Want to Serve the Poor? Appoint Deacons image

Want to Serve the Poor? Appoint Deacons

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Local churches in the New Testament often had two recognised types of leader: elders / overseers / shepherds, and deacons. The elders / overseers / shepherds were responsible for guarding the church, particularly but not exclusively in its doctrine; the deacons, if we take Acts 6 as paradigmatic (see below), were responsible for caring for the poor, among other things. These two offices reflect two central ministries of the Church, namely preaching and teaching the gospel, and serving the poor. If a local church lacks one, let alone both, it will find itself less able to fulfil that ministry, and probably, in the long run, less likely to see it as central to its purpose.

As such, if a local church wants to be more effective in serving the poor, then appointing deacons is a step in the right direction. I say that for three reasons.

Firstly, it is biblical. Clearly it is biblical to appoint deacons; 1 Tim 3:8-13 alone should settle that. But I suggest that it is also biblical to appoint deacons [diakonoi] with the purpose of serving the poor. Acts 6 has often been read this way throughout the Church’s history, and with good reason, albeit a good reason that is obscured by many English translations:

“Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution [diakonia]. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said: It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve [diakoneō] tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry [diakonia] of the word.”

The point of quoting this is simply to suggest that if you spoke Koine Greek, and read your New Testament from beginning to end, and found the word diakonos started appearing out of nowhere in Romans 16, or Philippians 1, or 1 Timothy 3, you would probably assume that it was connected to this story—and hence that it had something to do with serving the poor, so that the elders / overseers / pastors could get on with prayer, preaching and teaching. (I’ll admit here: this isn’t something I came to believe until a few years ago. For some time, I recognised the importance of Acts 6, but regarded the principle at work as being a call for delegation more generally, rather than serving the poor more specifically. I started to change my mind around the time I read Bruce Longenecker’s Remember the Poor.)

Secondly, it is practical. That is, if you have two recognised offices in the local church, then three things will happen almost automatically. One: the congregation will assume that what they do is important; their role is, after all, in the Bible. Two: the elders / overseers / pastors will assume that what they do is important. Three: their very presence will ensure that questions are asked about, profile is given to, resources are allocated for and vision is shaped by the needs of the poor in the community. Appointing leaders is a good way of focusing attention, and if you don’t believe me, ask anyone who has recently appointed a kids worker.

Thirdly, it is strategic. Here is how Martin Charlesworth and Natalie Williams very wisely put it in A Church for the Poor:

Social action requires leadership and organisation. This can rarely be provided effectively by church pastors as they have numerous other responsibilities. On the other hand, the church leaders cannot easily or safely hand over social action projects to enthusiasts and activists alone. There is a vital leadership element required to build teams, shape projects and effectively care for those we are seeking to reach. This is the work of a deacon—someone called, equipped and able to work in social action while being appropriately linked to church pastors and the main life of the church ...

In a typical local church the leaders are busy with the many responsibilities of church leadership. Church members begin to lobby them over some particular social need. The leaders then feel under pressure to do something about the need. They have neither the skill, the time, nor the inclination to get involved themselves, so they simply pass the responsibility back to those who are concerned. The message they send out is—you get on and do something about this social need. So the lobbyists become the activists. However, their activism creates problems for themselves and tensions within the church. Everyone is uneasy, and the project gets into difficulties.

Bringing a deacon into the mix in the early stages avoids this altogether. Deacons have the spiritual stature, leadership abilities and engagement with the specific social need in question to be able to build teams and mobilise activists in an effective way for both the work in hand and the wider church community.

So if you want to serve the poor, appoint deacons. It’s not the end, but it’s a start.

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