Human Sexuality: Anchor and Boundaries

Human Sexuality; Anchor and Boundaries

[Editorial Note: We encourage you to open/read/print the PDF accessible by link just above.  While we have also posted this paper below as “in-line text,” formatting between the PDF and HTML required for this internet page do not carry over consistently.  The content remains largely the same (i.e. charts are missing); formatting retained in the PDF makes reading a bit easier on the eyes.] 

 

Human Sexuality: Anchor and Boundaries

Jared Johnson

I have often heard a saying: “There was a church in Corinth, but there was a whole lot of ‘Corinth’ in the church!” Paul had to push back on the Corinthian church in some significant ways and with some pointed words. History tells us there was a large temple dedicated to Aphrodite – Greek goddess of love, beauty, passion, reproduction, etc. – at Corinth, and according to Greek philosopher and historian Strabo, it employed 1,000 temple prostitutes. The people of Corinth were accustomed to seeing sexuality run amok in their home context. Sexuality of any stripe was so passé that a guy in the church started living with who we can only now assume was his own stepmom; he took his own dad’s wife as his wife! (1 Cor. 5.1; the Greek literally reads something like “so as wife of one of his father has.”)

We see similar dynamics at play in our contemporary Western culture. We are a sex- and sexuality-soaked society. It has become a topic of increasingly casual conversation. We had a long-running sitcom with “sex” in its title for several years broadcast widely. It is entirely expected and common to see various individuals and companies modify their social media avatars during “pride month” to highlight LGBTIA pride. And that passé attitude societally toward sex has come into our churches. What was utterly unthinkable barely one generation or two ago is now commonplace. Whole denominations as well as independent churches have sidelined sexuality as a non-issue, deeming it unimportant and of no relevance in considering who will minister among the congregation, whom will be married by the pastors, and so on. This statement is not directed at LGBTQIA Christians but is a general observation about congregations in an overall sense. Do we, in church leadership, take serial marriages / serial divorce as seriously as any other sexual sin? What about heterosexual couples who are cohabiting? What about someone struggling with a stronghold of lust and/or a pornographic addiction? Are our standards consistent across the spectrum of sexuality regarding ministerial and volunteer functions in our congregations?

While churches are comprised of people still yearning for God’s perfection to be realized in their lives, we should also stand apart in some ways. Our direct spiritual ancestors were described in the New Testament as “ekklesia” – the gathering of called-out ones. We have been called by God from the world’s darkness to His wonderful light (1 Pet. 2.9). The character of the relationships among the early Christians was so palpably different that the surrounding culture noticed and viewed them with tremendous goodwill (Acts 2.47).   We are all “sinners saved by grace” until we meet our Savior in eternity. And yet, we should also be different; holy, set apart, called-out … “the salt of the earth.”

Core Truth or Peripheral Details?

To begin, consider a contrasting word picture / illustration. Think: anchored versus bounded.

Our family has a dog. As he became a juvenile dog and left behind the “puppy” stage, we discovered he could climb chain-link fences! He’s a big dog, so he could easily get his front paws onto the top rail of the fence; he only needed to “walk” his back feet up the chain links to get onto and over the top rail. While a small puppy, we thought we would manage his behavior by bounding him with a fence. “You can be in this yard and house but not any others.” It did not work. Still, needing to keep him limited to our yard, we had to do something. So we staked him into the middle of the yard on a long (approx. 20-ft), elastic leash. He was still bounded by the fence, but that wasn’t the primary method of keeping him where he needed to be. Rather, we anchored him in the middle of the yard and the leash’s 40-foot diameter allowed movement.

A great many prescriptions and proscriptions in the Christian life follow this principle. There are some boundaries and prohibitions, but instead of focusing on the “shall-nots” – the boundaries – we’re typically encouraged, instead, to focus on the “shalls” – anchors. To illustrate again…

Throughout the Old Testament, the Hebrew people were told, encouraged, admonished, exhorted, and ordered to not-worship pagan deities. Those encouragements and prohibitions never “stuck” until after Israel and Judah suffered military conquest and exile. The Israelites really, truly were polytheists until roughly 400BC. It was wrong of them to be polytheist, but functionally, they were. From Abraham’s example through Moses’ Law right up to Jeremiah being kidnapped and carried off to Egypt after Babylon’s siege, the “people of God” were consistently crossing the established boundaries of worship and conduct. Only after the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit came in Acts 1 did it become possible to live a life anchored to the character of God Himself. So, to illustrate with bullet points:


Anchor:

  • Worship God (Son/Spirit … Trinity)

 

Boundaries:

  • Don’t worship fertility.
    • So stay away from Baal
    • … and Asherah
    • … and Osiris
    • … and Amun
    • … and Dionysus
    • … and Persephone
    • … and …
  • Don’t worship the sun.
    • So avoid Ra.
    • … and Apollo
    • … and Helios
    • … and Athena for good measure
    • … and…
  • Don’t worship other stuff just because you don’t know what else to do.
    • So don’t child-sacrifice to Molech.
    • … and stay away from Ashtoreth
    • … and …

 

Regarding a great many principles in Scripture, keeping this complementary contrast in mind can be very helpful, and it is true of God’s expectations regarding human sexuality.

It has been far too common for the Church to fixate, even voyeuristically, on the pettiness of boundaries of sexuality while neglecting the anchor.

The anchor is spiritual maturity. Everything in the Christian life gravitates toward the center of becoming more like Jesus. God has put boundaries around us, but we focus on the anchor.

A Terribly Upright Example

“Well, King David did it!”

We all know David was “a man after God’s heart” (based on 1 Samuel 13.14). There are a great many practices we could engage, inspired by David’s example, to pursue greater spiritual health. We should also be quick to recognize there are a great many actions and even attitudes that we should avoid which David himself did if we’re trying to live according to God’s revealed will. While David was “a man after God’s heart,” we should also admit there is a lot of truth in the description that one of my college professors liked to share: “Uriah was a ‘better man’ drunk than David was sober.” Uriah showed incredible faithfulness to his king and peers while literally inebriated, though David had kidnapped and assaulted Bathsheba while completely sober.

An acquaintance was describing to me a new dynamic in his office. One of his coworkers had begun to openly extol his newly-found “freedom” in a polyamorous relationship with a neighbor and his long-time wife. My acquaintance was asking about other biblical precedents and examples of marriages gone well and marriages gone bad. The coworker was defending his actions because David, in his mind, was a great example worth following, even in his complicated marriage relationships.

“King David did it.” David had multiple wives. It’s true. There is no denying, straight from the text, that David – a “man after God’s heart” – accumulated women over the course of his life. So if David was “after God’s heart,” then God’s heart must be polyamorous; for that matter, since David and Jonathan were so incredibly close, I mean, come on – they must have been homosexual partners! By such “logic,” we might also say that Tom and Jerry cartoons accurately represent feline-rodent relations.

We will return to David’s example after first considering the anchor and boundaries.

 

The Anchor: Spiritual Maturity

Whether Matthew 5.48’s “be perfect as your Father is perfect,” Ephesians 4.13’s “we will be mature,” 1 Peter 2.2’s “Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow,” or any number of other references, the expectation of God is clear: we need to grow up, becoming “more and more like [Jesus] as we are changed into his glorious image” (2 Cor. 3.18). This maturing process – in Church circles often referred to as “sanctification” – is accomplished through every aspect of life, including our sexuality.

We begin by asserting and affirming that God’s Living Word is abundantly clear about His expectation regarding our expression of physical, sexual intimacy; we begin with the words of Jesus Himself.

