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The Spiritual Nature of the Office of Deacon

Carl Carlson

Praise God from whom all blessings flow;
Praise him, all creatures here below;
Praise him above, ye heav’nly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Every Sunday, during morning worship, the saints of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church sing the doxology after giving their tithes and offerings to the Lord. Additionally, one Sunday each month, they make deacons’ offerings immediately following the Lord’s Supper. We can readily overlook the intentional nature of taking these offerings during worship. After all, we could just as easily mail checks directly to the treasurer or initiate a regular automatic withdrawal from our bank accounts.

But, before we treat our financial obligations to God as if they were a utility bill, we would be wise to consider the importance of our giving as part of worship and how this has a profound impact on how we view the nature of the diaconate. The deacons are charged with managing both these offerings in order to take care of the temporal affairs of the church. Given that the foundation of diaconal duty is bound up in the offerings that are an act of worship, their use must fulfill God’s calling for the church: to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. The implication of this is that all financial decisions of the church must support this calling. Given the diaconate’s role in managing these funds, it is incumbent upon the deacons to appreciate the spiritual nature of their duties and undertake them as such.

So, how does the deacon approach his office? He recognizes that while his duties may be temporal in nature, they cannot be fulfilled properly without understanding that the very mission of the church undergirds all that he does.

1. The Office

When considering Acts chapter 6 as a foundational text for the office of deacon, it is important to recognize how Acts 2 through 5 set the tone. The apostles are preaching Christ and performing miracles in his name. The growth of the church is breathtaking, with three thousand baptized in one day (2:41); more are added daily (2:47). As the church grows the Sanhedrin becomes concerned. Admonition, arrest, and beatings follow, but the apostles carry on with their mission. They admonish the Council, “We must obey God rather than men” (5:29). Meanwhile, the believers devote themselves to the church, including combining their wealth to help those in need (2:45).

We can imagine a large congregation—moved by the teaching, signs, and wonders of the apostles—demonstrating their thankfulness for God’s grace by being generous with their own possessions. The connection to Deuteronomy 15:7–11 could not be clearer:

If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, “The seventh year, the year of release is near,” and your eye look grudgingly on your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the Lord against you, and you be guilty of sin. You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, “You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.”

The deacons enter against this backdrop. The role of these men is to allow the apostles to fulfill their duties in teaching and praying. Right away, the deacon has a purpose: free the apostles from tasks that take away from their primary duties. The immediate need was for men who could administer the daily distribution for the widows. Perhaps the deacons even took over the task of accepting the offerings that were previously laid at the apostles feet (5:37).

But, these first deacons are not just administrators of a social security office. They are fulfilling a duty established in the Law, rooted in the Ten Commandments. The congregation’s offerings are freewill, not compulsory. The apostles take care to instruct the congregation to choose men of high character with appropriate spiritual qualifications. The men chosen were “full of the Spirit and wisdom” (6:3). Stephen sets an example of the deacon’s character by being a defender of the faith to the point of martyrdom.

The new deacons are effective. In 6:7 we learn that “the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.”

As we move along in church history, Paul’s church plants are instructive. He did not record a book of order that we can follow. But, when we study his ministry both in the book of Acts and through his epistles, a framework of church government with elders (bishops, overseers, presbyters) and deacons (servants) becomes evident. Paul echoes Acts 6 when he lays out the qualifications for deacons, emphasizing character over skills or abilities. Paul provides more details than the broad “full of the Spirit and wisdom” from Acts 6. In 1 Timothy 3:8–13 he instructs:

Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. 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.

There is much here to consider, but a good summary would be that a deacon’s life must show evidence that it is formed by the gospel. In order for the deacon to be a good servant of the Lord, he must show that he is obedient to him.

2. The Duties

With spiritual qualifications as the background, it is incumbent on the deacon to see his office being fulfilled by the performance of spiritual duties. It is here that we encounter the biblical concept of stewardship. Stewardship is a key concept in the Christian life. We are called to be good stewards of all that God has given us.

The “Cultural Mandate” of Genesis 1:28 could just as easily have been named the “Stewardship Mandate.” It makes clear that mankind is to subdue and rule over the earth but it also implies that ownership is still God’s. He hasn’t gifted it to us to dispense as we wish. We have been given possession of his gifts to use them only as he directs. He alone sets the requirements for how we may use his goods and his world. All wealth and possessions that God puts under our oversight are to be used for his glory. Consider these three passages from Matthew:

6:19–21 Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourself treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

6:31–33 Therefore, do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the Gentiles seek after these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

16:24–26 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”

Jesus is telling his disciples to make choices. Is their master God or money? Is their guide in life faith or anxiety? Is their ultimate place in this world or the next? These are powerful contrasts that show us what a good steward does with his wealth, how he makes life decisions, and what is most important to him.

Stewardship is governed by the Ten Commandments. When we summarize them by saying, “Love the LORD with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself,” we have a concise statement of how our lives are to exhibit good stewardship. But, how do people hear about God’s demands for stewardship? Through the church. The first deacons freed the apostles so that the church could fulfill its central duty to teach and pray.

Stewardship is given a central role in the life of the believer, and it is the deacon’s role to promote good stewardship. As the Word is taught from our pulpits, faith liberates the believer to a new life of obedience. Out of obedience good stewardship naturally flows. The deacons are inspired by the same teaching to stimulate obedience in everyone. They are the lead stewards of the congregation. As the elders call the congregation to good works, the deacons channel these efforts to the particular needs of the congregation: cash offerings to provide assistance where needed, in-kind help where appropriate, physical work to care for the building, calling upon individual talents and abilities where they can be used. In short, the deacon must be a good steward of the congregation’s money and talents.

