Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Office of Deacon

Origin: The word deacon is a transliteration of the Greek word diakonos which means “servant, humble, even menial service.” There is no Jewish counterpart to deacons. Deacons find their origin in the early church in Acts 6:1-6 as individuals caring for the material needs and generally serving. In the environment of the first major church disagreement which broke along ethnic lines, the apostles selected servants who would take care of the daily distribution of food among widows. These Hellenistic Jews stepped in and brought peace and order out of a situation of dissension, hurt feelings, and frayed nerves in the early church. They were to assist those responsible for leadership and the ministry of the Word. At that time they were the apostles. Today those who lead and preach are called pastors or elders.

Responsibilities: It seems that deacons are called to give leadership to the church in a different way from pastor/elders. In the absence of any clearer indication in Scripture, the example of the first seven deacons and the fact that their name means servant point us to the idea that deacons serve the congregation by serving the pastors/elders, taking on responsibilities which otherwise would consume their time. While pastor/elders provide spiritual oversight to the congregation, deacons are flexible to do whatever pastors need to help the pastor perform his duties. Scripture seems to leave it flexible, to meet the needs of each church and its pastor. 

One of those duties in Acts 6 was to do whatever was to serve in the more equitable distribution of food so that the threat of dividing the church would be overcome. So deacons have a role in keeping unity in the body and keeping the church from division. This would involve both serving in any way to keep this from happening through handling murmuring and complaining but also to keep from promoting divisiveness themselves through their own actions and manner of speaking. While the elders handle the ministry of the word and overall leadership of the church, the deacons are called upon to deal with the material needs of the people, the care of the sick and poor, and the temporal affairs of the church.

Qualifications: The qualifications in Acts 6:1-6 for a man to be selected as a deacon was that he be “from among you” and “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom.” First Timothy 3:8-13 and Tutus 1:5-9 provide other qualifications portraying a dignified man with a good reputation. All three lists of requirements are based in exemplary personal character, including their marriage and family life. All three exclude drunkenness and greed. Titus and 1 Timothy are concerned that the person have sound doctrine. First Timothy 3 requires a degree of maturity “tested first” (1 Tim. 3:10). All three have the same marriage and family qualifications. They should have some management skills, but there is no gift of teaching or leadership required as is required to be an elder.
“Their wives” (1 Timothy 3:11): This is a requirement not found in the requirements for elders. What is this phrase doing in the midst of the descriptions of two offices of church leaders? Is this a third office, perhaps a deaconess? Context gives the clearest clue, and the word gune here must refer to deacon’s wives. There are churches that elect deacons and their wives as couples, recognizing that the wife must be also Scripturally qualified, because she cannot avoid being involved with his deacon ministry. One could argue that having a wife like the one in v. 11 is an additional qualification for a deacon.

Selection: The requirement that “they must first be tested” parallels the requirement for pastors not to be recent converts, but also indicates a congregational choice in the matter. Unfortunately the difficulty today is that there are so many unsaved or embarrassingly immature church members.  Acts 6 gives even clearer guidance that the congregation selected them and placed them before the elders.
Their number and tenure: There are no guidelines are found in Scripture, and most churches make major mistakes in this area in two ways. Their church constitutions or by-laws prescribe a certain number of deacons that the church must have. This becomes a real problem when the number of those qualified and willing to serve does not match that requirement. Often unqualified candidates are approved with disastrous results. When more are qualified and willing than prescribed in the by-laws, churches must vote to “choose 3 of these 6 to serve.” That results in more of a popularity contest than a church seeking God’s guidance. Let the church vote for all they feel are qualified and willing. Few churches will have an overabundance of qualified and willing servants, but having “too many” is better than discouraging or dishonoring with the risk of feelings being hurt. Far better to let the number of deacons be determined by the number the church can recognize as qualified and willing.
While nothing is found in Scripture about tenure, it is certainly not prohibited, and seems wise. The rationale would be for the good of the individual and need for a rest. Since a deacon should not carry authority beyond that of a servant, concentration of power should not be an issue, but unfortunately it is in many Baptist churches. 

James Madison Pendleton, the nineteenth century Kentucky pastor and Union University president, wrote the Baptist Church Manual which trained churches to operate on the model of the corporation. Deacons should function as a corporate board of directors with pastors the CEOs who worked at the pleasure of the board, and the congregation functioning as the corporate shareholders who have ultimate authority. 

With that book, Pendleton turned many Baptist churches for over a century away from the biblical servant role of deacons. The Manual elevated deacons' roles unScripturally to a ruling status and created an adversarial role between pastor/elder and deacons. Those who were called to serve the ministry (Acts 6) became the ultimate power in the church. Many a little Napoleon has since lorded over local churches and made life difficult for many a congregation and their pastor in some rural communities even up to today. As a result of this upside-down structure, many of these churches suffer from serial pastors, and the average length of a pastorate today is 20 months.