The Church: An Organic Picture of Its Life

by Robert Brow

Chapter 12

Deacons and Helpers

Some of the great men of the Bible began as servants. Joshua was Moses' personal assistant before becoming a military captain, and he afterwards succeeded his master as leader of God's people. Elisha "arose and went after Elijah, and ministered to him" before assuming the prophet's mantle and a double portion of his spirit. Elisha in turn recruited Gehazi, who also might have made good, but he misused his place as secretary to obtain an unearned bonus of two talents of silver and two festal garments from Naaman the Syrian.

In the New Testament Mark was assistant to Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary journey, but he apparently felt homesick and returned to his mother in the middle of things. Happily Barnabas did not despair of him, and in spite of his failure Mark eventually had the honor of recording the Gospel Peter preached. On the second journey Paul took on Timothy in place of Mark, and he thrived under increasing responsibility in Paul's team. Eusebius reports the tradition that he became the first bishop of Ephesus.[34]

Evidently acting as assistant to a man of God is one of God's ways of training men for leadership. It is training by doing with a great man. Unfortunately twentieth-century Christians have shallowly assumed that only women are suited to be secretaries. This may be true if shorthand, typing, and answering the telephone are all that is required. In fact , the leaders of the most dynamic human enterprises use personal assistants; and most of these are men whose training as servants will be their best preparation for promotion. The army colonel has an adjutant, the general has a chief of staff, top administrators have assistants, and the most influential men in the diplomatic and civil services are called first secretaries. But the Christian church has allowed its professional training schools to suggest that a B.D. is all that is required for competence as a minister. Even more tragic is the pernicious idea that without a B.D. an otherwise outstanding man is unacceptable as a leader of God's people. This has denied Joshuas and Timothys the chance to give needed assistance for our most capable leaders, it has made it impossible to recruit for the ministry by direct call from other professions, and it has forced a larger number of inexperienced young men into responsibility for struggling and therefore difficult congregations. By all means let seminaries train to the best of their ability, but their graduates should compete with others who have been trained in a more practical way by working with a man of God.

We forget that seminary training as a requirement for ordination is a very new idea in the church of God. Theology as a special subject, the queen of the sciences, was a university discipline; it was only required as a preparation for academic work, not for the normal parish ministry. Seminaries were invented by the Council of Trent and ordered in all dioceses for the indoctrination of priests against the Lutheran heresy. Protestants trained their ministers through the universities or by the apprenticeship system for the best part of three centuries. The first Presbyterian seminary was in Pittsburgh (1794), followed by Princeton (1812) and Yale Divinity School (1822). The Anglicans had a college at Chichester in 1839, but it was not until well on in the twentieth century that graduation from a theological college was considered necessary, As Mark Gibbs and Ralph Morton note, "There have been a hundred Archbishops of Canterbury, but only three were trained in a theological college."[35]

The most effective training the church has had for the parish ministry was in Britain through the Anglican curacy system. Whatever his previous qualifications, the ordained man was required to become a deacon - a servant - to learn for two years under an experienced minister. Due to the shortage of men, the system has recently failed, since deacons are usually put in charge of daughter churches where they function as second-class ministers. American ordinands are expected to gain some experience as student pastors during their seminary training, after which they may become directors of education in a big church. This still means that there is no opportunity to be a real assistant and to learn under the responsibility of another. The point of the original Anglican system was that the curate or deacon was a genuine apprentice who learned by helping in all the work that his "master" had to do. Many of our best ministers today could well use a personal assistant or deacon, who in turn would learn more than he gave.

The original meaning of deacon or deaconess was just plainly this, a servant who helped a man of God or a church to function. Mark served Paul, Barnabas, and Peter, and Phoebe served the church in Cenchrea (Rom. 16:1). Some deacons would by temperament be best suited to continue in this role, but many, having learned all they could from an apostle, prophet, or administrator, would move on to greater responsibility. This was often the case in the Middle Ages when a bishop had an archdeacon as his assistant. The archdeacons so often succeeded their "master" that it was considered more suitable for them to be ordained priests and counted above the level of the parish clergy. Anglicans continued the same system, and left the rank of "unarch" deacon as a mere stepping stone to the priesthood. It is time that confused tradition gave place to a true understanding of the function of deacon, which would involve a recovery of the apprenticeship system as the essential part of ministerial training and the seminary as an option for those who could benefit from academic studies.

As with the other gifts of the Spirit, there is a wide range of "deacon" or service functions in the body of Christ (Rom. 12:7; 1 Cor. 12:28). We saw that the gift of teaching might be at the Sunday School level, or as a full-time congregational "rabbi," in conventional Bible ministry, seminary instruction, or even as an international figure known to the masses through books, radio, and television. There will be an equally wide range of personal assistants, deacons, secretaries, and helpers of various kinds in the Christian church.

We should begin with the servants needed in a local congregation. Until a Christian finds himself developing a particular gift, he can in any case start by helping wherever help is needed. We are not speaking of social service in the community, which we looked at in Chapter IX. Here service is assisting in one of the functions of the church making possible or at least easier the work of preaching, administration, works of mercy, or finance. Nor do the gifts of deacon and helper have anything to do with attending committees. The current fashion is to assume that no one will do anything useful unless he is set to sit and plan. All this does is to exhaust the available membership and thoroughly frustrate those who know that God has called them to work, as opposed to discussing the work. Service is helping a gifted person to exercise his or her gift in the church. It is doing, not discussing.

The real servant begins by asking the questions, "What is God doing in this congregation? Who is being used of God to do it? How can I help the persons God is using?" This means that the gift of helpers must not be made into an office, Or special title; least of all can it be a place that needs to be filled every year by voting. A church may need full-time or part-time secretaries, janitors, bookkeepers, librarians, mailing-list clerks, men's and women's group conveners, and the like; but the gift of helpers is not to be confined to a tidy name. It is an active giving of oneself to be of assistance to the work of God. If the duties are hard or routine, unnoticed by the public eye, lacking in glamor or financial remuneration, it is still a gift of the Spirit, precious in God's sight and held in regard by the one who knows how to judge rightly. In God's sight there are no inferiors and superiors, and reward does not depend on the acclaim of men. God does expect us to perform our function in the right place and at the right time, and one of these functions is service, which is no different in quality from any other gift, though it does differ in kind.

Our next chapter discusses the bloodstream, the mission of the church. Here also we need our personal assistants and helps. If God is evidently using Paul, John Wesley, William Carey, or Billy Graham, the first priority is to insure that they are given all the help that they can use. If the modern church should find a prophet capable of communicating to the masses, it is a great honor to serve him as personal assistant or secretary. In many overseas missionary situations there are men of God who have mastered the language, gained the confidence of the people, and are in great demand as teachers for a growing national church. Unfortunately as new missionaries arrive, the experienced missionary is expected to reduce his work to serve the newcomers. This may be an evidence of great grace on his part, but one can imagine what kind of success an army would have if the brilliant general would give himself to solving the little problems of his junior officers rather than having their help to press on to victory.

Chapter 13...