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Benjamin Lyon Smith
The Millennial Harbinger Abridged (1902)



      The Jerusalem congregation greatly increased under the teaching and discipline of the apostles. But their duties soon became too onerous. The less important duties of their office were necessarily committed to others. The wants of the poor and the destitute were entrusted to the care and Christian liberality of the whole congregation. This was the first trial of democracy in the Christian church. It did not work well. The truth of the old adage, "What is everybody's business, is nobody's business," was practically demonstrated. And hence, there arose a murmuring of the Hellenists against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. Hence arose the necessity for the first appointment of subordinate ministers under the administration of the apostles.

      The case is a most important one. It is not an isolated example to subserve a temporary expediency. It is a practical illustration of the settled policy of the Christian church. We should, therefore, endeavor to comprehend it fully; and for this purpose, we shall lay before our readers the whole premises. "Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word. And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte of Antioch; whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them. And the word of God increased; and the number of disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly, and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith" (Acts vi. 2-7).

      From these premises we learn--

      1. That the first office under the apostles was not a sinecure. And in the sequel, we shall find that the same remark is applicable to every other office in the Christian church. There are no divinely constituted lords over God's heritage.

      2. That the duty of these men was to attend to the secular interests of the congregation. It is true, that the neglect of a certain class of [294] widows was the immediate occasion of their appointment. But surely the mere novice in logic would not thence infer, that they were restricted to the particular case that suggested the necessity of their appointment: that in case of farther neglect by the congregation, it would be necessary to set apart others to feed the Hebrew widows; others to clothe the naked; others to wait on the sick; and others to administer to the wants of the superannuated. This would be to multiply offices and officers rather too fast for the most visionary. The historian here records a fact, not as an isolated abstraction, but as the exponent of a great principle. The fact is a simple one; but the principle is very comprehensive. It embraces all that pertains to the secular business of the congregation. Those who feed the widows, must have the control of the treasury of the congregation. Hence the proposition of the apostles was, to surrender this department of labor entirely to the seven, and to give themselves exclusively to prayer and to the ministry of the word.

      To wait upon the secular concerns of the congregation was, therefore, the limit of their official appointment. Their office comprehended nothing less, and it embraced nothing more. It conferred no authority whatever either to teach or to preach in the public or in the private assembly, and can, therefore, have no connection with the defense of Stephen or the evangelical labors of Philip.

      This is also true of the deacon's office as it is described in the Epistles. An indispensable qualification of the bishop or elder, according to Paul in his first letter to Timothy, is, that he shall be apt to teach. The evangelist is commanded to preach the word. But in all that is said of the deacon, there is not a single intimation that preaching or teaching is any part of his office. The deacons must be grave, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre, holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. They must be proved and found blameless before their appointment to the office. They must also be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. But to teach, is no part of their office. Were it so, women would never have been made deaconesses. For, says Paul, "I suffer not a woman to teach nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence." It is still true, however, that intelligent, grave, and pious females may do much for the feeble, the sick, the poor, and the destitute, especially of their own sex. The Phebes should, therefore, constitute a part of the diakonoi of every fully organized Christian congregation.

      The obvious conclusion, then, from these premises, is, that the first office created under the apostles was the deaconship; that those first appointed to perform the duties of the office were deacons; that their [295] office comprehended all the secular interests of the congregation and nothing more, and that from this time, the term diakonoV had an official or specific signification as well as a generic one, just like the words elder, bishop, evangelist, president, governor, and almost every other official name.

      3. That to be eligible to this office, the candidate must possess the three following qualifications: He must be a man of honest report; that is, he must have a good reputation, a well-attested character, in the congregation and out of it. He must be full of the Holy Spirit; so that its fruits--love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, fidelity, meekness, and temperance--may characterize his entire demeanor. He must also be full of wisdom, or distinguished for his prudence and other practical virtues, necessary to the wise and judicious discharge of his official duties. For if a man can not manage his own temporal affairs, how can he take care of the treasury of the Lord? It is evident that all this is in harmony with what Paul says of the qualifications of the deacon in the third chapter of his first letter to Timothy.

