Monday, August 8, 2016

Serving the Word

One of our congregation’s greatest gifts and treasures is our most senior deacon, and African-American brother in his eighties who describes himself as a “preaching deacon.” Before I came ten years ago, he filled the pulpit with the Word of God and kept the congregation spiritually fed and alive by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are all indebted to him, and honor him as one with “a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 3:13). I have been blessed to know deacons who were faithful Sunday School teachers to both children and adults, men I respected not because of their ability to manage the “business” of the Church, but because they were servant-leaders in the Word. There are several passages in the Bible that I cannot read to this day without remembering a phone call from a deacon asking me for input on interpreting or applying a specific verse. We are a few weeks away from ordaining two men to our congregation's diaconate, and I am deeply thankful for their willingness to preach and teach the Word when asked.

While I know some who are not convinced, it has been generally accepted that the Seven of Acts 6 were either the first to hold the office “deacon,” or were predecessors to the office. “Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving [τῇ διακονίᾳ] of food. So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, ‘It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve [διακονεῖν] tables. Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry [τῇ διακονίᾳ] of the word.’ The statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch. And these they brought before the apostles; and after praying, they laid their hands on them. The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:1-7). Beyond this narrative, we have very little to tell us what those who hold the office of deacon (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:8-13) did. What we do know is that the Seven of Acts 6 didn’t stick to serving tables. Stephen preaches in Acts 7 and becomes the first martyr of the new covenant people. Philip, the second of the Seven named, becomes a prominent “missionary” (a word not used in the N.T.) in Acts 8.[1] These servant-leaders, “men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom,” met the physical needs of those in the congregation who needed assistance, but were also instrumental in the “spreading” of “the word of God.”

[The ascended Christ] gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service [ἔργον διακονίας] (Ephesians 4:11,12). Christ gives pastor-teachers to His Church so that, by their efforts, all members of the congregation may become servants/ministers/deacons.[2] Those who hold the office of deacon serve as exemplars of what all the membership should work to be.

E. Earle Ellis (1926-2010) argues that “the diakonoi appear to be a special class of co-workers, those who are active in preaching and teaching.”[3] He gives plenty of examples of διάκονος being used in conjunction with the proclamation/exclamation of God’s Word:
·         “According to Eph 3,7f. Paul was made a diakonos according to the gift of grace, i.e. the grace to ‘preach the gospel to the Gentiles…similarly, Col 1,23.”[4]
·         “In contrast to their opponents in Corinth Paul and his companions, diakonoi of the new covenant, did not ‘peddle’ or ‘falsify’ the word of God (2Cor 2,17; 4,2) but rather accepted pay (ὀψώνιον) from other churches ‘for diakonia to you’, i.e. to preach the gospel to them (2Cor 11,8,7).”[5]
·         “In contrast to false ‘teachers,’ Timothy is to endure suffering, do the work (ἔργον) of an evangelist and (thus) fulfill his diakonia (2Tim 4,3ff.); here the term appears to include preaching and teaching (διδαχή, 4,2) generally.”[6]
·         “The congregational diakonoi are not to be ‘double-talkers’ (διλόγους) and are to hold to the ‘mystery of the faith’ with a clear conscience (1 Tim 3,8f; cf. Polyc 5,2) – the latter almost certainly refers to a teaching function.”[7]
·         “The close association with diakonos = teacher of the word of God may be inferred from 2Cor 3,6; 4,1,2,5…”[8]

The day is coming, and I believe now is, that the Church needs fewer administrating “boards” and more servant-leaders speaking the Word of God while they organize the congregation to meet the physical needs of those with needs in the membership. The pastor-teachers instruct in the Word, the deacons serve as exemplars of speaking and living the Word, and all the congregation speak the Word as they live in obedience to it in the world. After giving the qualifications for the offices of overseer and deacon, Paul explains that he wrote this “so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). The offices are inseparably linked to the purpose of the Church (its membership), which is to be the foundation on which the Word is made visible to the world for the glory and Kingdom of God.

[1] This is not the Philip who was one of the Twelve (Matthew 10:3//Mark 3:18//Luke 6:14; John 1:43-48; 6:5,7; 12:21,22; 14:8,9), since the “apostles” did not scatter with Saul’s persecution (Acts 8:1).
[2] I’m not arguing for the undoing of the office of “pastor-teacher,” or that all should become teachers (James 3). Teaching and proclaiming the Word you’ve been taught are not necessarily the same. All believers should speak the truth of the Word, and Christ gives His Church pastor-teachers to prepare them for that life of speaking.
[3] Prophecy & Hermeneutic in Early Christianity (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2003), 9.
[4] Ibid., 9.29.
[5] Ibid., 8.
[6] Ibid., 9n29.
[7] Ibid., 9n31.
[8] Ibid., 11n38.

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