by Al Maxey

Issue #484 ------- April 22, 2011
There is no greater satisfaction for a just and
well-meaning person than the knowledge that he has
devoted his best energies to the service of a good cause.

Albert Einstein {1879-1955}

Deacons in the Church
Who/What Are These People?

About three weeks ago I received the following email from a minister in my home state of New Mexico -- "I just read your article on Phoebe (Reflections #299). It seems to me very few people truly understand the real meaning of diakonos, and because of that misunderstanding have closed minds on the subject of deacons. You would do a service to the brotherhood by writing a Reflections on the meaning and usage of the term in the NT writings and in Greek society of the first century! It is my view that we appoint both males and females to jobs that could very well be described as those of deacons, and that our restrictive use of the term is, in a word, 'UNscriptural.' It would be great if you would explain what this word really meant so that we could stop arguing over 'qualifications.'"

The concept of rendering service to another (serving; being a servant) is truly timeless!! From the earliest days of mankind's existence upon this earth, our Creator has called us and challenged us to demonstrate our love for one another by serving one another. Indeed, we all witness this eternal principle in action in the daily ministrations of God's Son -- "I am among you as One who serves" (Luke 22:27). "The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve" (Matt. 20:28). Dr. Gerhard Kittel, in his monumental study of Greek terms, observes, "The concept of serving is expressed in Greek by many words which are often rather hard to differentiate, even though each one has its own basic emphasis" [Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 2, p. 81]. Since serving one another, as well as serving our Creator, is foundational to building binding relationships with both God and man, it is not unexpected that a number of different words would be employed to express the various nuances of such service. There are some words, for example, that suggest one's service is not rendered willingly (i.e., a slave). Other terms suggest public service, and service for which wages are received. There are also terms denoting religious service (such as that rendered by the priests in the temple). In the term diakoneo, however, "as distinct from all these terms," there is "a stronger approximation to the concept of a service of love" [ibid]. "It connotes a very personal service, closely related to a service of love. ... It is exemplified in the second commandment: 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself'" [Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 430].

If genuine love for one another is the command that Jesus Christ regards as foremost, then serving one another is the foremost expression of that command! Jesus, the personification of love, came to serve. As you and I grow to become more like Him, we increasingly do the same. The apostle Paul gave this command: "Serve one another in love, for the entire law is summed up in a single command: 'Love your neighbor as yourself'" (Gal. 5:13-14). Thus, "the unique source of all Christian diakonia, and its perfect prototype, is found in Him who, being Lord, made Himself a servant of all" [The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 2, p. 48]. The Greek word diakonos, and its many cognates, "are used to emphasize that all Christians are ministers (servants) and that all Christian life is ministry (service)" [The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 880]. "Diakoneo and its cognates" are, within the pages of the New Testament canon, the "central expression for Christian conduct," which conduct is directly "oriented to Jesus' word and behavior" [Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 1, p. 302]. Thus, "the root of the NT content of diakoneo lies in the speech and conduct of Jesus Himself. Likewise, the central meaning that the complex of words receives in the life of the early church is derived from Jesus Himself and from the earliest interpretation of His total work and death as servanthood" [ibid, p. 303].

Being a servant, and serving in love, is so central to Christianity (indeed, it is the very essence of it) that Jesus describes the Great Separation that will one day take place as being based on whether or not we rendered service unto others during our life here on earth!! -- Matthew 25:31-46. How well one perceives some great theological theme, or how perfectly someone performs some religious rite or ritual, matters so little in the eternal scheme of things that these are not even brought up! Did you love your neighbor, and did you show it in service to him/her?! -- these are the questions that will be posed by our Lord -- NOT: how many cups did you use in the Communion, did you eat inside a church building, did you have a VBS, or did a woman say "Amen" in the public assembly? "In the judgment described in Matt. 25:31-46, the Son of Man will separate the sheep from the goats on the basis of diakonia" [The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 2, p. 48]. "Jesus comprises under the term diakonein many different activities such as giving food and drink, extending shelter, providing clothes and visiting the sick and prisoners. The term thus comes to have the full sense of active Christian love for one's neighbor, and as such it is a mark of true discipleship" [Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 2, p. 85].

"It is not clear when the word diakonos, as used in early Christian circles, passed from the generic meaning 'servant' or 'minister' to the specific meaning 'deacon' -- an 'office' in early church ministry" [Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 325]. Indeed, there has been tremendous debate over the centuries as to whether certain persons in church leadership should ever be regarded as holders of some "office." More about that in a moment. With the rapid growth and expansion of the church in the first century, and in the centuries to follow, there came an increased need for Spirit-filled and Spirit-called individuals to step forward and assume their roles as servant-leaders within the Family of God. Evangelists, in a great many cases, left possessions and loved ones to travel about sharing God's message of grace and establishing communities of believers. As time went by, elders (shepherds, overseers, presbyters, pastors -- they are known by a number of names) were appointed in these congregations to provide spiritual leadership. There were those who were called to teach, as well as those who were called to take the lead in various areas of service. If some specific need was perceived in the group of disciples that required special attention, it was not uncommon for certain individuals to be called forth from the group, and by the group, to provide leadership in the meeting of that need. A perfect example is seen in Acts 6:1-6, where the congregation was asked by the Twelve to select seven men "who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom" to see to the needs of certain widows who were apparently being overlooked or neglected in "the daily distribution of food."