      4. That the Holy Spirit, the apostles, and the whole congregation of disciples, concurred in the appointment of these seven deacons. The Holy Spirit defined and established the proper standard of qualifications and fitness for the office. The disciples made their election according to this divinely constituted standard. And the apostles expressed their concurrence by solemnly ordaining them to the work for which they had been chosen.

      There is great wisdom in this arrangement. The standard of fitness is forever settled by divine authority. No priest, pope, or council has any right to change it. The man who is chosen and ordained according to this standard is, therefore, constituted a deacon by the Holy Spirit. He should feel that his appointment is from God. At the same time, the people are permitted to choose men in whose ability, integrity, and benevolence they have confidence. This is a most powerful element for good in any society. Its effect was most happily illustrated in the election of the first seven deacons of the mother church. The murmur of the Hellenists was no longer heard; "the word of God increased; the number of the disciples was greatly multiplied in Jerusalem; and a great multitude of the priests became obedient to the faith."

      But experience has taught that the House of Lords is a necessary check on the House of Commons, and that the wisdom of the Senate is sometimes necessary to restrain the sectional zeal and party spirit of the Representatives. This principle is just as necessary in ecclesiastical as in civil affairs. Hence, every case of discipline requires [296] the concurrence of the eldership and of the congregation. And in harmony with the same rule of common prudence, these seven deacons were not duly installed till they were solemnly ordained by the apostles.

      A very grave question, then, rises just here. In what capacity did the apostles act in this matter? We have seen that the apostolic office comprehended all others in the Christian church. Did they then act in this case With all their plenary authority as the apostles of Christ; or as evangelists, did they set in order the things that were wanting or did they act merely as the elders of the congregation? To answer this question in a satisfactory manner, I think we should distinguish between the legislative part of this important transaction and the mere act of ordination. To legislate, was an exclusive function of the apostolic office. The apostles alone had a right to make laws and ordinances for the Kingdom of Heaven. To them, as the plenipotentiaries of the Messiah, it certainly belonged to say what should be done in the pending crisis. But the work of ordination was transferrable. It was transferred. Titus was left in Crete to set in order the things that were wanting; and to ordain elders in every city, according to the instructions of the apostle. And one of the purposes for which Timothy was left in Ephesus, was evidently to ordain evangelists, elders and deacons. Now, if the laws of nature are uniform, it is certainly not too much to assume, here, that the laws of the kingdom of heaven are equally so. And if this is a fair assumption, then it follows that, whenever the apostles ordained evangelists, elders, or deacons, they acted merely as evangelists; and hence, that to evangelists properly belongs the work of ordination, wherever and whenever the congregation of the Lord is not organized according to the teachings of the Holy Spirit.

      But in perfectly organized congregations, the work of ordination is divided, because in such cases the official relations are divided. The apostles were not only evangelists in Jerusalem, but they were the acting presbytery of the congregation. They were its bishops, its pastors, and its teachers. In like manner Timothy, though an evangelist, was the bishop or overseer of the church at Ephesus, till he had set in order all things that were wanting. Then an inferior order of ecclesiastical functionaries became its overseers. To them was committed the special care of the congregation, as to the evangelists was committed the general care of all the churches. They instructed the members. They assisted in preparing some for the deacon's office, some for the elder's, and some for the evangelist's. Hence, on the principle of common prudence, as well as according to the law of representation and the rule of mutual checks and balances, it is right that these bishops should assist in setting apart their scholars [297] to the work of their ministry. And hence, the presbytery of Lystra united with Paul in the ordination of Timothy as an evangelist. (I. Tim. iv. 14 compared with II. Tim. i. 16.) All this will be more apparent in the sequel. But in the meantime, we repeat what we think legitimately follows from all the premises, that in the ordination of the first seven deacons, the apostles acted merely as evangelists, whose duty it was to set in order the things that were wanting in the congregation at Jerusalem; and hence, that in all unorganized congregations, the work of ordination properly belongs to well informed and well-tried evangelists, but that in every organized church it is the mutual duty of the presbytery and of the evangelist, or evangelists, presiding over the general spiritual interests of the district, county, or State in which such congregation is located.

