Saturday, September 3, 2016

City of Light

Last weekend, I drove to Atlanta to visit some good friends. We had a great time, as we usually do when we get together. Atlanta is a fun place to shop and dine and catch up with friends, but that is not the point of this story.

Sunday morning, I visited my friends' church home, City of Light. I may be hopelessly nerdy, but I always enjoy visiting churches. I am interested in how different churches approach "doing church." My visit to City of Light gave me a lot to think about, and I would like to share some of my ideas.

It's not about being a member

If you were to visit City of Light, one of the first things that you would see in the lobby is a table with bulletins, information, and sign-up sheets. There are four clipboards with attendance lists for people to sign in: members, regular attendees, regular visitors, and first-time visitors.

Many people are reluctant to join things. They may be afraid of commitment, or they may shy away from a perception of responsibilities. City of Light does not let that reluctance get in the way of reaching people. Is "member" a scary word? Fine! If you are more comfortable with "regular attendee" or "regular visitor," City of Light will accommodate you. Whatever you call yourself, they are happy that you are there.

It's not about the church building

When I visited City of Light, they were in the middle of a big change. This change is so big, and potentially traumatic, that some churches do not survive it. City of Light sold their building and were preparing to move into a new building.

City of Light has been in its current building for over twenty years. They have obviously put a lot of time, effort, sweat, and money into creating an attractive, welcoming sanctuary. But, the building's location puts it in the path of the local children's hospital's plans for expansion. Project Q Atlanta did a story about the move.

City of Light could have dug in their heels. They could have fought the hospital's plans. They could have refused to sell and refused to move. They could have made a stand to save their building. They did not do any of those things.

Instead, City of Light saw an opportunity to expand their mission and reach more people. As much as they love their current building, they do not exist to support the building. Rather, the building exists to support their mission.

It's not about the numbers

I have a mental tendency to count things. I noticed, for example, that approximately 40 people were in the worship service that Sunday. The choir numbered ten or fewer, but it had the energy of the Mormon Tabernacle. City of Light's youth group serves about 15 kids. The Project Q article stated that City of Light's membership is around 230.

Some people would look at a membership of 230 and conclude that their church is "dying." They would bemoan how empty the sanctuary looks with "only" 40 people. They would shake their heads about having "only" 15 kids in youth group. They would complain how much better the choir sounded when it had more than "only" 10 people. Not at City of Light.

It does not matter whether there are 40 people in a church on Sunday or there are 4,000. What matters is this: How deeply is the church affecting people? City of Light has fellowship opportunities and opportunities to serve others throughout the week. It has a theological institute where anyone can take life enrichment classes. It is apparent that City of Light's emphasis is on quality rather than quantity.

It's not about the worship style

City of Light has one worship service every Sunday, and I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of it. Some parts of it I found extremely touching and meaningful. It was only later, as I reflected upon the worship service, I realized I could not categorize it as either "traditional" or "contemporary." It was informal, like a contemporary service. They played traditional hymns like "Softly and Tenderly." They also played contemporary worship songs. True worship is neither traditional nor contemporary: Worship just is.

It's not about the pastor

I brought the City of Light bulletin home with me. The bulletin lists six pages of church activities. On the last page, the bulletin says, "Please let us know if you are going to go to the hospital or are ill. Our Congregational Care team wants to be there to offer prayer and assistance if needed." At the City of Light, the congregation is responsible for visiting people in the hospital.

I suddenly realized: I did not see the pastor when I visited. I do not know if he was there or not. A cheerful face greeted me at the door -- but it was not the pastor. A friendly person helped me to a seat -- but it was not the pastor. I heard a meaningful sermon, participated in a rich worship service, and received the Lord's Supper -- and I never saw the pastor. Churches can do so much more when they do not rely on the pastor to do everything.

So, what is it about?

As it happened on this particular Sunday, there was breakfast before service. My friends and I shared a table with several other people who were strangers to me. They caught up on each other's lives, and I was content to dig into my eggs and bacon and sausage, and generally listen to the conversations around me.

Many of the members and regular attendees at City of Light are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. One young man described being followed in a grocery store by a person who shouted "faggot" at him. One woman talked about going to the pharmacy and being called "sir" by the cashier. The people around the table discussed these insults as if they were everyday occurrences; I am afraid they probably are. If you were surprised that a man could go into a gay nightclub in Florida and kill 50 people, if you thought that such a thing could not happen in 2016 . . . well, I do not think that these folks were all that surprised.

And something remarkable happened during communion. We all shared the bread and the cup together. Church elders offered to pray over anyone needing a special benediction, and several people came forward. Elders put their hands on people's shoulders and spoke quiet words of healing to them. It was a profound moment that brought tears to my eyes.

Can you imagine what powerful work that is? Can you imagine the prospect of being insulted and despised any where, any time? And can you imagine having one safe place where you could go every week? Where someone would touch your shoulder and tell you that you were known and loved and accepted?

Jesus sought out the despised and the condemned. He touched them and told them how much they meant to him and to their creator. I know that I saw Jesus' love made real that Sunday morning.

And that is what church is about.

