There were four church leaders from the same town and they were all at a conference together. And it was a time of just having coffee and sharing some intimate things about the ministry. And they decided to talk about their own personal failures. And so one of the pastors got really honest and he said, "I'll tell you what my vice is: I hit the bottle from time to time. I know I shouldn't do it, I know my congregation would not approve, I preach against it but every now and then I can't help myself and I have a drink or two." Well, the second guy spoke up and he said, "Okay, it's my turn, I'll confess, I have a gambling problem. Whenever I leave town I lose a lot of money. It's something I know I shouldn't do and my congregation wouldn't approve of but I do it." The third guy said, "You know I've never had either of those problems but I've had a problem cheating on my income tax. Every year I get a little extra income on the side that I don't report and I need the money and I don't want to pay taxes on it. I do it regularly, I know I shouldn't do it but I cheat on my income tax every year." Well this fourth guy was just listening. And finally he spoke up and he said, "Well first of all I want to thank all three of you guys for being so honest. And I want to tell you I don't have a problem drinking. I don't have a problem gambling. And I don't have a problem cheating on my income tax. But I do have one serious vice: I love to gossip. And I can't wait til I leave here and tell someone else about you three guys." Uh-oh, so much for being honest.
There are no perfect leaders just as there are no perfect churches. And you've heard that old line, "If you ever find a perfect church, don't join it because you'll ruin it." There's no such thing. And I also know that people will leave churches for a number of reasons. Some of them are even for leadership abuse. But I also know that pastors leave churches because of problems that are in that church. I read that sixteen hundred ministers every month leave the ministry. That's enormous. For a number of reasons: personal failure, moral failure, or burnout, and a lot of reasons in between. In a poll taken of pastors, eighty-five percent said the greatest problem they said is they are sick and tired of dealing with problem people, disgruntled elders, deacons, worship leaders, board members, and assistant pastors. They were just being real honest. They said, "I'm done. I've had enough." In fact, one leader said, "The trouble with being a leader is you can't be sure whether people are following you or chasing you."
Well, the title of this is "The Deacon-Possessed Church." I've never given a message like this. I thought about it and it's a title I borrowed from a friend of mine. We were having a conversation years ago and he was talking about a fellowship that he had been involved in and leadership quarrels and leadership problems and we were discussing about demon possession in the New Testament. And he said, "Well I'll tell you about my church, it's a deacon-possessed church." So it's a play on words of a common New Testament problem and that is demon possession.
Now I'll explain deacon possession as we go through this but basically any person: pastor, elder, board member, volunteer, home leader, usher, can take the energy and focus off of what God wants and put it on himself or themselves and create dissension and division and it become very damaging. And history is littered with that kind of stuff. So how do we not do that? How do we form leadership that is both God-honoring and facilitates what God wants among his people? Well we just want to remind you that the church is the only organization that Jesus himself ever founded. Right? He said, "Upon this rock I will build my church." This is the only organization in the world Jesus said he would build himself. But as we discussed, the church is primarily and organism, it's a living organism. But as any organism grows it requires organization because an organism without organization is just a blob. And so that happens here in the book of Acts. The living organism begins to grow and needs follow that and so organization must be applied. But leaders must always remember to be servants. Because the kind of leader be it pastor, elder, deacon, whatever; that God really wants are servant leaders, because if those aren't present then people will actually be drawn away form church and drawn away from Christ. And perhaps one of the best examples of that is none other than Mark Twain who was raised with a godly mother and had even a believing wife. But he said that there were elders and deacons in his church that were hypocrites, they owned slaves, they abused slaves, they talked foul during the week, they were shady in their business. Pious on Sundays, shady the rest of th e week. And it so turned Mark Twain off that he became bitter to the things of God. And he himself asked this question: "Church: Who Needs It? I certainly don't," said Mark Twain.