      5. That the mode of ordination was by prayer and the imposition of hands. The appointment of any person or persons to an office in the Christian church, is an event in itself so solemn, and so fraught with good or with evil to the souls of men, that no enlightened Christian can doubt as to the propriety of prayer on such occasions. But some have called into question the authority for the laying on of hands, as a mere ceremony of ordination, or of conferring upon another the gift of office. It is admitted that the act is of ambiguous import. Christ laid his hands on little children to express an authoritative benediction. (Matt. xix. 1.5.) And by the same significant act some of the primitive Christians cured many diseases (Mark xvi. 18) and the apostles bestowed on others the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit (Acts viii. 17). But none of these designs will suit the language and circumstances of the context. The power to work miracles may, indeed, have been given on that occasion, as Paul, in a similar way, bestowed on Timothy a spiritual gift at the time of his ordination. (II. Tim. 1. 6.) But that to impart the power of working miracles was the only reason why the twelve apostles laid their hands on the seven deacons, is a most gratuitous assumption. It is an inference which no correct rule of interpretation will justify. The narrative is as plain as language can make it. The twelve apostles proposed to the multitude of the disciples that they should choose seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom; and that they (the apostles) would appoint the persons elected, over the business for which they had been chosen. The multitude of the disciples did so. They chose the seven men and set them, as their representatives, before the apostles, who, according to their own proposition, proceeded to set them apart to the work of their office, by prayer and the imposition of their hands. From this simple narrative, it certainly [298] requires much ingenuity to show, that on these men any other gift was conferred by the apostles than the gift of office.

      Other passages of Scripture are equally conclusive. One or two quotations will suffice for the present. "Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery" (I. Tim. iv. 14). Will the objector please to inform us, for what purpose the presbytery of Lystra laid hands on Timothy? It could not be to bestow any spiritual gift. To do this they had no power. It was an incommunicable function of the apostolic office. Not even the evangelists, endowed with the power to work miracles, could communicate this gift to others. "Philip (the evangelist) went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them. And the people, with one accord, gave heed unto those things which Philip spake, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did. For unclean spirits, crying with a loud voice, came out of many that were possessed; and many taken with palsies, and that were lame, were healed. And there was great joy in that city . . . But when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women" (Acts viii. 5-12). But like other primitive congregations, these Samaritans needed the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit. Philip had done all in his power for the new converts. Hence the necessity that Peter and John should go to Samaria, "who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost. For as yet he was fallen upon none of them; only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost" (Acts viii. 15-17). If, then, Philip the evangelist had not the power to bestow spiritual gifts, it follows, as a legitimate inference, that the presbytery of the church at Lystra did not possess it. But even if they did, they certainly did not exercise it on this occasion. For the gift was conferred through prophecy, by the laying on of Paul's hands, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery. Compare I. Tim, iv. 14 with II Tim. i. 6. The act of the presbytery was, therefore, a simple act of ordination. It conferred no other gift or qualification than the gift of office.

      To make this matter so plain that, if possible, all may comprehend it, we shall give another illustration. "Now there were in the church that was at Antioch, certain prophets and teachers, as Barnabas, and Simeon, that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. [299] And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away" (Acts xiii. 1-3). It appears from this plain narrative, that Simeon, and Lucius, and Manaen, and probably many others, fasted, and prayed, and laid their hands on Paul and Barnabas, before they sent them away as the apostles or evangelists of the church at Antioch. But for what purpose did they do this? Not to impart any spiritual qualification; not to give them clearer and more enlarged views of the scheme of redemption; not to confer on them the power to work miracles. The Holy Spirit did not say, qualify Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. This had been done by a higher power than the church at Antioch. But the command was, "Separate me Barnabas and Saul," set them apart to the work whereunto I have called them. This command, and no other, they of course endeavored to obey, according to the established rules, forms, and ceremonies of ordination in the Christian church. And the Holy Spirit says they did it by fasting, prayer and the imposition of hands. Certainly, then, this should forever settle the controversy.