In our wider culture we will often hear the lie that Jesus supposedly didn’t / doesn’t care about our sexual intimacy if it happens to be outside of heterosexual marriage. That simply was not the case. In Matthew 19.1-12, we see a discussion between loophole-seeking Pharisees and Jesus. They assumed that asking Him about divorce would trap Him into giving a “least-bad” answer. But as Jesus so often did, He side-stepped the verbalized question and insisted His listeners pursue God’s better way in all of life, not just in hair-split details.

“Haven’t you read the Scriptures?” Jesus replied. “They record that from the beginning ‘God made them male and female.’”  And he said, “‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’  Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.”

Matthew 19.4-6

Though the immediate context and question of the legalists here regarded divorce, we can and should look to this statement of the Master regarding sexuality on the whole. Throughout the rest of the Bible, God’s expectation of a covenant relationship between one man and one woman – a marriage – is unequivocal. And here, Jesus entirely affirmed that standard. Irrespective of the immediate and human context of the question, Jesus’ answer here “pulls the conversation up to 36,000 feet.” That is, rather than debate or argue ad-nauseum about the minutiae of the boundaries, Jesus instead tied His hearers back to the anchor. Not minutiae, but core principle. Not boundary-parsing ad-infinitum, but central truth. Come back to the anchor.

Thus saith the Chosen One: “God already told you what He expects: He made male and female, and a guy will leave his parents and unite with his wife.”

Perhaps this reminds us of one of Solomon’s statements, preceding Jesus by 1,000 years:

Let your wife be a fountain of blessing for you. Rejoice in the wife of your youth.

Proverbs 5.18

Jesus’ answer in Matthew 19 quoted Genesis 5.2 and 2.24. (Additionally, Genesis 5.2 echoes Genesis 1.27.) Below are just a handful of other references demonstrating that sexual intimacy, per the biblical witness, belongs in marriage and that marriage is, in God’s eyes, a highly regarded covenant to be greatly respected:

  • Genesis 49.4 Jacob chastised Reuben: “…you defiled my marriage couch.”
  • Exodus 21.10 Command to care well for a first wife if a second wife is taken
  • Hosea Entire book parallels marital faithfulness with worship faithfulness
  • 5.31-32 Jesus’ expectation that we be faithful in marriage.
  • Hebrews 13.4 Another New Covenant (but non-Jesus) command to honor marriage

Heterosexual, life-long, monogamous marriage was the only sexual context ever affirmed throughout the biblical story. To be sure, other types of sexual relationships are described or attested, but one man plus one woman was the only “setup” ever overtly affirmed and condoned by God. Nothing else was affirmed.

Presence in the biblical story is most assuredly not God’s endorsement.

The well-worn saying / rhetorical question is entirely appropriate: “what if marriage is to make us holy, not happy?” The end goal of marriage is not sex, and it is not even reproduction – both are ancillary. The real purpose of marriage is as a spiritual formation path. That is the anchor. In this way, marriage perfectly-reflects, as a complementary mirror-image, singleness and celibacy as Paul knew it when he discussed marriage, singleness, and the Kingdom of God in the opening verses of 1 Corinthians 7. Despite its reputation for fixating on marriage and sexuality minutiae, at the core of the issue, the Roman Catholic Church did “get it right” to recognize marriage as a sacrament by the time of the middle ages.

Marriage as spiritual formation is evident in at least these two passages:

Here is another thing you do. You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, weeping and groaning because he pays no attention to your offerings and doesn’t accept them with pleasure.  You cry out, “Why doesn’t the Lord accept my worship?” I’ll tell you why! Because the Lord witnessed the vows you and your wife made when you were young. But you have been unfaithful to her, though she remained your faithful partner, the wife of your marriage vows.

Didn’t the Lord make you one with your wife? In body and spirit you are his.  And what does he want? Godly children from your union. So guard your heart; remain loyal to the wife of your youth.  “For I hate divorce!” says the Lord, the God of Israel. “To divorce your wife is to overwhelm her with cruelty,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. “So guard your heart; do not be unfaithful to your wife.”

Malachi 2.13-16

Do not deprive each other of sexual relations, unless you both agree to refrain from sexual intimacy for a limited time so you can give yourselves more completely to prayer. Afterward, you should come together again so that Satan won’t be able to tempt you because of your lack of self-control.  I say this as a concession, not as a command.  But I wish everyone were single, just as I am. Yet each person has a special gift from God, of one kind or another.

So I say to those who aren’t married and to widows – it’s better to stay unmarried, just as I am.  But if they can’t control themselves, they should go ahead and marry. It’s better to marry than to burn with lust.

But for those who are married, I have a command that comes not from me, but from the Lord.  A wife must not leave her husband.  But if she does leave him, let her remain single or else be reconciled to him. And the husband must not leave his wife.

1 Corinthians 7.5-11

To look at the Malachi passage, there are a few things to notice. First, let’s be honest about what it is not. Malachi 2.15 is not a divine order to procreate. It is not a tacit endorsement of bearing a multiplicity of children. Only one phrase out of verse 15 overtly mentions children. The broader passage is about impeded worship. And God directly confronts and corrects the hearer: the worshipper wasn’t accepted because he was unfaithful. This passage is not about procreating frequently. It is a direct confrontation against infidelity. Inference can be made that divorce among the intended hearers – the whole nation of Israel (Malachi 1.1) – was rampant. And God, in utterly clear terms, condemned divorce. “So guard your heart; do not be unfaithful to your wife.” Faithfulness in a marriage relationship directly affects the quality of our worship. Faithfulness requires God’s sanctifying work in us; spiritual formation occurs in us as we work at remaining faithful and as we continue inviting the Spirit to mold us more closely to the image of Jesus. Fidelity to a spouse is just one way that, as this text plainly says, we “guard our heart.” And “guard your heart” was precisely the phrase used by Solomon in Proverbs 4.23: “Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life.” Fidelity in marriage is one path God uses to conform us more closely to His character. He did not demand that we have dozens of kids. This much is obvious through an adjective that we cannot miss: “godly children.” The Father wants our families to be His; our families worship Him. That is the point of the Malachi passage: our physical, earthly families worship the One, Eternal “family” – that is, Trinity.

Stay close to the anchor.

To consider the 1 Corinthians passage, Paul famously gives two points of direction. One is a command from God / not from Paul (verse 10); the other is a concession from Paul / not commanded by God (verse 6). Most English translations express his “concession” as its own sentence, in between coming together again and wishing that all people were single like he. So we ask: is the concession allowed about what’s before it or what’s after? “I concede you should come back together in sexual intimacy” or “I concede that I wish all people were single like me?” The former seems more likely, but either way, sex was not “a given” in Paul’s worldview. Sexual intimacy, even in marriage, per Paul in 1 Corinthians 7.6, is a concession.

This makes sense in light of another famous concession: “Moses permitted divorce only as a concession to your hard hearts, but it is not what God had originally intended” (Matt. 19.8, paralleled in Mark 10.5). Moses allowed divorce, as a concession, but God’s way – faithfulness and no divorce – is better. Paul allowed sexual intimacy, as a concession, but another way – celibacy and singleness for God’s Kingdom – is better. (One might protest that sex is not merely an “allowed concession” since God Himself blessed Adam and Eve and told them to multiply. Put a pin in that thought for the moment; we will address it later.) The second piece of this passage, the command from God, agrees perfectly with the rest of the testimony of Scripture: “a wife must not leave her husband … and the husband must not leave his wife.” Don’t divorce. Still recognizing our hard hearts, Scripture acknowledges we might leave anyway; if we do, per Paul here in verse 11, if a spouse does leave, they should remain single / celibate – or be reconciled.

Sexual intimacy is a concession to the condition of our hearts, “full stop.”

Abdication is easy; faithfulness is hard. Escapism and fantasy are easy; faithfulness is hard. Indulgence and gratification are easy; faithfulness is hard.

