The Ministry of Mercy

The nature of the work of the diaconate is oftentimes misunderstood in the Church of Christ. This misunderstanding is revealed frequently by the members of the church and by the deacons themselves. More than one well-meaning deacon, when seeking out the poor, has received a sharp rebuff from an unjustly irritated member of the church to whom the deacons had offered financial assistance in Christ’s name. You see, the unjustly irritated church member was insulted by the fact that these deacons had the audacity even to think that she or he might be poor! Poverty is in our society, supposedly, an occasion for shame! But deacons themselves at times reveal either ignorance concerning the nature of their work or spiritual insensitivity to their calling: this is revealed, for example, when deacons: refuse to visit and read the Scriptures and pray with those persons who receive financial assistance from the deacons. These are serious problems, which can be easily overcome if we will be instructed by the Spirit of God.

In Acts 6:1-7 we have, according to the form for the ordination of elders and deacons, the historical “origin and institution of their office.” If we pay close attention to this passage in its context, we can learn a great deal about the office and work of the diaconate. You should open your Bible to this passage and read it.

The occasion for the institution of the office of the deacons, we are told, is the neglect of the widows of the Grecians, with the result that the Grecians began to murmur regarding this unfair treatment of their widows. Who were these Grecians? They were not Greeks, not by birth nor by belief. These Grecians were Jews by birth; physically they were of the same race as the Hebrews mentioned in this passage. But the distinction between the “Grecians” and the “Hebrews” is to be found in the fact that the Grecians were Jews that had been born in foreign countries. They were the descendants of the Jews of the Diaspora, but who had subsequently returned to live in Palestine and in particular in Jerusalem. They were, therefore, distinguished from the Hebrews by the fact that they spoke the Greek language while the Hebrews spoke Aramaic, which was then currently spoken in Palestine.

These Grecians murmured to the apostles about the fact that their widows were neglected in the daily ministrations. What specifically is referred to by “daily ministrations” is impossible to determine, because the text nor the context tells us what specifically is meant. We know that it concerned the “serving of tables.” Some have said that the reference is to the “love feasts,” the agape, of the early church. These Grecian widows were not able to provide for their own table at these feasts. Supposedly then, the other members of the church were to provide food for the poor and did so; but when distribution was made the Grecian widows were neglected. I would be inclined, for several reasons, which are not pertinent here, to give the expressions “daily ministrations” and “serve tables” a broader meaning. I take these expressions to refer to all the physical needs from day to day of these widows, who were not able to provide for themselves.

We should point out that this neglect of the Grecian widows was not by design. Nor was this neglect evidence of a racial strife between the Grecians and the Hebrews, for as I pointed out they were all of the same race. Not only that, but the distribution to the poor was, evidently, the work of the apostles at this time, whom we may be sure did this work without deliberately showing partiality. Positively, the neglect of these Grecian widows must be found in the great growth of the Church at this time and in the fact that there were only the twelve apostles to carry out this distribution., Note how Luke carefully intimates this fact in the opening verse of Acts 6: “when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring. . . .” If we compare our text with Acts 2:41, Acts 4:4 and Acts 5:14 it is not absurd to say that the Church had at this time grown to about ten to fifteen thousand members in and about Jerusalem. Among such a large congregation, is it any wonder that some of the poor, the Grecian widows, were neglected? It can be readily understood why it was that these widows were neglected by the apostles: the Church was too large for the twelve men upon whom the work fell.

“It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables.” Thus did the twelve apostles reason with the congregation which was called together to consider a solution to this problem. The apostles were keenly aware of their calling to busy themselves with prayer and the proclamation of the gospel of Christ; they no longer could do both the work of a deacon and the work of an herald of the gospel. The work of the apostles as preachers was “to serve” the church in the proclamation of, the gospel. That work was one aspect of the one office of Christ, and specifically it was the work of a prophet who brings God’s Word, in God’s name, to His people. The work of “ministering” to the poor is the work of a deacon as he manifests Christ’s office as the Highpriest of His people. The one office of Christ comes to expression here in the two-fold work of ministering to God’s people; on the one hand in the heralding forth of the word and on the other hand in the ministry of mercy to the poor.

To solve this problem the apostles instructed the congregation to elect out of their number seven men, who were of “honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom,” whom they might appoint over this work. The church, not the apostles, chose the seven men to be appointed to this work. So also today, the church members choose or elect its officebearers who are installed into office. Undoubtedly, the apostles wanted to avoid any form of hierarchy, and therefore called upon the members of the congregation to elect seven men to be appointed to this work of mercy, who were to meet the qualifications stipulated by the apostles.

It has been said of the seven men who were appointed to do this work that they were not really deacons or officebearers in the church. They were, according to this position, just helpers, assistants to the apostles. I think that that position is a wrong interpretation of Acts 6, because it does not take into account the following: 1) that these men are of such importance that their personal names are given us, 2) that they were elected as qualified men, 3) that they were elected to the specific work of distributing the alms of God’s people to the poor, 4) that they were ordained to this work in the presence of the congregation and by the laying on of hands. I believe that the act of the laying on of hands, by which these seven men were appointed to this work, is conclusive proof that they were ordained to the specific office of deacon. (Cf. I Tim. 4:14, II Tim. 1:6 and Numbers 27:18) The laying on of hands did not always mean that one was ordained to a specific office in the church (Acts 8:14-18); but in the context of Acts 6 it can have no other meaning, it would seem to me. The laying on of hands is a symbolic act. Therefore, it signified that these men had been called and qualified for their office and work by God, who had given them His Spirit and the gift of wisdom with the result that these men were of “honest report” among the people.

