By Dick Blackford
No, of course not. The church had preachers before it had deacons. In Paul’s letters to Timothy the qualifications of elders and deacons are given aside from Timothy’s responsibilities as a preacher. To further pursue the answer to this question, we must identify our terms.
“What on Earth in Heaven’s Name Is a Preacher?” That’s the title of a chapter in Charles Hodge’s booklet, Your Preacher. And it is a good question. We must be concerned about heaven’s view of a preacher, for as the Psalmist said: “Forever, 0 Jehovah, thy word is settled in heaven” (Psa. 119:89). What, then, is the work of a preacher – as a preacher? The letters to Timothy and Titus are a gold mine for learning the attitudes and responsibilities of a gospel preacher. In a nutshell, he is to read, study, preach, and be an example (1 Tim. 4:12,13; 2 Tim. 2:15; 4:2).
What Is a Deacon to Do? The word translated deacon means “servant.” There is an office called deacon and those who fill it have certain qualifications to meet, some of which are physical (1 Tim. 3:8-10,12,13). These men were to: (1) first be proved, (2) then allowed to serve (1 Tim. 3: 10). All Christians are to be servants, but not all Christians are deacons for all have not met the requirements. Paul rendered service, but was not officially a deacon. Deacons are mentioned separately from the saints in Paul’s letter to Philippi (Phil. 1:1). (The fact that there is an office neither exalts nor debases the one occupying it.)
The words translated “serve” and “ministration” in reference to the seven appointed to see after the Grecian widows are forms of the word translated “deacon.” These were men who had proved themselves. The fact that they were appointed (and not servants in the general sense) indicates that these were deacons. The deacon has no speciality. His work is auxiliary in nature. He assists the elders and renders a service wherever needed. In this, his work differs from a preacher’s. The preacher’s duty focuses primarily on the Word (studying, guarding, and teaching it).
Leaving the Word of God to Serve Tables
When the seven were appointed to look after the needs of the widows, Luke says, “And the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, it is not fit that we should forsake the word of God, and serve tables. Look ye out therefore, brethren, from among you seven men. . . ” (Acts 6:2,3a).
Someone might argue that preachers of today are not apostles and thus this passage does not apply to them. Obviously, the apostles were primarily under consideration for “the twelve” is the antecedent of “we.” But the apostles were preachers and it was because of this facet of their work that it was “not fit. ” The disciples then numbered in the thousands. Becoming directly involved with serving the widows was a daily event and would have entailed much time. It would have amounted to abandoning the word of God. Two verses earlier we are told of the work the apostles were doing. “And every day in the temple and at home, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 5:42). They could not have done this had they misplaced their emphasis on the gospel and put it on benevolence. There is a great commission to preach the gospel to the world. But there is no great commission to do benevolence. Such work was secondary.
Is the Deacon’s Work Physical?
Some have made a “rule” that elders are over the spiritual affairs of the church and deacons are over the physical. It must be remembered that deacons are under the oversight of the elders (1 Pet. 5:2). They assist wherever needed. While there are physical and spiritual matters, the Bible does not limit their work to one or the other. There is a sense in which physical and spiritual matters are interwoven and cannot be separated. Concerning deacons, L.R. Wilson commented: “We may say that there is hardly any service which may be needed that they may not perform ” (The Deacons and His Work, James D. Bales, p. 63). Two verses after the appointment of the seven, we find one of them (Stephen) preaching (Acts 6:8f).
Because of the misconception that many have of the deacon’s work, some have tried to make a deacon (their concept) out of a preacher. He may become the regular janitor, grass cutter, errand boy, or “Jack-of-all-trades.” Preachers and deacons have many things in common because they are Christians. But they are not one and the same.
Is the Preacher Too Good to Dirty His Hands?