As Dr. Gerhard Kittel correctly points out, "Appeal is frequently made to Acts 6 in explanation of the rise of the diaconate, though the term diakonos is not actually used" [Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 2, p. 90]. It is Kittel's conviction, however, "that the origin of the diaconate is not to be found in Acts 6" [ibid]. The Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia agrees, characterizing the seven disciples in Acts 6 as "workers" and not "office bearers" [vol. 1, p. 431]. The stark, yet simple, reality is -- there is "no explicit Bible reference that describes the duties of deacons or refers to the origin of the office" [Holman Bible Dictionary, p. 345]. Indeed, there is really no place within the New Covenant writings that ever declares such persons to be "office holders" within the church. That fallacy can be laid in large measure at the feet of the King James Version, and the ecclesiastical mindset of those men who were responsible for producing it!! The KJV speaks of "the office of a bishop" (1 Tim. 3:1) and "the office of a deacon" (1 Tim. 3:10, 13). Very few versions and translations follow the lead of the KJV on this, although both the ASV and the NASB read "office" with respect to elders, yet both of these versions have refused to use the term with respect to deacons! In point of fact, "there is no word representing 'office'" anywhere in these three verses [W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, p. 129]. The concept of "office" has been added by those living within a tradition of ecclesiastical office holders in a highly structured and organized religious institution.

There are some Christians who are comfortable with viewing both elders and deacons as "office holders." I am not one of them!! I believe such a perspective lends itself too easily to a falling away from the view of the church as Family, to one where it is seen as an Institution. Elders assume an "office" on a Board of Directors, and deacons become their underlings in the "office" of Junior Executives within the corporation!! Service is soon forgotten in favor of Ruling. Tolbert Fanning, one of the major leaders in the Stone-Campbell Movement, "rejected the use of the term 'office' by anyone in the church, stating that the words 'shepherds,' 'deacons,' and 'ministers' were incidental and descriptive, but never official designations" [The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 261]. Of the more than 100 occurrences of the Greek term in question here, "few even hint at the ecclesiastical office which later developed" [The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 2, p. 49]. NOTE -- If we're going to use the KJV as a "proof" that elders and deacons hold an "office," then let's be consistent in its use as a "proof" -- "For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office..." (Rom. 12:4). Clearly, ALL members of the church are "office" holders (according to the KJV) -- we just hold different "offices." And yes, that would include women!! Paul goes on to list for us some of these "offices" -- teaching, giving, being merciful, etc. It seems to me we are not only adding the word "office" to the biblical text, but we are then turning it into something it was never intended to be (and then only doing so in select passages). This is not honest exegesis.

Yes, we hear a lot about "deacons" in the church today, but we have no idea as to their origin, nor do we find anywhere in Scripture a listing of their duties. In fact, there are only three places in all of the NT writings where they're even mentioned! The first is Philp. 1:1 -- "To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and the deacons." The second is found in Rom. 16:1 -- "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant (deaconess) of the church in Cenchrea." The third is found in 1 Tim. 3:8-13, where the apostle Paul speaks of some of the traits and qualities (and I do not regard these as rigid, legalistic qualifications) such individuals should possess ... and, by the way, as I am sure you are aware, vs. 11 refers to women (some think this refers to the wives of deacons; others believe it refers to women deacons). Only in these passages do we find any indication that there were likely "servants" who served in some special or specific capacity within the Family of God, a capacity that most likely involved some degree of local leadership and/or responsibility in the implementation of their ministries. And yes, these passages indicate gender inclusiveness. This tends to bother those who see these "deacons" as "office" holders (and as "trainees" for later elevation to the "office" of elder). However, if they are simply seen for what the term itself signifies -- those who render loving service to their brethren -- and if they are seen for what these few passages imply -- those who have God-given qualities that enable them to take the lead in the accomplishment of some ministry among or by their brethren -- then the issue of gender becomes largely irrelevant. Indeed, early church history clearly indicates that women "deacons" were not unheard of. "Pliny the Younger, writing as governor of Bithynia to the emperor Trajan in A.D. 112, indicated that there were deaconesses among the Christians whom he assigned to torture in that province" [Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 431].

