“This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the work of a bishop (literally ‘overseer,’ meaning the pastor or chief undershepherd of the church), he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous, one who rules his own house well….” (I Timothy 3:1-7 is the full text.)
Dr. Gary Fagan was pastoring a church in a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. It was Wednesday night and time for the monthly business meeting of the congregation, usually an uneventful period for hearing reports on finances and membership and voting on recommendations concerning programs. For reasons long forgotten, a man in the church–Dick was an engineer and a deacon–chose to stand and berate the pastor. When he finished, he sat down and there was silence.
He was not used to being contradicted and the regulars were not foolhardy enough to take him on.
It took a new believer to do the job.
“Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business….” (Acts 6:3).
The original trouble-shooters–the Lord’s S.W.A.T. team perhaps–in the New Testament church were the deacons.
They still are best at this risky business.
In deacon training conferences we point out that deacons “ride drag” for the congregation, a reference to the old West when cowboys would move the herd to the railhead. Someone is riding point, showing the way, others are riding flank to keep the herd from spreading out too much, and then some are riding at the back of the group of cattle, bringing up the rear. Those assigned to ride drag were usually the lowliest hands, the newest hires, or someone in trouble with the boss. Their job was to keep the herd moving, to handle any animals in difficulty (headstrong, caught in briars or a ditch, etc), and such. In so doing, they ate the dust of the entire herd and emerged covered with grime.
The word “deacon,” we’re told, comes from the Greek diakonos, meaning literally “through the dust.”
When problems arise within the congregation, when some church member is unhappy and spreading dissent, as a rule the worst person to deal with the cancer is the pastor himself. Why? Several reasons…
“And a mixed multitude went up with them.” Exodus 12:38
“And the rabble who were among them had greedy desires, and also the sons of Israel wept again and said, ‘Who will give us meat to eat?'” — Numbers 11:4
The world is attending your church.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is sometimes we turn it over to them. Not good.
When the Israelites left Egypt under Moses, they were not alone. Exodus 12 says a large company of riff-raff seized the opportunity to flee the Pharaoh’s harsh rule also. (Various translations call them “a mixed multitude,” “a motley mob,” “a mingled array of other folk,” “a crowd of mixed ancestry,” and “a great rabble.”)
Did we think the Hebrews were the only slaves in Egypt? Doubtless there were slaves from many countries. So, in the same way a jailbreak might free all the prisoners, many of the Pharaoh’s “inmates” decided they had had enough, that anything was better than the slavery of Egypt, and they threw their lot in with the Hebrews and the fellow named Moses.
Before long, the wisdom of that decision would be put to the test.
The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, these entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also. –2 Timothy 2:2
Pastors teach from the pulpit. Bible teachers will teach in classes. But in addition, there will be occasions–often sudden, spontaneous occasions–when a lay leader will have the opportunity to teach a biblical truth.
Leaders should always be prepared.
Here’s one way it often happens….
The church member is upset at the pastor. She calls her deacon to complain about last Sunday’s sermon. “We don’t need more sermons on (whatever the subject was).” He listens until she is empty. Then, he asks her something.
“Do you have a minute to listen to something?”
She is puzzled. “Sure. What is it?”
“I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27). “A disciple is not above his teacher or a slave above his master” (Luke 6:24).
In the days following Hurricane Katrina, Rudy and Rose traveled to New Orleans to help. Unable to find a place to plug in, Rudy walked into the kitchen of Williams Boulevard Baptist Church and volunteered. That church was strategically situated next to the Highway Patrol headquarters which was hosting hundreds of troopers from the nation, as they protected the darkened city. The church had become a hotel for the troopers and the women of the congregation were serving three meals a day. They welcomed Rudy and assigned him to the garbage detail.
Not exactly what he had in mind.
Rudy had been pastoring a church in southern Canada. When he saw the suffering of our people on television–entire neighborhoods flooded, thousands homeless, people being rescued off rooftops–he resigned his church, sold his gun collection to fund the move, and he and Rose came to help.
Now, he ends up emptying garbage cans. By his own admission, Rudy was developing an attitude problem.
