This will be a short series of posts on deacons. Most Churches of Christ appoint men to two offices: elders and deacons. In fact, it’s often been stated that a church is not “scripturally organized” if it doesn’t have both elders and deacons.
Five stories will help demonstrate the challenges we face regarding the appointment of deacons.
First story. I attended an ElderLink conference in Atlanta some years ago. In a classroom packed with 40 or so elders, the speaker addressed the selection of deacons. When it came time for questions, one elder asked, “I just want to know how to get the deacons to do their jobs!” Loud “amens” resounded throughout the room. The speaker allowed that he had no idea how to solve this problem.
Second story. Just a few years ago, my church was interviewing for a children’s minister. A candidate called me one morning, deeply concerned. He’d checked our website and couldn’t find any deacons mentioned. For church our size, he thought this was a serious omission. I had to assure him at length that we indeed have deacons. But he just couldn’t get over the fact that we didn’t list the deacons on our website.
Third story. I was attending a meeting of elders and deacons where the question of the relocation of the nursery came up. The women who ran the nursery had moved it from its former location to a larger space, taking up a classroom. No one knew why the women had made the move, and so the deacons voted to move the nursery back. No one bothered to call the women to ask why they had done this.
Fourth story. We were in the process of studying our ministry structure and wanted to eliminate “at large” deacons, that is, deacons with no work assignment. We met with a deacon who had no job, and he said, “I can’t tell you how glad I am that you are re-organizing the deacons this way. I’ve been needing to resign for years, but I couldn’t. You know, if I’d resigned, people would think I’d committed adultery!”
Fifth story. This one from the comments.
You want an example of immature adults? How about a leadership putting a deacon “over” a trained ym and having the ym answer to him. The deacon has had NO ym training or experience and had very young children, and was barely 6 yrs older than the ym. Talk about putting a brother through the fire. An interesting experience it was though…I left very soon afterwards.
And so, here are some the problems the deacon system — as the Churches do it today — creates:
* Deacons are generally appointed for life. But their job may not last very long. It may have been turned over to a minister or another deacon. It may no longer be needed. The deacon may have other commitments that keep him from being active volunteer.
* Whether a church is “scripturally organized” is defined by having deacons. However, there is no theology for what these deacons are to do? We have qualifications for deacons, but no job description.
* Deacons in the Churches of Christ are almost always men. And yet half or more of the ministries in any church are run by women. And deacons sometimes meet and vote as a body, considering matters that they do not understand because no women are present.
* Because appointments are for life or until removed for no longer being “scripturally qualified” — divorce, adultery, that sort of thing — deacons aren’t willing to resign when they can no longer fulfill their roles.
* For some reason, we often require that all programs be headed by a deacon, and that a deacon be male, married, and the father of children. And yet many of our most gifted leaders don’t meet these requirements. How do we reconcile the Bible’s plain teachings on gifts and talents with our practice? And why put a man with little or no talent for a particular work “over” the work, when the person answering to him knows very well how to do his job?
To understand the problem, let’s take a step back and see what the scriptures actually say on the subject. And we are immediately faced with a problem. You see, “deacon” translates the Greek diakonos, which means “servant.” In fact, diakonos is applied to Jesus, Christians in general, household servants — anyone that we might call a servant in English. But it does seem to be used as a title in just a few passages.
(Phil 1:1) Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons:
(1 Tim 3:8-13) Deacons, likewise, are to be men worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. 9 They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons. 11 In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything. 12 A deacon must be the husband of but one wife and must manage his children and his household well. 13 Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus.
One other passage is sometimes translated “deacon,” although not in the NIV.
(Rom 16:1) I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant [diakonos] of the church in Cenchrea.
I’ve covered the question of whether a woman can be a deacon (the Greek word for “deaconess” wasn’t coined until centuries after Christ) in these earlier posts —
What do deacons do?
Now, that’s not much to go on, is it? I mean, we have a list of who is qualified for the task, but not a word regarding what the task is! So far as our traditional teaching is concerned, we are “scripturally organized” if we pass out the title to a handful of men, but we can have the men do anything at all — or nothing.
Rather than admit that we have no doctrine for what a deacon is to do (we don’t), we’ve filled in the blanks with tradition. And our tradition runs like this —
* In a small church, deacons do whatever work men do other than teach or preach. Deacons open and close the building, maintain the yard, keep the books — whatever needs to be done. However, you don’t have to be a deacon to do these jobs, but since we gave some guys the title, we figure they’re the ones we ought to call on to do whatever needs to be done.
