"This was truly amazing to me,” said a student during the recently-concluded “Justice & Mercy” class. He was referring to a section in one of the readings, Timothy Keller’s Ministries of Mercy:

Under Rev. Thomas Chalmers... [the Church of Scotland’s parochial system of deacons assigned to parishes to take care of the poor within them] was restored in the church of St. John’s, Glasgow, during the early 1800s. His parish included 11,513 residents, of which 2,633 were members of his church. Four thousand of the residents were completely unchurched. The entire area was divided into “quarters,” each with a deacon over it. Each deacon’s job was to keep the Session (the elders) informed about the economic conditions in his quarter. He was to help the unemployed get work and help uneducated children get schooling. When a family was found in need, he was to seek out resources within the neighborhood. If there were no other options, the family was admitted to the poor roll. The statistics from one year show 97 families on the relief rolls of the church, from an approximate total of 3500 families in the parish. (Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road, 2nd edition. Phillipsburg, P&R: 1997, 88).

This was in the 1800s!” he exclaimed.

If we were to rely solely on what we see around us now as “the way it’s always been,” then we would be missing out on the rich treasury of ministry that the office of deacons has been for the Church throughout its history. Growing up in the church, I certainly didn’t know what the deacons did. Only later, through the study of Scripture and urban mission issues, did I discover what was lost to the past.

Acts 6 teaches us that the first deacons were ordained to administer the mercy ministry of the Church. Stephen, one of these first deacons, was no mean spiritual leader among the apostles and disciples--in other words, the office of deacons was not a secondary office in the ministry of the church. Calvin’s Geneva was a city whose poor and hurting were served by a well-organized team of deacons. (See The Constructive Revolutionary: John Calvin and His Socio-Economic Impact, by W. Fred Graham.) The example of the deacons in Chalmers’ church in Glasgow is recounted above. We can tell countless other stories from the annals of Church History. These paint a portrait of a Church vigorously engaging the hurting and broken world through robust and concrete acts of compassion.

So what happened?

In his endnotes, Keller offers one explanation--the churches in “The New World” faced a separation of Church and State and a plurality of denominations that didn’t make it easy to organize a systematic and comprehensive diaconal ministry in its cities--a state of affairs quite different from that back in Scotland, where the Church of Scotland was the Church. Nevertheless, the Presbyterian Church, for example, had always intended that the Church become, once again, “the friend of the workingman” (92).

The church, it seems, never quite got there, and forgot all about it. Instead, the Christian community in USA got embroiled in debates--ministries of word vs. ministries of deeds, Liberalism vs. Fundamentalism, political progressivism vs. political conservatism, and any number of combinations thereof. It seems that we’ve managed to lay asunder what the Lord has brought together. As a result, the office of the deacon has been devastated and left anemic.

As the new generation of Evangelicals--with a new sense of social justice as a vital component of Christian discipleship--rises to the fore, the church in USA is again in danger of debating diaconal ministry to death instead of leading the way and forging a healthy, holistic gospel witness of word and deed as the way of life for the Church (as opposed to outsourcing diaconal ministries to non-profit organizations--needed, yes, but not to be at the forefront of a comprehensive gospel witness as the Church is to be). Not welcomed by “biblically faithful” churches, they may turn to (indeed, already are turning to) other entities (some Christian, some not) to carry out what they see as a mandate from the Lord.

But the biblical witness and Church History provides us with a different picture. The cause of the kingdom would be well served if we learn from these neglected treasures, and endeavor to reinstate the office of the deacon to its rightful place in the mission and life of the Church. Then we would be in a better place to carry out the wishes of Jesus who said to his disciples, “...let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

Dr. Kyuboem Lee serves as a lecturer of Urban Mission at Biblical Seminary. He is the founding pastor of Germantown Hope Community Church in Philadelphia, and the General Editor for the Journal of Urban Mission (http://jofum.com).


+1 # David Apple 2012-05-30 14:05
Thanks for this, brother. Every church needs a healthy-functioning diaconate. Here the ways I believe deacs should serve: 1) Equipping the saints. 2) Collecting the tithes and offerings of God's people and distribute them. 2) Developing a talent bank and making withdrawals to help those who are in need. 4) Coming alongside the afflicted and serving the distressed with counsel from God's Word. 5) Preventing poverty among members of the church. 6) Understanding how local community resources work. 7) Teaching the needy to make good use of all available institutions of mercy. 8) Cooperating with neighboring churches.
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0 # Kyuboem Lee 2012-05-31 05:33
Good to see you here, David! For others reading, David leads ACTS Ministries at Tenth Presbyterian Church in downtown Philly, which is carrying out a wonderful diaconal ministry there. For those who wish to learn more about the church's diaconal work, David would be a great teacher.
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