Marriage is hard. Celibacy and singleness is hard. And they’re both infinitely worth it.

Divorce, affairs, lust, indulgence, pornography, etc. are all “the easy way out” and readily accessible, but reconciliation with my spouse, patience with my spouse, loving my spouse, dating my spouse, forbearance with my spouse are all much harder. The path of Paul and the path of Jesus Himself – singleness and celibacy for the Kingdom – is just as challenging, if not more so.

But they are what God expects of us.

The biblical center, the anchor, the core truth toward which we must always gravitate is greater conformity to the image of Jesus.

The Boundaries: Anything, Everything, Else

By “any/everything else” in this discussion specifically regarding sexuality, we do, in fact, mean anything sexual besides heterosexual, monogamous marriage is a boundary which God has established, for example:

  • Heterosexual sexual intimacy between unmarried individuals
  • Group sex
  • Fantasy/fantasizing/lust of any kind
  • Self-stimulation – masturbating – and fantasy
  • Homosexual sexual intimacy

Undoubtedly, there are many proverbial rabbit trails down which we could delve in all of the above bullet points. But again, the point of a Christian sexual ethic is less about what’s off-limits than it is about commitment and becoming more spiritually mature and Jesus-like through the refining influence of our closest relationships, whether married or not.

There are a few specific Scripture references to address regarding boundaries. But before doing so, we need to first pause a moment and clarify terms. Sexuality has so soaked our culture that nearly any discussion of it breeds conflict. That most assuredly includes the terms we apply to it. There is vigorous debate – putting it mildly – regarding “homosexual Christians” (or other terms like “gay Christian” or “same sex attracted Christian” and others) at present.

The following is reductionist almost in the extreme, but for the sake of trying to strike a balance between clarification and brevity, let’s consider two “sides” – literally – in this debate regarding sexuality for Christians. And to be clear, no, “homosexual Christian” is not an oxymoron (though again, depending on definitions, thus this very brief discussion).

Non-Traditional / Progressive

These are people who profess faith in Jesus and by all metrics and appearances live in the way of Jesus. They worship Him regularly in a corporate setting, commit their resources and abilities to advancing His Name and fame, and study and depend on His Word. And they see nothing biblically wrong with a non-traditional sexual ethic, be it homosexual or otherwise. The Metropolitan Community Church, as a denomination, may be one of the most prominent examples. (See the site mccchurch.org generally and mccchurch.org/mcc-statement-of-faith/ specifically for more information.) A number of years ago author Philip Yancey, in a chapter of his book What’s So Amazing About Grace?, detailed his long friendship with Mel White. White holds a non-traditional sexual ethic; he was a minister with the Metropolitan Community Church for many years, founded a number of LGBT[etc.] non-profit / advocacy groups and wrote numerous books regarding this general topic, and has lived in marriage/partnership with another man for decades. Additionally, Justin Lee founded Gay Christian Network around the turn of the millennium and recently began a new non-profit / advocacy, Nuance Ministries, and also holds a non-traditional sexual ethic. He has also written multiple books regarding sexuality, communities of faith, and the broader Christian church’s acceptance, inclusion, or tolerance (or not) of non-heterosexuality. Matthew Vines, additionally, has a very public presence on social media, has published a number of books and other media, etc.

Traditional / Conservative

These are people who, you might guess, are those who profess faith in Jesus and by all metrics and appearances live in the way of Jesus. They worship Him regularly in a corporate setting, commit their resources and abilities to advancing His Name and fame, and study and depend on His Word. And they see nothing biblically right with a non-traditional sexual ethic. Why even define this viewpoint with the preceding three sentences; is not such a position self-evident to historical, biblical orthodoxy? We state this clearly because this viewpoint includes a great many Christians who describe themselves as “gay,” “lesbian,” “queer,” “same sex attracted” and more. And they live in the way of Jesus as described; in effect, “I know my sexual appetite does not match the Word of God so I will live celibate.” The preceding may be reductionist in the extreme, even “unfair” and that critique is valid. But in effort to be both tolerably brief but bring some clarity, we offer what we can such as it is.

Several years ago, Sam Allberry, an Anglican priest, addressed his Synod with a powerful 3-minute address. Video of it may still be readily found on YouTube and has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. Allberry speaks popularly and has taught academically in locales internationally and has written numerous articles and books. We record a transcript of his statement to his Synod below. Dr Wesley Hill teaches Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry (also Anglican tradition) and has, as well, written several books about celibate, gay Christian life. There are myriad other personalities commenting and writing from this perspective and we would encourage our readers to seek out multiple sources of input regarding this perspective. We might simply suggest looking up content of the ReVoice Conference (held in June of both 2018 and 2019).

Allberry’s statement to the Anglican Synod:

Sam Allberry; Oxford; 1-8-3; thank you, Chair; thank you to the bishops for their hard work. I’m sure it was painful for them, but I don’t think you become a bishop for an easy life. [laughter] I am same-sex attracted and have been my entire life. By that I mean that I have sexual, romantic, and deep emotional attractions to people of the same sex. I choose to describe myself this way because sexuality is not a matter of identity for me. And that has become good news. My primary sense of worth and fulfillment as a human being is not contingent on being romantically or sexually fulfilled – and this is liberating. The most fully human and complete person who ever lived was Jesus Christ. He never married. He was never in a romantic relationship, and never had sex. If we say these things are intrinsic to human fulfillment, we are calling our Savior sub-human. I’ve met literally hundreds of Christians in my situation and know of thousands more who are same sex attracted, and who joyfully affirm the traditional understanding of marriage being between a man and a woman, and the only godly context for sex. If you don’t hear from more of us, it is because it is very hard to stand up and describe ourselves in this way. As someone who uses the language of “same-sex attraction,” I have to say that my church has not become a safe place for me. And by “church” I don’t mean my congregation. I mean this Synod – not because of what the report says but because of what has happened since. [Editorial Note: “report” and “since” are not clarified in his remarks.] I was bullied at school for being gay. I now feel I am being bullied at Synod for being same sex attracted …[pause]… and faithful to the teaching of Jesus on marriage. I’m grateful the report reaffirms the traditional doctrine of marriage. I’m concerned that we’re already preparing to pastorally undermine it. So my question to the bishops is not “Will you preserve this doctrine?” It’s: “Do you really believe in it? Is it Good News for the world?” Many of us have found it to be life-giving – as the message and teaching of Jesus always is. Thank you.

Besides vigorous and heated debate about the rightness of a traditional or non-traditional sexual ethic, there is also heated, even vitriolic, argument about terminology. In his statement, Allberry described himself as “same sex attracted.” Other terms include “gay,” “queer” and more. We can and should hold terms loosely. At present, there is even the presence of Christians who describe themselves as “Side A” and “Side B.” Those terms would be included, respectively, in the non-traditional and traditional categories, at least approximately. Their wide use has, in recent years, perhaps muddied the water, but their simple existence as self-describing terms shows how entrenched our disagreement, argument, and intractable disunity has embedded itself in this realm of Christian experience and church leadership. We so often “talk passed each other” and preciously rare are the moments when unity grows rather than division.

The simple fact that our faith, in the Western world, is wholly dependent upon the art of translation of our Scripture should forcibly remind us to be permissive and gracious in our grasp and use of language, from “gay” to “Side B” to “Christian” and beyond. We have all heard sermons extolling the differences among multiple Greek words for ‘love.’ In one context, we embrace and celebrate the nuances, transience, flexibility and even fungibility of language, yet bristle at exactly these attributes in another moment. We can’t nod in hearty agreement on Sunday morning during a sermon but snap at a neighbor, colleague, or family member on Tuesday. We need to stop our knee-jerk reactionism to certain words; we absolutely must stop our reactionary tendencies to emotionally bristle when someone in the church uses a word to describe themselves like “gay,” “queer,” “homosexual,” “same sex attracted,” or others.