So tonight what we're going to do is look at two passages of scripture, Acts 6 and Acts 20, we'll fast forward at the life of the early church. And we're going to look at three characteristics of these servants, these servant-leaders. And we're going to make some general statements about servant leadership. First of all, servants should be helpful. Number two, servants can be hurtful. And number three, servants must be humble.
Let's look at the first one, Acts chapter 6, let's just read through our verses together, verses 1 through 8, "Now in those days when the number of the disciples was multiplying (Notice that, the organism is growing) there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. Then the twelve summoned the multitude of ht e disciples and said, "it's not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom whom we appoint over this business. If we will give ourselves continually to prayer and the ministry of the word." And the saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, Phillip, Prochurus, Niconur, Timon, Harmonos, Nicolas a proselyte from Antioch; whom they set before the apostles. And when they had prayed they laid hands on them. Then the word of God spread and the number of disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem. And a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith. And Stephen full of faith and power did great wonders and signs among the people."
Okay, there's an internal conflict going on in the church. There's a spiritual problem that is met by spiritual people who keep spiritual priorities. That's this section in a nutshell. One of the tasks of leadership is the ability to identify a problem before it becomes a catastrophic emergency. And the apostles here were able to do that. Now I believe one of the reasons Luke wrote this and why the Holy Spirit preserved this is to show us why a change in leadership was necessary in the early church as it began to grow. And we're just going to touch lightly on the problem. The problem started in the women's ministry there in Acts. It's just a matter of history. It started with two groups that were pitted one against the other. And I think you already know that one of the devil's most favorite and most predictable ways of attacking the church is through dissension. Dissension and that causes division. Somebody once said, "There's four main bones in every organization. Four main bones. Wishbones, jawbones, knuckle bones and backbones. Wishbones are the people that wish everybody else or somebody would fix this problem. Jawbones are people that talk about the problem but never doing anything about it. Knucklebones are those who knock everything around them. Backbones are people who carry the load and do the work. I think we see that here. The problem is that the Greek-speaking women feel neglected and feel that the Hebrew-speaking women are bing pandered to. Okay, a little historical background. The Hebrews here refer to those born in Israel, they spoke Aramaic, they spoke Hebrew and their Bible was The Bible, the Hebrew Bible. It would be tantamount to the group who says, "The King James only Bible." Whereas the Hellenists were the Greek-speakers, the read the Septuagint version, a little more modern translation. They spoke Greek and their culture was Greek and there was an ongoing struggle and animosity between these groups, even before there was a church. But in Judaism, they would meet in separate synagogues in Jerusalem. In the church, they would meet together. And now there's that rub and that longstanding animosity needs to be dealt with. You know what It's sort of like? I remember years ago a fellow in this church was a Viet Nam vet. And we had some Vietnamese believers in the church. And he had a hard time with them. And they had a hard time with him. Or if you went back years, during World War II when you'd have believers in the church who fought in World War II and there were German Christians in that church. There would be this animosity that had to be dealt with. And so, the Wishbones wished that the apostles would fix the problem and the Jawbones were talking about it all day long. And now they move in to fix the problem. A couple of things to notice for our purpose tonight: the word disciple appears in this chapter for the very first time in the book of Acts. It's mentioned twenty-eight times in the book of Acts but here it's mentioned for the first time. Also, the term apostle shows up. And here's what I want to show you. At it's very early nascient state, the church was comprised of disciples and apostles, followers and leaders. And leaders were the ones who were with Jesus, those were the apostles, they walked with him, they were with him for three and a half years. But now there needs to be a change. To the twelve apostles, seven more helpers are added. Seven helpers. And so they're going to, they're going to work in the Food Bank, here called the daily distribution. Why is this important? Because now the church can passionately preach the word but also compassionately care for people. There's a couple lessons so far that we learn. Lesson number one, everybody can't do everything. But everybody can do something. Everybody can't do everything but everybody can do something. And lesson number two, God calls and equips people to different tasks and He uses the leaders to facilitate that. We see that here.
