This past Sunday we had the pleasure of ordaining two new deacons, installing them along with two others, and ordaining a veteran minister out of a sister tradition into our own. In other words, it was a great Sunday. At the end of the morning, I took a few minutes to tell the story of where this all came from and to point the way forward to where we’re headed as a church. Keep reading to see what I said.
Hasn’t this been a good morning? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I love being a part of the church being the church. Seeing a group of Jesus followers come together to do the basic things we were called, equipped, and empowered by our Lord to do is really exciting to me and I hope it is to you. Frankly, it’s hard for it not to be at least a bit exciting. Whether you are part of a group or not, there’s something exciting about seeing one fulfill its purpose. We are naturally drawn to purpose ourselves and so when we see one being fulfilled we root for it.
Or perhaps think about all of this from the standpoint of the world. With what we are doing here together this morning, we are managing to avoid all of the otherwise negative stereotypes about the church. We’re not sticking our noses into any social or political issues. We’re not offering judgment or condemnation of anybody. We’re not arguing about stupid things. We are instead gathering together with a single mind and heart to recognize and celebrate the gifts of five special individuals and empowering them to use those gifts to their fullest potential. What could be better than that? Absent a celebration of baptisms, not very much. And this is intended to lead to that.
So, what do you say on a morning like this one? Well, not very much because there’s a lot else happening! But, I’m the preacher and talking is sort of my game, so let’s chat for a few minutes. Here’s a question for you to get us started? Do you know where all of this came from? Do you know why we have deacons? I suspect a lot of you do. But, some of you may not, so let me tell you the story.
The church may have started with a bang after Peter’s powerful sermon on the day of Pentecost, but not long thereafter it threatened to finish with a bust. And the challenges that proved the most difficult to overcome were not the ones that came from without, but the ones that came from within. Early on in the life of the church, their deeply controversial message provoked a couple of significant clashes with the Jewish ruling authorities. The first ended with threats to keep a lid on it or else. The second ended with a beating for the apostles. In the face of such direct persecution from an antagonistic world, an organization with less clarity about its identity and mission would have folded up and gone home.
This first church, though, knew exactly who they were and what they were there to do. As a result, in the face of this challenge from without, they prayed, not for safety and protection like we might have done, they prayed for boldness. They asked God to give them even greater courage to advance the Gospel in the face of such pressures to quit, give up, and go home. This was a prayer God answered powerfully. No, again it was not the threats from without that would prove to be the biggest challenge to the group. It was threats from within. The enemy soon obliged.
As the energy and excitement of the movement continued to build, inspiring some wealthy individuals to radical acts of generosity, some unscrupulous folks decided that they wanted to get in on the prestige they saw their economic peers attaining. A couple named Ananias and Sapphira made a show of generosity that was more fluff than substance. Here was the test. What would the character of the group be? Could they be swayed from their mission and message by the promise of riches? Nope. The couple was rebuffed and faced rather immediate judgment.
So the enemy decided to take another tack. What is the biggest threat to an organization focused on mission and intent on pursuing Christ-like character? Disunity on nonessential issues. The more an organization can be lured into fighting over things that don’t truly matter, the less effective they will be in accomplishing the things that do matter. Well, one of the ways the early church was involved in ministering to the needs of the body was though a daily food line for widows and orphans. Things ran pretty smoothly…until cultural assumptions and inclinations started to bleed into things. The longstanding animosity between Aramaic-speaking Jews from Jerusalem and Greek-speaking Jews from other places around the Roman Empire started to come out and widows who were Greek-speaking were getting squeezed out in favor of the Jewish widows. This caused all the tensions between the two ethnic groups in the church that you might expect it to cause. Indeed, ethnic tensions afflicting the church? There is nothing new under the sun.
Luke writes about this episode at the beginning of Acts 6. Check this out with me: “Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.” So, there was the problem. And again, more so than any of the other problems the church had faced thus far, this one had the strongest potential to sow the seeds of their undoing. How would they solve it?