Sunday, March 13, 2016


For more years than I care to remember, one of my best friends was a border collie mutt named Oreo. Her name was Oreo because, like the cookies-and-cream snack, she was black and white. My niece, Arianna, who was at the time three or four, bestowed upon her a majestic, full name: Princess Oreo Cookie Monster. Though she was my dog, the decision to name her was not mine.

In fact, the decision to get her at all was not mine, either. Ricky, a fellow church-member, was trying to find homes for his dog's puppies. My then-partner thought that we ought to have a dog. Some couples have a baby to save their marriage. We got Oreo. In the end, the partner left, but the dog stayed. I think that I made out quite well there.

For the next dozen or so years, she was my "hale fellow, well met." Oreo was Captain of the King's Guard and Chief Jester. Eater of cashmere sweaters. Digger of holes. Pursuer of squirrels. A gourmand whose tastes encompassed hot dogs and Krispy Kremes. Hater of baths. Bed hog.

She was stubborn, it is true, but also stubbornly loyal. A fierce defender of my home, but also friendly and gregarious. Like Winnie the Pooh, "of little brain," but also a cunning escape artist to rival Houdini. (She never went far, though: she just wanted to prove which one of us was smarter.) And not sick a day in her life -- until last October.

She had a checkup in October, and everything was fine. Shortly afterwards, she developed edema in her extremities. In November, the vet diagnosed congestive heart failure and a heart murmur. However, with the prescription medicines, Oreo made a miraculous recovery. She was fine until January, when she got worse again. Another trip to the vet, another prescription. This time, the medicine averted the crisis, but it did not make her better. She continued to decline throughout February.

I tried to be vigilant for signs that the medicine was no longer keeping her comfortable. I could not prevent her getting old. I could not prevent her congestive heart failure. I could not prevent her dying. One thing that I could do was prevent her suffering. In the end, I hesitated too long.

When I got home Thursday, I knew that Oreo was dying. She was lying in the dirt. She could not get up. She just raised her head to look at me, and laid it back down.

I picked her up and carried her in the house. It was a difficult job; she weighed almost ninety pounds. I laid her down in the living room. I cleaned her up with a warm, wet towel. I brushed her coat and sang to her: "How much is that doggy in the window? The one with the waggly tail?" I scratched behind her ears. I lay down beside her and put my arm around her and told her that I loved her.

I wish that I could tell you that I stayed with her until the very end. By God, I was too much of a coward. After awhile, I kissed her on her ear and told her again that I loved her. I told her that I was going to go to bed and that I would see her in the morning.

When I awoke Friday morning, I knew that she was gone. The house was empty in a way that it had not been in over a dozen years. I walked into the living room and saw that Oreo was not breathing. I sat down beside her and felt her chest. She was cool but not cold. A bad dream had woken me at 4.30, and it is easy for me to imagine that is when she died. I really don't know. I petted her coat for the last time, kissed her on the ear again, and told her for the last time that I loved her.

I wrapped her in a sheet and carried her out to my car. I put her in the back seat, and we drove to the vet for the last time together. Some nice, young women came out to the car to take Oreo from me. I cannot imagine that they weighed much more than Oreo, but they handled things competently. In about a week, I will go back, and they will give me a box of ashes. It hardly seems like a fair trade.

For years and years, Oreo gave me unconditional love from a seemingly inexhaustible source, and she asked nothing of me in return. Of course, I fed her and walked her and brushed her and scratched behind her ears. And, of course, she joyfully accepted all of these things with a gratitude that was all out of proportion to my efforts.

For a little while, the bargain was reversed. She required more and more from me: More trips to the vet, more prescriptions, more help. The medicine made her kidneys more active, so we got up to pee a half-dozen times every night. I got little or no sleep most nights. It was a rare day that I did not have to clean up an accident.

I learned how woefully inadequate I am at being good. I could have taken Oreo for more walks. I could have shared more treats with her. I could have been more patient. By human standards, I may have been a pretty good owner. However, even when we intend to do good, our imperfect nature guarantees that we will do an imperfect job.

Saturday morning, I awoke feeling more at peace than I had been in a long time. Karen Armstrong has written that we are meaning-seeking creatures. I believe that I have found meaning in the timing of Oreo's death: We are in the middle of Lent, which is the season of loss for the Christian Church.

It seems to me that love means accepting suffering if it will relieve the suffering of one you love. The central, ineffable mystery of the Christian faith is that "for our sake Jesus Christ was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures," as the Nicene Creed puts it. Why would God assume human form to suffer and die? What good would that accomplish and how?

We suffer. Because of our imperfect nature, we cause much of that suffering. Also because of our imperfect nature, we are not capable of relieving all of that suffering by ourselves.

If God exists, and if he loves us, then he would have to find a way to relieve our suffering, even if it meant suffering himself. A loving God must also imply a suffering God; it can be no other way.

So, even in her final illness, Oreo gave to me more than I ever gave to her. She gave me a better understanding of the meaning of suffering, of love, and perhaps even of salvation. She released me from being the person I had become so that I could be whoever I will be next. For all of this, and so much more, thank you, Oreo. Good dog.

