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Title: An Abbreviated History Lesson on Church Structure
Text: Acts 6; 1 Timothy 3.8-13
Introduction: Thank you Larry, for reading Scripture today.
I’ll be floating between two passages: Acts 6 and 1 Timothy. So bookmark those two passages. Actually, I’ll start in Acts 6… show some history throughout Acts, Make my way to 1 Timothy and back again.
What a blessing this is! We get to talk politics this morning! I don’t mean the politics of our national government, Great Britain’s exit from the European Union, or anything like that. I mean church politics! Politics is normally a dirty word, but it doesn’t have to be. Google says: Politics are the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power. If that is the definition, no wonder people hate politics. If that is the definition, then there is no place for politics in the church. People hoping to achieve power have no plac in church leadership. Indeed, Christ says that we’re to be like him and he came as one who serves and is the servant of all. Mark Dever says: Politics is the science of organizing life together. That’s pretty straightforward: The science of organizing life together. That works for families, teams, committees and yes, churches.
Church polity is something we should address regularly. You should know how your church functions: what are the rules that govern our assembly and what keeps us unified? What protects our unity and works against schisms and divisions?
I want you to know that this isn’t something I dreamed up. This has been a real concern for the church for nearly 2000 years. As a young pastor, I did what the churches and pastors before me did. I saw inconsistencies, and because of my nature, I questioned many of these inconsistencies that I saw. It has only been since coming to Calvary 11 years ago and never – never being a part of a healthy church, that led me on a journey, a quest to discover what makes a healthy church, well – healthy.
The following is some of what I discovered. Some of you may be hearing this for the 1st time. For others, this will be a review. Let’s begin with a brief history lesson from Scripture on church polity.
I. A History of the Need for Structure (Acts 6)
exp.: Our first experience is found in Acts 6. The Apostles are the leaders. The Lord has put them in place. He commissioned them. But soon, all of these believers begin experiencing problems: problems that threaten their unity. It could be racial, ethnic, social… who knows? But, it threatens their unity. Furthermore, the Apostles are not able to do their work – to accomplish their task.
- So we learn #1 – that problems expose the need for structure. So, they come up with a solution. Let’s observe the process in Acts 6.1ff; rd 1a; Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number… Let me pause there and ask a question: Does this sound bad or good? Man, I want this problem! Jah hear? Calvary’s having problems! uh-huh, turns out they’re increasing in number, pretty dramatic I hear. So many baptisms the city is threatening to cut off their water. Well, numbers do create problems in that they expose areas of weakness and a need for structure. Rd 6b; a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. That’s complaint #1; there seems to be a problem with languages. Those who speak Hebrew are getting 1st dibs and the Greek-speaking widows are being overlooked. Here’s complaint #2, and it comes from the leaders. But, notice this, they want to make sure everyone knows their complaint. So… rd v 2a: summoned the full # of disciples! When everyone gets there, well then… look what they have to say: It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Let me just say that it’s not right is very similar to the phrase it’s not fair. Now, obviously you are getting my tongue in cheek presentation of this situation.
Here’s our first application of the day: Problems aren’t bad. It’s how you handle the problems you face that can be bad. And these guys handle the problem right. And from the way we observe these guys tackling their problem, we gain some insight into how we should handle our problems. Again, problems are bad, just the way we handle them can be. So, what do we learn from them:
- Church polity should be handled in a congregational way. They involve the Congregation. Church, you select 7 men from among you and we’ll appoint them to this duty. The Church selects 7 men and the apostles put them to work. From this we learn that we are congregational. Yes, we have a pastor, but he isn’t the pope. You can amen that if you want, it won’t hurt my feelings. No one man or woman should ever run the church. Ever! Congregational means that we vote on what we do. The church always has the last say. Always. The church votes on a budget in December. That is your approval for teams, committees, and ministries to do what they do. You, the church, also approve those teams. The deacons form ministry teams, the elders pick teachers and you, the church, give your approval of them all. It all launches from the church. We are congregational. As the year progresses, we find ministry opportunities, we find problems that arise and if it isn’t in the budget or the church hasn’t given the assignment to a team or group of people, then we come back to the church and seek your approval. That is how it is supposed to work.
- Relationships are vitally important. One group isn’t more important than the others. Listen, Ladies & Gentlemen, This isn’t about the food – it’s about the relationships. In our text, it might just be that those who were doing the work didn’t speak Greek or weren’t as fluent. More than likely, the Greek-speaking widows being overlooked was a symptom of a deeper problem. Who knows? But from this, we learn that nothing is more important than relationships. So, whatever you’re working on as a team – if there is a breakdown – check your relationships – my guess is somebody’s feelings got hurt. Mend the relationship!
Now, there is something important about church history here that I need you to see: Before this moment in Acts 6, the only leaders were the Apostles. One office in the church: Apostles. Now, there is a 2nd office in the church: Deacons.
