Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Byron Center, Michigan.
A historical survey of the office of the diaconate will demonstrate that the fundamental work of the deacon is to care for the church’s poor and that the proper functioning of the office has been neglected since its institution. Demonstrating this will set the stage for a more thorough discussion of the nature and work of the office. In this article we begin such a survey by examining the institution of the office in the early New Testament church.
The diaconate as we know it today was instituted in the church in Jerusalem, not long after Pentecost, according to Acts 6:1-6. The place and the time of this institution are significant.
As to the place, remember that the true church of the old dispensation, since David’s time, had centered its worship in Jerusalem, where the temple was. With Christ’s death the Old Testament worship ceremonies were abolished, and the church of the new dispensation was free to worship anywhere, so long as she worshiped in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). Nevertheless, though she no longer needed to worship in Jerusalem, she did so at first, because there the believers were gathered and were accustomed to worshiping. At His ascension, Christ had commanded the disciples “that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4). This promise was fulfilled on Pentecost (the birthday of the church in the new dispensation) when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the disciples in Jerusalem (Acts 2).
Scripture does not tell us specifically when the office was instituted. We are simply told, “in those days” (Acts 6:1). These were the days following Pentecost, the days in which the apostles continued to preach the gospel in Jerusalem, the days in which the church grew rapidly and began to live communally, the days in which the Pharisees and Sadducees began to persecute the church and the apostles for their faith. All of this was before Stephen’s stoning and Paul’s conversion. We know that Christ was crucified, and that the Holy Spirit was poured out, around AD 30. Scholars date the stoning of Stephen, one of the first deacons, at roughly 32 or 33.1 So the period of time between Pentecost and Stephen’s death, during which the office of deacon could have been instituted, is at most three years. We are inclined to date the institution of the diaconate earlier rather than later during these three years, because before Stephen was killed, enough time had to elapse for him to begin doing his miracles and to incur the wrath of the leaders of the Jews. So we will date the institution of the office at roughly 30 or 31. However, our purpose is not so much to find an exact date of the institution, as it is to show that this took place very soon after Pentecost.
This is significant, because it shows us that the office of deacon is as old as the New Testament church, and therefore is an essential office in the church institute. In case anyone argues, on the grounds that the church did not have deacons immediately, that the office is not necessary in the instituted church, our response is that the problems which arose in the church before the office was instituted were God’s way of demonstrating to the church that she needs deacons. The Lord often works this way — showing us our need of something, then providing us that which we need.2
It is also noteworthy that the office was instituted before the church spread from Jerusalem to Antioch, Asia Minor, and Europe. God gave the pattern for church institutions to the first church institute, so that others might follow her example. That later congregations did follow this example is evident from the letter to the Philippians and the first letter to Timothy, written around 61 and 62 respectively: Paul includes the deacons in his address to the Philippians (1:1) and tells Timothy what qualifications the deacons must have (I Tim. 3:8-13).
The narrative of Scripture which speaks of the institution of the diaconate also demonstrates why we need deacons: we need deacons to care for the poor of the church.
The problem in the early church was that allegations arose that the Grecian widows were neglected in the daily ministration. These Grecians were Greek-speaking Jews who had been raised in western parts of the Roman Empire, and had since returned to Jerusalem. They are contrasted with the Hebrew-speaking Jews who had been raised in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. Although Scripture doesn’t specifically say that these allegations were true, and although the allegations were not brought in a brotherly, loving way (they came to light through grumbling and complaining), yet we read that the apostles’ response was to see to it that the Grecian widows were cared for.
There are different opinions regarding what this “daily ministering,” which occasioned this murmuring, was.
One opinion is that the reference was to the love feasts which were common in the early New Testament church. These love feasts were gatherings of the members of the church for a meal, to which the wealthy would bring the food, sharing with the poor. This was a practical expression of the unity of the church and of the communion of the saints. According to this explanation, the problem was that those who provided the food were causing the Hebrew widows to be cared for better than the Grecian widows.3
Another opinion is that the reference is to the leftovers from the daily administration of the Lord’s Supper, which leftovers were distributed to the poor.4
A third opinion is that this refers to the practice of distributing to those in need from the common fund of the church. To this common fund Luke refers in Acts 2:44, 45 and Acts 4:32, 34, 35. In the former passage we read: “And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.” The latter passage indicates that the money which was received from the sale of these possessions was brought to the apostles, who distributed the money.5
This last opinion is the preferable explanation, I believe. It certainly is a natural explanation, bearing in mind that Luke has spoken already of the communal situation in the early church. This explanation also does justice to the role of the apostles in the ministrations: Acts 4 tells us that they distributed out of this common fund, and Acts 6:2 indicates that it was the apostles who were in charge of this daily ministration. The first opinion is weak, because it does not account for the apostles doing all of the ministering. The wealthy could have served the poor, for the wealthy brought the food. Or, in light of Acts 2:46, which indicates that such feasts were held in private homes, the owner of the house might have served.
Whatever the case may be, the church had poor who were in need of care. For the apostles to supervise all of the care was inadequate for two reasons: first, because of the allegations which arose, and second, because the apostles had better things to do, having been called to the ministry of the Word and to prayer. The remedy which the apostles proposed was that other men be chosen to do the work of caring for the poor. Thus the office of deacon was instituted in the New Testament church.