Friday, August 7, 2015

A Screwtape Letter for Today

Recently, my small group discussed The Screwtape Letters, by C. S. Lewis. Apart from his Narnia books, The Screwtape Letters is probably Lewis's best-known work. It is still on the best-seller lists some seventy years after its first publication. As a learning exercise, I challenged everyone to write a Screwtape letter of their own. With apologies to the Lewis estate, here is my own effort:

My dear Wormwood,

Were I afflicted by what humans call “scruples,” I would apologize that I have not written to you in such a long time. As you well know, various political intrigues and misunderstanding have occupied both our full attention for a while. However, I am warmed to see that, after helping the authorities with their inquiries, we are both returned to active duty in our respective official capacities.

I observe that our job has never been easier than it is now. The vermin that it is our duty to shepherd past Hell’s wide gate practically stampede over us on their own way to destruction. Nevertheless, we can still do our part to prod the slower, more reluctant ones along to their eternal reward.

I should not have to tell you that the finest way to disguise sin is to dress it up as virtue. The opportunities for such mischief are limited only by your imagination. To give you one example, observe the creatures’ use of social media. One of our greatest triumphs of this young century is to subvert a means of communication into a means of preventing communication. Why, they do not communicate any more so much as they shout past each other. Here is the truly delicious part: They feel entirely vindicated in doing so.

Why do they engage each other in interminable, virtual shouting matches? Because they all believe that they are right, and that spreading truth and stamping out lies is a noble and necessary calling. And, as far as that goes, the Enemy would probably agree with them.

In fact, He would probably tell them that they are all right, at least in part. Our genius is to obscure the last part, and to convince them they they each know it all and the other knows nothing. Our triumph was to convince them that they do not look through a dull mirror—that, instead, they see with the absolute clarity and objectivity of the One who created them. You and I appreciate that their “sin” is not in being wrong, but in attempting to usurp God’s unique position as the Knower of all and the Judge of all. In that, the most righteous of them are nearly the equal of Our Father Below.

Yet even this is not our greatest triumph, because their sin is still tainted by a small amount of righteousness, by definition. We have discovered a means whereby we can encourage the creatures to generate more pure sin than ever before in history, unadulterated with anything like righteousness. Of course, I am referring to the seemingly limitless reserves of rage that we are now exploiting.

The creatures would call it “outrage,” when simple “rage” will do. Further, they think that it is a good thing! After all, what do they think they are doing, but fighting against injustice and for justice? Does not a Just God require His creatures to fight for justice?

Well, you and I both know, and they would know, too, if they knew Scripture half as well as the Devil does, how a Just God wants them to respond to injustice. He all but gave them the blueprint for a just society. The thing is, His solution is so simple that they cannot believe it. They confuse being simple with being easy, and they cannot imagine that justice would be easy, because of course it is not easy. Woe be to us if the creatures actually notice what is in front of their noses! Thankfully, there is as little chance of that as of a leopard changing its spots.

But, back to rage. You may have seen a report cross your desk that illustrates my point perfectly. The makers of a popular computer program, or “app,” redesigned their icon in the most seemingly unobtrusive, trivial way possible. What they did was, they changed the shade of green of the app’s icon. That was it. What had been green-yellow was now yellow-green. Social media absolutely exploded with rage, entirely out of proportion with the cause, which proves my point.

The creatures, unselfconscious idiots that they are, would say that their outrage is an effect, caused by outside events, unjust or otherwise. In fact, the rage is already there, seething within them; all they need is a convenient target to unleash it upon. The more that this cycle progresses, the easier and easier it is to maintain it. The more they see how good the rage feels, the less provocation they will need to indulge in it.

So, you see how perfectly the order of battle favors us. Your job is to prevent them from recognizing their path is leading down, not up, as it were. At all costs, the creatures ought to avoid seeing each other face to face. As you know, much to our indignation, these creatures are made in the Enemy’s image. There is a chance, however slight, that if the creatures look at each other, they might actually see—see the other, and see the Enemy’s image in the other. All sorts of mischief might follow from that.

There is a secondary reason to keep the creatures from meeting face to face. Even if they cannot see the other as a divine creation, and even if they cannot see their creator’s image in the sight of the other, still most of them will feel restrained from actually hurting each other in person. I am sure that you have noticed that they will act infinitely more cruel, more obstinate, more condescending, more dismissive, more imperious—well, more hateful, really—when they are safely ensconced behind a computer screen than when they have to say these things to another’s face. Something, be it good manners, or a fear of being disliked, or just a fear of being beaten up, restrains their natural impulses to dominate and negate the other.

Luckily for you, the vermin will make your job easy, not to say effortless. We are well on our way to ensuring that every man, woman, and child of them have a so-called “smart” phone, and that they are conditioned to stay tethered to it every second of every minute of every hour of the day. With every beep or alert, like Pavlov’s dogs, they feel an urgent need to respond immediately. They allow themselves to be taken out of the present moment perhaps literally thousands of times each day. The air of foggy befuddlement in which many of them now spend their entire lives is really quite amusing. They shut out the real world around them to attend to this blinking, beeping box to the extent that they are now commonly driving into trees and walking in front of buses. All you have to do is encourage them to keep up the bad work.

