Second Scripture Reading June 17, 2018
Philippians 1.1 and I Timothy. 3.8-13
The Choosing of the Deacons
by Rev. Bill Jennings
Introduction: As we continue in the series of sermons about Christ’s Church as recorded in the Book of Acts, today we come upon the chapter in the life of that church, still in its infancy, and facing one of its first challenges that has repercussions in our own church down to this very day in Murphy, N.C.
This challenge was a good problem to have: such rapid growth of the early church resulted in that some of the many new members were getting neglected in the daily distribution of food in their frequent fellowship meals together. So, the task before us today is to learn from the Early Church a lesson in “Problem Solving”, the choosing of the Deacons.
First of all, who were these neglected people? Acts 6 tells us that they were widows, but a certain group of widows, that Luke calls “Greek-speaking Jews”. They spoke a different language than the majority of Jews in Jerusalem, who spoke Aramaic, and were accustomed to Greek and Roman ways in contrast to the native Jews of Jerusalem who dominated the life and worship of the Early Church. So it was only natural that there was a potential for their neglect in their fellowship meals.
Fortunately, the Apostles, who were the natural leaders of the Jerusalem Church, moved quickly to resolve the problem. Their wisdom is shown in the criteria used in the choice of people to do the job, and how they did it. First of all, they recognized that the rapidly growing church needed a division of labor between the Apostles and those serving the physical needs of all the brothers and sisters of their new fellowship. That fellowship had to learn how to share the load of ministry, recognizing that both tasks, the feeding of the believers as well as the preaching of the Gospel were equally valid.
Then, the next step showing their wisdom was in giving the choice of these individuals to the congregation as a whole! The Congregation had a key voice in this process! What were their names? Stephen, Philip, Procorus, Niconor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas, a Gentile convert from Antioch. What is so important about these names? They are all Greek names, indicating that these seven men were born into the Greek culture that surrounded Israel, just like the neglected widows! Some of them may have been in Jerusalem for the occasion of Pentecost. Later on in the history of the Early Church, there arose conflict between believers who came from a strictly Jewish culture and those who came from Greek culture. The Early Church had the wisdom to eliminate that possibility in choosing these seven Greek-speaking Jews.
However, there was another requirement that the Apostles insisted upon: These seven men must be filled with the Holy Spirit! Every one of these Apostles knew what that meant. Jesus had made sure that they understood that, and beyond that, when he was about to leave their company, he said, that although he was leaving them, they would not be “orphans”, but that the Spirit of Truth, the Spirit of Encouragement would be with them and remind them of all the teaching that Jesus had given to them during the days of Jesus’ flesh…including the following teaching we find in the Gospels of Mark and Luke:
“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you, must be your servant, (Διακοονος) and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10.42-45).
And when it came to serving tables for others…..
“For who is greater, one who reclines at table, or the one
who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But
I am among you as the one who serves (Διακονων)”. (Luke 22.27).
Now the Apostles may have forgotten some of the teachings of Jesus, but they would never have forgotten the example of Jesus washing their feet – the job of a common servant, saying: “If you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” In a nut-shell, what registered in the memories of the Apostles, who set the criterion for the choosing of deacons, after all was said and done – Jesus himself is the absolute and final role model for what it means to be a Deacon!
So, the Apostles set the criterion of being filled with the Holy Spirit, and the congregation responded with their choice.
Now, between Acts 6 and I Timothy 3, a lot went on in the life of the Early Church (perhaps 30 years). First of all, both Stephen and Philip showed other gifts beyond serving tables, Stephen as a defender of the faith in a matter of days after being ordained into what we now call the office of Deacon. Also, Philip exercised his gift of evangelist, reaching out to evangelize in Samaria to the north of Jerusalem, and then to the south on the road to Gaza, reaching out to the Ethiopian servant of the Queen Candice. Finally, he returned north to the great Roman city and seaport Caesarea on the Mediterranean Sea, where he raised four (!) daughters who prophesied in the Early Church (Acts 21.4).