      Still, however, the evidence is not brought to a perfect focus. It is only converging. Paul and Barnabas were ordained with fasting and prayer, by the imposition of hands. During their missionary tour through Asia Minor, they ordained elders in every church, having prayed with fasting. (Acts xiv. 23.) No mention is here made of the laying on of hands, unless it is implied in the word ceirotonew which is here translated to ordain, but which primarily signified to stretch out the hand; then to vote by stretching out the hand. And many think that it is here equivalent to ceiroqetew, which signifies to lay on hands. In the case of the seven deacons, only prayer and the imposition of hands are mentioned. And in the ordination of Timothy, the laying on of hands is the only fact recorded. Paul left Titus in Crete to ordain elders in every city. But this word kaqisthmi indicates nothing of the mode or manner of ordination.

      What, then, is the inference from these premises? Does ordination in the Christian church signify the appointment of certain elect persons to the work of their ministry, at one time by the laying on of hands, with prayer and fasting? at another, simply by the laying on of hands? at another, merely with prayer and fasting? and at another, without any ceremony, mode, or manner whatever? Do these varieties denote so many different modes of setting apart the elect to offices of various ranks and orders? Or is there any way of reconciling all these cases? Is the alleged discrepancy only apparent?

      To the ancients, the celestial system was a labyrinth of confusion. The phenomena of the heavens were without order, without harmony. [300] But the genius of a Newton has removed this false impression. That great interpreter of nature's laws, has demonstrated that the God of nature is a God of order; that every sun, and moon, and planet, and comet, and asteroid, moves according to one great principle, which binds in eternal harmony the whole material universe.

      It is so in revelation. To the mere sciolist in Biblical knowledge, there may appear to be many inconsistencies. In the great commission, Christ said: "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved."

      Some ten days after this, in reply to the anxious inquiry, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" the apostle Peter said, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost." To the important question of the Philippian jailor, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" the great apostle of the Gentiles answered, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house." But in his letter to the Roman brethren, the same apostle says, "With the heart man believeth unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation." From such premises, some have hastily concluded that the Bible is a chaotic mass of the most palpable contradictions. Others have inferred that the apparent want of harmony is owing to the unimportant character of some of the conditions specified; that it is evident, for example, from Paul's reply to the Philippian jailor, that confession and baptism may be dispensed with, as unnecessary to salvation. But others see none of these imaginary difficulties. They have surveyed the Christian system from its centre to its circumference. To them, therefore, all is order; all is harmony. In the circumstances under which these responses and precepts were given, they see a very evident reason for not expressing what was well understood, or what was clearly implied and about to be practically illustrated. Hence they very rationally conclude, that none of these conditions can, in any case, be safely dispensed with. That they are all divinely appointed means of salvation; that, in fact, no one can have the legal assurance that his sins are pardoned, till he has believed with his heart, confessed with his mouth, repented of his sins, and been baptized into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

      The same rule of interpretation evidently applies to the law of Christian ordination. Luke says that the apostles prayed and laid their hands on the seven deacons; but he does not say that they did not fast at the same time. One of the seven afterwards became an evangelist. Nothing is recorded concerning either his election or his ordination. But what principle of interpretation will justify the conclusion that, like some modern precocious youths, he went out to [301] perform form the work of an evangelist, on his own responsibility, without any of the formalities of a regular appointment. Paul says that his own hands, and the hands of the presbytery, were laid on Timothy. He says nothing about prayer and fasting. But will any one presume to say, that in the ordination of Timothy these solemnities were wholly omitted? Such an inference is just as illogical as the conclusion, that repentance, confession and baptism are not conditions of pardon in Me Christian system, because Paul said to the jailor, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house."

      Enough then, has been said on this important subject. Enough to justify the conclusion that all the deacons, elders, and evangelists, of the primitive church, were ordained by the imposition of hands, with prayer and fasting; and consequently, that no one can be legally set apart to the duties of any office in the Christian church, without these solemnities.

      6. Finally, we learn from these premises, that the seven deacons were all officially equal. Neither the multitude of the disciples nor the twelve apostles conferred any more authority on Stephen than on Prochorus; or on Philip than on Parmenas. So far as the action of the congregation was concerned, they were all placed on the most perfect equality.