In your next letter, I expect to read a full report on your progress since returning to the front lines. Meanwhile, I remain, as always,

Your affectionate uncle,


Monday, May 13, 2013

Deacons in the Bible

While deacons are important church offices today, deacons are not mentioned in the Bible frequently or in much detail.

For example, deacons are mentioned in the Letter to the Philippians, but only in passing, and this is rather typical of the Bible’s treatment of deacons. Paul begins the letter, “Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ” (KJV Phil. 1.1-2). This salutation indicates that, by the time of the letter, “deacon” was an office in the Christian Church, in addition to and perhaps distinct from the other office mentioned, that of “bishop.”

That Philippians mentions two church offices is possibly the most instructive aspect of this greeting. The King James, American Standard, and J.B. Phillips versions, among others, translate these two offices as “bishops” and “deacons.” The English Standard, New International, and Holman Christian Standard versions, among others, use “overseers” and “deacons.” Whatever a deacon is, it seems that a deacon is not a bishop or an overseer.

Despite its lack of detail, the Letter to the Philippians nonetheless is interesting for its mention of deacons. This letter is arguably the earliest Epistle to mention deacons, and it is the only one to mention deacons and bishops as distinct from one another (Fausset Phil. 1.1). This letter may evidence the developing structure of the early church, as the original apostles died and the church became more formalized (Fausset Phil. 1.1).

The office of deacon is described more fully in the First Letter to Timothy. The letter commands, “Likewise must the deacons be grave, not doubletongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre; Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless. Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things. Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus” (KJV 1 Tim. 3.8-13). This list of characteristics could be taken as the qualifications of a deacon candidate. As exhaustively as this passage describes who a deacon is, however, it does not describe what a deacon is supposed to do.

It is nearly impossible to get a complete view of the organization of the New Testament Church. The office of deacon may be one and the same as the office of elder (Henry Phil. 1.1). It may be that different churches, at different times, had different sets of offices, and that the offices had different duties.

Etymology of the Word “Deacon”

The English word “deacon” is essentially a transliteration of a foreign word. “Deacon” is borrowed from the Greek word diakonos, which generally means “a servant” or “minister of the church” (Webster “Deacon”). A diakonos is an errand-runner, an attendant, and a waiter (Strong 1249). The term implies a comparatively menial set of duties (Strong 1249).

In the specific sense of the New Testament, however, diakonos means more than a menial servant. A diakonos also acts as a “teacher and pastor” (Strong 1249). The teaching and pastoring component of diakonos seems not to be a large proportion, however.

Diakonos also appears in the New Testament in places where it is not translated into English as “deacon.” For example, in Jesus’s parable of the the wedding feast, the king’s servants are called diakonos (Matt. 22.13). Similarly, in the wedding at Cana, the host’s servants are also called diakonos (John 2.5, 9). These examples may indicate that deacons are responsible for the “household” of the church, as it were.

Jesus frequently describes his apostles as diakonos. When he instructs them that “the greatest among you shall be your servant,” he uses the word “diakonos” (KJV Matt. 23.11, cf. Mark 9.35, also cf. Mark 10.43, where the word is translated as “minister” rather than “servant”). Jesus appears to use diakonos to refer to humble service to others, in the general sense of putting others first.

Paul also uses diakonos in a number of different senses, in addition to Philippians and First Timothy, where it is translated into English as “deacon.” For instance, Paul often describes Jesus as a diakonos, such as where he describes Jesus as “the minister of God” (KJV Rom. 13.4, cf. “minister of the circumcision” KJV Rom. 15.8, and cf. not “the minister of sin” KJV Gal. 2.17). The description of Jesus as a diakonos seems to emphasize his obedience to God.

Paul’s other uses of the word also primarily describe obedience to God. Paul often uses diakonos to describe himself (1 Cor. 3.5-6, 2 Cor. 6.4, Eph. 3.7, Col. 1.23, 25). Paul, an apostle, describing himself instead as a diakonos, may be employing the term modestly. An apostle may be a servant of God, but not all servants of God have the same rights and responsibilities as apostles.

In like manner, Paul gives the title diakonos to many other individuals in his letters. So, Pheobe (Rom. 16.1, 27), Apollos (1 Cor. 3.5-6), Tychicus (Eph. 6.21, Col. 4.7), Epaphras (Col. 1.7), Timothy (1 Thess. 3.2, 1 Tim. 4.6), even Paul’s opponents in Corinth (2 Cor. 11.23) are diakonos in some fashion. Judging from these individuals’ roles as described in the New Testament, diakonos could embrace just about every activity from secretary and messenger to evangelist and minister.

It may be interesting that none of the other epistle authors use the term diakonos.

Qualifications of Deacons

Of what is known of New Testament deacons, a deacon’s qualifications are the most specific and exhaustive. “Likewise must the deacons be [1] grave, [2] not doubletongued, [3] not given to much wine, [4] not greedy of filthy lucre; [5] Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. And let these also first be [6] proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being [7] found blameless. Even so must their wives be [8] grave, [9] not slanderers, [10] sober, [11] faithful in all things. Let the deacons be [12] the husbands of one wife, [13] ruling their children and [14] their own houses well. For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 3.8-13). Lists of virtues such as this one are common in the Epistles (as well as lists of vices), and should not be taken as comprehensive qualifications.

