The Quiet and Crucial Work of Deacons – Marshall Segal

As surprised as we might be by divisiveness in the church, and as uncomfortable and maddening as it may feel at times, such cracks in the walls have dogged us from the beginning.

The kinds of cracks have varied from age to age and culture to culture, but give any congregation enough time — even the best of them — and cracks will emerge. They’re side effects of making covenants with fellow sinners — as unpleasant as they are unavoidable. It’s just part of keeping a home in a fallen world.

Many have tried hard to diagnose and treat the current cracks in our walls — politics and elections, mask mandates and rebellions, racial disparity and superiority, men’s and women’s roles in the home and beyond, domestic abuse and other moral failures, and so on — but many of them have overlooked or marginalized a missing ingredient to harmony. In fact, I can’t help but wonder if the wildfires in some pews are as fierce and contagious as they are because this piece seems so small in many of our eyes.

When God planted the first churches, he knew the cracks he’d find. He wrote them into our stories, in fact, because he knew that cracked but loving churches served his purposes better than ones with brand-new walls and pristine floors. He had planned the cracks, and he had plans for the cracks, and one of those plans was called deacons.

Strong Enough to Help

We first encounter deacons during a meal (which, as any normal family knows, is when fights often break out). As the early church began to meet and grow, Greek-speaking Jews who had been scattered outside of Israel (“Hellenists”) returned to Jerusalem to join the church and follow Jesus. After a while, though, they came and complained to the Hebrew-speaking apostles because Greek widows were not receiving the food they needed (Acts 6:1).

Urgent needs like this, as any church knows, require time and attention, pastoral sensitivity, and careful follow-through. This meant the leaders would have less time and attention for teaching and prayer, and they knew the church would suffer even more if that were the case (Acts 6:2). So, the apostles called the church to appoint seven men to make sure all were fed well. And because they did, “the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem” (Acts 6:7).

How much or little we think of diaconal ministry today rests, in significant measure, on what problem we think those first proto-deacons were solving. Was this merely a matter of entrées and sides for some lonely and vulnerable women, or was the church facing a deeper, more sensitive threat?

Matt Smethurst, in his introduction to deacons, draws our attention to the greater dangers hiding beneath the dining tables:

How our churches react to conflict can make all the difference in whether our gospel witness is obstructed or accelerated. Acts 6 is a story of church conflict handled well. . . . The seven weren’t merely deployed to solve a food problem. Food was the occasion, sure, but it wasn’t the deepest problem. The deepest problem was a sudden threat to church unity. (Deacons, 44, 52)

Cracks were suddenly surfacing and spreading. How could the church win the war for souls if there were wars within her walls? How could the word run if its people were mired in swamps of bitterness? The church didn’t merely need better waiters; it needed peace and healing. It needed men strong and wise enough to help mend fractures in the family.

Giants Bowing Low

Many might hear deacon and immediately think of dull or menial tasks that few people want to do — building maintaining, budget crunching, nursery cleaning, furnace repairing, meal serving. They might imagine a sort of junior-varsity team that relieves the pastors of lesser work. When the apostles saw those seven men, however, they saw something different in them — a stronger and more vibrant force for good, a noble and vital ministry.

We know how much they thought of diaconal work because of the kind of men they appointed: “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). They weren’t content with someone who was handy around the house or good with spreadsheets; they wanted men filled with the Spirit and abounding in wisdom. These were remarkable men doing difficult and precious work. “The apostles did not delegate this problem to others because it wasn’t important,” Smethurst observes, “but because it was” (53).

Because they knew how much food could poison fellowship, they set spiritual giants-in-the-making like Stephen over the tables. “And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). The Jewish leaders “could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking” (Acts 6:10). And yet feeding widows was not beneath him. In fact, the faith and humility that freed him to quietly serve tables was the same faith and humility that freed him to boldly die for Jesus (Acts 7:58). Like Jesus, he knew that those who bow down lowest get to see more of God and his glory.

