What Church Does
Before we talk about why a church needs deacons, let’s do a little crash course on what a church is and what it’s supposed to do.
When Jesus asked Peter and the apostles, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:15–16). Peter didn’t come up with this answer on his own. Our heavenly Father revealed to him and the other apostles that Jesus was the promised King who would save his people from their sins (v. 17). On the foundation of this gospel confessor confessing this gospel message, Jesus builds his church (v. 18).
The Great Commission makes this point plainly:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:19–20)
Because Jesus is King, we are to go into the world under his authority and with his presence to preach his gospel. All who repent and believe the good news about Jesus are to be baptized and gathered into local churches. In those churches, Christians teach one another how to follow Jesus and obey all he has commanded.
Jesus has structured his church to make sure it stays true to that mission. According to Ephesians 4:11, the ascended Christ has given to the church “apostles and prophets” (the foundation of the church), “evangelists” (those who preach the gospel where Christ is not named), and “shepherds and teachers” (those responsible to teach the gospel in the church). The purpose of shepherds and teachers is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry [diakonia], for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12). In other words, pastors teach church members how to be faithful Christians, and in turn those church members encourage one another and share the gospel with the lost. So the pastors live according to and teach all that Jesus commanded, the church members obey all that Jesus commanded, and in this way unbelievers are brought to faith and the church is built up to look more like Jesus. The structure of the church supports the mission of the church.
Now to the question: How do deacons fit into that picture?
Well, it turns out that maintaining the priority of preaching the gospel isn’t easy. Pastors are often bombarded with problems that threaten to consume their time and turn their attention away from gospel preaching. So that’s where deacons come in. They play a vital role in making sure local churches keep gospel-preaching at the heart of their mission.
We see this clearly in Acts 6. Let’s set the context. After Peter preached the gospel in Jerusalem, three thousand people believed and were added to the church (Acts 2:41). Jesus continued to build his church daily through the preaching of this word (Acts 2:47). By the time we get to Acts 6, there are well over five thousand Christians in the Jerusalem church.
As you might expect, the church experienced some growing pains, and a conflict emerged. The Greek-speaking widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food (Acts 6:1). Until this point, the apostles had handled much of the administrative responsibilities themselves (Acts 5). But it became clear that if they took on this new problem, they would have to neglect the ministry of the word (Acts 6:2). To protect the priority of teaching and preaching, they offered a practical solution: “Pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty” (Acts 6:3).
This solution pleased the whole congregation (Acts 6:5) and allowed the apostles to prioritize preaching and prayer (Acts 6:4). Luke tells us what happened as a result: “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” (Acts 6:7).
While these seven men aren’t called deacons, they certainly served in a diaconal role. They were model servants set aside by the entire congregation to fulfill a particular task—that’s exactly what deacons do today.
A Biblical Example
Acts 6 provides a beautifully balanced picture for the different types of service that animate a healthy church. The apostles served through the ministry of the word and prayer. The deacons served the church by meeting physical and administrative needs. Acts 6 is also a compelling picture for why the church needs deacons. A problem arose in the church that threatened both the priority of the ministry of the word and the church’s unity. How did the church respond to this crisis? By appointing deacons.
These deacons protected and prioritized the church’s preaching and teaching ministry. When the practical needs of the church threatened to overwhelm the apostles’ time, the deacons stepped in to care for those needs. When divisions started creeping into the church, the deacons stepped in to create peace between emerging factions.
So let’s put together what we have so far. A deacon is an official servant recognized by the church to help the pastors protect and prioritize the church’s mission by meeting tangible needs. They also help preserve and promote the church’s unity.
It’s a glorious picture, isn’t it? It’s one that I’ve had the privilege of witnessing firsthand in my own life and ministry. When we instituted deacons at High Pointe Baptist Church where I serve as lead pastor, we tasked Carlos, one of our most faithful, longest-serving members, to coordinate our care of widows and shut-ins. He was a trusted man in the congregation. He made people smile and brought a lot of joy into others’ lives.
With the help of his wife Josie, Carlos immediately set out to recruit other couples to form a ministry team. Carlos and his team were so effective that it became common for an elder to make a hospital visit only to learn that Carlos and Josie had already been there. It became common for the elders to hear of a shut-in member’s needs, only to discover someone from Carlos’s team had already met them.
Pastors teach church members how to be faithful Christians, and in turn those church members encourage one another and share the gospel with the lost.
By making sure our widows and shut-ins were cared for, Carlos and his team freed up the elders to prioritize the ministry of the word and prayer. They performed their duties with joy and took their role seriously, knowing they were doing God’s work and God would reward them.
But Carlos and his team weren’t just freeing up the elders, they were also preserving and promoting the unity of the church. When one of our elders made a pastoral visit to a shut-in, she beamed as she described how Carlos and his team had visited her regularly and cared for her well. During that same visit, she complained that “the pastor” had not come by to visit with her like Carlos had. This pastor reminded her of the size of our church and the need to protect the priority of the word. He gently reminded her that “the pastor” could not be all things to all members—we established deacons to make sure she was cared for.
With this little bit of discipling, she understood that the elders were, in fact, caring for her by establishing deacons like Carlos who fulfilled their diaconal ministry with excellence. By continuing to visit her and other shut-ins and widows, our members have learned that the ministry of the deacons is an extension of the ministry of the elders to care for the flock of God.
This article is adapted from What Do Deacons Do? by Juan R. Sanchez.
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