Okay, I had you turn to chapter 6 for this reasons. This is where the concept deacon first started. It first begins here. Notice in chapter 2 the term serve tables. See the word serve? It's the word where we get the term deacon from, deakonin, serve. But these are not deacons in the formal sense. In fact the term deacon as we know it never appears in the book of Acts, not even once. It will later on especially in the pastoral epistles when it becomes an actual office in the church. But it is not right now. It is simply a general term for serving people. A general term. In fact, if you look at verse 4, apostles, their service is also called deaconing because it says in verse 4, "The ministry of the word, deakonia tu logu, it is the deaconing of the word, service of the word, ministry of the word, take the general word for service. You got that?
And here's another example: Romans chapter 13, how many of you know what that's about? Okay, one of you know what that's about. It's about how Christians deal with the government, government officials, tax collectors, police officers are called in Romans 13 ministers of God. Same term, deacons, same term. It's the same word applied to pastors, elders and any servant in the church is also applied to government officials. So iti s simply a general term for servant. At the very beginning of the church, it was simply apostles and disciples. And now a group of helpers or assistants who would help in the daily distributions of food. It's very very simple. And you have word servants and you have table servants. That brings up a question, only touch on it for lack of time: What is the right proper form of church government? What is the New Testament form of church government? How should a church be organized? Well that's interesting because Jesus though he said he would build his church, he never said exactly how he would do that. In fact he never really talks about structure at all. But he does something infinitely more important: Attitude. Attitude. He says for example in Matthew 20, "The rulers of the Gentiles lorded over them and those who are great exercise authority over them but it shall not be so among you. For whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave." Now church structure, church government is a big nebulus. So much so that there are today three, could even expound that to fie or six different forms of church government. The most popular ones, I'll give you three, is congregational church government, that's where everybody in the church congregation votes on everything. There's Presbyterian church government, that's where you have a group of elders, presbytery, they make the decisions. Then you have Episcopal form, that's the third form, that's where a bishop or a group of bishops over an area or areas preside and they make the decisions. Now every one of those groups will find scriptural support for their form of church government. So I'm going to appeal to Nelson's Bible Dictionary that says this, one sentence, "No single pattern of government in the early church can be discovered by reading the New Testament." Jesus left no rules. He didn't say, "Here's the policy manual. Here's my new book How to Start a New Church the Jesus Way, he didn't have any of that. Phillip Shaff who is like the expert in church history, eight volumes of church history, this is my set, Volume 1, says, "Christ laid down no minute arrangements but only the simple and necessary element of an organization, wisely leaving the details to be shaped by the growing and changing wants of the church in different ages and in different countries." Now listen, if the focus in any church is the same focus, the heart of the servant, it doesn't matter what structure you use. You can have carnal bishops, you have carnal elders, and you can have carnal congregations. All of them can be good. All of them can be bad. All of them have flaws, every single one of them. As C. S. Lewis said, "No clever arrangement of bad eggs can ever make a good omelet." So all of them can be legitimate, all of them have a scriptural base and they seem to change over time depending on the needs. That's what I want you to see. In it's first earliest stages it was disciples and apostles and now a group of helpers, the seven, which will eventually become, later on in the New Testament elders and deacons to assist the elders.
What's most important about Acts chapter 6, it's Spirit led. It's Spirit led, it's not fleshly driven, it's Spirit led. Servants should be helpers. And they were, they were very very helpful. The second point I want to make, in looking at Acts chapter 20 now is that servants can be hurtful. They should be helpful but servants can be hurtful and when they're hurtful they're no longer serving.
