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September 2, 1666, was the day the Great Fire of London began. It was a devastating fire that lasted four days. It consumed 13,200 houses, eighty-seven churches (including St. Paul’s Cathedral), and most government buildings. It is estimated to have destroyed the homes of 70,000 of the city’s 80,000 inhabitants. The fire began in the house of King Charles II’s baker, Thomas Farriner. On the evening of September 1, Farriner failed to properly extinguish his oven. He went to bed, and sometime around midnight, sparks from the smoldering embers ignited firewood lying beside the oven. Before long, his house was in flames. Farriner managed to escape with his family and a servant out an upstairs window, but a bakery assistant was overtaken by the blaze. The fire then spread and raged throughout the city.
Something that began as a small fire, because it was not properly dealt with, became a devastating inferno that caused an incredible amount of damage. In the same way, a small issue in the church that is not addressed properly can become a major problem with severe consequences.
The early church faced a situation that could have developed into a potential disaster. In Acts 6, we read, “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” (v. 1). There was a problem in the Jerusalem church—a problem that was caused (at least in part) by church growth. As the good news of Jesus the Messiah spread throughout the city, not only were Hebrew- or Aramaic-speaking Jews converted, but soon Greek-speaking Jews (Hellenists) were also added to the church. But with more people came more needs. Soon, some within this new minority were being ignored or not fairly treated. That is, some of the widows were being neglected when food was being distributed by the church to those in need.
This might seem like a relatively minor issue, but it could have led to potentially disastrous consequences. First, it is a serious sin to neglect the weak and vulnerable. Paul commands the church to “honor widows who are truly widows” (1 Tim. 5:3), and James tells us that pure and undefiled religion includes visiting and providing for orphans and widows in their distress (James 1:27).
Second, it would have affected the unity of the church and could have led to the first church split. What started as a small fire in the church could have easily spread if it were not dealt with immediately. The unanswered complaints of the Greek-speaking widows would have caused others to choose sides, most likely causing the slighted minority to stick together and then separate from the others.
Third, it would have affected the progress of the gospel. Notice that Acts 6 begins by declaring that the church was growing and increasing in numbers. Certainly, such growth would have been severely affected if the Apostles had not appointed leaders to skillfully address the problem. In fact, because of the work of the seven men, we read that “the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (v. 7). The potentially disastrous fire was put out and the church continued to flourish.
Although the term deacon is not used in Acts 6, it is fair to view the seven men as proto-deacons. The Apostles were those devoted “to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (v. 4). Today, such duties are given to the elders who must be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2), and those who “rule well” are “worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (5:17). So, like the Apostles, elders are called to a ministry of the Word.
Deacons, on the other hand, are needed to do what is necessary to free up the elders to focus on their primary calling. After the Apostles received a complaint, they summoned the church and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables” (Acts 6:2). It was not that serving food to widows was below them. Jesus had already taught them that being a leader in His kingdom is different from being a worldly leader (Matt. 20:25–27). He had already humbly washed their feet to demonstrate servant leadership (John 13:1–20). Instead, the issue at stake was one of calling. Interestingly, the Apostles claim that it was not “right” (literally, “pleasing”) for them to abandon their primary calling to do something that others can do. Today, elders are called to take care of the spiritual needs of the church (shepherding, teaching, praying), whereas deacons are called to take care of the physical needs of the church.
Ideally, most of the service that deacons perform is proactive and not merely reactive. The various duties of deacons depend on the needs of each local church. In Acts 6, the need revolved around helping neglected widows. Deacons today often serve the church in matters related to facilities, finances, benevolence, and logistics.
Although the office of deacon is often overlooked in the church, its importance can hardly be overstated: deacons faithfully serve the congregation, allow the elders to focus on their primary calling, and, when needed, handle delicate crisis situations. Perhaps this is why the Apostle Paul writes, “Those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 3:13).