Language is always an imperfect tool – yes, always. “The Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words” (Rom. 8.26 emphasis added). Mr. Allberry has chosen to describe himself as “same sex attracted” and understands that it “is not a matter of identity for me.” Conversely, others are unable or unwilling to make a statement such as Allberry’s. That’s ok. We have heard the protest “no other label ever gets added to ‘Christian;’ we never talk about ‘alcoholic Christians’ etc., and there is no such thing as a ‘homosexual Christian’ or ‘same sex attracted Christian.’” We will simply conclude this portion of our discussion with this: we know fellow Christians by the fruit of their life, not by semantic labels. Language is an imperfect tool.

A final comment for the sake of clarity before mentioning further Scriptures: our bullet point above of “homosexual sexual intimacy” means just what it says – sex. When “gay,” “same sex attracted” or similar people are excluded from any and all forms of human touch in a local church, we are not being “the hands and feet of Jesus” to that individual. We are quite literally withholding the hands and feet of Jesus! Hand shaking, hugs, and whatever other form of touch would be appropriate for any other person in that congregation is just as valid for this LBG[etc.] brother or sister. Conflating “sexual intimacy” as any form of touch is, frankly, abusive. Refusing any physical contact, even and especially of the everyday and mundane variety like simply shaking a hand, is a deliberate sin of omission that creates relational isolation – the antithesis of what a church body should be. We now turn to specific Bible passages regarding boundaries.

Perhaps one of the most well-known of passages regarding non-heterosexuality is Paul’s condemnation of homosexual sex in Romans 1:

…God abandoned them to their shameful desires. Even the women turned against the natural way to have sex and instead indulged in sex with each other.  And the men, instead of having normal sexual relations with women, burned with lust for each other. Men did shameful things with other men…

Romans 1.26-27

Paul was here echoing an additionally well-known prohibition of Leviticus 18:

Do not practice homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman. It is a detestable sin.

Leviticus 18.22

Some may protest that, strictly-speaking, this translation is unfaithful to the original Hebrew. We would simply, respectfully, disagree. In its most-literal form, the verse might be expressed “And with a male not will you lie as with a woman it is an abomination.” Paul’s comment in Romans echoes Leviticus. “Shameful things,” “abomination,” and “detestable” are certainly within each others’ “orbits.”

But again, is there room here to accommodate a spectrum of meanings or possibilities, or is this analysis too narrow? Following on the heels of his discussion about the dysfunction and sin of legal disputes between Christians, Paul elaborated and continued his line of thinking with this:

Don’t you realize that those who do wrong will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Don’t fool yourselves. Those who indulge in sexual sin, or who worship idols, or commit adultery, or are male prostitutes, or practice homosexuality, or are thieves, or greedy people, or drunkards, or are abusive, or cheat people – none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God. Some of you were once like that. But you were cleansed; you were made holy; you were made right with God…                    

1 Corinthians 6.9-10, 11 [partial]

Paul also gives a very famous list in Galatians 5. But just before the famous list of positives, he also cautions us regarding our sinful nature:

When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God.

Galatians 5.19-21

Paul’s descriptions here are not hard-and-fast checklists. He’s elaborating, illustrating, being descriptive and providing additional context for the topics and discussions at hand.

There are other references to notice regarding the boundaries of sexuality, a great many more than have been referenced so far.

  • 17.17 “The king must not take many wives for himself…”
  • 27 four curses equated with various non-marriage sexual encounters
  • Numbers 25.1 “… defiled themselves by having sex with local Moabite women.”
  • 5.27-30 Jesus’ expectations that we refuse to engage in adultery and/or lust.

We don’t think it is arrogant nor far-fetched in any way to claim that the biblical witness demands that heterosexual, monogamous, life-long marriage is the only right, godly, God-affirmed context for sex.

And while it is fully true “all sin is sin,” there is a comment by Paul of which we must take heed.

Run from sexual sin! No other sin so clearly affects the body as this one does. For sexual immorality is a sin against your own body. Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself

1 Corinthians 6.18-19

While only two verses are quoted here, the entire passage of verses 12-20 deals on a broader basis with sexual sin. We simply need to acknowledge the reality that Paul was drawing special attention to sexual sin. Anything practiced outside of heterosexual, monogamous, life-long marriage is a clear sin before God and, as Paul wrote here, against one’s own body. Though it is wrong and dysfunctional for a congregation’s leadership to obsess over someone’s sexuality while utterly ignoring someone else’s gluttony or divisiveness, it is appropriate for a church, a congregation, a denomination to set narrow boundaries regarding “allowable sexuality” for its leadership because of Paul’s admonition here. All people are welcome to worship Jesus, and all should be welcome to worship in any congregation.

Because those who hold themselves out as teachers in God’s Kingdom are held to higher standards, this aspect of life can and should be part of said standards for church leaders. The only question for a congregation / denomination is, then, at what “level” of leadership/teaching responsibility are all people allowed to participate in building up the Bride? In what ways are all Jesus-followers welcome to serve the Bride?

To be blunt, consider this thought experiment. You arrive at “your” (we’re holding terms loosely here!) congregation’s building for worship on some Sunday morning. Someone you have never met before is walking in at the same time you are. You introduce yourself and begin conversing. In the course of your discussion, the visitor says he/she is a “gay Christian.” You don’t know if the person holds a progressive or conservative sexual ethic at this point. To what extent would he/she be welcome to participate with the congregation? How do your thoughts at this point differ between a progressive and traditional believer? Again, all people are welcome to worship Jesus and should be welcome to do so in any congregation. Is this person welcome to serve the Body as well? As you get to know each other, could neither, either, or both oversee the spiritual health of the church – that is, serve the Body as an elder? Can neither, either, or both preach? Can neither, either, or both teach a class? Can neither, either, or both prepare and/or distribute communion? Can neither, either, or both be a door greeter, a kid’s or nursery volunteer, a youth or high school volunteer? What about mission trip participation or leading a mission trip?

Above all: why? Answers to these questions, brother in Jesus, must have a significant ratio of “book-chapter-verse” in the word count. In examining brother Allberry’s statement above, what would we find in it that would be disqualifying of him as a Jesus-honoring spiritual example? We must say that we do not find anything disqualifying or unorthodox about his statement. So, bring such questions to your next elders’ meeting. Pray over them over a period of days, weeks, months. Ask your preacher to help you and your colleagues brainstorm through them.

All sin separates us from God. But we also cannot gloss-over Paul’s clear statement: “no other sin so clearly affects the body.” This does not equate to “AIDS was God’s punishment.” Just stop it. “Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God…” (James 1.17). Disease and death are not “good and perfect.” Disease, death, and decay come from the curse of sin and influence of Satan. (See John 10.10, Genesis 3, the first third of Romans [esp. chapter 5], and more.) For whatever his Holy Spirit-inspired reasons, Paul pointed out that sexual sin is a violation against our own body. We voluntarily bring this violation of God’s design and intention against and into this “Temple of [His] Holy Spirit.” That is a big deal. To be quite candid, we will not try to speculate or describe precisely how in significant detail, but we do know what Paul told us: it “clearly affects” us in ways that all other sins don’t. Here is the only attempt we will make at elucidating Paul’s warning. Not every sexual encounter outside of monogamous heterosexual marriage results in transmission of venereal disease; not every sexual act has an immunological result. But we do know with certainty that every sexually directed mental act (i.e. lust) does have psychological, neurological results. And whether mere fantasy or physical act, sex is always intensely mental, as well as emotional, physical, and spiritual. Psychologists, psychiatrists, and neurologists would tell us that “neurons that fire together wire together.” So whenever we fantasize about whom we should not and/or go further and physically engage with whom we should not, “no other sin so clearly affects the [Temple of the Holy Spirit].” We leave ponderings about further affects outside the scope of this paper.

