To my amazement, this year nobody in our church felt free to accept nomination as a deacon. As a result, there will be no deacons’ election, and instead of having twelve deacons, we are now down to seven. It was in that context that, in the course of following the daily lectionary, I read Acts 13.1-3 – the passage where Luke describes the setting apart of Paul and Barnabas for missionary service. It is a passage that I had read many times before, but as is so often the case, in a new setting Luke’s account took on fresh meaning.
Luke writes: “In the church at Antioch there were some prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon (called the Black), Lucius (from Cyrene), Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the governor and Saul. While they were serving [NRSV: worshipping] the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said to them, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul, to do the work to which I have called them’. “They fasted and prayed, placed their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13.1-3).
I was struck by three things. First of all, in a busy, thriving and expanding church, the leadership team at Antioch was made up of just five men. Traditionally in English Baptist churches leadership teams are considerably larger. In some churches the leadership team is made up of the minister and seven deacons – presumably following the pattern of the church in Jerusalem, where seven ‘deacons’ worked alongside the apostles and elders (Acts 6.1-6; 15.2). In other churches the leadership team is made up of the minister and twelve deacons – presumably following the pattern of Jesus and his twelve disciples. The fact is that the Scriptures do not prescribe how big a leadership team should be. But one thing for sure: at Antioch the church felt that five leaders were quite sufficient. I have discovered that what was true of Antioch is true of many large growing Baptist churches elsewhere. Leadership teams do not have to be large. Indeed, I have come to think that a leadership team made up of seven people is probably an ideal size – the larger the number of deacons, the more likely the ‘team’ becomes a ‘meeting’.
Secondly, the leadership team at Antioch was composed by people of very diverse backgrounds.
It was, for instance, truly multi-ethnic.
Barnabas was a Levite born in Cyprus (4.36) and clearly a man with some wealth, because he was able to sell a field and donate the proceeds to church funds
Simeon was ‘black’ & almost certainly from North Africa
Lucius was also from North Africa. He came from the port-town of Cyrene, which is found today in present Libya. In the ancient world it was famed for its medical school. As a result some think that this is a reference to Luke (I personally think this is unlikely).
Manaen had ‘been brought up with’ Herod. The underlying the Greek word (suntropos) literally means one who had the same wet nurse, and then came to have the meaning of being a close friend. I.e. one of the church leaders had real social standing
Paul, of course, was a Jew from Tarsus (a port in present-day Turkey) – and a Roman citizen.
The one draw back of the team was that it was all male!
Thirdly, the leadership team at Antioch was prepared to take the initiative when it came to making new appointments. Luke tells us that Paul and Barnabas were appointed to the new post of church ‘missionaries’ as a result of the Holy Spirit speaking – presumably through one of the ‘prophets’. Paul and Barnabas did not volunteer for missionary service: rather it was the church which called them to serve God. Yes, at the time of his conversion the Lord had told Paul that he would take the Gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 9.15), but this sense of inward call did not cause Paul to put himself forward. Paul would never have become the great missionary apostle he became without one of the church leaders saying, ‘I believe that you & Barnabas are God’s men for a new missionary initiative’; a call which was then confirmed by the church as a whole. I wonder what this has to say about the way in which we approach asking people to stand for nomination as deacon?. Is there a place for saying: ‘We believe that God is calling you to serve’? That would certainly add new strength to the nomination process!