Ordaining three deacon candidates in one year is a bit unusual for a church our size. Our three new deacons, Deb, Shane, and Dan, join previously ordained Christian Henry and Nelson Hale as being elected by congregational vote in early September. Of these five, only Dan Crowley is home-grown, meaning that he was baptized here. While Nelson grew up in Madison, he was raised Episcopalian and came to our church through marrying Cathy. Christian grew up in Augusta; Deb grew up in Virginia; Shane grew up in Sparta and also came to our church through marrying Emily.
Of our fifteen Active Deacons, only Dan Crowley, John Maddox, and Joel Hayes grew up in this church. Alvin Richardson grew up in Morgan County but not in Madison Baptist. 80% of our Active Deacons are “come-heres,” meaning that they moved their membership to Madison Baptist as adults. This represents our changing, more-transient society. A couple of generations ago, perhaps most Deacons elected at MBC had grown up in this church. In my Wednesday Night Bible Study last week, only one adult had been a member of MBC all her life; everyone else had moved their memberships from another church.
I mention these facts because of the context of our New Testament Lesson. The first serious congregational problem in the Church resulted in murmuring, because some “come-heres” were being neglected. Some widows were not getting enough food. Some were upset because “their people” weren’t being treated the same as others. Differences were being made between the “come-heres,” meaning the Hellenists or Grecian believers, and the “been-heres” meaning the Hebrews or Jewish Christians. The early Church did a great job welcoming people who were different. Most Jewish people had little to do with those who were not Jewish, but once they became followers of Jesus, once they committed to have a relationship with the risen Christ, they dropped their exclusive tendency and received others who were different. The example of Jesus continued to be the model which they sought to follow; Jesus did not treat people differently based upon how they looked, their gender, or their race. Jesus treated all people all the same, and the early church placed that value into practice.
The congregation regularly ate together, but the twelve apostles who were charged with preaching and teaching found themselves having less time to prepare for preaching and teaching, because they had so many other tasks, like serving people at the tables and maybe even cleaning up after the meals. The early Church had no Constitution or By-laws; they had no organizational structure and no committees, so we know the first church was not a Baptist church! The Apostles, those who had been with Jesus, did the teaching and preaching. They also realized that they could not do everything that needed to get done.
So after the Apostles had heard enough complaints, they had a meeting. They said, “It isn’t right that we are having to neglect our primary role of studying, teaching, and preaching so that we wait on tables; attend tables; serve the tables.” The Greek word translated as “wait, attend or serve” is “diakonos” (dee-AH-ca-nus) which literally means to raise dust in a hurry, or kicking up dust because in a hurry. The word picture was that the person was so actively serving that dust from the dirt floor was moving. The Apostles said, “Choose seven (which was the number of completion) men full of Holy Spirit and of wisdom so that they can serve the tables. Choose seven with good reputations as well as spiritual gifts.” Some use this text to say that only men should serve as Deacons, although I don’t know anyone who holds that literal understanding and says that seven should also be chosen each time there is a Deacon Election. The Church chose seven as requested by the Apostles; the Apostles did not choose them. Although Dr. Luke, the author of Acts, didn’t tell us more details, the Church had some kind of election.
The Apostles, who all had Jewish lineage, would then devote themselves to prayer and serving the word. Seven Greeks (come-heres) were chosen to diakoneo, (dee-AH-ca-no), to raise dust in a hurry, or kick up dust because in a hurry. These seven were to serve so actively that dust from the dirt floor would be stirred up. These seven were to serve the congregation actively. These seven had definitive roles: they were to tend to the needs of the Church. They were not a Board of Directors telling people what to do; they were active, hurriedly kicking up dust by doing ministry. They helped people; their actions showed people that they cared. Their initial focus was on the people who needed it the most; widows in that culture who had no status.
When their husbands died, so did any standing that they had. Women had been solely dependent upon their husbands, and now these widows had nothing. Remember that women were also seen as property, so a widow’s place in society was much like stray animals, wandering from place to place. Church meant something to them. They were received there; they were welcomed there; they gained care there. And they ate there; church was their lifeline. Without a husband, the widows depended upon the church meal. Widows already felt abandoned with the loss of their husband; feeling neglected in their church was devastating, so the Apostles addressed the murmuring. The Apostles deliberately sought to address the problem, and seven were chosen to serve the congregation.
These seven stood before the Apostles who prayed for them and then laid hands on them. They prayed that God would grant the necessary gifts and grace needed for the tasks given to them.
What was the result of these seven doing their job of serving tables and the Apostles being able to focus on their primary job of prayer, preaching, and teaching? The word of God continued to spread. The mission of the church was being accomplished. More people knew about the love of God through the great gift of Jesus Christ when the Apostles didn’t have to problem-solve and put out fires within the congregation.
And the number of disciples increased. The church grew. When Deacons did what they were supposed to do: serve the needs of the congregation, and the Apostles did what they were supposed to do: pray, teach, preach, and lead worship, the church grew.
To Shane, Dan, and Deb, many lessons from this passage can be gleaned as a “Charge to the Candidates.” One of your roles is to protect the unity of the church. Seven were chosen to address the murmuring; seven solved the problem of some feeling neglected by actively serving them. In church-life there will always be those who murmur; we are called to serve everyone.
Secondly, make church a priority; our theme this year has been “Church First.” Serve the needs of the congregation. Your role is one of active service, rather than passive disservice.
Finally, our greatest goal is to advance the Redeemer’s Kingdom. The Apostles and these seven worked together; that is the role today also: Deacons and ministers are to work together to advance the cause of Christ in our community and around the world. Ours is to be a collaborative relationship, one where we both do our jobs cooperatively. Working together, so much more gets accomplished rather than working alone.
Just as happened with the seven chosen by the first church, we too will offer our blessing and encouragement with laying on of hands. I am very excited that our church has chosen all three of you. May God bless your efforts in seeking unity, keeping church a priority, and working collaboratively as you serve Madison Baptist Church.