As we strive to lead the people in our care well both under the example, and toward the example, of Jesus, we need to be aware of the boundaries. Let’s stay as close as possible to the anchor, but we can and should be aware of the boundaries that have been Providentially placed around us.

With all of this in mind, we return to the example of David. What do we do with the overtly ungodly examples (in this aspect of life) of otherwise godly men like David, Jacob, Abraham, and others who did not follow God’s standard?

We’re All Concessions

As noted previously, there are at least two prominent biblical figures who discussed matters of sexuality and couched their assertions in terms of “concession:” Jesus Himself, and Paul.

Jesus said divorce was a concession under the Moses Covenant. Paul said intimacy after a period of abstinence for prayer was a concession. In a very real sense, whether discussing homosexuality, unfaithful heterosexuality, or even simple non-ideal heterosexuality, we are all in a state of concession. Even those who live faithfully with one heterosexual spouse “’til death do us part” fail God’s standard in some way in their sexuality. We do not need to speculate here how that may happen. We concluded the anchor section acknowledging heterosexual intimacy is a concession, but we’ll say it again: it is a concession to the sin-soaked, fallen condition of our hearts, irrespective of whether we crave heterosexual intimacy or homosexual intimacy.  

Though God told all of His Creation on multiple occasions to “be fruitful and multiply,” multiplication – through sex – is not going to be part of the ultimate restoration of all things. Sexual intimacy is a temporary concession. In some ways, it can be God-honoring; it is a mysterious reflection of the relationship and intimacy of God with His people, but the fact remains – it’s a concession.

God told His Creation to “be fruitful and multiply” multiple times in Genesis: 1.22, 1.28, 8.17, 9.1 and 9.7. As these references span across the sin of Genesis 3, we can say God’s design for sexual intimacy is, somehow, independent of the Fall and therefore part of the extreme goodness He pronounced in Genesis 1.31. (That goodness and God’s prescription to “be fruitful,” it should be pointed out, were given to the only humans who existed at the time – a heterosexual couple.) However, we also know that sexual intimacy is absent from God’s ultimate purpose and design for Creation once we arrive at His “making everything new” (Rev. 21.5, emphasis added) because Jesus Himself told the boundary-obsessed Pharisees that “when the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage. In this respect they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matt. 22.30 paralleled in Mark 12.25). Sexual intimacy was possible and encouraged before the Fall, but we don’t know that it happened until Genesis 4.1 – after the Fall. As such, it has become another tension and paradox in our faith over which God pronounced a blessing yet about which Paul, by the inspiration of the Spirit, only offered a concession. God unequivocally shows us the anchor to which we must hold – “male and female He created them” – yet the only context in which we know it has been practiced is the post-Fall, sin-soaked world. Maranatha.  

Now let’s pull on some of the threads of David’s story that are less well-known. He was “a man after God’s heart,” as we are so quick to say. He was also, we absolutely must admit, broken, flawed, and according to a verse much, much less-often quoted, he was a lousy parent. This verse does not appear until 1 Kings chapter 1 – David’s old age. We first meet David as a young shepherd all the way back in 1 Samuel 16. More than thirty chapters elapse by the time we arrive in 1 Kings 1 – there is a lot of time covered and this is only offered by the biblical writer near the end of David’s life as side commentary during the brewing of another political crisis. In 1 Kings 1, David’s third-oldest child, Adonijah, was attempting to assume the throne without David’s blessing, and in the middle of the story, the writer, as if closing the book he’s writing, turning aside, and looking straight at us, offers this:

Now his father, King David, had never disciplined him at any time, even by asking, “Why are you doing that?” Adonijah had been born next after Absalom, and he was very handsome.

1 Kings 1.6

King David struggled to lead his family and home well. We can and should rightly take comfort in the fact that one of the primary good examples in all of the Bible – the “man after God’s heart” – struggled deeply as a dad. In this sense, we are in good company.

But this also demonstrates why, at least in part, there was so much dysfunction in David’s family. Years before Adonijah’s attempted usurpation, David’s oldest son, Amnon, had raped his half-sister Tamar. That violence only bred more violence in the family over subsequent years. Amnon assaulted Tamar in 2 Samuel chapter 13. David had assaulted Bathsheba, the wife of one of his own “Navy SEALs,” Uriah, in 2 Samuel chapter 11. David’s own failing as a husband and man, coupled with his failure to lead and parent his children, resulted in drastic, terrible consequences which persisted for generations.

Solomon grew up in a royal household full of intrigue and dysfunction. There is no overt evidence that David had deeper conversation with Solomon as we confidently know he did not engage with Adonijah. This lack of parental guidance and involvement had massive ramifications. The dysfunctions that David exhibited, Solomon repeated – and to greater extents. We make this assertion because, in all of the page space devoted to him, we never read of David writing out a copy God’s Law nor reading from it (as directed in Deuteronomy 17.18). There were numerous directives for the future kings of Israel enumerated in Deuteronomy 17 that David did not, by any evidence in our biblical text today, follow.

The king must not build up a large stable of horses for himself or send his people to Egypt to buy horses, for the Lord has told you, ‘You must never return to Egypt.’ The king must not take many wives for himself, because they will turn his heart away from the Lord. And he must not accumulate large amounts of wealth in silver and gold for himself.

When he sits on the throne as king, he must copy for himself this body of instruction on a scroll in the presence of the Levitical priests.  He must always keep that copy with him and read it daily as long as he lives. That way he will learn to fear the Lord his God by obeying all the terms of these instructions and decrees.  This regular reading will prevent him from becoming proud and acting as if he is above his fellow citizens. It will also prevent him from turning away from these commands in the smallest way. And it will ensure that he and his descendants will reign for many generations in Israel.

Deuteronomy 17.16-20

David wasn’t known for having a large cavalry force. But Solomon was. Why didn’t Solomon know about or heed Deuteronomy 17.16? What a perfect life, leadership, and rulership lesson to pass on from king to prince! Perhaps it was not passed along. David had, at the end of his life, eight wives, one special lady friend who’s named (Abishag) but with whom he was not intimate, so it’s recorded, plus an unspecified number of concubines. Why didn’t Solomon heed Deuteronomy 17.17? Did he not know it? Solomon witnessed the destruction of appetites (especially sexual) running unchecked, but it seems David never conversed with nor cautioned him about that trap. David is not known for opulent wealth as we now remember Solomon. But David directed his personal fortune of 112 tons of gold and 262 tons of silver to the Temple’s construction (1 Chron. 29.4). Never once in all the pages given to David and Solomon do we hear from either of them words like “As the Scriptures say …” or “As the Law requires…” as we frequently do with New Testament writers (specifically Paul, Peter, James, and anonymous Hebrews, besides from the mouth of Jesus). To be fair, those words aren’t recorded in the Old Testament by anyone. But we do see drastic action taken by King Josiah (2 Kings chapter 23) and the priest Ezra (Nehemiah chapters 7 and 8) in light of reading “the Law.” We don’t see such moments with David or Solomon; did they not know Deuteronomy 17.18? We can assert confidently that they did not do what it says.

We want to notice details like this in David’s life because even “men after God’s heart” have deep dysfunctions that are too often glossed over or ignored completely. We’re flawed and we miss the mark – including sexually. But that is not the end of the story. Sexuality is a piece of the whole in our lives with and before God. It is not who we are at our core. We are all God’s children, His creations, bearing His image at our deepest. It is a truth spoken by believer and non-believer alike that all of humanity are God’s kids. But there is an important qualifier to that notion; as His kids we are, we must admit, in one of only two possible states: 1) familiar with Him or 2) estranged from Him.