One day he was lifting a large bag of garbage into the dumpster. The kitchen workers had been told not to put liquid garbage into the bags, but evidently they didn’t get the message. Suddenly, as Rudy was lifting it up, the bag ripped and all kinds of kitchen leftovers poured down over him–gumbo, red beans and rice, gravy, grease, whatever.
Rudy stood there drenched in garbage, crying like a baby.
Every pastor and every deacon knows well the story in Acts 6:1-7 where the Jerusalem church encountered their first internal dissension. We hear it at every deacon ordination and often in deacons meetings.
In leading retreats and training sessions for deacons, I ask them to read this passage slowly and to meditate on it. Then, we discuss it. At the conclusion, I give them this assignment.
In the days to come, read this passage again and again until you know it thoroughly. Then, when you are driving the car or walking alone or lying awake at night, meditate on it. My friends, there are more truths and insights in these few verses than any of us have ever discovered. See how many you can find.
Here are twenty-five such insights to get us started. There may be a hundred more. As you reflect on this passage, see how many more insights and lessons come to mind…
One. People are going to have problems. Even the godliest among us.
Two: The fact that a church is experiencing a problem is no indication they are in sin, are doing something wrong, or are flawed.
Even in the difficult years, it wasn’t all bad.
My journal records a conversation with a deacon almost 25 years ago.
At one point he said, “Pastor, you know that I voted against your coming to our church. But God has shown me that I was wrong. You have meant so much to me and my family.”
We were talking about the church’s response to my first two years there. In a word, let’s just say it was lacking. Lukewarm. Tepid.
It was a Sunday night and we had just completed a weekend revival with a preacher friend of mine who was as fine and godly as anyone I ever knew. His messages were anointed and straight from the throne. I had so wanted our people to hear God’s message through him. But so few had turned out.
The problem was his style. He was low key. He would often stand with his hands in his pockets and talk in a conversational tone.
The congregation could not abide that. They had been conditioned to believe that powerful preaching is loud and bombastic, accompanied by guilt-inducing tirades and finger-pointing assaults. (They would have been so surprised to learn that Jesus sometimes preached sitting down in a boat!)
As we discussed the church’s lack of response during my first two years, I said, “Sometimes I wish God would send someone here whom they would respond to.”
If that sounds like discouragement, it was.
Doesn’t Acts 6:3 say that the deacons are in charge of the business of the church when it says “whom we may put in charge of this business”?
That’s quite a stretch, friend.
Assuming the question is serious and not frivolous, I would answer a) the word “business” there means “need” or “lack.” Some translations have it as “this task.” So, we might infer that deacons are in charge of the needs or lacks of the church, whatever is lacking, wherever there is a need.
And b) but neither here in Acts 6 nor in I Timothy 3, where qualifications for deacons are given, do we find specific directions as to the work of deacons. Read on.
Why doesn’t the Bible say what deacons are to do?
It does. It says they are to serve.
By no stretch of the imagination do I present myself as an authority on deacons or churchmanship (or anything else for that matter). But, since the Lord has me holding a number of deacon workshops (retreats, training, etc) each year involving several hundred of the Lord’s finest, I get asked questions regarding this ministry.
Here are some of the most recent questions I’ve fielded in these workshops….
Some new deacons feel their opinions don’t matter. How can we address this?
Humility on the part of the new deacons and thoughtfulness on the part of the officers–these are always in order. That is to say, newly ordained deacons will want to be cautious about jumping into discussions to offer their opinions. Better to stay back and listen and learn until the appropriate time. At the same time, the chairman or moderator should encourage them to join in the conversation from time to time.
If I were a newly ordained deacon, I would be eager to learn my craft, to honor my Lord, and to serve my church. So, here are some of the things I would do:
–I would stay on my knees, asking the Father to purify me, make my motives holy, and to give me a heart to serve.
–I would read Luke 17:7-10 again and again until it became part of my DNA. I would resolve never to seek appreciation or expect honors. We are servants.
–I would find the godliest, most effective deacons now serving our church and latch onto them. I would pick their brains, and ask if I could work with them until I learned all they could teach me.