1 Choosing Your Waiter: An Introduction to Deacons

I frequent restaurants fairly often. It's where a good deal of one-on-one discipleship happens. I meet with men from the church to discuss the Scripture, our lives, and good Christian books. Aside from the joy of sharing a meal together, having a good waiter helps make these visits fruitful. When waiters enjoy their task as table servers, when they are eager to serve, when they are available but not intrusive, then the experience is quite enjoyable.

The downside, of course, is that restaurant patrons generally don't get to choose their waiters. We arrive, are seated by a host or hostess, and then wait for whichever waiter has been assigned to our zone. We may find ourselves served by a wonderful waiter. But we may not. The server may not know the menu very well, could be experiencing a bad day, might have poor skills, or may be arriving from another table where he or she was treated badly. In secular speak, getting a good waiter is "the luck of the draw."

You might not have realized it, but there is at least one aspect of life in the local church that is like eating a meal in a restaurant. The local church, too, has table servers. We call them "deacons." The joy, peace, unity, and fruitfulness of the local church depends in part on having a cadre of faithful table servants who are present when needed, eager to serve without being intrusive.

The next several chapters focus on finding deacons in the local church—faithful table servers who give themselves to caring for the needs of the body. In the last decade or two, more and more churches have adopted the biblical model of eldership, which means the deacon role has either been redefined or neglected. But deacons are an indispensable part of serving the body of Christ and of multiplying the church's ministry.

We see this quite clearly in Acts 6, where the apostles charge the church in Jerusalem to find several men full of the Spirit and wisdom. The word deacons is not used in this passage, but the passage seems to point in this direction.

The opportunity: Acts 6:1 points out that "the disciples were increasing in number." It was a time of spiritual prosperity in the conversion of souls and enrollment in the school of Christ. The Word of God was advanced and produced much fruit.

The threat: Inside the church, however, the Greek or Greek-speaking Jews lodged a complaint against the Hebraic or Hebrew-speaking Jews. The former group didn't believe food was distributed equally among their widows. Nor did this unequal distribution appear to randomly occur. It looked as if the widows were being treated differently because they were either Greeks or Hebrews. It seemed that cultural or ethnic prejudice was threatening the unity of the church and the physical well-being of some members.

The solution: so the apostles did two things. First, they determined to prioritize their own ministry of the Word and prayer, over caring for physical needs. Second, they instructed the church to choose seven men to "serve tables"—to deacon (v. 2). In doing so, the apostles made provision for both the ministry of the Word and the ministry of the widows.

To modern sensibilities, "serving tables" sometimes connotes a low-level, demeaning position. A person waits tables when he or she is working through college, or passing time until a career takes off. people regard it as a necessary sacrifice to make ends meet.

But how different it is in the Lord's church! The apostles under the inspiration of God's Spirit appear to have created an entirely new office in the church for the specific purpose of serving tables. And the loftiness of the office is seen in (a) the character of the individuals required to fill it ("full of the Spirit and of wisdom" v. 3), (b) the fact that it facilitates the ministry of Word and prayer, and (c) the unifying and strengthening effect it has on the whole church. The deaconate is important!

Are there widows in our churches who are not well cared for? perhaps we need to consider our work with deacons. Are there inequities in the distribution of benevolence resources in the church? Sounds like a job for deacons.

Are there cultural tensions and threats to unity in the church? Do we wish to see a more diverse church integrated in Christian life? The position of deacon was established to promote harmony across cultural and language lines.

Is the church threatened by a possible split? Deacons were the early church's "shock absorbers." They absorbed complaints and concerns, resolved them in godliness, and so preserved the unity and witness of the saints.

When Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus were commissioned for the deaconate, "the word of God spread" and "the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith" (Acts 6:7 NIV). Who among us would not like to see the Word spread, the number of disciples rapidly increase, and large numbers of people become obedient to the faith? An effective deacon ministry facilitated this in the early church since it freed the deacons of the Word—the apostles—to do their work. With this hope in mind, I pray the Lord would guide us in our consideration of deacons and how to find them.