Sex does not define us; it’s merely one expression of intimacy. And God has reserved it for a husband and wife. It is simply one part of our whole self. Its deep appeal doesn’t mean it’s essential, it simply means that it’s deeply appealing. But like anything else in life that we crave, we need to remember Paul’s caution in Philippians 3.

Dear brothers and sisters, pattern your lives after mine, and learn from those who follow our example.  For I have told you often before, and I say it again with tears in my eyes, that there are many whose conduct shows they are really enemies of the cross of Christ.  They are headed for destruction. Their god is their appetite, they brag about shameful things, and they think only about this life here on earth.  But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior.  He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same power with which he will bring everything under his control.

Philippians 3.17-19 (emphasis added)

When we, at a cultural level, make evolutionary, biological science our god then it is entirely expected and unremarkable that sexual expression becomes paramount in our thinking and supposedly intrinsic to who we are because we need to procreate, spread genes, etc. And such an assumption would apply to both naturally reproductive (i.e. heterosexual) sex and/or variant forms of sexuality. But this worldview is not true; reproduction and natural selection are not our ultimate reality. Sex is not the ultimate purpose or experience for us; it is not intrinsic to humanity.

Similarly, if we make hedonism and pleasure our god, the intensity of sexual pleasure becomes paramount in our thinking and supposedly inherent to “human flourishing.” But it is not.

It is a good and right pleasure to be experienced – in the context and bounds which our Creator gave it. For those who are not living a Kingdom kind of life (1 Cor. 6.9, Gal. 5.21), “their god is their appetite.” I want God to be my God, not my appetite – despite how badly I fail most days. If my appetite, my cravings, were functionally my god, I, personally, would have already been on diabetic medications for some number of years. If my cravings were god, I likely would have maimed myself long ago in a vehicular mishap due to speeding. My appetites are still too large. And yet, I don’t want an appetite of any kind to be my driving motivation, my god, in any area of life – not gastrointestinal, not adrenal, not sexual, not egomaniacal. “Even though ‘I am allowed to do anything,’ I must not become a slave to anything” (1 Cor. 6.12). Anchor: less appetite. Boundaries: mind the sugar, mind the lead foot, mind sexual temptation, mind pride, mind…

Dallas Willard’s extensive and poignant Divine Conspiracy delves deeply into the words of Jesus in Matthew 5-7 and while discussing His words about lust and adultery, Willard includes this:

Intimacy is the mutual mingling of souls … Because we are free beings, intimacy cannot be passive or forced. And because we are extremely finite, it must be exclusive.

Dallas Willard, Divine Conspiracy, Ch. 5 / “The Destructiveness of Fantasized Desire”

In claiming sexual intimacy must be “exclusive,” Willard perfectly echoes Paul’s caution and prohibition in 1 Corinthians 6 about joining oneself to a prostitute (1 Cor. 6.15-17). It can be easy to point a finger at a nameless and faceless them whom we don’t personally know on an individual basis and who we make every effort to avoid: homosexual, transgender, other ethnicity, and so on, but we must acknowledge that not one person has ever “gotten it right” regarding human sexuality save Jesus Himself. We have all missed the mark sexually. Jesus is the only One who has ever lived a perfect life. As we continue practicing daily self-denial and cross-carrying, we will become more like Him, including in our sexuality. We will focus more on our spouse’s needs than our own. We’ll be more concerned with our spouse’s enjoyment and pleasure than our own. We’ll cherish to a greater, deeper extent the beauty of the Image of God in our spouse, not the appeal of mere physical form and a “beauty” that is only skin-deep.

Be anchored. Chase Jesus. There are boundaries – be aware of them – but focus on the anchor.

“To the Servants:” A Paper on Deacons

To The Servants… A Paper on Deacons 

[Editorial Note: We encourage you to open/read/print the PDF via the link just above.  While the paper appears below in “inline text,” several elements of the formatting display differently in this internet window than they do in the PDF.  In particular, the HTML version cannot render the Greek font used in the PDF, the Greek word is key in this discussion.]

“To the Servants:” A Paper on Deacons

Jared Johnson

First Things First: The Word Itself

“Deacon” is a borrowed English word.  To be very specific, it is a transliteration of the Greek word deakon (and various other forms) that was common in the first century. 

Translation is the action of conveying meaning from one language into another.  Doing so requires one person to have proficiency in at least two languages.  Typically, translation requires one to be familiar with multiple “pieces of a puzzle” in the two languages: alphabetical characters, different phonemes, competence in thinking with and using a different grammar structure, etc.  Translating from English to Spanish is slightly easier than English to, say, Mandarin Chinese.  English, Spanish, German, French, Italian, and other languages all generally use a Latin alphabet.  Translating English to Russian, Mandarin, Hindi, Japanese, Cambodian, etc. requires a deeper skill set because the alphabets, syntax and even emphasis on inflection (that is, when pronunciation subtleties change a word’s meaning) differ between origin and target language so radically.  Translation conveys meaning between languages. 

Transliteration is the action of conveying the sounds of one language to another; the sound of a word in one language is, in effect, written in the characters of a new language.  This is what happened with the adoption in English of the Greek word “deakon.”  The sounds uttered by a first-century Greek speaker when they read the Greek letters delta-epsilon-alpha-kappa-omicron-nu gave us our English “deacon;” the two are very similar audibly.  Meaning was not conveyed.  Only sound was conveyed.  

When a Greek speaker said deakon, they were conveying the idea of “service,” “servant,” etc.  That’s really what this discussion comes down to: “deacons” serve.  

There are approximately 100 occurrences of deakon and its various forms (i.e. prefixes/suffixes, as a verb, as a noun) in the New Testament.  We will not deal with each reference in-depth as there are too many for such a paper.  Find a list of most of the references along with a short explanatory note as an appendix at the end of this paper.

For a quick comparison, we here quote a few phrases in which this Greek word appears, but we have flipped our typical English expression.  (If, in the published New Living Translation, “deacon” is rendered, we instead quote the phrase below with “servant” and vice-versa.) 

Matt. 23.11 The greatest among you must be a deacon.
1 Cor. 3.5 …who is Apollos?  Who is Paul?  … only God’s deacons through whom you believed…
Phil. 1.1 This letter is from Paul and Timothy, deacons of Christ Jesus.
Col. 1.7 …from Epaphras, our beloved co-worker.  He is Christ’s faithful deacon …
1 Tim. 3.8 In the same way, servants must be well-respected and have integrity. 

We do not mis-quote these verses for the sake of muddying the water, dear reader, but to clarify.  Remember, each of these five passages use the very same Greek word.  The renditions above seem odd only because of our cultural, habitual use and abuse of the transliteration deacon.  A “deacon” is merely a servant.  We have wrongly made it into an office or title in the contemporary church. 

Second: Qualifications

Just as Paul had underlying expectations of overseers/elders for the local congregation, he also had qualifying expectations of servants.   Here we quote, as nearly as possible, a word-for-word translation of the original Greek from 1 Timothy 3.8-13.  We have bracketed and grayed the four instances of deakon (or a form of it) in this text. 

vs 8      [Servants], likewise, must be dignified, not double-tongued, not to much wine being given, not greedy of dishonest gain,

vs 9      holding to the mystery of the faith with clear conscience. 

vs 10    Also these, now let them be tested first; then [let them serve], being blameless. 

vs 11    Women, likewise, must be dignified, not slanderers, clear-minded, faithful in all things. 

vs 12    [Servants] let be of one woman husbands, their children well-managing and their own households. 

vs 13    Those for well [having served] a standing for themselves good acquired and great confidence in faith that is in Anointed One Jesus.