For many churches today, this would have been an opportunity for the leaders of the church to be the leaders of the church. This was a place where the apostles were going to be able to come in, propose a solution, lead it through to completion, and gain an enormously elevated standing for themselves among not just the members of the body, but in the community at large. Folks who could successfully solve a problem like this one deserved greater community exposure than they currently had. They should be put on local boards and commissions. We need their leadership gifts unleashed in the broader culture…for the sake of the kingdom, of course. And why shouldn’t this be the case? They were the leaders, after all. They should be the ones to lead. If there is a problem, they should be the ones to solve it. That’s what we have them for…right?
Look at what Luke has to say next starting in v. 2 now: “And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right…’” that we should be facing an issue like this in our body. Well, folks, we have a solution. Racial preferences have no place in the church. If we are going to be fully the community our resurrected Lord Jesus has created us to be then we need to get that stuff out of here. From now on we are going to make certain that the Greek-speaking widows are not overlooked in the line. We’ll stake our reputations on it. In fact, they are going to get the first spots in the line. And for the Hebrews, this is a chance for you to practice the last-become-first ethic of Jesus. If we can put this in place, we will show the world how united we are. This will, in turn, draw them in to want to be a part of our numbers. The gates of Hell will not prevail against us whether from inside or out!
Is that all not up there on the screen? I must have left that part off. No, I’m kidding. The text doesn’t say that at all. But if you haven’t read it before or in a long time and were tracking with me, it just shows how we tend to think in the church today. Instead, the disciples did something that would have blown just as many minds in that day as it would today. Look at this with me again and this time I won’t leave the text: “And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.’”
How arrogant of them! What? Are they too good to serve tables? The church is only a few months old and they’ve already put on such big britches that they can’t be bothered to serve some of the poorest, most vulnerable members of the church community. Shame on them. If you ask me, they could stand to eat some humble pie. I know where the Jesus they are supposed to be proclaiming to the people would be. He’d be right there in the food line serving the widows and helping to resolve this thorny issue. It must be time for them to step back for the sake of pride so that the church doesn’t take a hubristic fall into irrelevancy.
That’s how we’d react today, right? I mean, can you imagine the media circus that would ensue if, for example, Dr. Mark Harris, the pastor of First Baptist, Charlotte announced to his congregation one morning that even though they were struggling with a lack of organization and volunteers in their soup kitchen ministry, it would not be right for him to stop his sermon preparation in order to help fill in the service gaps and solve the problem. The potential political campaign he is going to resign from the church to explore would be derailed before it even got on the tracks!
And yet…before we get all self-righteous on the apostles, the guys who walked around with Jesus for three years and were all eye-witnesses to His post-resurrection appearances, let’s think about this for a minute. What was their primary duty in the church? By both gifting and position it was to proclaim the Gospel to the community. Again, they were the ones who had been the beneficiaries of one-on-one time with Jesus. They were the best suited men in the whole world to proclaim the reality of the resurrection. If they didn’t do it, there literally wasn’t anybody else who could stand in the gap and pick up the slack. If they had taken time away from doing the things that only they could do in order to solve this administration problem that other members of the community were perfectly suited to resolve, then the ministry they had been called to do would suffer and the whole church with it. This is Delegation 101. As a leader, one of the first things you have to recognize is that you can’t do everything. No one leader can. And, the larger the organization gets, the truer this fact will become. The apostles understood this. They couldn’t do everything. They shouldn’t do things somebody else was called to do. If they tried, not only would they fail, but they would wreck the organization along the way.
So, they proposed a solution. Look at this in v. 3: “Therefore, brothers [and sisters], pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” Out of this, the deacon ministry was born. Luke writes that “what [the apostles] said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.”
These guys were called, empowered, and unleashed by not just the apostles, but the church at large to tackle this ministry challenge so that the apostles could continue doing the things that only they could do. This is actually really a key point here. They weren’t called just because the church was facing a ministry challenge. They were called with the express purpose of allowing the apostles to not have to divert their focus away from their primary duties to deal with issues that other folks could handle.
