Soon after the birth of the church on the day of Pentecost, some of the Christian widows began to complain about being slighted in the church’s daily distribution of food (Acts 6 KJV). Rumors of this growing discontent quickly reached the ears of the apostles. As leaders within a fast-growing work, the apostles were busy men with responsibilities in teaching, preaching and prayer, not to mention “meetings” with local civil authorities. But they also had a solid history of practical involvement in caring for the needs of people (Acts 4:31-5:16), and could hardly turn a deaf ear to this new outcry. What should be done?
It is interesting to note what they didn’t do. They did not deny the existence of the problem, nor did they ask for the names of “trouble-makers.” Obviously they didn’t need additional daily tasks to oversee, but it had become clear that those presently serving the widows lacked either the will or the authority to deal with the pressures of competing ethnic groups. The apostles also knew that they must not sacrifice the primary duties of spiritual leaders by becoming preoccupied with the temporal matters of the church. Here is a subject with a message for the church today!
Three things were clear. First, the apostles knew their priorities. Second, they knew that ignoring the problem would damage the work. Third, they discerned that the root problem was not a lack of resources (shortage of food or funds), but something that concerned integrity and authority. In three brief sentences, they outlined a plan:
“It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:2-4 KJV)
By delegating work to others, the apostles escaped a pitfall into which many elders have fallen today. Through entanglement in the details of the church’s routine ministries and problems, leaders can neglect times of fellowship with the Lord in the word and prayer and consequently have no life-changing message from the Lord, no vision for the expansion of the work.
Brothers Who Assist the Elders
Let’s think briefly about these “elder assistants” normally referred to as deacons. The careful wording of the text is full of instruction. Qualified men were to be chosen by the multitude. They must have a good reputation among the people, they must have a close walk with the Lord, and they must possess that solid inner personal quality of wisdom that comes from experience. The congregation was charged with the work of finding the men and presenting them to the apostles.
We do not read of the involvement of the apostles in this action. Presumably the people of the church were trusted to make a wise selection, and it was to their advantage to do so, as the deacons would be serving the people. The actual authority to function, however, did not come from the multitude! The apostles would lay hands on them and give them the authority to serve as their representatives. As delegated servants, these men would minister to the congregation with the full support of the spiritual leaders who could now devote themselves to the most important work of all; spending time in the word and prayer.
Some have objected that deacons are not referred to in Acts 6 because the word “deacon” does not appear. Although the Greek noun for servant (diakonos) is not used in the passage, the related words for service and ministry (diakonia, diakonein) are used in the first two verses. By the time Paul wrote to the Philippians some 30 years later, elders and deacons were the two standard offices in the church, and it is reasonable to assume some prior explanation of the term. In his letter to Timothy, Paul gives guidelines to help the young churches in the recognition of deacons (I Timothy 3). In any case, the main point to be insisted upon is that whether or not an assembly has formally recognized deacons, the elders must actively delegate pressing temporal concerns to others so that the spiritual priorities of leadership can be preserved.
Facing the Need
In many local churches, “elders’ meetings” are really deacon meetings. After an opening prayer, business is taken up, the greater part being devoted to financial and building concerns along with assembly programs and perhaps difficult people and situations to which they must relate. If the scriptures are opened at all, it is to prove a point or find passages that address a problem at hand. Rarely does one hear of a group of elders coming together “to give themselves to prayer, and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4), i. e., to pray for unity, for vision and direction for the work, and to search the scriptures simply to better know the Lord, the truths of the faith and the spiritual diet for the feeding of the flock.
Those who are appointed to do the work of deacons should find encouragement in knowing that, in addition to serving the Lord’s people, they are protecting the elders from becoming spiritually irrelevant through loss of intimate contact with the Head of the church, Christ Himself. Elders must not forget that deacons serve under their authority and rely on their support in difficult times. Further, deacons give time to the work as a sacrifice for the Lord so that elders may be free to wait on the Lord together. They (i.e. the deacons) can become discouraged if elders simply use the time thus provided for other temporal details of the work instead of the primary labor of elders, spending time in the word and prayer. Let every elder ponder these words: “It is not fitting that we should leave the word of God and serve tables.”
It is no coincidence that after the problem in the church at Jerusalem was resolved through the appointment of capable men, we are given the following summary: “And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.” (Acts 6:7)