6. The Church - Deacons

Money being countedIt’s generally accepted that the first deacons appointed in the New Testament are the six men referred to in Acts 6. The assembly of the Jerusalem church appointed them to take charge of distributing funds to the widows. They are not actually called deacons but the verb form of the same word, “to deacon” is used in Acts 6 v 2 of what they are doing.

The word “deacon” is an anglicisation of a Greek word that means a servant. However, this does not imply that they were engaged in menial tasks.  A deacon is a servant, not in the sense of a “skivvy” but rather someone entrusted with responsibility.

Serving tables

Acts 6 v 2 uses the verbal form of the word in the phrase “to serve tables”, translated in the NIV in Acts 6 v 2 as “wait on tables”. A little further on, the same verb appears again in connection with the apostles’ duties, one of which is “serving the word”. The phrase “to serve tables“ is used elsewhere in Greek literature, not applied to waiters and waitresses but to those who administer money. The “tables” referred to are not dining tables but office desks, or possibly the forerunners of modern spreadsheets.  

Collecting, accounting for and distributing money is certainly a central part of the job description of the seven men chosen in Acts 2. At the same time this is a pastoral and spiritual responsibility, not just an administrative one. The person specification for the job requires them to be “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom”. Their spiritual stature is shown by the fact that that one of them, Stephen, goes on to be the first Christian martyr and another, Philip, goes on to have a miraculous evangelistic ministry.

Phoebe

In Romans 16 v 1, Paul speaks of a woman called Phoebe, whom he describes as “a deacon of the church in Cenchraea”. He says she has been a “patron of many and of me”. The word “patron” implies financial support. This may mean that she was wealthy and supported people out of her own means but it may also be that she carried out this role as part of her responsibility as a deacon, by representing the needs of others to her fellow deacons and ensuring that they received support.

The function of the deacons in the early church was very close to that carried out today by trustees of a charity. It is noticeable that the two offices of deacon and elder are kept separate in the New Testament – there is no-one who seems to carry out both roles. The apostles are keen to dissociate themselves from responsibility for finances and to give their full attention to prayer and the preaching of the word. Thereafter we do find deacons preaching and praying but we don’t find apostles or elders handling money. One good reason for this is that apostles and elders (though some supported themselves from their own means) were eligible to receive financial support from the  churches. For elders to also serve as deacons would create a conflict of interest.

Whatever titles we use, there is a valuable principle here which we need to apply in church government today that it is important to maintain a clear distinction between those who are supported by the church financially and those who administer money.

Implications

  • Transparency in accounting for money is important.
  • Managing money is a spiritual task.
  • Elders should not normally manage church finances as this takes time away from prayer and teaching and may create a conflict of interest.


Photo: © copyright Mirandala, accessed  from www.flickr.com under a Creative Commons licence