It is doubtful that the apostles meant this when they appointed the seven to serve tables. They had been getting their hands dirty before they became apostles (fishing, etc.). Paul made tents and gathered firewood (Acts 18:3; 28:3). They helped the poor (Gal. 2:10; 1 Cor. 16:1-4). However, the apostles’ statement established the fact that there is a matter of priorities. This did not mean they would never do physical things, for they did. But today, many brethren have difficulty understanding the importance and the amount of time involved in preparing sermons, radio-tv programs, newspaper articles, Bible class lessons, bulletins, etc., aside from the preacher’s own personal study which he needs to do. Brethren only see the finished product of a sermon. Preachers do not speak miraculously today.
This writer does not believe that a preacher is too good to get his hands dirty and has always, as a Christian, been willing to take his turn at cutting the grass, cleaning the building, and the like. However, he would oppose being made the permanent janitor. He is a custodian of the Word and not of the premises. There are many duties that could no more be called “preacher’s duties only” than partaking of the Lord’s Supper. When there is carpentry work to be done (unless we have someone with a talent along that line who will use it), we hire a carpenter. When we need plumbing, we hire a plumber. When we need electrical work, we hire an electrician. But when we need printing, do we hire a printer? When we need secretarial work, do we hire a secretary? They are no more peculiar to the preacher’s work than plumbing. It may be that the church cannot afford to hire someone to print and do secretarial work. Somehow, we always manage to afford the plumbers, electricians, and carpenters. Could we be thinking more of our own comfort than of spreading the Word? When we cannot afford a caretaker, we all pitch in. The application becomes obvious. Yet there are many on church rolls (God’s roll is another matter) who do no more than assemble. Every preacher I know would be more than glad to render spiritual service any hour of the night or day. A preacher should be a twenty-four hour Christian. But he should not be regarded as a twenty-four hour employee of the brethren.
Should Preachers Make House Calls?
When the apostles explained their purpose in appointing the seven, Inspiration says, “And the saying pleased the whole multitude. . . ” (Acts 6:5). When similar cases arise today, the whole multitude is often displeased. A preacher may be rebuked for not making regular hospital rounds. He may be reproved for not knowing that a certain person had been sick. (The apostles did not know about the widows until it was reported. If they did not have e.s.p., should preachers today be expected to have it?) Unless it is known that the preacher is “goofing off,” the reproof should be avoided. There may be many who need visiting – newcomers, aged, shut-ins, hospitalized, and prospects. Preachers are usually judged by what they do worst. It is possible to spread oneself too thin. There may be regular spiritual duties which cannot be interrupted, deadlines to meet, etc. Some of the expectations that people have of preachers grow out of the false concept which they have a deacons – along with their false notion that the preacher is a deacon.
Should the preacher do all the visiting? No. Should he do any of it? Yes. First, because he is a Christian. Second, because he is to be an example to Christians (1 Tim. 4:12). He could make his visits count for more than social calls. Why not leave an appropriate tract or bulletin? An idea this writer likes (and which he borrowed from a preacher friend) is to collect empty pill bottles, get some clear capsules and put Scriptures in them, and label it “Prescriptions From the Great Physician.” Distributing these is an effective means of teaching and may open other doors of opportunity. (Prepare two sets of Scriptures – one for saints, one for sinners.) Pertinent announcements can be included (meetings, radio programs, correspondence courses). It will not be necessary for the preacher to feel guilty of i(socializing on company time.”
It is not our purpose to be overly defensive of the preacher. We have tried to avoid two extremes: (1) That the preacher is a socialite or that visitation is his primary duty. Most preachers enjoy visiting. However, if they are busy in teaching (or preparing for it), they may not always be able to arrange to “sit with relatives during surgery,” etc. Martha scolded Jesus as some would the preacher: “If thou hadst been there, my brother had not died” (Jn. 11:21). (2) That he should seclude himself and feel no desire to visit or meet people. If he feels inadequate to meet people, he should either overcome his inadequacy or find another occupation. There is nothing in the apostles’ doctrine that would comfort him in secluding himself.
There is a need to better understand the subjects of preachers and deacons. Hodge says, “The church is the called out, and the preacher is the called on. ” But “there is one security in preaching, we can never be replaced by computers.”
Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 22, pp. 688-689
November 16, 1989