To Serve God and Neighbor: The Mission and Ministry of the Diaconate
An Interview with Dr. Greg Perry
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. (Acts 6:1–6)
Loving God with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving one’s neighbor as oneself is the calling of every Christian. But within the church, this calling takes a special form in the office of the deacon. Dr. Greg Perry, associate professor of New Testament and director of the City Ministry Initiative at Covenant Seminary, recently taught a weekend course called Diaconal Training for the Missional Church. Here he shares with us some of his thoughts on the mission and ministry of the deacon in today’s world.
What is a deacon?
“Deacon” can mean different things in different denominations. For Baptists, deacons function more like what we might think of as an elder board. In Reformed churches, including Reformed Baptist churches, there is more of a distinction in roles between elders and deacons. elders are more involved in teaching and discipling the congregation in the content of our faith. Deacons are more involved in serving the material needs of the congregation and in helping to equip and lead the congregation in serving their neighbors by showing them the love of the gospel. what is the role of the diaconate, and what are some of the most common misconceptions about deacons and their ministry in the church? In general, the diaconate models the deed ministry of the gospel both to the church itself and to the community.
In our different traditions we develop particular frameworks for what the diaconate should be. In some traditions, for example, the role of the deacons is mainly to formulate the church budget and care for the church facilities. But this tends to reduce the biblical view of a broader range of service to the needs of the congregation. The diaconate is really a spiritual ministry that recognizes that God has made us as whole people; our bodies, our money, our jobs, are all part of what he is doing to redeem and reconcile all things to himself. It’s important for deacons to be able to flourish in that broader role and not just be limited to making sure the grass gets mowed or the budget improved. those things are necessary, but they’re part of some-thing much bigger that God is doing to address the material needs of the church and the community through the gospel. the deacons are meant to lead us in this service.
What is the biblical foundation for training deacons?
That really starts with Jesus and the way he called people to follow him. Jesus taught not only by giving speeches, but also by having people come with him as he was healing, as he was caring for the outsider and the prostitute, the lost and the least. When he sent out his disciples with the gospel, he told them not only to teach as he had, but also to do what he had done, which was to heal, to cast out demons, and to seek after the least of the world.
So diaconal training begins with Jesus. But we also see it in the growth of the church, in a place like Ephesus, where, in 1 Timothy 3, the apostle Paul gives instructions for people to be tested for the office of deacon. We have mention here of both men and women. Some read that passage as referring to wives of deacons, others read it as referring simply to women in the church. But whichever way you read it, these are people serving in a diaconal way, and they are to be tested in terms of their character. This is important because deacons get involved very personally in people’s lives regarding health issues, job issues, financial issues, and such. They need to be people of good character who can keep confidences so people can feel comfortable letting them into their lives and know they’re not going to spread their family business.
Why is training deacons important for the church, and what is involved in such training?
Training deacons is important for several reasons. First, in the history of the church there are a lot of different perspectives on what deacons do. In the Catholic and episcopal traditions, for example, and somewhat in the Methodist tradition, deacons have been viewed as sort of a stepping-stone to the priestly office or the office of past, or as the pastor’s assistant in worship. The Reformed tradition sought to recover the broader role of deacons in ministering to the material welfare of the church body and to our neighbors and neighborhoods.
Calvin and Luther undergird the ministry of all believers in the idea that God gives gifts to all believers, such as in 1 Peter 4, where we see a distinction between the gifts of speaking and teaching and the gift of serving. Of the latter, Peter says, “Serve with the strength of God to demonstrate to one another the variegated grace of God, both in word and in deed.” The Reformers also drew attention to acts 6, where the Jerusalem church was growing both numerically and in cultural complexity. Because of the need to continue to provide both word and deed aspects of gospel ministry, the apostles had to have help. Wisely, they chose Stephen, Philip, and five others with Greek names to care for the Greek-speaking widows of the Jerusalem church in the daily distributions of food and other resources. This decision allowed Peter and the other apostles to focus on their ministry of prayer, teaching the Word, and caring for the Aramaic-speaking congregants. In other words, both vital aspects of gospel ministry—word and deed—were held together.
We can also learn from examples in history and from those in contexts other than our own. I think again of Calvin and the church at Geneva and how they organized deacons to assist the many refugees coming into Switzerland from France. They tried to understand who had which skills so they could help place them in jobs; they sought out those who were disabled so the church could help support them; they worked to create schools for children who needed them; they even worked to get these ministries funded by contributions. There are many other examples, including the work of Thomas Chalmers among the poor, elderly, and disabled in Glasgow, Scotland, two centuries later.
So we learn from the Scriptures and from examples, but I think most of all we learn by doing. If I were a pastor in a local church shepherding a process of nominations for deacons, I would teach my congregation to observe people in their spheres of influence. I’d say, “Look at those around you who are already ‘deaconing.’ Who is already serving? These are the people who should be nominated.” Then as the deacons lead the congregation, they teach us from the Scriptures, they model service for us, and they invite us and equip us to serve our communities and one another.
In a culture as individualistic and self-serving as ours, how can we—and the diaconate especially—cultivate a spirit of compassion and empathy in the church?