The English translation of First Timothy seems to suggest that deacons must be married. “Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things” (1 Tim. 3.11). However, this may be a misunderstanding, based upon a mistranslation. It could be that instead Paul was here describing the qualifications of deaconesses, not the wives of deacons (Clarke 1 Tim. 3.11; Fausset 1 Tim. 3:11). There would seem to be no reason why deacons would need to be married to carry out their duties.

Much more important, deacons should also be “holding the mystery of the faith” (1 Tim. 3.9). Deacons can not help others grow in their faith if the deacons themselves are not steadfast in their own faith (Clarke 1 Tim. 3.10). This steadfastness of faith is not a superhuman abundance of faith, however. Adam Clarke formulates this requirement as being a “consistent private member” of the church (Clarke 1 Tim. 3.10). This sureness of faith must be the most necessary character trait listed in First Timothy.

From the particular qualifications listed in First Timothy, one may generalize. Deacons are in a position of trust, so they must be trustworthy (Henry 1 Tim 3.8). They hold the church’s money and property, and they must discharge their duties seriously and prudently (Henry 1 Tim. 3.8). They also to some extent represent the Church in public, so their conduct should not harm the Church’s reputation (Henry, 1 Tim. 3.8). Seen in this light, the qualifications of deacon come down to common sense.

Duties of Deacons

Because the Epistles are so terse in their descriptions of deacons, commentators have looked elsewhere for further guidance. Some have found it in Acts 6.1-6, where the Christian Church elected seven men to be in charge of distributing fairly the gifts to the Hebrew and Gentile widows alike (Easton “Deacon”). Acts 6.1-6 does not describe these men as deacons, but some have argued that was what their office was (Easton “Deacon”). Later, teaching was added to their formerly secular duties (Easton “Deacon”). Whether these seven were known by the title “deacon,” the story of Acts 6.1-6 seems to presage the office that would eventually evolve into deacon.

Looking outside of the New Testament canon, analogues of the office of deacon may also be found in Jewish culture. In the synagogue, young men generally helped prepare the meeting room, served during the worship service, and distributed alms. (Smith “Deacon”). The Christian deacon may be the equivalent of that Jewish office.

If deacons are a Christian analogue to a Jewish office, much more than temporal service would be involved. “Their duty was to read the Scriptures in the Church, to instruct the catechumens in Christian truths, to assist the presbyters at the sacraments, to receive oblations, and to preach and instruct. As the ‘chazzan’ covered and uncovered the ark in the synagogue, containing the law, so the deacon in the ancient Church put the covering on the communion table” (Fausset 1 Tim. 3.8). The Jewish precedent may be where the spiritual aspects of a deacon’s service originate.

Over time, it appears that the office of deacon became more temporal and less spiritual. At Philippians 1.1, the Geneva Bible has a marginal note that reads, “by deacons are meant those that were stewards of the treasury of the Church, and had to look after the poor” (Geneva Phil. 1.1). The Geneva Bible marks an important milestone in the history of the office of deacon. The Geneva Bible was published in the sixteenth century, at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, and it represents more or less the official position of the Calvinist branch of Protestantism. Thus, by the 1500s, the office of deacon was much reduced in responsibility.

However, deacons remained in charge of the church’s treasury, and that duty necessarily included many other, subordinate responsibilities. Holding on to the purse strings necessarily involves maintaining the church building, its furnishings, and paying its ministers (Henry Phil. 1.1). Today, those responsibilities are generally discharged by other offices, and deacons’ responsibility over the treasury is limited to taking up the collections during worship services.

Deacons have also exercised other responsibilities during worship services. In Congregational churches in New England, deacons used to read the psalms aloud as part of the church service (Webster “Deacon”). In Presbyterian and Congregational churches, deacons are in charge of serving communion, as well as being in charge of distributing charity to the poor (Webster “Deacon;” Henry 1 Tim 3.8). Taking part in the service of communion may be the most spiritually significant part of a deacon’s office today.

Deacons can also be defined by what is not in their duties. Deacons are not expected to preach or to baptize (Henry 1 Tim. 3.8).

There have been a number of attempts to define a deacon’s duties in a simple, unified manner. It could be said that deacons look after a church’s external affairs, while bishops look after the church’s internal affairs (Fausset Phil. 1.1). This definition may explain deacons’ involvement in managing the treasury and distributing charity, but it does not explain deacons’ participation in church service through communion and reading the psalms. John Wesley approved of the external/internal division of labor between deacons and bishops/presbyters (Wesley Phil 1.1). However, he noted that “these were not wholly confined to the one, neither those to the other” (Wesley, Phil 1.1). Simple definitions often are not complete, and complete definitions often are not simple.

