Matthew 20:20-28; Philippians 1:1-2 Deacons: Servant Leaders (Rev. Erik Veerman)
Matthew 20:20-28; Philippians 1:1-2
Deacons: Servant Leaders
Rev. Erik Veerman
In just a couple of weeks will be our third anniversary as a church. It’s hard to believe. A lot has happened since we launched. But I think you would agree, it been encouraging and a blessing.
Part of that was becoming an official church in our denomination. That happened last August where we ordained our first set of elders and deacons. So, this year is our second round of officer nominations. And the reason we’ve taken a couple of sermons to focus on elders and deacons is that we are still setting the trajectory of our church. We won’t have sermons like this every year, but I think it is helpful in these formative years.
You’ll note in your bulletin that we have two scripture readings for our sermon text this morning.
On the surface, it’s a strange combination. The first is from Matthew 20. In that passage, Jesus speaks about the importance of being a servant. The second passage is the apostle Paul’s introduction to his letter to the church in Philippi.
They’re relate because both passages use the Greek words diakonos. Diakonos is the word for deacon or servant. In fact, if you have an English Standard Version, ESV, you’ll see footnotes to those words.
Last week, we considered elders, and so this morning, our focus is on deacons. And part of understanding the role of deacon (or, as we say, the “office” of deacon) is to understand the word itself and its various uses.
So, let’s now come to God’s Word.
First, Matthew 20:20-28. You’ll find that on page 981 in the provided Bibles.
Reading of Matthew 20:20-28.
If you would turn now to Philippians 1:1-2. That can be found on page 1164. Again, just the first two verses of Philippians chapter 1.
If you had lived in Rome in the third century, you would have experienced a lot of persecution. In fact, in the year 258, the Roman Emperor declared that all ordained leaders in the church should be executed.
And not only were the church officials to be killed, all of their possessions and the wealth of the church was to be confiscated and added to Rome’s coffers.
So, on August 6, 258, the head of the Roman church, Callixtus, was martyred. He had been leading a worship service and an in the middle of the service, he was abducted and killed.
To comply with the full command, the Roman authority called up the head deacon of the church in Rome. His name was Lawrence of Rome. Only one year earlier, at the age of 22, Lawrence had been ordained as a deacon in the Cathedral church.
Well, the Roman guard demanded of Lawrence that he gather all the wealth of the church in Rome and turn it over to the state. The historian Ambrose wrote that deacon Lawrence asked for three days to do that. He was granted that request. But in those few days, instead of gathering the treasury of the church, he distributed the treasury, all of it, to the poor and the suffering and the sick in the church.
On the third day, Lawrence was called to appear before the prefect of Rome. He demanded that Lawrence yield the full treasury of the church. In response, as Ambrose wrote, Lawrence brought forward many of the poor and suffering, whom he had helped. They all stood there in the presence of the Roman authority. Then Lawrence declared, “Behold in these persons are the treasures and crown of the church which I promised to show you.”
As you can imagine, that infuriated the Roman prefect. It didn’t take long for Lawrence to be seized, persecuted (literally half his body burned), then imprisoned, and soon after martyred.
I would put it this way: Lawrence of Rome’s acts of service capture the essence of what it means to be a deacon. He stewarded the resources of the church. He served her mercy needs (the needs of the people), and all with humility and self-sacrifice, honoring those he served.
But the question is, if that exemplifies the role of a deacon (service, stewardship, mercy, humility, and self-sacrifice), where in the Bible do we learn that? And actually, that’s a hard question!
You see, for elders, we have explicit passages like the one we looked at last week, 1 Peter 5. There is a command there to shepherd the flock. We also have examples like Acts 15 when the elders gathered to discuss a theological matter relating to the church. Or Acts 20 when Paul called the Ephesian elders and exhorted them to care for, protect and oversee the flock by the word of God’s grace. Even in 1 Timothy 3, the qualification of elders, there is a clear indication that elders need to be able to teach the Word. And 1 Timothy 5 references elders who labor in the preaching and teaching the Scri[tures.
So, for the office of elder, we’re given a clear picture of the their spiritual responsibilities.
The responsibilities of deacons, however, are not explicitly described in the Bible. It’s almost like we have to back-in to an understanding of what a deacon is called to. We’re given several clues and hints. And I think it’s because the role of deacon has more variety to it depending on a church’s situation and the time in history. Elders, on the other hand, have a more clearly defined responsibility. The spiritual needs of people are similar no matter what century or context. We all need the spiritual guidance and care, and we all need to be instructed in God’s Word.
What I’m saying is that the role of elder has a more defined scope and the role of deacon fluctuates based on a church’s needs. Let me put it this way. Elders are given defined responsibilities for their role. Deacons are given defined principles for their role.
So, then, what are those principles and what does that mean for us? My goal this morning is to answer those two questions.