It is important to note a moment that the historical circumstances recorded in Acts 6, which necessitated the institution of the office of the deacon, were circumstances determined and created by the exalted Christ and were the means, therefore, through which Christ acted to give to His Church this specific office, through which His mercy would be revealed. It is for this reason that the acts of the apostles are the authoritative revelation of God through Christ to His Church in all ages. The deaconship is therefore a permanent office in the Church, through which the mercy of Christ is bestowed upon “the poor” who are ever with us. (Mark 14:7)

The deacon’s work is the ministry of mercy. Mercy is the expression of the love of God to one who is in misery. The mercy of God was revealed centrally in the cross of Christ, when God, who is rich in mercy, gave His Son in our flesh to be crucified for the sins and guilt of His elect people, who groaned in misery under the heavy burden of the knowledge of their sin and guilt.

In what way concretely do the deacons reveal this mercy of Christ to the poor? The answer is that poverty is misery, lack is anguish, want is suffering. Therefore, to such in the church Christ wills that His mercy be revealed through the deaconship as it labors to satisfy the physical needs of the poor—mercy to those in misery. But the misery of the poor is not only limited to physical wants but also to spiritual needs occasioned by lack, want and poverty.

I would warn that we must not have a superficial conception of this ministry of mercy to the poor. The office and work of deacons is not limited merely to the physical needs of the poor. It is out of ignorance or indifference about this matter that the problems arise, which I mentioned earlier.

Let me be specific! Negatively, the deacon’s work is not the rather insignificant work of “counting pennies” once a month, or that of a payroll clerk. Nor is it the work of deacons merely to mail out checks to the poor. Some people think so, but they could not be more mistaken. If deacons come or send to the poor only money, clothes or food—physical things—what then distinguishes them and their work from “welfare workers” of the state? Are your deacons performing the same service as the welfare workers of your city? There are those who would answer affirmatively. This attitude toward the office of the deacons is revealed by social gospel churches, which admire and praise the cruel mercies of an humanistic social welfare system, and rightly so, if the deacon’s work is merely to look after the physical needs of the poor.

But the office of deaconship is much more than merely providing for the physical needs of the poor. The work of the deacons is a spiritual one, a work of the Kingdom of Heaven. The deacons are to satisfy a spiritual need through the giving of physical things in Christ’s name to the poor, to whom the deacons come with “comfortable words” from Scripture and with whom they give thanks to God for His mercy, which is bestowed upon them through Christ. I want to underscore this fact: the deacons are to minister to the spiritual needs of God’s people. Surely, the pastor and the elders serve the spiritual needs of God’s people through the preaching of the word and by watching over the confession and, walk of the congregation; but the deacons share in this spiritual work of caring for the sheep of Christ.

Allow me to amplify and clarify.

Poverty is a threat to the believer’s spiritual welfare. Poverty can bring with it despair, resentment, bitterness, and hatred over against fellow believers and God. The man who is financially unable to provide dental care, eyeglasses, shoes, Christian education etc. for his children is one who is spiritually in a precarious situation. He begins to “murmur.” Suffering want, he is inclined to express his hurt and pain at the indifference of believers. Frequently he is tempted to murmur even against God. Listen to the prayer of a man filled with the wisdom of God and who therefore understood these things: “give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me; Lest I be full and deny thee, and say, Who is the Lord? or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain.” (Proverbs 30:8-9) Poverty can be the occasion for one who out of despair and resentment is confronted with the temptation to steal from his neighbor and to curse the name of God. The physical and the spiritual, soul and body, are inseparably related, and the one is greatly influenced by the other.

Consequently, deacons must seek out the poor to alleviate physical burdens and thereby bring spiritual healing and strength. If deacons understand that their work is to satisfy. a spiritual need through the means of giving physical assistance to the poor among God’s people, they will then reveal that they are men full of the Spirit of God and wisdom. That is, men able to perceive spiritual things which belong to the Kingdom of Heaven. These spiritual things humanistic, tear-stained-faced, welfare workers of the state never perceive; for “except ye be born again ye cannot see the kingdom of heaven.” To insure that our deacons will understand the nature of their office the church must elect men to be deacons who are filled with the Holy Spirit and with wisdom from above.

I would like to conclude by reminding ourselves that when deacons bring financial assistance to the poor they are to do so with comfortable words from Scripture. That is a must. Why deacons are to do that ought to be obvious. The spiritual needs of the poor are to be satisfied, not with mere naked physical things, but by giving material assistance accompanied with the reading and discussion of a portion of God’s Word and by turning to our heavenly Father in prayer. When members of the congregation and the deacons cooperate in this spiritual work as the citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, the people of God will be less inclined to turn to the state or county for aid. The deacons have a very important work to perform in Christ’s name, a work which is of tremendous benefit spiritually to the Church. Obviously the result of the faithful labors of the seven men of whom we read in Acts 6, was that the Grecians stopped murmuring and they stopped murmuring because the occasion for resentment was removed. Peace, harmony and tranquility was restored to the apostolic church. The apostles were freed from serving tables and to busy themselves with the word. All this is intimated by the words of Acts 6:7, where we read; “And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.” Priests, who saw the good works of those who revealed the Highpriestly office of Christ, were now obedient to the faith and glorified God with the Church.

If, our deacons so labor among the poor of the church they will be instruments in God’s hands to open and fill the mouths and hearts of those, who were tempted to curse, with songs of praise and prayers of thanksgiving for the gift of the mercy of Him, who abundantly provides for all our needs, both physical and spiritual. Thus also, deacons will be able to bring God’s Word to that spiritually poor, unjustly irritated person who gives them a sharp rebuff. If deacons understand the spiritual character of their work, they will be able to fill such a person’s spiritual need with a little meat out of God’s Word.