Another attempt to define “deacon” simply is to say that deacons are in charge of a church’s “temporal affairs,” as opposed to its spiritual affairs (Nave “Deacon”). Being in charge of a church’s treasury, and being in charge of a church’s charitable giving, would fall presumably within the realm of temporal affairs. However, participating in church services, by assisting with communion and reading psalms, seems more spiritual than temporal. Also, the teaching and ministerial duties of deacons is clearly within the spiritual, rather than the temporal, realm. This definition also seems to be more hopeful than useful.

A final attempted dichotomy is to suggest that deacons are the “young men” of the church, as in Acts 6.1-6, and contrasted with the “elders” of the church (Smith “Deacon”). This does suggest the hierarchy, in which deacon is lower than the other offices of the church. It also suggests the progression from deacon to higher office as one gains age and experience. However, age is clearly not always the dividing line between deacons and other officers of the church.

The most accurate definition of a deacon’s duties may be the most general. Since “its original meaning implied a helper, an assistant,” a deacon could be thought of as a kind of dogsbody, or jack-of-all-trades for the church (Smith “Deacon”).

Deacons in Church Hierarchy 

As with many other things, different denominations treat the office of deacon differently. In Roman Catholic and Episcopal denominations, deacons are subordinate to priests, and ultimately subordinate to bishops (Webster “Deacon”). In Presbyterian denominations, deacons are subordinate to the minister and the elders instead (Webster “Deacon”). In Congregational churches, deacons are subordinate to the pastor (Webster “Deacon”). In all churches, however, deacon is the lowest office of the church.

Churches across denominations also treat deacons alike in one other regard. In almost every church, it seems that the office of deacon, although the lowest office in church, is seen as a necessary step to higher offices and more responsibility (Henry 1 Tim. 3.13). Of course, not every deacon moves up in church hierarchy, nor necessarily wants to.


There is much about the office of deacon that the New Testament refuses to reveal. What can be said, however, is that the office of deacon was established by the time of the Epistles, and that it may have developed from a similar position in the Jewish synagogue. A deacon is a servant of the congregation, both in temporal and in spiritual things. Because of the trust reposed in deacons, they must be qualified to safeguard that trust. The duties of deacons may have different from time to time and place to place, but they have often been to steward the church’s money, maintain its physical building and furnishings, distribute its charity to the poor, and assist with worship service, particularly with communion. While the deacon is the least office of the church, it also may lead to other offices. Some of the ambiguity of the New Testament in describing deacons may have been beneficial, in that it has allowed the office to evolve with the Christian Church’s changing needs for its service.

Works Cited 

Clarke, Adam. The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments, the Text Carefully Printed from the Most Correct Copies of the Present Authorized Translation, Including the Marginal Readings and Parallel Texts: With a Commentary and Critical Notes Designed As a Help to a Better Understanding of the Sacred Writings. Nashville: Abingdon, 1977. Print.

Easton, M. G. Illustrated Bible Dictionary. New York: Crescent Books, 1989. Print.

Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Guardian Press, 1976. Print.

Fausset, A. R., David Brown, and Robert Jamieson. Jamieson, Fausset & Brown’s Commentary on the Whole Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House, 1961. Print.

Morison, Stanley. The Geneva Bible. London: London School of Print. and Graphic Arts, 1955. Print.

Nave, Orville J. Nave’s Topical Bible. Nashville: T. Nelson, 1997. Print.

Smith, William, F. N. Peloubet, and M. A. T. Peloubet. A Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: T. Nelson, 1986. Print.

Strong, James. The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible: With Main Concordance, Appendix to the Main Concordance, Key Verse Comparison Chart, Dictionary of the Hebrew Bible, Dictionary of the Greek Testament. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984. Print.

Webster, Noah. Noah Webster’s First Edition of an American Dictionary of the English Language. Anaheim, Calif.: Foundation for American Christian Education, 1967. Print.

Wesley, John. Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament. New York: J. Soule and T. Mason for the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States, 1818. Print.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Friday, November 30, 2012

Matthew, Luke, and Advent

With the approach of advent, I felt inspired to make a book for my niece that would tell the nativity story. One of my interests this year has been in typography, and I decided that I should try laying out my first small book.

Of the four evangelists, only Matthew and Luke describe Jesus's birth. At first glance, my project seemed to be simple. I would take Matthew chapters one and two and Luke chapters one and two, and arrange them into one story.

I set some ground rules for myself. I decided that I would only interleave Matthew and Luke; I would not do any rearranging. That is, I would not put something from Matthew 2 ahead of something from Matthew 1, for example. I would also try to work section by section, keeping intact each author's work as much as possible. I finally resolved not to delete any verses, if at all possible.

If you have tried this exercise yourself, you may agree with me that all goes well until after Jesus is born. The birth of John the Baptist is announced to Zechariah in Jerusalem (Luke 1.5-22). He returns to his home in the hill country of Judea and his wife, Elizabeth, becomes pregnant (Luke 1.23-25).

Meanwhile, the birth of Jesus is announced to Mary in Nazareth (Luke 1.26-38). That moves Mary to visit Elizabeth in the hill country of Judea (Luke 1.39-55). At the end of her visit, Mary returns to Nazareth (Luke 1.56). After Mary leaves, Elizabeth gives birth to John the Baptist (Luke 1.57-80).