Indeed, not a few folks today in the church come with the belief that the ministry is the job of the minister. They are there simply to be ministered to. And yet, there is much that goes into making a church work. There are many different gifts that need to be present and active if the thing is going to work like it was designed. What’s more, God provides all these different gifts—people—putting each of them in place rather specifically so that His mission can be accomplished as effectively as possible. He just doesn’t provide them all in one person. If each part doesn’t play its part, the thing doesn’t work. If one person tries or is expected to do the ministry to which someone else has been called and equipped three things all break down. First, the person trying to work outside his intended ministry zone wears out faster than he would otherwise. Second, the person who should have been doing that work loses out on an opportunity to refine her gifts, rendering her less effective in the advancement of the kingdom. Third, the whole body suffers because they are receiving subpar work from an unenthused worker. This benefits exactly no one.
No, the Gospel reality is that one person refusing to do the work to which someone else has been called for the sake of their own ministry comes, not from a position of arrogance, but rather of humility. It took great humility for the apostles to refuse this opportunity to advance their image at the expense of their ministry. But, lest you think you see a loophole here, no one has been given the solo spiritual gift of making sure that gravity doesn’t fail the chairs between 11 and noon on Sunday mornings. This whole idea only works like it should when every part is playing its part; when each member of the community is fulfilling the role for which they have been gifted and empowered by the Spirit to accomplish. Or perhaps to put all this a bit more directly, while I may be the pastor of the church, the vast majority of the ministry in which we are going to be involved as a community is going to be done by you. My job is to empower you to go and do it. If any church makes the pastor the center of things, that church can’t get any bigger than the pastor is. Now, some pastors are really big, and I don’t mean physically. But, all things being equal, one person can never do the amount of work that two can. Two can never do the work of three. And a trio can never overcome a whole community driven by a single identity and drawn together toward a single mission.
And when we get this right? Well, look what happened when the church in Jerusalem did: “And 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.” Look at this. The church grew, and not just a little bit. It multiplied greatly. What’s more many priests came to faith. These guys were the natural enemies of the message of the Gospel. They were invested in seeing it fail. But they couldn’t escape the power of this community in which every part was empowered and unleashed to become fully who God had designed them to be. Had the apostles taken the bait and stepped away from their main duties to solve this problem, this would have never happened.
In the same way, what we are doing this morning is a deeply spiritual venture. But it is also an imminently practical one. There is ministry to be done in this community and beyond and we need good leaders in place to oversee getting it done. You are empowering these guys to do the things I can’t, to do the things I shouldn’t. More than that, you are empowering them to do the things they can and should be doing. But, even they can’t do them alone. They will need your help. They will need you to answer when they call and to serve where you are gifted to serve. Just as they are doing for me as the pastor, you doing this will empower them to do what only they can do even more effectively which will ultimately be to your benefit and God’s glory.
And before we wrap this up and get out of here, let me add one more observation to this. These original deacons weren’t called to be generalists. They were empowered to a specific task. They were recognized by the congregation as specifically suited to solving this specific issue. I suspect that if it were a different issue that was facing the church, a different group of folks would have been called. Why does that matter? Because today, lots of churches treat their deacons as if they are to be generalists. They are called, given a list of church members, and expected to minister to all their needs on behalf of the pastor, calling on him for only the big stuff. Yet what good does it do for the church or the deacons to empower them to be generalists when it is for a specific task that they have been gifted by God? This does them no more favors than the church that simply expects the pastor to do all the ministry does for them. If God has equipped them for a specific role in the church (as He has all of us), and if we are going to raise them up and empower them to be leaders in the body, then wouldn’t it make the most sense for us to call them to lead through service in the specific way in which they’ve been gifted? Instead of demanding that this group of specialists behave as generalists in such a way that usually winds up being to both their and our detriment, why not empower this group of specialists to be just that?
I submit to you that such a move would be to the benefit of everyone, including the kingdom. Now, no, folks wouldn’t necessarily have “their” deacon to call in this kind of a situation which is certainly a mental adjustment to make for folks who are used to that. But, the deacon you do call is going to be the one you need who is gifted for that particular ministry which he or she will be able to do for you a lot more effectively than someone not so suited. In the end, again, everybody wins. And if we’re going to get deacon ministry right here at First Baptist, I think this is something worth exploring together. But that’s a conversation for another time. For now, let us delight together in these servants whom we are raising up so that we can altogether be more fully who God designed us to be. Let us delight in this great opportunity to be the church. Let us delight, and then let us commit ourselves to doing just that together.