Rd v 3-4; The offices are getting some structure now. The Apostles say: Here is our job and this is yourn. And, in order to do this job, you should be qualified. So, don’t pick just anyone! The men who are handling this situation are so overwhelmed they can’t do both. They’re qualified, but they need more men. These men don’t need to do their job of preaching and teaching, but they should be godly men nonetheless. So… qualifications must be set. We need qualified men to complete this task.
- Men of good reputation
- Men full of the Holy Spirit
- Men of Wisdom
ill.: I read this week that The Mission of the Church is the Ministry of the Word. I wondered, is this true? Let me repeat it: The Mission of the Church is the Ministry of the Word. That isn’t the purpose. My guess is the purpose of the church is the glory of God. Edmund Clowney says the mission of the church… He then continues with an explanation.
- Worship: We sing the Word, We pray the Word, and We preach the Word.
- Discipleship – teaching the Word.
- Evangelism – reaching the world with the Word.
These Apostles are saying that their mission is being compromised. They are unable to do their work in the Ministry of the Word because they’ve been caught up in ‘waiting tables’. That work, which isn’t being done very well, is making their task of preaching and teaching to suffer. Nothing is getting done very well.
Once a church begins to practice the ministry of the Word, it experiences growth. Growth creates problems. The more people you have, the more problems you have. So, they have to get organized. They need to get some structure here.
Rd v 5-7; please note v 7; what continued to increase? The Word of God! With that, there is an increase in conversions, which of course means they’ll have more problems and they’ll have to work those problems. But they’re good problems, No?
Well, the church grows and more problems occur. We’re not told of all the details, but we learn of the solutions by what we read. Turn to Acts 11.19-30; the church grows and determines to help with a problem down in Jerusalem. V 30 tells us that the church has now added another office: Elders. We can only make assumptions now as to what has happened. We don’t really know. They’ve not appeared before now. But, now, what we have in the early church, at least at this very early stage, is three offices: Apostles, Elders, and Deacons.
Let me quickly give you a time reference. Acts 12 – with the death of Herod and the work of Josephus – allows us to date Acts 12 at about 44 AD. If you take a later date for the crucifixion, we have these offices being used in the church within about 10 years. If you take an earlier date (which I do), then you see the infrastructure of the church being established no later than 13 years of Christ’s Great Commission. I think it would be fair to say that the structure for the church was set within the 1st decade of the Church’s (Capital C) existence.
You’re in 11.30; look at Acts 14.23; rd 15.1-6; Apostles and Elders are taking care of the doctrinal issues of the church. They’re handling the problems that are arising. Together. What we will see as the 1st century moves on and closes out, the apostles will fade from the scene. They will die and they will not be replaced. And, as the apostles fade from the scene, we see three offices narrowed down to two: elders and deacons.
app.: I want to take a moment to say that many Baptists are uncomfortable with elders. I understand this, but this saddens me. Did you know that many Baptist churches in the world had elders until the mid-1800’s. Our 1st two confessions or statement of faith’s had elders and deacons listed as the two main offices. So, historically, Baptist have had two main offices in the church: elders and deacons. What caused the change? My educated guess would be Manifest Destiny and the need for circuit preachers.
Many Baptist churches struggle today because they have an unhealthy church polity. They have become comfortable with tradition, and so, they neglect the Scriptures. In their defense, let me say that many Baptist churches function without elders. These churches have dynamic leaders serving as pastors who use some of the deacons as elders. And truthfully, I’m ok with that. It isn’t what I would choose, but that works for them. However, with that being said, I think many Baptist churches have a system of government that is wicked and evil. It is self-serving. Men are placed in leadership positions that should never be there. Men are made deacons and deacons then begin to run the church in the absence of a pastor or elders. That method, that form of government continues and it becomes cyclical. Pastors rotate in and out as the deacons then rule the church with an iron hand. And these congregations slowly die because these deacons can’t see that they were never intended to lead the church in this fashion.
t.s.: Let me show you the structure as we find it later on – some 20 years or more later. And this is point #2…
II. The Structure of the Church (1 Tim 3.1-13)
exp.: 1 Timothy is a manual for churches and pastors on structure and polity. Paul’s main concern is the Ministry of the Word. He’s concerned about unhealthy doctrine being taught in the church at Ephesus. Look at chapter 1.3; don’t let certain individuals teach a different doctrine. Rd v 5; our aim here is love. And it pours forth from this beautiful triad: a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. There are those who don’t have a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith. These people are rd v 6-7; now hones in on his purpose: rd v 8-11; Sound Doctrine = The Gospel. A Healthy church has sound, healthy doctrine, which is the Gospel of Christ. The Church then is a picture of the Gospel to the world. If you really think about this, this is what Paul is saying to Timothy – and to the believers at Ephesus: The Church is the Gospel made visible. Therefore, protect it. That is why Sound Doctrine is vital.
Paul then presents the Gospel in a short testimony: v 15 is the thesis statement here: 15 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…
In Chapter two Paul discusses they way believers should act, but look at chapter three. Here, Paul presents the structure that has been established over the next 20-25 years from Acts 12 on… You can see the same thing in Titus.