Meanwhile, back in Nazareth, Joseph is planning to put Mary away, but an angel comes to him in a dream and tells him not to (Matt. 1.18-25). Joseph and Mary travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census, and Jesus is born there (Luke 2.1-7). Angels appear to shepherds in the surrounding countryside, who come to the stable to see Jesus in the manger (Luke 2.8-20). A week later, the baby is named Jesus (Luke 2.21).

So far, so good. Now here it gets complicated. Luke has the Holy Family travel to Jerusalem to be dedicated in the temple (Luke 2.22-38). After that, Luke has the Holy Family travel to Nazareth (Luke 2.39-40).

However, Matthew has the wise men coming from the East, stopping in Jerusalem to ask King Herod for directions, and worshiping Jesus in Bethlehem (Matt. 2.1-12). Matthew then has the Holy Family escape to Egypt to avoid Herod's massacre of the baby boys in Bethlehem (Matt. 2.13-18). After Herod's death, the Holy Family resettles in Nazareth (Matt. 2.19-22).

So, how do we get all of these events in one time line? Did the Holy Family go to Jerusalem, then come back to Bethlehem so that the wise men could find them? There are two problems with this scenario.

First, Luke says that the Holy Family went to Nazareth after Jerusalem. This could be explained away by reasoning that the Holy Family did end up in Nazareth after all of this, but first they went some places that Luke did not bother to record. The more significant problem is that there is no reason for the Holy Family to keep shuttling back and forth to Bethlehem. Aside from being his ancestral place of origin, Joseph has no connection to Bethlehem. He just went there to file his census paperwork. Once he leaves Bethlehem, there's no reason for him to return, especially considering how difficult travel was in first century Israel.

As a lawyer, if I know one thing, it is that the answer to most problems is to do more research. In this case, I consulted several harmonies of the gospel. Most scholars use the arrangement that I just described. Apparently they do not see a problem with it. I don't know; maybe Joseph had some unstated reason to go back to Bethlehem.

The other alternative is that the Holy Family stayed in Bethlehem, and did not leave until after the wise men's visit. Then the Holy Family would have had to go to Jerusalem after the wise men left. Again, there are two problems with that alternative.

First, Matthew has Joseph leaving for Egypt because Herod is going to kill baby boys in Bethlehem. Did he stop off in Jerusalem on his way to Egypt? It's not like Jerusalem is between Bethlehem and Egypt. That leads to the second, more serious problem. Would the Holy Family have been able to travel to Jerusalem and dedicate the Messiah in the Temple -- loudly prophesied by both Simeon and Anna -- after the wise men had been through Jerusalem, stirring the whole town up about the new king?

Although I am not totally satisfied with this alternative, and although it does not seem to be the majority position, this is the alternative that I put into my book. The other alternative seemed to have too much traveling and backtracking in it to make sense to me.

The more that I puzzled over this, the more it seemed to me that Mark and John had taken the more sensible course, and just avoided talking about the baby Jesus altogether.

Lucky for me, I have a great friend who is going through divinity school at Wake Forest University. I showed her my draft and explained her problem. "The thing is," she told me, "each author was writing with a different audience in mind. They were each making a different point. Matthew's point was the Jesus was the Messiah, the fulfillment of prophecy. Luke's point was the Jesus was the Savior of the Gentiles as well as Jews. So you really can't blend the two together." I agree with her that is absolutely true, but that answer did not really satisfy me.

I am in many ways a conventional, unimaginative Christian. I think that the Bible is either true or it isn't. I think that either Jesus existed -- and did what the Bible says he did -- or he didn't. This thinking is about a hundred years out of date.

Scholars such as John Dominic Crossan believe that they can decide that this part of the Bible is true, and this part of the Bible is not. Scholars of that type would not be troubled by this problem. They would conclude that either Jesus was not dedicated in the Temple, or there were no wise men, or perhaps that both stories are just folk tales.

The problem with that is that I get to pick the parts that support my views, and ignore the parts that don't, and so do you. Then the Bible does not work to bind us together, which is something that I think it should. Crossan would probably counter that you don't just get to pick and choose, that the decision process has to be determined by some kind of objective criteria, but I don't know how realistic that is.

In a similar way, there are some Christians who believe that Jesus didn't really exist in a factual way. To them, Jesus is the embodiment of an ideal, and the point of the gospels is not to describe a person who existed and who did actual things, but to describe a way of experiencing God. Those believers do not need to reconcile the Jesus of Matthew with the Jesus of Luke. They may be right, but that is not an answer that satisfies me at all.

For such a seemingly simple task, this project certainly brought up some serious, probably insoluble questions about the nature of faith. Obviously, I have not solved those, although I continue to wrestle with them. I can point to some more modest lessons learned, however.

I did not need to do any rearranging of the evangelists' work. Matthew and Luke both recount their stories in the order that makes chronological sense within themselves. I did not even need to do much interspersing. Each evangelist carries large chunks of the narrative at a time. Some deletion was regrettably necessary, but only in the case of redundancy. For example, both Matthew and Luke recount that the baby was named Jesus, and a coherent narrative only needs that stated once.