In a strong reflection of Paul’s expectations of elders laid out in 1 Tim. 3.1-7, servants need to be examples worth following to the congregation.  Jesus Himself told us to “do as I have done to you” just after He washed the feet of the twelve (John 13.15).  He led by example and we should be doing likewise in His Church.  First, we must say that someone serving the church is, by definition, present with the church.  It should go without saying, but in this 21st century as church attendance is averaging 1.7 times per month or less in the USA, it must be said.  Whether wintering out-of-state, traveling for work/business often or with sports leagues, etc., those who are absent for a significant portion of the year are probably not examples to the congregation worth following.  If a person is overseeing or serving (i.e. elder or deacon), would we point a new believer to such a person and say “do what they’re doing” if they are absent ten, twenty, thirty Sundays per year?

As an example, servants are people of integrity, respected, not driven or controlled by external things like money or alcohol, and committed to the Christian faith without reservation.  Verse 10’s “blameless” is a key theme in Paul’s estimation of church leaders, both for servants and for overseers.  To be clear, the centrality of blamelessness in Paul’s evaluation of church leaders comes back to the litmus test of leading by example – is this person an example to our congregation who’s worth following?

We also would be remiss if we did not address gender as it relates to the role of servants.  There is no limitation on servants being men only or women only.  In the passage above, Paul uses masculine indicators in Greek.  Paul, additionally, says that a servant must be “a one-woman husband,” as he stipulated for elders in 1 Timothy 3.2.  On the one hand, this would preclude women from serving as servants.  On the other hand, in an often-cited phrase in the gender-roles-in-church debate, Paul referred to Phoebe in Romans 16.1 as “a [servant] of the church.”  Yes, deakon.  Therefore, on the face of it, an elder is “a one-woman man,” and a deacon is “a one-woman man.”  However, we have a countering statement from Paul in Romans 16.1 regarding servants.  We never have such a countering statement from Paul regarding overseers.  With Phoebe serving the church well, we apply that to our churches also; servants, deakonoV, are men and women who fit the description of 1 Timothy 3: people of integrity, honest, an example, faithful in their marriage and family relationships, with households that evidence an orderly and godly life.  What seems a bit awkward in English in verses 11 and 12 – “women” – is indeed responsibly translated as “wives.”  Throughout the New Testament, the Greek word for “woman” is used when the context plainly means someone’s wife; there was no other word used.

A final word about those who should be considered for a servant role.  Please notice what Paul did not write in verse 13: “Those who do well as [servants] will be rewarded with a promotion to elder.”  Not what the text says, yet one would be forgiven for thinking it an unwritten rule in most churches.  A deacon/servant is not an “elder-in-training” nor “junior elder” nor “elder lite.”  Viewing deacons as such inherently mis-identifies those who should be servants.  When we start from the wrong so-called Square One, we’re bound to miss the mark at every subsequent stage.  In the contemporary church we too often default to thinking in organizational hierarchies and flow charts; that elders report to the preacher and deacons report to elders, or some such nonsense.  Overseers, well … they oversee the spiritual condition of the church and set the tone for her spiritual formation.  Servants – we’re not trying to be insulting here – they serve.

Third: Role

Let’s look at the very first moment the Church instituted this somewhat special role of servant for insights about how it functions.  If deacon/servant isn’t an office or title, what then?  The opening verses of Acts 6 get us on the right track.  We again replace the rendered English words below; in this passage, we have used “deaconing” simply for grammatical fit though it isn’t a word.

But as the believers rapidly multiplied, there were rumblings of discontent.  The Greek-speaking believers complained about the Hebrew-speaking believers, saying that their widows were being discriminated against in the daily [deaconing] of food.

So the Twelve called a meeting of all the believers.  They said, “We apostles should spend our time teaching the word of God, not [deaconing] a food program.  And so, brothers, select seven men who are well respected and are full of the Spirit and wisdom.  We will give them this responsibility.  Then we apostles can spend our time in prayer and [deaconing] the word.”

Acts 6.1-4

From Acts 2 through 5, the roles in the Church were simply: Apostles and everyone else.  In Acts 6, that changed. This was the first structural change that the Church underwent as she started becoming “one body with many parts” (Rom. 12.5, 1 Cor. 12.12).  The first role in the Church filled by deacons/servants was, in effect, Benevolence Ministry Leader. 

Not only were Lead Servants appointed to ensure adequate response to the needs of the benevolence ministry, but the Apostles, then, were freed to continue “deaconing” the Word to the people of the Church.  Stephen, Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas served food, and the Apostles served teaching.  Both are service-oriented tasks, positions, roles. 

In one sense, we are all deacons in the Body, serving each other.  On the other hand, it is worth noting that in vetting and appointing these seven in the way that they did, the Apostles took some steps worth mimicking.  By vetting, laying on hands and praying for these seven appointees, the Apostles were showing the Church these men had the authority and responsibility to carry out the new benevolence ministry.  People knew that if a new widow moved to town and became part of the growing Church, one of these seven would need to be told, not Peter, Bartholomew, etc.  These seven were the designated leaders – hands laid-on and prayed-over – and leaders lead by setting the right example, doing what their role requires, unhesitant to roll up proverbial sleeves and be in the trenches, ministering. 

The first deacons led a burgeoning benevolence ministry.  A servant might lead any number of ministry types or needs today, depending on the congregation’s ministry priorities and context.  A deacon might lead and oversee a church’s provision of a post-funeral meal and follow-up meal/food deliveries in the days following someone’s passing.  This is just one facet or sub-type of ministry that could fall under a church’s benevolent outreach.  A deacon/servant might be the key leader of kids’ ministry in a congregation.  One role often overlooked for leadership by a deacon is in offering collection, counting, and deposit.  Congregations cannot put all the financial responsibility of a congregation on one set of shoulders.  A volunteer, a servant, might be the best way for a congregation to introduce non-staff accountability into the process.  If a staff person always delivers the deposit to the bank on Monday morning, a deacon might be the point person for the offering’s counting on Sunday.  Every stage of the collection, counting, and deposit should have multiple parties involved for transparency and accountability, but all or part of the Sunday morning logistics being primarily under the oversight of a volunteer might be a highly helpful step that can protect staff from “appearances of evil” and accusation, (if staff are currently doing too much in this realm).  A servant might oversee a sports outreach to the congregation’s neighborhood.  The possibilities are myriad.

One last thought in this realm of the role filled by a deacon.  It is the word of choice (deakon) for Paul as he discussed spiritual gifts in both Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12; that is, he is, in effect, saying “if your gift is serving others, deacon well” (Rom. 12.7).

Fourth: Adjustments

Finally, there are a number of adjustments we should make in ourselves and in our congregations regarding the concept of servants/deacons.

We need to, internally, adjust our thinking.  Rather than officer of the church to whom we must defer, a deacon is simply the example that I, as a fellow volunteer in my church, should follow in a specific context.  In my own home congregation, we have worship hours at 9:15, 11:00 and 4:30 on Sundays.  When I volunteer in the nursery, Annette is the primary example for me to follow if I’m in the toddlers’ room at 4:30 (which I, personally, typically am).  If I volunteer in the morning at 11 (which is infrequent but I have), Jeff is the primary example to follow.  At those different times, they are the people who lead the room.  They’re typically the ones who start the songs and are willing to look goofy doing nursery-rhyme motions to simplistic music.  But the toddlers love it.  I have watched those kids engage with these servant-leaders in ways they simply do not when other faces are in front.  Jeff and Annette are the first to get their fingers marked-up when it’s time to do crayons or stamps for the craft/picture time.  As often as not, if a kid needs a diaper, they’re the first to notice and proactively just do it.  They lead in those contexts with great moral authority.  Because they lead their ministry contexts so proactively, Joanna (the paid staff nursery director) and Allison (the paid staff kids’ director) can give their attention to other matters on Sundays.  No vote was needed.  No motions.  No mourning among the kids when, after three years (or whatever other arbitrary number) they’re required to abruptly move on.  Over previous years, Jeff and Annette (and many others) have simply shown up, willing to help, and then proven themselves trustworthy in serving those ministry needs.  Their names and faces don’t appear anywhere on the church’s site with accompanying title, but they are indeed “deaconing well” the ministry our congregation has for toddlers. 