I take you to Acts chapter 20, let me just give you the background quickly on that, Paul convenes a meeting, a leadership summit, of the elders from the church of Ephesus on the beach at Miletus. Look at verse 17, "From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders." See the word elders? Guess what the Greek word is? Presbyteros, the presbytery, the elders. Now follow that. They get together, Paul talks to them. Look at verse 18, "Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock among which the Holy Spirit made you overseers (Episcopos, or bishops. He calls the elders bishops.) To (notice the next word) to shepherd (poimonos, shepherd or pastor) the church of God which he purchased with his own blood." This is what I want you to see: Paul is addressing them and he speaks of elder, bishop, and pastor all as exactly as the same person, no distinction. At this point, they're all the same and he addresses these leaders all with these same names. So an elder is an overseer is a pastor.
Okay, now here's Paul meeting with these guys but Paul can foresee problems. He can foresee a time when the church will be attacked from the outside and the inside, in effect a deacon-possessed church. Look at verse 29, "For I know this that after my departure, savage wolves will come in among you not sparing the flock." These are false prophets from the outside. That's the first problem, "I know that when I leave false prophets from the outside," and here he calls them savage wolves, "will come in among you." And they did, they came in preaching a different gospel. The came in with a whole new set of doctrines. And that is always the case, whenever truth is proclaimed Satan will always counter the truth with lies. Always. Always. It's like when you turn on your front light on your porch, the bugs come and try to get in the house. Lights go on, the bugs will come. And indeed they did.
Now this is the church at Ephesus. Who else wrote a little letter to the church of Ephesus in Revelation 2? Jesus Christ wrote, it was Jesus writing to the leadership at Ephesus. And Jesus says to them, You cannot bear those who are evil, you have tested those who say that they are apostles and are not and you have found them liars." So even what Paul saw coming, Jesus said came and the church was able to resist it. That's the first problem group.
But there's something far worse. Not just false prophets from the outside, the second more devious group are faithless teachers from the inside. Look at verse 30 and notice the wording, "Also from among yourselves, men will rise speaking perverse things to draw away the disciples after themselves. These are leaders gone bad. These are leaders with their own agenda. These are ambitious leaders. And I agree with one commentary that I read this week who said, "Ambition is the mother of all heresies." Because an ambitious leader in any group that rises up makes it about themselves, it's all about themselves. Notice what it says, "To draw away the disciples after themselves." The word draw away means to drag away or to tear away. It might show up in somebody like, "Well I know what the church has taught you but I'm starting this Bible study to give you the whole truth." It's that kind of stuff. "Rising up from among you to draw away disciples after themselves." Now something you may have noticed, I hope you did, notice that the false prophets and the faithless leaders waited for Paul to leave. Notice that. Paul says, "After I leave this is going to happen." You know why? When Paul left, would you agree, there was a leadership vacuum in Ephesus. Paul was a strong enough leader to keep this stuff at bay and in check. As soon as he left, opportunists saw, "This is my chance," and they came. Now Paul leaves, goes to Jerusalem. Guess who he places as the pastor of Ephesus, this group? Timothy. Well Paul writes two letters to Timothy and basically says, "What I said would happen has happened and leaders from among you have come in to draw away disciples after themselves." The interesting thing is that Paul names them. I'll give you a sampling. I Timothy chapter 1, verse 20, he says, "Of who are Hymaneas and Alexander whom I delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme." II Timothy 1 verse 15, "As you know all the Christians who came here from the province of Asia have deserted me, even Phigelus and Hermogenes are gone." When I read this stuff you know what I think? Don't cross Paul. Because you'll be in the Bible if you do forever as the guy who crossed Paul. He named them in the Bible, so everybody for every generation in every language into which this is translated would read of these guys. Uh-oh. II Timothy 2:17, "Their message will spread like cancer, Hymaneaus and Philetus are of this sort." Okay, compare Acts 20 with Acts 6. Acts 6, Spirit led leadership. Acts, 20, fleshly drive leadership, deacon-possessed leadership. Deacon-possessed leadership. Now this type of person is to the body of Christ what cancer is to a human body. Cells proliferate, take all of the energy, all of the focus off t he energy and health of the body and place it on themselves. They're not serving any longer, they're not helpful any longer, now they're hurtful. It's all about themselves.
