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Holy Orders by Daniel Vestal


A guest blog by Dr. Daniel Vestal

The future of Baptist congregations will be shaped by the degree to which laity think and act with the mind of Christ. Those who sit in the pews every Sunday must take the demands of Christin discipleship as seriously as those who occupy the pulpits. The people (“laos” is the Greek word for it) of our congregations, are called and commissioned by Christ to be the priests, ministers, prophets and witnesses in their community and world.

And deacons are exemplars to other laity of what it means to be “full of the Spirit and wisdom.” (Acts 6:3) Deacons are not perfect, nor are they always the most gifted and visible members of a congregation. They do not call attention to themselves, but they are, by definition, servant and spiritual leaders. And as such, they have influence, profound influence, on the character and conduct of a congregation.

In searching for an historical model that might describe the kind of deacons that are needed in Baptist churches for our day, I want to be so bold to suggest that they become like a “holy order” of lay Christians. Their ordination sets them apart for a lifelong pursuit of Christ-likeness. Their special gift (“charism” is the Greek word for it) is service, both within the congregation and then to the wider community. Their lifestyle is described in I Timothy 3:8-13 which is founded on “their faith in Christ Jesus.” (v. 13) 

Deacons are accountable to the congregation that ordains them and then to one another since they meet regularly for prayer, conversation and support. Their Diaconate is a smaller fellowship within the larger fellowship of the congregation, and deacons are accountable both to the Diaconate and to the congregation. This kind of accountability is yet another similarity to the “holy orders” of other Christian faith traditions. Deacons are, and should be, held to a higher standard of belief and behavior. “They keep hold of the deep truths of the faith n a clear conscience,” and “are worthy of respect.” (I Timoty3:8,9)

All this is not to suggest that deacons are “super saints” or separated from the trials and tribulations of daily life. But this understanding of deacons is suggesting that the role and office of deacon is a high and holy calling. Ordained deacons as lay leaders are as integral and necessary for the health and mission of the church as are ordained clergy. They function by divine design and are chosen by the congregation under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.

Unlike the “holy orders” of other traditions, deacons are not isolated from society. They actually live in the world like all other Christian laity. They are not celibate and do not give up ownership of property. They are not guided by a rule book of a community. But they do occupy a place within the Body of Christ that has Scriptural precedent. They fulfill their calling in continuity with deacons going all the way back to the beginnings of the Christian movement: Stephen, Philip, Procorus, Timon, Nicanor, Parmenas, Nicholas, Phoebe. (Acts 6:5, Romans 16:1)

These biblical roots should inspire humility and courage in individuals who serve as deacons. They should remember that just as preaching (“kerygma” is the Greek word for it) and teaching (“didache” is the Greek word for it) were essential to the growth of the first Christian church, so service (“diakonos” is the Greek word for it) was of the essence of the early church’s life and ministry. And for service the Holy Spirit led the earliest church to select deacons. This is like a “holy order.”

By Dr. Daniel Vestal
As Published in the Table andTowel electronic Newsletter from the Baugh Center for Deacons


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