Should Church Elders Prioritise Mercy Ministry? Considering 1 Timothy
I few weeks back I posted a short article reconsidering the meaning of Acts 6:1-6. As the early church grew so too did the demands for mercy ministry, charity, and benevolence; only these needs were being neglected (Acts 6:1). The apostles were concerned that the growing demands posed a threat to their calling to proclaim the word (Acts 6:2, 4). This episode is often used to insist on the priority of preaching and prayer over mercy in the local church, but I argued against such a view.
Mercy ministry is not a potential distraction from the more important task of teaching and preaching. In fact, Acts 6:1-6 is indicative of the high value that the apostles placed on it. They were so committed to ministries of mercy that: (a) their calling to herald the gospel was suffering; and (b) they established the church office of deacon to meet material needs. Yes, there was concern about the particular calling of the apostles. Yet the early church was also delighted with the newly founded diaconate (Acts 6:5).
In this follow-up article I hope to further raise the profile of diaconal work in the local church. Towards the end of the first article I pointed out that the apostles were fully engaged in mercy ministry until the establishment of the diaconate. Their difficulty in balancing preaching and serving tables (Acts 6:2) suggests that they saw both as their responsibility. In other words, the apostles weren’t committed to preaching and prayer at the expense mercy. This can be demonstrated using 1 Timothy.
1 Timothy on the Office of Elder
I recently had the opportunity to use 1 Timothy as a guideline in praying for pastors and elders. Since this epistle was written by an apostle to a local church elder—outlining “how one ought to behave in the household of God” (1 Timothy 3:15; see Titus 1:5)—one might expect it to touch on both the priorities and perils of local church eldership. Below I will outline these, before highlighting an often overlooked detail from the book of 1 Timothy regarding the responsibility of elders.
Paul exhorts elders to be devoted to sound doctrine, stewarding the faith with which they’ve been entrusted (1 Timothy 1:4, 11; 6:20). This is why Paul says his understudy must be devoted to the public reading of scripture, exhortation, and teaching (1 Timothy 4:13). Contrast with sound doctrine is the danger of distractions: “myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations” (1:4; 4:7) and “vain discussion” (1:6; 6:20-21). But the interlocking responsibilities to proclaim the truth and avoid distraction must be imbued with love (1 Timothy 1:5). Though eldership is likened to “warfare” (1 Timothy 1:18), how it is conducted is critically important (1 Timothy 1:19). Hence Paul’s emphasis on character (1 Timothy 3:2-7; 4:12; 6:11-12), contrast with pride and greed (1 Timothy 6:4-10).
In brief, elders must be committed to sound doctrine, both teaching and defending it, while resisting distractions in various forms as well as the snares of pride, greed and discontentment.
However, in addition to the above, Paul directs Timothy to the mercy ministry, specifically the care of widows (1 Timothy 5:3-16). Elsewhere I’ve unpacked principles from this passage, but it struck me as I studied 1 Timothy that Paul gives considerable attention to what we might call mercy or diaconal ministry, even though he is addressing Timothy—an elder. What should we make of this?
Elders must Oversee Mercy Ministry
On the one hand, it would be a mistake to overturn the well-established distinction between elders and deacons within the Reformed tradition. This distinction finds support in Acts 6. It finds further support in 1 Timothy 3:2, for only elders must be able to teach. Writing to Titus in Crete, Paul urges him to appoint elders that will steward the “trustworthy word…so that [they] may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). Just as deacons are appointed for the task of mercy, elders are called to the ministry of preaching and prayer.
However, these respective emphases are not mutually exclusive. For example, Stephen preaches a cracker of a sermon in Acts 7:2-53. And he was a deacon. Likewise we see that elders—just like the apostles in Acts 6—should be actively engaged in mercy ministry. For 1 Timothy 5 isn’t addressed to nor does it even mention deacons. As I said more than once in my previous post, when elders “prioritise” preaching and prayer at the expense of mercy ministry in the local church they aren’t acting in obedience to God.
So, finally, should elders personally prioritise and throw themselves into mercy ministry? I don’t think they should. For the two-office view of church governance upheld by the Reformed traditions is not only useful, it’s biblical. In his excellent work How Jesus Runs the Church, Guy Prentiss Waters shows that the responsibility of elders is to order the church. He says that they “are called to oversee the church, to govern the church, and to teach the church.” Surely this order must extend to the organisation of mercy ministry and leading the diaconate well. That seems to be the pattern established both in the New Testament and early church.