3. The Details

The deacon’s duties can be divided between two main areas: church financial management and ministry of mercy. In the carrying out of duties in both categories, exercising biblical stewardship is central. If the deacons do not support their work with sound principles of stewardship they will be prone to poor judgment, missteps, omissions, and confusion.

Financial Management

Under session oversight, the deacons have authority over the financial management of the congregation. This means managing both the congregation’s cash and assets. For most churches the primary asset is its building and all the furnishings, equipment, and supplies in it. Even churches without a building may have assets of considerable value. An effective diaconate harnesses the value of all these assets in order to ensure that the mission of the church is accomplished.

For example, the purchase or construction budget of a building must take into account the congregation’s ability not only to pay the mortgage, but to have sufficient funds remaining to pay a pastor and fund all the ministries of the church. The building’s purpose is to have a place for the church to meet in order to worship God. Without a pastor to teach and preach, it is useless. What good is a building with no room in the budget for a full-time pastor? Decisions for building upgrades require the same scrutiny. Why fund expensive upgrades to furnishings if it takes away from the ability to fund the presbytery’s home missions fund?

This logic drills down into the details of yearly budgeting. The line by line minutiae of the budget is the diaconate’s domain. The details of budgeting are a statement of a congregation’s priorities of stewardship. The deacons must take their role as stewards with all due care. All areas of spending, however indirectly, must come to bear on the church’s mission of proclaiming and spreading the gospel. Questionable items must be considered thoroughly so that unnecessary spending is eliminated and the funds are used more efficiently for God’s glory. If the diaconate takes this role lightly, the church can easily be led astray in all kinds of worldly ways.

Ministry of Mercy

The diaconal mercy ministry is affected profoundly by stewardship. Mercy ministry should be carefully dispensed in Christ’s name. The deacons must balance delicately the principle of Matthew 25:45 (“as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me”) with the need to be discerning. This is a difficult task. It is no wonder that Acts 6 and 1 Timothy 3 demand that deacons exhibit strong character. Without it, they will wither under fire.

The OPC has spent considerable effort over the past several years offering training and materials to deacons that emphasize principles of mercy ministry. One main theme coming out of these efforts is the division of diaconal aid into three main categories: 1) response to crisis or disaster; 2) helping a person or family become self-sufficient; 3) helping a person or family develop plans to deal with future crises or disasters without the need for diaconal aid.

This is, in essence, teaching biblical stewardship. Supporting the temporal focus of diaconal aid is a foundation of spiritual ministry: encouraging the person or family to address the stewardship issues that all sinners face while recognizing that material want and financial hardship exacerbate those challenges. This is a recognition that it can be “easy” to be a good steward when you are not facing financial hardship, but also that financial hardship can be caused by poor stewardship. Again, wisdom on the part of the deacons is essential here. These are not issues that can be dealt with in short meetings or by emails. The deacons are called here to dig deep, spend much time, and devote themselves to the people’s lives.

As the deacons encounter mercy ministry opportunities, they must look for and encourage good stewardship from the potential recipient. The deacon’s fund can be a powerful tool for good or ill, so cash or other assistance cannot be distributed without taking the time to assess the recipient’s level of stewardship. If the potential recipient of the diaconal aid wastes his gifts, the church rightly expects that he will be denied funds that would merely subsidize his misuse. Wisdom here is essential, and who has it but a deacon who has been instilled with biblical stewardship?

By exploring and probing the level of stewardship of a potential recipient, the deacons are testing the person. While the deacons are called to use the means of creation to relieve suffering, they have a more urgent duty to fulfill before bringing temporal relief: guarding against trusting the means of creation over trusting the power of God. The resurrection comes to mind here. Fear of the world shows lack of faith in the power of the resurrection (death does not win). Ministry of mercy must reflect resurrection glory, not worldly fear. We cannot act as if death wins.

This ties into another purpose of mercy ministry: repentance. While teaching stewardship is a task more appropriately administered to members, encountering mercy opportunities with non-members is an occasion for witnessing. While we may never come to know what effect our contact has had on someone, we must always act with a call to repentance in mind.

Jesus spent a great deal of his earthly ministry performing miracles of healing. While a cursory look at these works could leave one thinking that Jesus merely had people’s basic health in mind, it is important to remember that Jesus was performing them so that they would know that he was their Messiah and the kingdom was coming. Knowing this fact was to bring about repentance. We can make the same analogy to mercy ministry. We bring mercy in Christ’s name so that the recipient will know Christ’s love, admit their need of a savior, and repent. Deacons must also be as patient as Jesus. Many healing miracles did not produce repentance and neither will much diaconal aid. Luke 17:11–19 is instructive:

On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus' feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”

If a deacon finds that one of ten recipients of his church’s mercy ministry repents and confesses Jesus, he should rejoice that his work has done what he intended, praising God for his saving grace in at least one sinner.

Conclusion

The deacon is marked by strong character combined with a servant heart. He gains biblical wisdom instilled by listening to the Word preached, studying the Word, and participating in training. Then he brings those things together in carrying out his duties to the church. He is not a mere business manager or case worker, but a steward of all the church’s temporal gifts. He uses those gifts to enable those under his care to fulfill their chief and highest end: glorifying and enjoying God.

Carl Carlson is a member of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and serves as a deacon. Ordained Servant Online, August–September 2017.

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