As the early church grew in numbers and expanded geographically, some congregations set up boards of Deacons, like the one at Philippi so that Paul, when he wrote his letter to that church, he addressed it:
“to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi with all the “overseers” and “deacons”.
Now, when we come to the first Letter of Paul to his companion Timothy, we need to try to discern as accurately as possible the date of the letter, to help us understand how much time elapsed between Acts, Chapter 6, and Paul’s first letter to Timothy. Scholars seem to date this letter to approximately somewhere between the years 62 and 64 A.D. which means that about 30 years transpired between Acts 6 and I Timothy 3. And what we find in I Tim. 3.8-13 a fairly well-developed teaching about what qualifications Deacons should have, and how they should live.
First of all, they should not be “double-tongued”, or “deceitful in their speech” [MSG], or as we say, “people of their word”, that is people of integrity. Then, again, along the same line, they should not be “greedy for dishonest gain” This indicates that they could be trusted with the finances of the church. And also not “addicted to much wine.” That means that the Deacon’s life-style should not impair his/her good judgment. These requirements have to do with the general life-style of the candidates for the office of Deacon. Next, we find a requirement about the Deacons’ clear understanding of the Content of the Faith, or the “Mystery of the Faith”, so that they can walk the walk as well as talk the talk, with a “clear conscience.”
Then, we find the responsibility of the Congregation that will finally have their voice in making sure that the candidates for the office of Deacon have proven themselves to be worthy of this calling. The choosing of Elders and Deacons in any Congregation is a solemn responsibility to get to know and observe the lives of the candidates and think clearly about the people we choose for this office.
Now, in v. 11 of this passage, we find a reference to what the NIV and ESV call “the wives of Deacons” or others consider to refer to women deaconesses. Either translation is possible, and Paul in Romans 16.1 greets “our sister Phoebe, a deaconess, of the church at Cenchreae.” (alternate readings for the NIV and ESV). Again, either translation is possible.
Now, back to v. 12, there is one more teaching about the family life of the Deacon. They must be the husband of one wife and govern well his whole family, “for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church.?” (I Tim. 3.5) This also may affect their witness in the Community as a part of the witness of the whole Congregation in the Community.
Now, our church does not have elected Deacons. In the EPC it is optional for a church the choice of having Deacons, especially when the church is small. Normally, the work carried out by Deacons is handled by others in the Congregation. The Book of Order allows churches like ours to leave up to the Session the task of designating certain members to carry out the tasks normally assigned to Deacons as listed in our Book of Order as overseeing the ministry of compassion of the congregation to the sick, friendless, bereaved and those in any way distressed.”
And, the Session has done that, in assigning some to handle the finances of the church, the maintenance of the church building and preparation for the Lord’s Supper.
But there are a lot of other activities that our church does that require servant-hearts and duties, such as visitation at the Nursing Home, the Kids’ Club, Meals on Wheels, Volunteer work at the Sharing Center, and other charities, managing the audio and visual program of the church, visiting the sick, and other shut-ins, preparation and serving for our monthly Fellowship Dinners and other special Meals for occasions like wedding receptions and Memorial Services, Driving people to and from medical appointments, sometimes as far away as Atlanta, even filling up the bird-feeders at the Nursing Home!
In a way, I think it might not be a bad idea to not have a Board of Deacons, because then the rest of us church members when called upon to do something, they do not have the excuse to say, “Oh that is not my job; that is the job of the deacons”.
We are all “deacons” or servants. I am not unhappy that there is a certain cloud of doubt hanging over our sister Phoebe in Romans 16.1: Is she an official “Deaconess?” Or, is she a simple “Servant”? Nobody knows! Who cares? Because after all the theologians and Biblical Scholars, wear themselves out arguing about her, Phoebe was still a caring person with a servant heart, a (διακονον), following her great role model, Jesus. What matters is who she was and how she lived, not what her title was! What matters about us is who we are and how we live, not what our title may or may not be.
And, we, the congregation of Murphy Presbyterian Church have the mission of supporting in prayer all those of our number, who serve in the ministry of compassion, to the “sick, friendless, bereaved, the distressed.” “Because in as much as you have done this to the least of these, my brothers, you have done it unto me.”