From the Deacon’s Desk
By The Rev’d Robert G. Gay
Last month we looked at two direct references to deacons found in the letters of Paul. This month we look at another, but indirect, reference about deacons found in the Acts of the Apostles.
Chapters six, seven and eight of the Acts of the Apostles tell us much about the very early struggles of the church in Jerusalem. Two of the central characters in this story are Stephen and Philip. Stephen and Philip belonged to a group of “seven men of good standing” (1) who are traditionally held to be the first deacons.
The first seven verses of chapter six of Acts tells us how the growing number of disciples was placing an unmanageable burden on the apostles. In response, the apostles asked the community of believers to choose from among themselves a group of seven to assist the apostles. It is worth noting here three important points. First, those chosen came from among the faithful based on their good standing. Second, they were chosen by the faithful, not the apostles. Third, the apostles prayed for them and laid their hands on them. All these are practices that we follow today in choosing anyone who is selected for any ordained ministry.
Of the seven chosen (all of whom are named), we are told what happened to only two of them, Stephen and Philip. Stephen’s story occupies the rest of chapter six and all of chapter seven of Acts. We are all familiar with this story since Stephen is the first martyr. What I would like to highlight is how Stephen got into such trouble that he was brought before the council of the High Priest (Acts 6:12) and was summarily stoned to death by the council in an act of rage (Acts 6:57). According to Acts, Stephen was doing two things. First, “Stephen full of grace and power did great wonders and signs among the people.”(2) Second Stephen was arguing with members of a synagogue (Acts 6:9). What Stephen was doing was being out among the people of Jerusalem spreading the gospel.
And what about Philip? In the persecution that followed Stephen’s death, Philip was one of “those who were scattered from place to place, proclaiming the word.”(3) The majority of chapter eight of Acts describes Philip’s evangelism. He started in Samaria where he preached and also did signs by curing people. Philip was so successful in Samaria that word of what was happening got back to Jerusalem. The apostles sent Peter and John to Samaria to pray for those Samarians Philip had baptized and to lay hands on them so that they would receive the Holy Spirit. Philip was then sent by an angel to Gaza to minister to an Ethiopian Eunuch whom Philip baptizes. Next, Philip is sent by the Spirit of the Lord north to Caesarea in what today we would call Syria to proclaim the good news. He later entertained Paul at Samaria (Acts 21:8). Tradition has it that Philip became bishop of Tralles in Lydia. (4) Philip, like Stephen, is out in the world proclaiming the good news.
In short, what the stories that Acts does tell us about the chosen seven is that they were out in the world acting as agents of the apostles in doing the work of spreading the good news. This paints a different picture than many people have of the role of these seven. What many people believe is that the seven were chosen to “wait on tables.” (5) The Greek word translated as “wait on” is diakonia. It is, by the way, the exact same word that is used by the writer of Acts to describe what the apostles wanted to be doing. In verse four of chapter six, the apostles are quoted as saying that “we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” (6) The word translated as “serving” in the phrase “serving the word” is also diakonia. Whatever this word diakonia means, it describes the actions of both the group of seven and of the apostles. The title of “deacon” that we ascribe to the group of seven has come from this Greek word. Note, however, the Acts of the Apostles never gives the title of deacon to the seven, but describes their actions (and the actions of the apostles) as being diakonia. We will come back and look at the meaning of diakonia in some detail. But for now what we have is the conclusion that Acts only gives us indirect evidence about the nature of the diaconate.
So we have come to the end of what the New Testament has to say, directly or indirectly, about deacons. We still have a long way to go in our story of the diaconate, what it was and how it became what it is today. More next month.
1 Acts 6:3 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
2 Acts 6:8 NSRV
3 Acts 8:4 NSRV
4 The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd edition revised); Fl. Cross and E. A. Livingstone et all; Oxford University Press, London; p. 1287
5 Acts 6:2 NSRV
6 Acts 6:4 NSRV