Chapter three establishes two offices for the church:
- Elders – Let me introduce them to you, especially for the guests. (Active & Inactive)
- Deacons – Deacons – (Active and Inactive)
In comparing the two, not just here, but throughout the New Testament, we find one main difference between the two offices. You ready for this? A deacon is to be held to the same basic qualifications as an elder, with the exception of one trait: the elder must be able to teach. Let that sink in for a moment. A deacon is to be held to the same qualifications as an elder, with the exception of one trait: the elder must be able to teach. Why this one difference? Answer: Because of their responsibility. Elders are given charge of Sound Doctrine. They are responsible for the spiritual aspects of the church. They must give great care to their teaching and to those they place in positions of teaching.
Deacons on the other hand are concerned with the physical aspects of the church. Their leadership is to care for the physical. In Acts we see them caring for the widows. They are to be no less godly than the elders. They are to be no less holy. The standard of character is just as high.
In Acts 6 the qualifications are simple:
- Men – I mention this because this is the only place I find this; later, we’ll see deacons and deaconesses. I know we don’t have them in the Baptist church, but I suspect that is more from culture than God’s word. Let me say, I’m not advocating for deaconesses today, I’m just saying in Scripture we find deaconesses. Let’s set that aside for a moment and focus on Acts 6. They were to be Men.
- A good reputation: which by the way, is with those inside the church and outside the church.
- Full of the Holy Spirit – don’t pick lost men. Don’t pick ungodly men.
- Wise – men full of wisdom. This means they use their knowledge well.
Already, you’ve limited the amount of men who can serve. But 1 Timothy 3 gives us more. Rd v 8
- Dignified: that is, they are worthy men, honored men, respected in the church and in the community.
- Not double-tongued: picture a forked tongue, like that of a snake. A tongue that offers curses and blessings. Not like that.
- Not addicted to much wine: I think this means not an alcoholic. They are not controlled by alcohol. It isn’t that they won’t have a glass of wine with dinner or a beer after mowing the lawn. It is that alcohol doesn’t consume them.
- Not greedy – for dishonest gain. That’s important. Our deacons serve as counters of the offering. They rotate regularly each week. But it is more than that. Your deacons will be responsible for contracts, hiring out work to be completed. You don’t want to pick men that are out to get a kick back.
- Solid Believers. They hold to this faith – this mysterious faith of ours with a clear conscience. And that faith is evident in their daily lives.
- They’ve been tested. Don’t put an unproven man into this position. The men you pick should be men who’ve proven themselves in these areas already. They have been faithful over time.
- Their wives must be qualified. Don’t pick men whose wives are gossips or busy bodies. I have known men who couldn’t serve as deacons because of their wives. Their wives must be like them – dignified, honorable, not diabolos, and faithful in all things.
- The deacons should have a stable marriage and home life. Some people take this to mean ‘having been married one time’. They say a divorced man shouldn’t be a deacon. I don’t think that is the definition here. Let me explain. The Gk simply says: a one-woman man. μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρες; That doesn’t help us. No, I don’t think this means one woman at a time. I think there is a principle here – not a letter of the law. The principle is finding men who are faithful and trustworthy. They prove that over time. For a man to be married to the same woman for 20 years can be a sign that he is faithful. That may not be the case, but it is a sign. So, you take all of these character traits, these qualities and you establish a pattern of faithfulness, honesty and integrity.
app.: Please hear me: I’m not saying every man who has been married longer than 20 years is deacon material. I’m saying that is one sign. Their wives must also serve as a sign. Their testing over the years is another sign. Their faithfulness as solid believers is another sign. The fact that they’re not greedy or alcoholics are more signs…and the list goes on.
t.s.: You take all of these quality characteristics and size the man up. And you pick from there.
III. An Appeal: The Church must pick some men to serve as deacons.
exp.: It is time. In the coming weeks, the deacons will present you with a list of names. They’re going to ask you to:
- Pray over these men. The list will not be exhaustive. You can pray over each man and his family.
- Use this passage as a checklist. Mark off men who don’t size up. See which men rise to the top.
- The deacons are going to ask you to select a number of men to serve with them. I don’t know how many. It could be three. It could be seven. But based on your prayers and your evaluation, select men to serve. The deacons will then assess the men you’ve chosen. They’ll find out who is willing to serve, because you may select some who will say no. They will bring back a final list of those you’ve selected, that they’ve interviewed and determined fit and ready to serve. You’ll then have the final say with a vote.
One final word: don’t assume that men who’ve served before will automatically serve again. If you don’t select them, then they won’t be asked to serve. That is vital. Deacons serve only at the pleasure of the church. Deacons don’t go get deacons. They don’t ask their buddies. They don’t even ask men who’ve served before. They will follow your directions. So, pray, evaluate, and choose – men from among yourselves and we will appoint them to this duty of service.
Conclusion: I mentioned earlier that the church is the gospel made visible. That message is that Christ died for sinners. Paul claims to be the worst of all sinners and even he found forgiveness – his testimony is to the goodness and grace of God. I want to offer you that grace and forgiveness.