There are some who argue that Acts 6:1-6 does not, in fact, provide a record of the institution of the office of deacon. They point out that the word “deacon” is not used in this passage; that the qualifications which the apostles prescribed for these seven men (that they be “full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom,” v. 3) are quite different from the qualifications which Paul clearly prescribes for deacons in I Timothy 3; that Philip and Stephen performed work other than that which is required of deacons, specifically the work of evangelism and doing miracles (Acts 6:8ff., 8:26ff.); and that Acts 11:30 says that the elders (not deacons) of the church in Judea received the benevolence money which the church in Antioch sent. Other theories are therefore suggested regarding what position these seven men held. Some say that this was a temporary, extraordinary position, not really an office, which was established simply to deal with this problem, and which soon disappeared in the early church. Others say that this was the institution of the office of elder. Still others say that this was a temporary office which later gave way to the office of deacon.6 We believe that Acts 6:1-6 is the record of the institution of the office of deacon.
First, that the position which these men held was actually that of an office in the church is evident from the fact that the apostles laid their hands on them (v. 6). Doing this on behalf of the church, the apostles thus indicated that the church consecrated these men to God for His work. Doing this on behalf of God, in the authority of their apostolic office, they indicated that God had chosen these men, and would give them the spiritual blessings which they needed to do the work. The significance of this laying on of hands is the same as that of the Old Testament practice of anointing a priest with oil.
Second, we see no real conflict between the qualifications which the apostles prescribe and those which Paul prescribes. Paul certainly spells out in more detail what the qualifications for deacons are, but if one meets all the qualifications listed in I Timothy 3:8-13, he surely is a man full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom.
Third, that the word “deacon” is not used is not a problem, because the passage makes clear what the work of these men must be. They must “serve tables.” Interestingly, the Greek verb translated “serve” is diakoneo, and is related to the Greek noun for deacon, diakonos. This latter word indicates that the deacon is one who serves. In addition, the work of these men was to serve the poor, which work is fundamental to the office of deacon as we know it. Clearly, the work was not that of ruling, which is the work of the elders. Nor was it the work of preaching, which was the work of the apostles (Acts 6:4).
Fourth, we can explain the evangelistic work of Philip and Stephen more naturally by saying that they were called to the office of evangelist as well as deacon. Acts 8:26 shows that Philip was specifically called and sent to preach.
Lastly, that the elders of Jerusalem received the gift of money from Antioch cannot be used to argue conclusively that these seven were elders; nor does it necessarily mean that by this time the office of deacon had ceased functioning in Jerusalem.7 Exactly why the elders received this money instead of the deacons we do not know.
We agree with P.Y. DeJong that, “On the basis of the plain statement that they [the seven, DJK] were specifically charged with caring for the physical needs of the poor we may legitimately conclude that Acts 6 records the beginning of the diaconal ministry.”8
We conclude by observing some practical points of instruction which Acts 6:1-6 gives us regarding the office of deacon. To some of these we will return later, in more detail.
Note first that the church was given the opportunity to choose these men. So it is fitting today that the members of the church have an opportunity to suggest to the church council the names of men whom they consider eminently qualified for the office of deacon. This is in keeping with Article 22 of our Church Order: “… every church shall be at liberty, according to its circumstances, to give the members an opportunity to direct attention to suitable persons….” And it is fitting that, when possible, the council present to the congregation the names of twice as many men as are needed for the office, so that the congregation can choose its deacons from this list (also in keeping with Article 22).
We are also hereby instructed regarding the installation of deacons. First, such installation must take place by the officebearers. So, although the congregation chose the men for the office, the apostles ordained them into their office. Second, the installation ceremony was a solemn one, consisting of prayers and the laying on of hands (v. 6). Although the custom of the PRC is not to perform the actual ceremony of the laying on of hands when installing deacons, we do justice to that which the ceremony signified when the minister says to (really prays on behalf of) the newly installed elders and deacons: “The Almighty God and Father replenish you all with His grace, that ye may faithfully and fruitfully discharge your respective offices.”9
The instruction of this passage regarding the qualification of the deacons is obvious. The Lord willing, we will consider their qualifications in a future article. For now we note that these were “seven men” (v. 3) — males, and plural in number. It is certainly best if there are several men in the office of deacon in any given congregation, although of course the size of the congregation will be a factor in determining how many men should be in the office.
But the one point which Acts 6 makes clear, and which we wish to stress, is the fact that the work of the deacons is that of caring for the poor. Also to this subject we will return in a future article, the Lord willing; but that this is the work of the office explains its necessity in the church. The church needs deacons, because the church has poor for whom she must care.
1. Cf. H. Wayne House, Chronological and Background Charts of the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1981), page 127.
2. John Calvin emphasizes this point in his commentary on Acts 6:1, which see.
3. This is the opinion of Herman Hoeksema, as he expresses it in his syllabus New Testament History, published in 1978 by the Theological School of the Protestant Reformed Churches, in Grandville, MI. See page 69.
4. Cf. William Heyns, Handbook for Elders and Deacons (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1928), page 293.
5. F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, revised edition (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), page 120. This volume is part of the series “The New International Commentary on the New Testament.”
6. For more elaboration on these ideas and their support, cf. Hoeksema, Ibid, pp. 69-70; Heyns, Ibid, p. 294; and Peter Y. DeJong, The Ministry of Mercy for Today (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1952), pp. 29-30.
7. Herman Hoeksema is of this latter opinion; Ibid., p. 76.
8. DeJong, Loc. cit., p. 30.
9. Cf. our “Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons.”