There’s a lot of pressure through the media and American culture to be independent, to look out for ourselves. That’s certainly important, but many other branches of the church in different parts of the world see people more as part of a community, as those who have gifts and contributions to make to their families and their communities.
It’s interesting to me that in 1 Timothy 5 Paul speaks of the younger widows of the church as being self-absorbed in seeking after a life of pleasure, while the older widows are marked by their service to the saints and their hospitality. Really he’s talking about the whole church here, not just the widows. He’s defining what the character of Christians should be, explaining that we shouldn’t be just absorbed in our own concerns but see ourselves as part of a wider community.
That’s really what a deacon’s role is—to help lead the church with that outward face, to go beyond oneself to care for others, and to help us recognize that at times we each will need the community to serve us and care for us as well.
As image-bearers who are being redeemed, what cues can we take from Christ’s ministry about meeting physical needs? When and how does evangelism come into play?
Every Christian is called to follow Christ’s example. Jesus asked, “Who is the greater, the one who reclines at table, or the one who serves?” and he said, “the one who reclines at table is greater, but I am among you as one who serves.” That’s about addressing the physical needs of people and loving our neighbors; that exemplifies God’s grace and mercy.
Sometimes I’m concerned when we use the term “mercy ministry” because it can communicate that ministering to material needs is somehow something “extra” that we add on to what we do. But really it’s an essential part of gospel ministry, of demonstrating God’s mercy to one another. When Paul was seeking to gather funds to minister to the churches in Judea that were suffering from famine, he said, “Christ who was rich became poor that we might be made rich in him.” He uses the gospel story to motivate the church’s action to relieve suffering.
At the same time, I think we can go too far the other way and fail to share with those we’re ministering to that we’re doing this in Christ’s name, because of what Christ has done for us. There comes a time when we must be explicit and say, “It’s because of Christ’s love for me that I am sharing this love with you.” Evangelism and social action, teaching the gospel in word and doing the gospel in deed, really must come together. You need both for faithful gospel witness.
How can deacons sustain their ministry over time? Is it important to set boundaries or limits? And how does a church budget for diaconal ministry?
Our church budgets represent our priorities as a congregation; they reflect what we really care about. Ideally, they should show that we’ve studied our community and gotten to know it well. Who’s coming to the church? Does the church draw from a region, or does it mainly serve its own neighborhood? Are there immigrant families in our community? Are there disabled or elderly people who live among us who could not only use a visit or helping hand, but who also could teach us about our heritage and the sacrifices it takes to build a community? Are there institutions like special schools for the deaf or those with learning disabilities? Once we know who’s in our community, we need to be prepared to budget for ways to serve that community.
Obviously, we can’t do everything. We have to know our own limits. We have to understand how God has gifted and called each congregation to serve a particular part of a city or region. Because the Lord is a good Creator, resources are available in our communities, not just in the church, but outside it too. once we have inventoried the assets of our communities as well as assessed their needs, then we can prioritize our resources and our budgets in ways that partner with, serve, and learn from others best. We can’t do that all at once, but we can start to build bridges and see how the Lord leads, blesses, and guides us in our next steps. Then we can reevaluate in a year and begin the process over again.
How would you encourage diaconates to come alongside other Christian or non-Christian organizations in the restoration of the community?
One of the things we find when we get involved in the lives of people is that what we have to give just isn’t enough. We see that in our own needs, we see it in the needs of our colleagues at work, and we see it in the needs of or in our neighbors. It’s so important that we are part of a larger community, that groups of churches are part of something bigger, and that we’re connected as human beings with other organizations in our neighborhoods.
Of course we have to be wise in how we go about partnerships, but partnership itself acknowledges the fact that there are limits to our time and resources and that the problems our communities face are larger than any one church or denomination or nonprofit can deal with alone. Many small churches are realizing how they can work together for things like tutoring programs and big brother and big sister programs that enable volunteers to do more together than they could do by themselves. My family and I have been involved in the pro-life movement for some time, and we’ve been so impressed with how organizations like Catholic Charities USA, Lutheran Social Services, and Baptist Children’s Homes are serving and encouraging at-risk children and finding ways to place special needs children in adoptive families.
These are only a few ways that evangelicals have been used to partnering with others. Wouldn’t it be great if we could expand our partnerships to serve our communities in many other ways as well?
How can the diaconate—and the church at large—work to restore human dignity?
Many times we can be very well intentioned in wanting to help others, but we do it in a way that hurts in the long run because we undermine both their dignity and ours. It’s sometimes appropriate to simply give food and other forms of immediate relief to people who need them, but more often it’s appropriate to build a relationship and get involved enough in the lives of people to understand what’s really going on behind their more obvious needs to find practical, loving ways to address the root causes of those needs. Real love and service can only come through relationship.
We’re all made out of the same stuff. Every day we need to receive one another as friends. Sometimes, when we are ill, disabled, unemployed, or as we get older, we will need to receive more. At other times we will have more opportunities and resources to give others. So as we train deacons, I think it’s really important that we do it in a way that affirms the dignity of human beings as image-bearers of God who need both to give and to receive the love of God in very tangible, material ways.
View video clips from our interview with Dr. Perry at http://bit.ly/ijt54b.