Before we get there, I think it’s important to note that the Bible clearly establishes the formal role of deacon. Yes, as I mentioned earlier, the word for deacon is also the general word for servant. And we’re going to come back to that in a few minutes, but first, two places in the New Testament talk about the formal office of deacon.
The first passage we read. Philippians 1, verses 1-2. The apostle Paul, along with Timothy, were writing to the church in Philippi, but with the special mention of the overseers and deacons. He writes this: “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.” That word overseer is used synonymously with the word for elder in multiple places in the New Testament. So, what this salutation does is indicate the two formal positions in the church - overseers (or elders) and deacons.
Those two offices are also clearly indicated in 1 Timothy chapter 3. We didn’t read 1 Timothy 3 this morning, but we looked at it last year. In 1 Timothy 3, the apostle Paul is writing to Timothy, and he is explicitly telling Timothy who is qualified for formal leadership in the church. Paul lists two official positions and their qualifications. First, qualifications for elders, and second, qualifications for deacons. So that is the second place in the New Testament where the role of deacon is identified.
Let me make a side note – these passages only list two formal roles or offices. Overseers and deacons. The list doesn’t include rectors, bishops, or priests. No, just two offices. Other churches like Anglican or Episcopal churches have multiple layers of church leadership, but the New Testament just focuses on two offices. Elders and Deacons. By the way, that is one distinguishing characteristics of a Presbyterian church – the belief that the New Testament only defines these two offices for the church.
OK, so as we consider deacons, the natural question is this, what exactly defines their role?
And to answer that question, I want to give you two principles this morning.
Principle #1 – Deacons are co-laborers with Elders in the ordained leadership of the church. Co-laborers. In other words, they work together. They compliment and support one another in their work.
And really, the reason they are co-laborers comes from the very same two texts we looked at.
The two offices go together. They are meant to. It is a team effort and partnership in serving and supporting the needs of a church family. And that realization tells us a lot about the role of deacon.
As I mentioned several passages speak about elders, and I would say, those passages also help us to understand the role of deacon. You ask, “how?” Well, because they are distinct roles and since we’ve been given direction on the role of elder, that means that the role of deacon is complimentary to the role of elder.
Last year, one of our elders, Jeff Chinery, preached on the role of deacon. I loved his sermon title: “*everything else.” He made the case that deacons are to serve the church in support of the elders, so that the elders can focus on shepherding and teaching.
I think this is most exemplified in the book of Acts chapter 6. We’ve looked at that chapter in the past. What was happening in the early church in Acts 6 is that the church was growing so fast, the apostles could not keep up with the needs of the church body. And so word came back that the Hellenist widows had been neglected. They were underserved. Their needs were not being met by the ministry of the apostles and disciples.
And so the apostles gathered the church leadership together. They selected seven men who they appointed to support the work. The purpose of the seven was to serve the mercy needs of the people, so that the apostles could remain focused on their task of preaching and teaching. These seven were godly men, full of “wisdom and of good reputation,” it says.
And so the church set aside these men for the task. The apostles formally laid their hands on them, prayed for them, and dedicated their service to the church family.
To be sure, the formal title of “deacon” is not used in Acts 6, so I don’t think this explicitly ties to the role of deacon. However, I do believe that Acts 6 gives us a pattern to follow.
•First, it shows us that there are different types of needs in the church – spiritual and tangible.
•Second, the ministry of teaching and shepherding is furthered when the mercy needs of the church family are cared for separately.
•And third, Acts 6 models setting aside qualified men to formally lead. We call that ordaining. I would say, Acts 6 gives us the pattern for ordaining both elders and deacons in the church.
Let me state principle # 1 again: Deacons are co-laborers with Elders in the ordained leadership of the church. Both roles support one another but are distinct. That means they work together, pray together, serve alongside one another, and support each other in their God given roles.
Part of that unity is captured in 1 Timothy 3. The qualifications for elders includes being gentle and not quarrelsome. Deacons, similarly, are to be dignified and not double tongued – meaning they believe and speak the truth in love. Those qualifications lead to the unity that elders and deacons should have in their work together and in their separate roles.
Now, as some of you know, sadly, in local churches, elders and deacons can be at odds with each other. I wouldn’t say that it’s widespread, but it is common. It can happen when elders see their role as managing rather than shepherding and teaching. Or it can happen when deacons see their responsibility as one of church oversight rather than one of serving.
That begs the question, though. What does it mean for a deacon to be a servant?
Well, that brings us to principle #2 – Principal 2 is this: Deacons are called to humbly serve the tangible and mercy needs of the church. One more time: Deacons are to humbly serve the tangible and mercy needs of the church.
And that has a broad scope. I mentioned earlier that it entails the specific situation and needs that a church and community has. The reason that it’s a broad responsibility is that the word servant, diakonos, has a broad use in the Bible. Diakonos appears 31 times in the New Testament. Only three of those are the formal role. Those, again, are found in Philippians 1 and 1 Timothy 3.