I think perhaps the best example of this, the best example I can think of is in the book of III John, I'm going to read it to you. There was a guy in the church that John started named Diotrophes. And John writes this, III John verses 9 and 10, "I wrote to the church but Diotrophes who loves to have the pre-eminence among them does not receive us." Let me tell you what he's talking about. John says, "I sent a letter to you, to this church, but Diotrophes rejected my letter because Diotrophes rejected my leadership." Can you imagine? This is a church that John founded but Diotrophes doesn't want anybody to love Paul or responds to Paul any more than they would to Diotrophes. He wants to have the pre-eminence, he wants to be number one, he wants to respected more than John. And so he developed a hatred for John himself.
Somebody once said, "A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small package." Diotrophes was a very small package. It's all about Diotrophes. And for John, it was all about God's glory and the church and the people of God. Now that can happen with anybody. That can happen with a pastor. It can happen when a pastor tries to be so authoritative and not delegate and not let anybody else share any of the gifts or any of the leadership. It can happen with a board member, it can happen with a home leader, it can happen with a School of Ministry student. It can happen with any person in any church.
So, servants should be helpful, Acts 6. Servants can be hurtful, Acts 20. And I want to end with this, I think it's appropriate. This is sort of the antidote to fix it all, servants must be humble. What will save churches from becoming deacon-possessed churches, where it's all about the servant, all about the deacon, all about the pastor, all about the elder; is a humility. And I draw you to Acts 20, look at verse 28, I think here are the keys to humility. Therefore, take heed to yourselves and to all the flock among whom which the Holy Spirit made you overseers to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with his own blood." The first key to humility: realize whose church it is. Whose church is it? It's the church of God. He bought it, right? He purchased it with his own blood. I didn't die for any church. No leader, no pastor died for any church. Paul didn't get crucified, that's what he says in I Corinthians when some were saying, "Well I'm of Paul, I'm of Apollos, I'm of Cephas." Paul said, "Don't look at me that way." So it's not my church, it's not your church, it's His church. And the first step to humility is to realize it's not ours, it's his.
Second step, realize who made you a leader. Who made you a leader? It says, "The Holy Spirit made you overseers." So if he gave you the gift of administration, the gift of government, the gift of teaching, whatever gift you have that allows you to become a leader of any sort in the church, you can't take credit for it. "Well I'm such a marvelous person, and I'm so gifted." Y ou can't take credit for being gifted, God gave you the gift. God gave you the gift. Realize whose church it is and realize who made you the leader.
Number three, realize what the calling is. What is the calling? Well here for these elders, these pastors, these shepherds, is twofold. Pastor the sheep and protect the sheep. Pastor them, feed them, this shepherd the church of God, the idea of feeding them the word of God. So there's no excuse for lazy pastors who won't study and won't prepare a meal for God's people.
And number two, to protect the sheep. It's not enough to just lead them, it's not enough to just feed them. They must also protect the flock from predators. I remember when I first read Psalm 23, don't you love Psalm 23, the shepherd's Psalm? But there's a little section in it that sort of I wondered about. And when I studied it I started really liking it. David said, "Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me." Now I in studying discovered that a staff was used by a shepherd to lead the sheep, to lead them, to get them on the right path. But a rod is used to beat up wolves. It was a little club that hung from the belt of the shepherd, had nails in it. And so he could gently lead the sheep, he could also take that club out, see a wolf coming, not negotiate with the wolf, not have a dialog with the wolf, not make it a wolf-friendly environment. But to beat the snot out of wolves that would destroy the sheep. Do you remember when the disciples were with Jesus one day, the Bible says the Pharisees and the disciples were speaking to one another. And what arrests my attention is Jesus walks up to that gathering and Jesus said to the Pharisees, "What are you talking to them about?" He as the Shepherd demanded an accounting from these religious leaders the Pharisees, "You're telling my disciples something, I want to hear what it is. What are you telling them?"
