Where Did All the Deacons Go? Reconsidering Acts 6
Most Bible readers will be familiar with the establishment of diaconal ministry in Acts 6:1-6. Of course, the church had helped the needy since Pentecost (Acts 2:45; 4:34-35), making mercy ministry as fundamental to the Christian community as sitting under preaching, sharing communion, and prayer. But something important takes place in Acts 6, as the apostles establish the first diaconate. I’ve been reflecting on these verses recently and am convinced that they hold some important lessons for us, especially in correcting contemporary Protestantism’s overinflated view of teaching and preaching ministries, along with the abandonment of any meaningful diaconal ministry.
Is Acts 6 about the Priority of Preaching?
For many years I would have summarised Acts 6:1-6 along these lines: the church’s ministry towards the needy was becoming more complex (6:1), increasing the demands on the twelves’ time and even threatening the apostolic task of preaching (6:2). Therefore they appointed deacons to oversee their ministries of mercy (6:3, 6), and recommitted themselves to prayer and preaching (6:4).
The emphasis of this summary suggests that mercy ministry—or diaconal work—was both a distraction from the gospel and a second tier priority in the Acts church. But is that what we should take away from this text? I don’t think it is.
It’s interesting what Luke writes after the decision to appoint deacons, “What they said pleased the whole gathering” (6:5). I imagine many will read this verse and conclude that the gathering were pleased with the the apostles’ reiterated devotion to word ministry and pray (6:4). Only that verse follows on from 6:3, where the decision is made to establish a diaconal ministry that will be committed to administering mercy and charity (6:3). However, whenever I hear this text taught or cited it’s usually to make the point that mercy ministries are a distraction from important gospel work—from Bible teaching. This misses a fundamental point in the text: the early church were pleased with the establishment of the diaconate.
The Work of Deacons isn’t Secondary
Now, hopefully I’m not bending Luke-Acts in ways it shouldn’t be read. Yes, the apostles were concerned about the potential distraction of serving tables (6:2). But the growing needs and complexities of the early church meant that people’s material needs were being neglected (6:1). Those needs were so important to the apostles that they created a distinct office in the church to address them (6:3; 1 Timothy 3:8-13). The apostles don’t shrug off mercy ministry because it’s a distraction or unimportant. No, the church establishes a diaconate because of the incredible importance of helping the needy.
In brief, Acts 6:1-6 shows us that certain individuals within the church must prioritise teaching and preaching, word ministry and prayer. But I’m not sure that it teaches that this ought to be a priority of the church. If anything, the decision in Acts 6 to set apart deacons emphasises the priority of mercy ministry in the early church. With this in mind, let me conclude with three takeaway points.
Concluding Points on Diaconal Ministry
Firstly, Acts 6 doesn’t teach that the work of proclamation is more important than that of mercy. In fact, it shows that diaconal work was fundamental to the early church’s identity and mission. Starting in Acts 2, the first Christians were devoted to helping the needy. That devotion was formalised in Acts 6, to ensure that it continued. A staunch commitment to word and prayer over and against helping the needy horribly misses the point of Acts 6.
Secondly, the apostles were involved in mercy ministry until the establishment of the diaconate. They were oversubscribed, precisely because of their commitment to both pastoral and mercy ministries. How much more should this be the case of elders and pastors today, until their churches have functioning diaconal ministry? Too often we hide behind Acts 6, as if it validates the personal prioritising of preaching over mercy. It doesn’t.
Finally, the early Christians were involved in a “daily distribution” for the needy (6:1). While life in the 1st century was undoubtedly harsh, it’s hard to imagine that it was any worse than 21st century South Africa. How can we then not see the problem with having church councils, building committees, endless preaching conferences, and AV teams, but no meaningful diaconates? This should not be so. Acts 6 suggests that after the establishment an eldership we should be looking to set apart deacons to help the needy.