Once we adjust our thinking internally we can then adjust, as concurrently described just above, the understanding our congregation has toward servants and their function within the Body.  Especially for a new ministry, a congregation’s leadership – pastors, elders, etc. – can and should make much of a new outreach effort, setting aside time during corporate worship to pray, lay hands, and commission a new servant to a new work.  What was described just above regarding nursery is the very, we might say, “lightest” description of a deacon’s place and work.  If someone would start a volunteer sports outreach, for example, welcoming informal gatherings for pickup basketball or soccer in the church’s side yard, and numbers of additional people keep coming, the congregation may want to make that a resourced, formalized ministry under the church leadership’s oversight.  At that point, vetting as a servant is warranted, just as the seven were in Acts 6.3-6.  Perhaps over an additional year or two, that volunteer position would become a part-time paid position, perhaps even full-time. 

If we adjust our own thinking and adjust how servants serve in a congregation, it will require that we adjust how such people are noticed, vetted, and selected.  This might even require that we adjust the bylaws of our congregation. 

We should also adjust our expectations of how, whom, and for how long deacons fulfill their servants’ role.  Life circumstances change, and we can (and should) be very liberal in our understanding of the comings and goings of such servants.  Acts 6.3: “So, brothers, select seven men who are well respected and are full of the Spirit and wisdom.  We will give them this responsibility, for a period of up to but not exceeding three (3) years, notwithstanding concurrent overlapping terms of service coinciding with the chairmanship…”  No!  Not what the text says!  In the past, a certain ministry colleague was frequently heard to say, “In God’s economy, the resources are always available.”  That includes people.  We should not beleaguer our congregation’s servants with multiple pages of quasi-legal language stipulating some things about their volunteerism but prohibiting other things and so on. 

Now a final word about adjusting the question “Do you have deacon training material?”. 

Every congregation is unique; that is to be expected in the living entity that is the Church.  Focusing on elders, e2 would not put together materials for all servants in myriad congregations nationwide.  Rather, pastors and elders can serve their servants by creating training venues and opportunities, in whatever ways that might be appropriate in each congregation.  Servants need to be further equipped in their own areas of service.  The servant-leaders of a church – pastors and elders – who are closest to the situation are in a great position to facilitate training.  They don’t need to be subject-matter experts, pastors/elders don’t need to be the trainers, but rather craft an environment in which training is part of the regular rhythm among the church’s teams. 

The one item we would encourage is this: avoid requiring that deacons participate in all the church’s business meetings.  That’s not their role – as expressed in Acts, at least.  Nor would it preclude, of course, a servant or servants from meeting with the church’s finance team, or meeting with the elders, etc., whenever appropriate. 

Ultimately, when asked, “do you have deacon training material,” we would reply:

In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well.  So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you.  If your gift is serving others, [deacon] them well.  If you are a teacher, teach well.  If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging.  If it is giving, give generously.  If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously.  And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly.

Romans 12.6-8

Just … do it.

APPENDIX: Table of Deakon References

The following are many of the references to the various forms of the Greek word deakon and related forms.  Same-verse references of the same type (i.e. multiple nouns in one verse) have been deleted but instances of one verse having both a noun and verb were retained.  The references below correspond to the Strong’s Concordance reference numbers 1247, 1248, and 1249.  Primary source: http://www.interlinearbible.org 

  1. Verb Matt. 4:11
  2. Verb Matt. 8:15
  3. Noun Matt. 20:26
  4. Verb Matt. 20:28
  5. Noun Matt. 22:13
  6. Noun Matt. 23:11
  7. Verb Matt. 25:44
  8. Verb Matt. 27:55
  9. Verb Mk. 1:13
  10. Verb Mk. 1:31
  11. Noun Mk. 9:35
  12. Noun Mk. 10:43
  13. Verb Mk. 10:45
  14. Verb Mk. 15:41
  15. Verb Lk. 4:39
  16. Verb Lk. 8:3
  17. Verb Lk. 10:40
  18. Noun Lk. 10:40
  19. Verb Lk. 12:37
  20. Verb Lk. 17:8
  21. Verb Lk. 22:26
  22. Verb Lk. 22:27
  23. Noun Jn. 2:5
  24. Noun Jn. 2:9
  25. Verb Jn. 12:2
  26. Noun Jn. 12:26
  27. Verb Jn. 12:26
  28. Noun Ac. 1:17
  29. Noun Ac. 1:25
  30. Noun Ac. 6:1
  31. Verb Ac. 6:2
  32. Noun Ac. 6:4
  33. Noun Ac. 11:29
  34. Noun Ac. 12:25
  35. Verb Ac. 19:22
  36. Noun Ac. 20:24
  37. Noun Ac. 21:19
  38. Noun Rom. 11:13
  39. Noun Rom. 12:7
  40. Noun Rom. 13:4
  41. Verb Rom. 15:25
  42. Noun Rom. 15:31
  43. Noun Rom. 15:8
  44. Noun Rom. 16:1
  45. Noun 1 Cor. 3:5
  46. Noun 1 Cor. 12:5
  47. Noun 1 Cor. 16:15
  48. Verb 2 Cor. 3:3
  49. Noun 2 Cor. 3:6
  50. Noun 2 Cor. 3:7
  51. Noun 2 Cor. 3:8
  52. Noun 2 Cor. 3:9
  53. Noun 2 Cor. 4:1
  54. Noun 2 Cor. 5:18
  55. Noun 2 Cor. 6:3
  56. Noun 2 Cor. 6:4
  57. Verb 2 Cor. 8:19
  58. Verb 2 Cor. 8:20
  59. Noun 2 Cor. 8:4
  60. Noun 2 Cor. 9:1
  61. Noun 2 Cor. 9:12
  62. Noun 2 Cor. 9:13
  63. Noun 2 Cor. 11:8
  64. Noun 2 Cor. 11:15
  65. Noun 2 Cor. 11:23
  66. Noun Gal. 2:17
  67. Noun Eph. 3:7
  68. Noun Eph. 4:12
  69. Noun Eph. 6:21
  70. Noun Phil. 1:1
  71. Noun Col. 1:23
  72. Noun Col. 1:25
  73. Noun Col. 1:7
  74. Noun Col. 4:7
  75. Noun Col. 4:17
  76. Noun 1 Tim. 1:12
  77. Verb 1 Tim. 3:10
  78. Noun 1 Tim. 3:8
  79. Noun 1 Tim. 3:12
  80. Verb 1 Tim. 3:13
  81. Noun 1 Tim. 4:6
  82. Verb 2 Tim. 1:18
  83. Noun 2 Tim. 4:5
  84. Noun 2 Tim. 4:11
  85. Verb Phlm. v13
  86. Noun Heb. 1:14
  87. Verb Heb. 6:10
  88. Verb 1 Pet. 1:12
  89. Verb 1 Pet. 4:10
  90. Verb 1 Pet. 4:11
  91. Noun Rev. 2:19