Martin Luther wrote this, "Even if I preach correctly and I shepherd the flock with sound doctrine, I neglect my duty if I do not warn the sheep against the wolves. For what kind of builder would I be if I were to pile up masonry and then stand by while another tears it down? A preacher must be both a soldier and a shepherd. He must nourish and teach but he must have teeth in his mouth and be able to bite and fight. Paul was a good shepherd. May I suggest this is humility, when you feed sheep and protect them from wolves. It's humility because you're putting yourself on the line, you're going to say and do things that are going to create all sorts of question marks, "Why is he mentioning those people or that group?" And that could be divisive. No, it's all to protect sheep. And that is humility.
Here's the fourth step to humility: Rally others around you to help. Leadership must never be done alone. Rally others to help you. Notice what it says in verse 28, notice the plural, "Therefore take heed to yourselves (more than one) and to all the flock among us, the Holy Spirit made you overseers (there it is again, plural, it's all going off verse 17, "From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and also the elders (that's plural) of the church." That's a biblical principle. Solomon said in Proverbs that in the multitude of counselors there is safety. There is, one person cannot, I underscore this, one person cannot discern all of the will of God for all the people in a church. It takes a plurality of leadership. And I think that is so underscored in the New Testament. It's not a one-man band. Ever seen a one-man band? Ever seen the little get-up, he has the drum and he does something with his feet and he blows the harmonica, it's kind of being held up. And he strums something, and it's very novel but it's goofy. It's like so not cool. It might work in a subway, maybe, like after 3 in the morning. But church leadership is more like an orchestra with several instruments and they all blend and they sing and they play in harmony together. And there might be an orchestra director, all of the instruments are engaged in beautiful harmonious sound is the result. That's New Testament.
I was reading also this week about geese flying in formation. And I read a few things, now it's just sort of interesting, down by my house I'll see them different times of the year flying in that V formation. But there was a couple of engineers who decided to find out why they flew in formation. So they calibrated geese formation flying in a wind tunnel, there was a whole experiment in paper. And they said, "Each goose flapping its wings creates an uplift to the goose that follows it. The whole flock flying together gains 71% greater flying range than if he journeyed alone. The leader will periodically fall back to let another leader take it and then they'll switch off. So even geese realize that there should be a shared responsibility.
Now, I love this flock and I love pasturing this flock. But I love help. And we have help on a variety of levels, even a hundred new home fellowship possibilities after a couple weeks of training. But, if you're going to help, you better love this flock too. If you're going to help in this flock, you better realize it's not your flock, it's not my flock. God owns this flock and Jesus purchased it with his own blood. (applause)
Make sure that is what motivates you to serve in whatever capacity, not fulfilling some need that you have to serve, "I have to fulfill a need, I have to do this. Skip, I just have to do it." Well it better be a better motivation than that. Because you want to be obedient and you love to build up the flock. Because we ant it to be a deity-obsessed church, obsessed with God. Not a deacon-possessed church.
Let's pray. Heavenly Father, this group of people has been purchased by the precious blood of Jesus Christ, the Lamb without spot or blemish. Because of that great sacrifice, we have the distinct privilege of being owned by God and being called the church of God, purchased by the blood of Jesus Christ and the cross of Calvary, by now the redeemed resurrected Savior who redeemed us and Jesus is the head of this church and all of us pastors, assistant pastors, those who serve in various capacities of help who would be called deacons, Lord all of us are, as Jesus said, "Slaves. Servants of God and servants to one another." Lord, I pray for this flock, I pray for the struggles they're facing this week. I pray Lord that those burdens are rolled over onto you, that you would lift them up and encourage them. And they would sense just like the geese get 71% get more efficiency that there would be an efficiency we would experience tonight as we bring our burdens before you corporately. In Jesus' name. Amen.