* In a larger church, the deacons are middle management. Each program must be headed by a deacon, and the deacons answer directly to the elders. Thus, the woman with 30 years of childcare experience and a masters in early childhood education who runs the nursery answers to a 67-year old man who hasn’t kept the nursery in his life and is 50 years behind on how to care for small children in church. When she wants to insist on modern approaches to sanitation and child safety, he refuses to be persuaded because that’s not how they did when his kids were small. And she can’t go around him to the elders.
Of course, this man was originally ordained a deacon because he faithfully cut the grass, which he was quite capable of and willing to do. When the church moved to a bigger location, they hired a lawn service and put the grass cutting deacon over the nursery.
This is (what’s the word?) nuts! I mean, if God had told us to do such a silly thing, well, we’d do it. But we made this up out of the clear blue sky, and it makes no sense at all.
Oh, while I’m on the subject, we have two other traditions.
* Because we only ordain men as deacons, we overlook and ignore programs headed by a woman. In many churches, the baptismal garments are washed and pressed, communion is prepared, the covered dish dinners are organized, and many other essential programs are overseen and run entirely by the women — with no help from a deacon, thank you very much.
But because we think all “programs” have to be headed by a deacon (who knows why), these ministries don’t make it onto the organizational chart. They often operate with no or very little budget. They just run because the women make sure they run. And, by and large, the women are smart enough to stay under the radar, so no one sticks a deacon over them to get in the way.
* And utterly without scriptural precedent, we have deacons meetings, often with the elders, at which things are voted on. Maybe they vote on the budget, or whether to repave the parking lot, or which courses to study in the Bible classes. It’s just whatever comes up, you know.
Now, the problem with deacons meetings is not the lack of authority. I really don’t care (but most of the churches that have these meetings say they do). Rather, the problem is that you have the wrong people present and the wrong people voting.
When a decision needs to be made whether to pave the parking lot, you may have guys voting who have no current ministry, no financial skills, no knowledge of the budget, and no knowledge of how to bid out paving work.
Worse yet, you likely don’t have the youth minister present, and this decision will affect his budget. And you don’t have the women who plan covered dish dinners, and so no one notices that the parking lot will be covered with hot asphalt the day of the next dinner — and no one thinks to tell her. And you don’t have the church secretary who’s rented classrooms for an Eagle Scout ceremony on the day the parking lot will closed to be prepped for paving.
No rational organization would leave so many key players out of the decision making — and subject the church to embarassment — but we do this routinely. Why? Because (1) the deacons are supposed to meet and vote on stuff (why?), (2) women can’t be deacons (so they can unlock the building and cut the grass. Why?), and (3) programs that are supposed to be headed by a deacon (why?), and so programs that aren’t headed by a deacon don’t exist.
It’s all total craziness, but such is the power of tradition.
Here’s what happens if you don’t comply with the traditional way of doing things —
* Young married men with children wonder what they did wrong.
* Some men who’d be motivated by a title, don’t get a title.
* Don’t elders have to be deacons first? (Many years ago in my church, a man obviously gifted by God to be an elder had never been a deacon. The elders wouldn’t ordain him as elder until he served one week as a deacon!)
* Many consider the church not “scripturally organized” — meaning its members go straight to hell when they die.
* We don’t know how else to organize the church. If not deacons, then what?
I’m going to get to “then what” in the next post — but I have to explain a few things first.
Have you read 1 Timothy 5:9-10 lately? No? It’s important for this discussion, but no one else ever brings it up.
(1 Tim 5:9-10) No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, 10 and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the saints, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds.
Notice that “faithful to her husband” translates “the wife of one husband,” in exact parallel to the 1 Tim 3:12 “husband of one wife.” Both chapters have a list of qualifications phrased very similarly, but we treat 1 Tim 3’s qualification list for deacons as essential to being scripturally organized (although we have no idea what job there is that one must be a deacon to do it), and we completely ignore the 1 Tim 5 list, largely because we aren’t sure what “the list of widows” is.
Why is one a “mark of the church” and the other entirely irrelevant to modern church life? Strange that our reading should be so oddly selective, isn’t it?
Now, we’ll get to what the Bible really says, but for now, I think I’ve shown that the way we normally do things is (1) not required by scripture and (2) not the best way to run a church and (3) totally nuts. The only justification for continuing this strange behavior is to protect our reputation among our sister congregations that will damn us for not complying with their unscriptural traditions — which is not much of a reason, in my book.