My beloved brothers and sisters, let's be honest with ourselves here: "deacon" is a church function, not a church office! It is descriptive, rather than restrictive! It was not designed to exclude anyone -- after all, we are each "servants" of one another and of the Lord. However, our service in/to the Body of Christ differs!! God has called and equipped some to serve as teachers, some to serve as pastors, some to serve as encouragers, some to serve by assisting those less fortunate, some to serve those who are imprisoned, some to serve those who are sick, some to serve the homeless, and some even to organize and to lead these various efforts. The term "deacon" is descriptive of them all, although the three passages mentioned above seem to indicate that certain men and women were called to assume greater responsibility in some areas of service so that the various and vital works of service might be accomplished most efficiently to the glory of God and to the benefit of those served! "Deaconesses are mentioned prominently in Christian writings of the first several centuries. They cared for needy fellow believers, visited the sick, and were especially charged with assisting in the baptism of women converts" [The Holman Bible Dictionary, p. 345]. "Virtually all of the Stone-Campbell writers of the nineteenth century advocated female deacons in the churches" [The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 261]. And why not? After all, such is absolutely consistent with both the biblical and historical evidence regarding servants and their service within the Body of Christ, "which is nearly everywhere quite general and does not indicate a special office" [Dr. James Hastings, Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, vol. 1, p. 284].

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Readers' Reflections

From a Minister in Alaska:

Brother Al, Thank you for this amazingly clear summary on women's roles! I completely agree with your conclusions!! At the congregation where I preach we have eight "deacon/deaconess" positions -- we call them "ministry leaders" -- who serve in the areas of evangelism, edification, fellowship, caring, youth, worship, building coordination, and practical issues. Women are serving in four of these roles!! Of course (sadly), we're literally shunned by the other Churches of Christ in the state because of this (and the fact that we have a praise team, as well as other such "heresies"). Just this last weekend there was an "All Alaska" church lectureship -- we were not even included in their listing of "Churches of Christ" in the state. Great work, as always, Al. God bless you!!

From an Author in North Carolina:

Dear Brother Al, "Women in Public Ministry" was an inspired article!! Ooops! ... some might object to something being "inspired" by our God today. But ... I'll say it anyway, because I believe you had some help writing that (including the courage to say it) -- and it was GOD!! Well done, brother!!

From a Reader in New Mexico:

Brother Al, Your last two studies on women's roles in the church were GREAT!! I never thought I would live to see a minister in the Churches of Christ bring such lessons!! Thank you!

From a Reader in Texas:

Brother Al, Another great article on Gender Inclusion! Even though you and I continue to disagree on one issue (I believe women may serve in the eldership -- an allowable difference of opinion based on our own individual studies), "Women in Public Ministry" is still a Five Star issue of Reflections. Well-done, my friend.

From a Reader in Georgia:

Dear Bro. Al, I just wanted to applaud you for your courage and your remarks relative to women's roles in the church! I agree with you. In my view, women can do anything a man can do. Keep on, Al. You are freeing us all.

From a Reader in Texas:

Brother Al, GREAT article! Thanks so much for sharing it. You have helped enlighten me on a couple of areas that I had thought of as conflicting with one another. I am sure your "fan club" of legalists will have a "field day" with your last couple of articles, but keep tearing those walls down!!

From a Minister in Kenya, Africa:

My Dear Brother Al, Your article "Women in Public Ministry" has spoken to me directly. Thank you so very much for unveiling Truth in its totality. How I pray that God will one day lead you to Africa, and to my country of Kenya in particular, to speak to us face-to-face about such issues! This year we gave a woman a chance to teach during a Saturday night service, and those of us who "braved it" left the fellowship better than we came in. I had never heard a man teach about humility the same way it was done by this servant of the Lord who happened to be a woman! Brother Al, kindly know that we in Kenya appreciate very much the writings God is using you to share with us!

From a Reader in New Mexico:

Brother Al, I had to read your article ("Emerging Women's Roles") a couple of times (and on different days) so I could understand and reflect on your words! You are a brave man to take on this subject. It has torn apart many congregations, just as the music debate has in the past. I love your advice to shepherds with respect to leading their flock -- "Love them forward!" It was very insightful of you -- that mindset works. Your next article ("Women in Public Ministry") was awesome and truly touching for me personally. I know that you are aware that I left the Churches of Christ over 15 years ago in order to find a family of Christians that were far more "progressive" (for lack of a better word). The legalism was suffocating me and my walk with the Lord as a woman, so He has led me to a better place. My present church family has blessed me by asking me to be part of their leadership team. I agree with your point, though, on women not serving as elders. Men must step up and embrace their responsibility here. Thank you, Al, for your insight and your love for us all.

