cares enough to have called and equipped men to lead in matters of material need. Would that the Spirit gift and call more men to lead in this important area; would that more men heed the call and serve Christ’s church as deacons.