      How, then, did they proceed to discharge their official duties? Did each one act independently of all the rest, and do what was right in his own eyes? Was there no harmony, no concert of action among them? Or did they regularly organize by appointing a president, a secretary, a treasurer, and an almoner? If so, by what authority? Can any one produce a direct "thus saith the Lord" for such an organization? With many, this is the only rule of action in ecclesiastical affairs. This school of interpreters have much to say in reference to the simplicity of the Divine law, and their strict adherence to its requirements. From their conversation and writings, the mere novice in Christianity would be apt to infer that the New Testament is a code of the most specific precepts. But the diligent student of the New Institution finds very few such precepts. He searches in vain for a direct "thus saith the Lord" in many cases of paramount importance. It is well that it is so. Had the Divine founder of the Christian system attempted to govern his church wholly by specific laws, truly, indeed, the world would not have contained the books that should have been written. The "lex scripta," or written code of England, consists of thirty-five large quarto volumes, besides cartloads of local and private Acts of Parliament. See Edinburgh Review for April, 1847. And yet almost every new case of law and equity differs, [302] in some respects, from every antecedent one. Every lawyer knows that it is only by analogy, that court decisions are generally applied to new cases of litigation. What, then, would have been the magnitude of the Divine code, had the great Lawgiver of the universe attempted to govern his people in all ages, and in all nations, merely by specific laws!! Surely we cannot too much admire that wisdom which, for such a code, has substituted a little volume of a few hundred pages; and which, notwithstanding its great brevity, has made it a perfect rule of faith and practice for every accountable being in every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation, while time endures!!

      In doing this, God has made the New Testament a book of motives; he has enacted some very generic laws; he has illustrated the principle of his government and the rules of human conduct, by a great variety of authoritative examples; and whenever all these are not sufficient, then, and only then, may we confidently expect to find in the New Testament specific laws and ordinances. The appointment of the seven deacons was a new arrangement in the kingdom of heaven. It was, therefore, necessary that their election should be a subject of special legislation; and that the law of ordination should be illustrated by apostolic example. But with regard to the best manner of discharging the duties of their office, there was no need of a special "thus saith the Lord." The kind of an organization best suited to their situation; the number of officers that should be elected; the mode of their election, whether it should be by ballot or otherwise; whether the arrangements should be for one year, two years, or during the entire period of their service in the deacon's office; whether they should have one treasury, and one fund for all purposes, or whether they should create separate funds, one for the poor, one for evangelists, and one for the ordinary expenses of the congregation; whether they should make their collections and disbursements once a day, once a week, once a month, or once a year; whether they should make an occasional report of their business to the whole congregation, or whether a committee should, at certain intervals, be appointed to audit their accounts; these, and many other prudential arrangements; might often depend on mere contingencies.

      Some organization, however, they certainly had. The generic laws of the kingdom absolutely require this. "Let all things be done decently and in order," is at least as applicable to deacons, elders, and evangelists, in their official capacity, as to any other class in the Christian church. But without an organization of some kind, order is impossible. So God has clearly taught in all the systems of creation, providence, and redemption. And so teaches the common experience of mankind. [303]

      They, therefore, certainly did organize; and not only so, but they formed precisely such an organization as was in all respects best suited to their peculiar circumstances. Though officially equal as the creatures of the congregation, they were probably unequal in age, in talents, in education, in experience, in business habits, and, indeed, in every other respect. These elements of power and influence would not be overlooked in the choice of a president, a clerk, a treasurer, and a bursar. To do so, would be to disregard the ruling motives of the gospel, the authoritative examples of the apostles, and some of the plainest generic laws of the New Testament.

      We, therefore, conclude, that as the administration of the deaconship has not been made the subject of special legislation or approved precedent, the duly elected and ordained deacons of every congregation should organize, and discharge the duties of their office according to the generic laws and the ruling motives of the gospel. This rule, of course, leaves much room for the exercise of sound judgment and the Christian virtues. But it is not likely to be abused by "men of good report, full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom." [304]


      Robert Milligan. "The Permanent Order of the Christian Ministry: Chapter I. Of Deacons." The Millennial
Harbinger 26 (November 1855): 624-635.


[MHA2 294-304]

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Benjamin Lyon Smith
The Millennial Harbinger Abridged (1902)