From a New Reader in [Unknown]:

Brother Maxey, I have very much appreciated the insights you have gleaned from your study of the Scriptures!! Your insights, which you have shared on your web site, have brought clarity to that which I have felt angst about for quite some time! I would like to be added to your mailing list for Reflections.

From a Reader in Connecticut:

Brother Al, Your latest Reflections ("Women in Public Ministry") has made me squirm. You have certainly invaded my comfort zone with this one, and I don't mind telling you that it is one of those subjects that I would just as soon skip over. However, if I am to be totally honest, you raise some extremely valid and logical points that simply cannot be denied by the "keep silent and learn at home" bunch! I have always truly wondered about the very passages and examples you faithfully cited regarding deaconesses and female prophets. The "neither male nor female" passage also bothered me. Brother, I have never heard a gospel minister dare to discuss this topic so boldly!! You've certainly given me some serious food for thought. The thing that really scares me, though, is that after carefully examining and weighing the evidence you have provided, and after casting aside preconceived biases, I must agree with most of your conclusions! This is most disconcerting because I have always thought that I had the lock on this particular issue.

From a Reader in Canada:

Brother Al, Once again you have properly explained some difficult passages clearly and distinctly and with love. I am in wonder how God has opened your mind to understand the true intent of His revelation! I always learn from your weekly Reflections, and your two articles on the role of women are no exception. I appreciate all you do. Keep on keeping on and walking forward in the Lord against all gainsayers who would stand in the way of abiding by the plain truth of God's revelation. I admire that you stand by your convictions!!

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

Brother Al, I was raised in the Churches of Christ. I became a deacon in two congregations, taught Sunday School in three, and was an elder in another. I retired from my job in the year 2000, took my Bible off of the shelf, and read it thought-for-thought, rather than reading it to try and find something that proved some point I wanted to make. I read it as a book, as it was intended to be read, and found that many of the "laws" that I believed and taught did not exist! Keep up your good work, brother.

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

Dear Brother Maxey, I read with a great deal of interest -- "An Argument for A Cappella" (Reflections #320). Both you and Dr. John Mark Hicks demonstrated a very clear, logical and realistic approach to this issue -- an issue that has been a major thorn in my side for many years. I left the a cappella wing of the Churches of Christ years ago, and I have been worshipping at one with instruments ever since. While in the a cappella group, I witnessed at least two church splits over this issue, and much ugliness to go with it. It was devastating to go through. I had to ask myself where Christ's love was in all of that. A couple of years after we left the a cappella group, we ran into one of the couples that we used to worship with there. They asked where we were attending. When we told them, and told them that it was an instrumental congregation, their whole demeanor changed -- you would have thought we had the plague, as they made a hasty exit. I cannot tell you how much it hurt to be treated like that by fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Well, at any rate, we've found a very loving and wonderful brotherhood of believers at the instrumental Church of Christ. I have given this whole issue very much thought, and some of those thoughts were discussed by you and Dr. Hicks. I do not believe that this issue has anything to do with salvation, or that I'm "risking my salvation" by attending at an instrumental congregation. I DO believe, however, that Satan will resort to whatever means possible to divide and conquer his enemy -- believers! It is imperative that we don't let him get a foothold through such issues. I thank you -- and Dr. Hicks -- for your clarity, your views, and your honesty. I see that you are both men of faith and true brothers!!

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Dear Brother Maxey, Thank you so much for your Reflections on the role of women in the Churches of Christ. It amazes me how women can do everything from cleaning the church building to teaching unbaptized teenage males. But, to even give the appearance of teaching a man -- God forbid!! Many years ago, I taught a class for ages 11-12 (and this included males). One of the young men was baptized. Praise God. However, I was told that I could no longer teach him in my class. He was given a choice of attending the teenage class or sitting in one of the adult classes. So, my husband, who thought the whole incident ridiculous, volunteered to come into the class and teach, just so I could keep this boy with his age group. The truth is: I prepared the lessons, the handouts, the activities -- my husband spoke the words. Who was doing the teaching?! There was another time when a woman said "Amen" in the Sunday morning worship hour!! Afterward, men and women gathered around her, pointed their fingers in her face, and lectured her on women "remaining silent" in the assembly. In a women's discussion group, the topic came up whether or not women could serve the Lord's Supper to a gathering of women only. Amazingly, they all said, "No!" I said, "What?!! You mean to tell me that if there are no men present, it is forbidden for me to serve or to be served Communion? Not in my lifetime!!" When the minister was asked about this, to his credit, he said, "It would be okay." Still, some of the women stated they would not "feel right" taking it. How sad! May God have mercy on us and forgive us for our stupidity! At the present I am being truly blessed, as we are now attending a congregation that encourages more involvement by women. Bro. Maxey, you are right. Change is coming! GOOD change!! I am sure that God looks down on us and says, "It's about time My children get it right. I have given them long enough." Thank you for all that you do for the Lord.

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