The rest of the 28 uses are used in different ways, with different emphases applied in different situations. As a noun, the word diakonos is used to indicate someone who is an assistant, or one who cares for the welfare of others, or one who labors in service. As a verb, it’s about serving or ministering to someone’s needs. In fact, some translations use the word “minister” in those cases. A minister of Christ, a servant of Christ.
As an example, let’s go back to Acts 6. When some of the widows were inadvertently being neglected, the disciples said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.” The root of the word “serve” is the word diakonos. Again, it’s not used as the formal title of deacon, but it is used in the context of steward and distributing the financial resources of the church. That’s what it means there to serve the tables.
Now, to be sure, I’m not saying that every use of the word diakonos should be applied to the role of deacon. Rather, my point is to give examples and uses to broaden our understanding of the word.
As a matter of fact, Jesus himself used the word diakonos multiple times. Mark records Jesus’ words in chapter 9. He said, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Similarly in our Matthew 20 sermon text this morning, Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant…”
You see, leadership in the kingdom of God is upside down from leadership in the world. Greatness comes not through domineering and controlling, but rather through being a humble servant. Of course, that applies to all leadership in the church, but it specifically captures the use of the word diakonos.
So, back to principle #2. Deacons are to humbly serve the tangible and mercy needs of the church.
A big portion of that is mercy – if the elders are serving the spiritual needs of the church family, the deacons are serving the material or mercy needs of the church family. You know, those times when we each need practical help. That, of course, requires knowing our needs. Asking and seeking out and being able and willing to support those needs.
Let me add, it also includes other forms of diakonos service, which frees up the elders to shepherd and teach and pray. That would include stewarding the finances, the facility, and other resources. It doesn’t mean exclusively handling all of that but rather taking on the leadership of that work, partnering with others in the church and getting outside help as needed. And I should say, all of it with the support, encouragement, prayer, and oversight from the elders.
So, to review first, Deacons co-labor with Elders as the ordained leadership of the church, with unity and peace, caring for the needs of the church body. And second, deacons humbly serve, supporting the mercy needs and stewarding the tangible needs of the church.
Let me say one thing that I’ve heard in the past, but which I disagree with. Some have said that being a deacon is a stepping-stone to being an elder. They’ve said, it’s helpful to be a deacon first before becoming an elder. Honestly, I don’t find Biblical support for that. They are two separate roles with two separate giftings. Yes, they overlap in having a humble heart for serving, but the focus of their service is different.
It’s not that being or becoming a deacon prevents a man from becoming an elder in the future. It’s just not a prerequisite. Being a deacon is a high, humble, and honorable call by itself in the church.
Now, before tying all this together, let me give you two applications for us.
And by the way, this is going to sound very familiar to last week, just applied to deacons.
1. First, as we enter these few weeks of officer nominations, seek out men who have hearts of service, who are humble, and who love Christ’s church. We have a tremendous group of deacons. Scott, Burt, David, Jonny, and Greg. But as you know, as a young church that is meeting in a school, we have a lot of needs to serve the body. These brothers need more faithful men to continue in their faithful work. Seek them out.
2. Second, for the men, here. Do you have a burden to serve? Do you get joy when helping in different ways, whether mercy, whether stewarding the gifts of the church, or helping in other ways. If so, would you pray about receiving a nomination to be a deacon? It is a great call. Ask trusted friends and family. It would truly be a blessing to all of us. A lot of things happen behind the scenes that make Sundays and other ministries happen, and a large part of that is the humble service of deacons – AND, I should add, those who partner with them in the work.
Ok, as we draw to a close, let’s go to the source of diakonos service in the church. I think you know where I’m going. Last week as we considered the shepherding role of elders, it all came back to the good shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep. He is the source of strength and the model of a true elder.
Well, it’s the same with deacons. Right after Jesus said that whoever wants to be great among you must serve, he said “for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve (diakonos), and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The greatest act of diakonos service, ever, was what Christ has done for us, serving by giving his life for many.
That’s what makes Lawrence of Rome’s short life of service so compelling. He could have gathered all the treasures of the church together and just handed them over to the Roman Empire – perhaps his life would have been spared. But instead, he embraced his call. He knew of all the needs of the church family. He knew what would become of him if he distributed the funds to the mercy needs of the church. Yet, he had the high calling in Christ’s Church as a deacon, ordained to serve. And so, he fulfilled his role and is now numbered with the martyrs. He served and honored those in the church by sacrificing his life for their wellbeing. What a testimony of the great service and sacrifice of Christ.
So, as we continue on in fulfilling our call here in Tucker, may the Lord see fit to raise up more faithful deacons with humble hearts of service, willing to serve because of the service of Christ. Amen