Diaconal ministry is not merely about checking boxes next to tasks, but about helping to maintain a home where a family not only lives but thrives.

Office of Tedious?

What do deacons do? In short, they assist the elders by meeting needs in the life of the church. They unleash the word of God by allowing the elders to focus on praying, teaching, and governing. And in doing so, the deacons guard and encourage the church’s love for one another. For the church of Acts 6, that meant making sure everyone was fed. In our day, it might still be feeding the hungry in our congregation, or it might be maintaining the church budget, or overseeing ministry to children, or taking care of the building, or leading a small group.

The tasks may seem tedious to the untrained eye, but imagine how much our churches would be crippled if no one stepped up to do them well. Imagine how horribly distracted and worn out our pastors would be, trying to cover all those bases themselves. Imagine how the preaching and teaching would inevitably suffer, leaving the church starving in far worse ways.

“The apostles recognize a fundamental truth,” Smethurst writes.

A church whose ministers are chained to the tyranny of the urgent — which so often shows up in “tangible problems” — is a church removing its heart to strengthen its arm. It’s a kind of slow-motion suicide. A church without deacons may lack health, but a church without biblical preaching cannot exist. There is, in fact, no such thing. (47)

Sent into the Cracks

What should churches look for in a deacon? I believe both men and women can serve as deacons (though I don’t have space to argue for that here). Scripture is not as clear on that question as we might like, so I understand why others come down differently. Whether we ordain women as deacons or not, though, Scripture does give us a clear picture of what marks a good deacon: dignity and honesty, self-control and generosity, conviction and faithfulness (1 Timothy 3:8–10). The men must also be devoted husbands and fathers, raising their families in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (1 Timothy 3:12; Ephesians 6:4).

Beyond the biblical qualifications, Smethurst shares some practical counsel for recognizing good deacons in the wild: “Pastor, when eyeing future deacons, look for godly saints who see and meet needs discreetly (they don’t need or want credit), at their own expense (they sacrifice), and without being asked (they take the initiative to solve problems)” (76). These qualities prepare a man (or woman) to anticipate and heal cracks in the church by meeting practical needs.

Sincere Humility

First, good deacons serve discreetly because of their deep-seated humility. The public nature of preaching and teaching means pastors get greater amounts of attention and encouragement (and criticism, with it). Doing diaconal work well requires a kind of humility, ready to forfeit the attention and affirmation others may receive. By all means, we should regularly encourage our deacons, but the very nature of their ministry means that many will not see or fully appreciate what they do.

Generous Sacrifice

Second, good deacons are strangely quick to sacrifice. I say strangely because all Christians should be quick to sacrifice. To follow Jesus Christ at all is to lay down our lives and pick up a cross (Matthew 16:24). Deacons, however, are examples in cross-bearing. Sacrifice is not an occasional blip on the radar of their decisions, but woven deeply into their lifestyle. They rejoice to spend and be spent for the sake of others (2 Corinthians 12:15), and especially for the church (Galatians 6:10).

Creative Initiative

Third, good deacons are creative problem-solvers. They’re solution-initiators. While others in the church might walk past problems (or even fail to notice them), deacons are drawn to these opportunities. How might that need be met? What might resolve this tension? What would it take to repair that wall or appliance? What is keeping my pastors from their most important work? When they see something that needs to be done, deacons love to help see that it gets done. When possible, they resist the impulse to leave a need at someone else’s feet, and they’re especially sensitive to how much pastors already have on their plates.

Durable Happiness

Good deacons are humble, and sacrificial, and creatively constructive — and they’re also deeply happy. Their humility is a happy humility. Their sacrifices are glad sacrifices. Their initiative is not just willing, but cheerful and eager. They have found, like the Servant they follow, that joy not only fuels ministry to others, but blossoms from that ministry. Jesus, after all, was betrayed, mocked, beaten, and slaughtered “for the joy set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). Likewise, as 1 Timothy 3:13 promises, “Those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.”

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