The heroine of My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle, captured the sentiment of most of us when she complained: “Words, words, words—I am so sick of words. I get words all day through, first from him, now from you. Is that all you blighters can do?” She was tired of empty rhetoric—as high sounding as it was. Instead, she wanted to see something real.
Talk is cheap. Promises are a dime a dozen. Most of us have had about all of the spin-controlled sound-bites we can stand. We’ve heard just about all the hollow rhetoric we can tolerate. We all know that actions speak louder than words.
That is a universal truth—no less valid in business or politics or media as in faith or family or church. Good intentions are simply not sufficient in any area of life. There has to be follow-through. There has to be substance.
John the Apostle admonishes us accordingly, “Let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18). In the Biblical scheme of things, love is something we do, not just something we feel. Mercy is something we extend not just something we intend. Hope is something we must act on not just something we harbor. Our orthodoxy must be matched by orthopraxy. Our life together must be marked by both Word and deed.
This does not by any means minimize the primacy of the Word of God in the Christian life. It is simply a recognition that God’s truth will always bear incarnational, tangible, and demonstrable fruit.
The Westminster Confession of Faith highlights this notion asserting that the church has been entrusted with “the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world.” In other words, in order to faithfully carry out this stewardship, the mission of the church must be organized around Word and deed—or what Francis Schaeffer called “contents and realities.”
To that end, from the earliest days of the apostolic church, congregations were purposefully structured for Word and deed ministry. Each local body was to be led by elders who were charged with the weighty task of preserving sound doctrine. They were to teach it, exhort it, nurture it, and highlight it in every aspect of congregational life—in both its evangelism and its discipleship, from its worship to its societal presence. They were to bring the Gospel to bear in Word. That fixedness in the Word was to provoke holiness, godliness, and faithfulness in all things.
In addition to the elders though, those early fellowships were also served by deacons—or more literally, servants. They were to translate the truth of the Word into very practical deeds. They were to make evident the beauty of human relationships transformed, reconciled, and restored by the Gospel. They were to provoke abundant evidence of true koinonia. At the same time, they were to insure that covenantal relationships would show forth selfless service crafted in tenderness, empathy, excellence, intelligence, and glory.
According to Acts 6, the deacons were charged with the responsibility of coordinating, administering, and conducting the charitable generosity and stewardship of the church. It seems that because of the spectacular growth of the Jerusalem congregation, the distribution of food to the needy had gradually become uneven and inefficient. A number of the Grecian widows had been overlooked.
The Twelve gathered all the Disciples together and said,
“It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the Word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:2-3).
Thus, these seven men, or deacons as they would later be called, were to practically translate Word into deed (1 Timothy 3:8-10). They had as their primary duty the oversight of the mercy ministry of the Church. This was the essence of the diaconal function.
All throughout church history, this sort of practical deeds-ministry has been more or less faithfully carried out by men of passion, conviction, and concern–men like William Olney and Joseph Passmore. Olney and Passmore were deacons for many years at London’s Metropolitan Tabernacle during the pastorate of Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Their busy stewardship of service involved the administration of almshouses, orphanages, relief missions, training schools, retirement homes, tract societies, and colporterages.
In a lecture to young Bible college students in 1862, Olney stated,
“Deacons are called of God to a magnificent field of service, white unto harvest. . . . Ours is the holy duty of stopping by the way, when all others have passed by, to ministrate Christ’s healing. Thus, we take the Good Samaritan as our model, lest the pilgrim perish.”
To that same audience, Passmore said,
“It is ironic indeed that our type of diaconal faithfulness comes not from the life of a disciple of our blessed Lord. Nay, not even is our type from the ancient fathers of faith, the Jews. Instead, our type is from the life of a Samaritan. Mongrel, as touching doctrine, this Good Samaritan is all of pedigree as touching righteousness. Oh, that the Church of our day had such men. Oh, that the church of our day bred such men, men of unswerving devotion to the care of the poor and broken-hearted. Oh, that the church of our day was filled with such men, men driven by the Good Samaritan faith . . . offering both Word and deed, the fullness of the Gospel.”
Sadly, in our congregations today this balanced Word and deed vision is, at best, a secondary notion in the functioning of the church offices. Indeed, instead of meting out the succor of compassion in ministries of service, our deacons are often called upon to spend most of their time sitting on committees and launching building drives. Instead of spending and being spent on behalf of the needy, instead of modeling the Word and deed Good Samaritan faith, our deacons are waxing the floors of the fellowship hall or dusting the dampers, pew by pew, “and goodness knows what other trifles,” as Olney put it. Consequently, we leave our churches and our communities with the impression that the Gospel really is little more than “Words, words, words.”
The observation of John Calvin in 1559 is thus perhaps just as applicable in our own day as it was in his,
“Today the poor get nothing more of alms than if they were cast into the sea. Therefore, the church is mocked with a false diaconate . . . there is nothing of the care of the poor nothing of that whole function which the deacons once performed.”
Mobilizing the diaconate for deeds ministry as a compliment to—and even authentication of—the Word ministry of elders would go a long way to bringing fresh renewal to the modern church. As the great Scottish reformer Thomas Chalmers asserted,
“It is not possible to maintain orthodoxy through induction. Instead, orthodoxy must naturally be deductive–rooted in the rightful elucidation of the Holy Scriptures and then the practical application thereof. Herein is the first principle of ecclesiology.”
Herein are the beauty, goodness, and truth of the Gospel displayed in the church’s Word and deed ministry.
See also episode eight of the StandFast-cast / podcast – “How the Early Church Empowered Both the Gospel & Good Deeds” – at https://www.GeorgeGrant.net/blog/SF08