Ordaining Deacons

Editor’s Note:

In the May issue of this publication, your editor announced the appointment of two men to the office of deacon by an evangelist. Your editor received the following inquiry from one of our subscribers: “Why does it say the evangelist ‘appointed’ deacons? Please explain to me using Bible verses why that could happen. My understanding is that only elders can appoint deacons.” Since this may be a question that interests other readers, your editor thought it best to answer it in this issue. Your editor thanks the widowed sister who took the time to ask the question.

The sixth chapter of the book of Acts offers the best example of how the early church carried out ordinations. The apostles found it difficult to balance the distribution of money to the widows of the early church with the pressing need to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. To correct what must have been unintentional oversights, the apostles directed the church to choose men who possessed certain qualities (e.g. “full of the Holy Spirit”). Once the congregation found qualified men, the apostles would appoint the candidates to minister to the Christian widows in need. From Acts 6 we can identify a pattern: a congregation chooses qualified candidates and another with authority (in this case the apostles) ordains the candidates.

Acts 6 is by no means an isolated case. Consider the example of Moses in Deuteronomy 1:9-17. In this passage, Moses recounts what took place forty years before in Exodus 18. However, Deuteronomy 1:13 provides one detail that is not included in Exodus 18: the children of Israel chose men from among their tribes for Moses to appoint. The congregation selected its leaders while another with authority appointed them to carry out the work.

We know that non-apostles participated in appointing elders in the first century. For example, Barnabas assisted Paul with ordaining elders in the churches of Galatia (see Acts 14:21-23). Barnabas was sent out by the church at Antioch as Paul’s fellow-laborer on this first evangelistic journey into the broad Gentile world. Paul directed Titus to “ordain elders in every city” (Titus 1:5). We have no reason to believe that either Barnabas or Titus was an apostle of Jesus Christ since neither man is listed as a witness of the resurrected Christ. Therefore, Barnabas and Titus were non-apostles who were authorized to ordain elders in the church.

Neither Barnabas nor Titus belonged to the congregations in which they carried out this work. Barnabas worked with the churches of Galatia in Acts 14 while Titus worked among the churches of Crete. In addition to ordaining elders, both men preached the gospel to the lost, grounded new Christians in the doctrine of Jesus Christ, encouraged established congregations to keep the faith, and worked among a multiplicity of congregations.

The New Testament shows us several non-apostles who performed a similar work among the first century churches. Among these men, Timothy is the most prominent example. “Evangelist” is the only title associated with Timothy. Paul urges Timothy to do the work of an evangelist and fulfill his ministry (2 Timothy 4:5). Paul would not command Timothy to do the work of an evangelist unless Timothy was an evangelist. Therefore, Timothy was an evangelist. Since his work was much like the work of Barnabas and Titus, it is reasonable to conclude that they too were considered evangelists among the churches.

In 1 Timothy 3, Paul lists the qualities that both elders and deacons should possess. Certainly Timothy would need to instruct the church at Ephesus in these characteristics so that the brethren could choose qualified men. But given the pattern established by both Moses and the apostles as well as the work Barnabas and Titus performed among the churches, it seems reasonable to imply that Timothy had the authority to appoint both elders and deacons in the Lord’s church.

In the bodily absence of both a law-giver and the apostles, who then possesses the authority to ordain deacons in the Lord’s church today? The Scriptures authorize evangelists to carry out this work.