What do you think about the issues that I had? How would you solve the problem of harmonizing Matthew and Luke?

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Books of the Bible

The Books of the Bible ("TBOTB") is an effort to format the Bible like an ordinary book. Starting with the text of the New International Version, chapter and verse numbers are removed from the text. A running footer indicates a chapter and verse range, though, so traditional navigation is still possible. Instead of chapters, natural section breaks are indicated by white space and drop caps. Also, books that were originally combined, such as Samuel-Kings, have been re-combined, and are re-ordered to be more chronological. Unlike other, similar efforts ("The Story"), however, this is not an abridgment of the Bible; the whole text is present. As we will see, the result is mostly successful, but not without flaws.

TBOTB is a step-up in quality from Biblica's bread-and-butter outreach Bibles. The paper is quite bright, white, and smooth. It is noticeably thinner than ordinary book paper, so it is not perfectly opaque. There is some ghosting noticeable from the other side of the page, but it is not too intrusive. The paper reminds me of the paper used in my hardcover New Oxford Annotated Bible, Fourth Edition.

I anticipated a somewhat smaller book than TBOTB turned out to be. TBOTB is 6x9 inches, for a nice, classic 2:3 page proportion. It is a bit over 1.5 inches thick, and the page count is 1898. I suspect that there was an effort to keep TBOTB below 1900 or 2000 pages. The result reminds me of the paperback anthology of the Hitchhiker's Guide series that I just finished.

My copy is the paperback version from Biblica (formerly the International Bible Society). However, this is not a cheap, mass-market softcover. It is a heavy stock with a matte finish, full-color graphics, and a leather-grained texture. To me, it feels more like a Flexibind cover than a plain paperback. While no softcover book will be as durable as a hardcover, this may prove to be more durable than most outreach-style Bibles.

Both Biblica and Zondervan will sell TBOTB. My copy from Biblica has a glued binding, but I suspect that the copies from Zondervan will be sewn. The box copy from the Duotone editions (one green, one brown) says that they will "lay flat," which is usually Zondervan's indication of a sewn binding. In addition to the Dutotone editions, Zondervan will have a hardcover edition with the same graphic cover as my paperback one. Biblica's line will include two softcover Bibles (one brown, one blue), a New Testament, and the Old Testament in three volumes. All of the editions will have plain page edges. Editions will range from about five dollars for the paperback portions to forty dollars for the Duotone covers.

I was most anxious to examine TBOTB's page design. The text block is 80% of the width and approximately 83% of the height of the page -- 4.75 x 7.5 inches. The proportion of the text is 1:1.579, which is between the page's proportion of 1:1.5 and the golden proportion of 1:1.618. I do not know if that proportion was intentional, but the resulting text block area is exactly two-thirds the area of the page. In other words, this is quite a full page.

I think that the weakest part of the page design is the size of the margin. The outside margins are 3/8 inch, or 1/16th of the page. The inside margins seem to be about 3/4 inch, approximately double the outside. It seems that the outside margin was sacrificed to keep the text from disappearing into the gutter. The top margin is 5/8 inch, or two-thirds larger than the outside margin. The bottom margin is about 3/4 inch, or double the outside margin. The top, inside, and bottom margins do their jobs reasonably well, but the outside margin is too tight.

If the design of the margins is unfortunate, the type decisions are absolutely correct. TBOTB is set in Adobe Utopia, which is a pleasant, modern serif type. Biblica lists the type size as 10 points, and that would be normal for a book this size. Leading, as I measure it, is 12 points; again, two extra points of lead would be quite right for 10 point text. I do not think that any of these decisions could be improved.

The problem with the choice of margins and the choice of text comes down to readability. A 4.75-inch line is just a bit long for 10 point type. For example, one rule of thumb for line length is 30 times the type size; in this case, that would be a 4.17-inch line. So, the line exceeds one suggested length by about 14%. Fourteen percent either is or is not a big deal, depending upon what you think of the result.

With a text as long as the Bible, however, something has to give. If we made the text area 75% of the page height and width, for example, I calculate the page count would be up to 2,250 pages. Since a compromise had to be made, I am glad that it was not to reduce the type size or the amount of spacing.

How does TBOTB stand up to the competition? Crossway's Single Column Legacy Bible is the same size, and its margins are more generous, resulting in a more attractive page. It uses smaller type to achieve that result, however, and it does have the traditional chapter and verse structure. NavPress's various editions of The Message also remove verse numbers from the text (but place them in the margins). In my opinion, The Message has a better-proportioned page than TBOTB, but, again, achieved through smaller type. There are even options for the NIV, with Zondervan offering Single Column Reference, Single Column, and Giant Print Compact Bibles. However, these do not share TBOTB's features. TBOTB's unique formatting makes it a credible choice, perhaps to have in addition to one of the others.

By way of full disclosure, my copy of TBOTB did not cost me anything. It was not a review copy, and Biblica did not solicit my opinion. I entered a contest on TBOTB's Facebook page and won a copy. Many thanks to Biblica for their addition to my ever-growing collection of Bibles.

Check out TBOTB at: