I’m an elder, but I was a deacon before that, and for quite a long time — although I really can’t remember when I became a deacon. It was that long ago.
I don’t disrespect deacons as such. I mean, I was a deacon for many years, and most of the deacons I know are very good men, doing very good work for Jesus.
But the system is broken. It’s never really worked that well.
The Church of Christ deacon tradition was invented when we had churches of 50 members, when nearly all members were married and nearly all married members had children (birth control came later, people married much younger). And the theology, such as it is, was largely invented in an effort to show ourselves saved and Baptists damned based on who had the “scriptural” pattern for church organization.
Trying to damn the Baptists is a truly bad approach to seeking a sound theology, and structures that worked in late 19th Century rural congregations of 50 often don’t work well at all in a congregation of 200 or 500 or 2,000 today.
During my many years as a deacon, I paid attention and I learned several key lessons –
* Deacons at large (without a specific ministry) should not exist. Why should someone be entitled to title — or even to oversee other people’s programs — just because he was active in ministry 20 years ago? In fact, if he cares so little for the local ministry that he’s been unengaged for 20 years, why on earth should he be given authority over those who care enough to actually volunteer?
* Why should anyone have say so over anyone else’s ministry — just because he wears a title? I mean, the elders are called by God himself to oversee the ministries of the church, and they should do that. But why does the deacon over the building get to weigh in on adult curriculum? If we were discussing an all-church issue, such as vision, it would be different, but it’s demoralizing to most people to have to submit every new idea to a group of men who are not involved in their ministry and often uninformed of how the ministry ought to run — some of whom are unwilling to volunteer anything other than an opinion.
* Where in the Bible does “deacons meetings with the elders” appear? If the elders were praying for the deacons and training the deacons, it might be a very good idea. But how did the deacons become a sounding board, as though they are representative of the entire church? If the elders want congregational input, why only ask for the input of married, fertile men? I mean, wouldn’t it work far better to have a more representative group?
* As the church grows, it becomes increasingly difficult to oversee the many ministries that are going on. Most of the ministries won’t be even nominally headed by a deacon, and hence much of what is going on will not be represented at the meetings. And coordinating calendars and budget requests will become increasingly challenging. In fact, events will be scheduled at a pace that made monthly meetings inadequate to keep things in sync.
It’s just terrible when a wedding shower is scheduled during the all-church picnic. But when communications are monthly, and erratic even then, those sorts of things will happen.
* In reality, as a church grows, it needs to become more staff-led, because the staff is there fulltime, every day. If the staff doesn’t work to keep everything on an even keel and coordinated, it’s just not going to happen.
* Moreover, as a church grows, equipping and training become more important, because the work requires a greater level of expertise – there are larger groups attempting more challenging things. Again, staff involvement is essential.
* And yet many staff members won’t meet the qualifications for deacon. We’ve had countless “elder-deacon” meetings where most of the good ideas came from a youth minister with no children — who could never have “made deacon” and yet who was the most gifted person in the room.
So what’s the solution? How do we go from a tradition that evolved as an argument against the Baptist pastor system, in small churches that had very little going on in the way of organized ministry? How do we fit a modern missional church into a 19th Century rural, 50-member church model? How do we honor the gifting of the Spirit so that we can be a Spirit-led congregation — within the traditional deacon system?
Well, we don’t. It just doesn’t fit. We should do something else.
But what about the political ramifications? How do we deal with young married men who expect to be honored as “deacons”?
Well, politics are a fact of life, but they never justify failing to achieve God’s mission. Nor should politics justify decisions that push us away from the image of Christ.
We should deal with young men hankering for a title by gently explaining that the only title that matters is “servant.” The Greek for servant is diakonos, and we should choose to use the translated term, not the transliterated term (“servant” rather than “deacon”).
Moreover, we’re going to call every single member to be a servant of Christ and of his body, the church.
(Luk 22:26-27 NASB) 26 “But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant.
27 “For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves.”
In short, no “deacons,” but lots of “servants.” Among those servants there will be plenty of ministry leaders.
The leaders will be chosen based on their giftedness. That is, we’ll let God choose who leads based on to whom he has given the gift of leadership. If that leader is female, single, or childless, so be it. We’re honoring God’s choice.
Oddly enough, we already do exactly this when it comes to ministers. We never complain that the youth minister is childless — even though “minister” is simply the Latin word for “servant” or, from the Greek, “deacon.” They are exact synonyms.
If we want to, we can entitle as “deacons” those who work in benevolence ministry. It’s scriptural. Of course, the Jerusalem church didn’t do that because the use of “deacon” to mean a minister over benevolence was evidently borrowed from Greek culture. It’s not required that we use the title, but obviously it’s permissible.
And if we redefine “deacon” to mean “a servant in the benevolence ministry” rather than “pre-elder” or “counselor to the elders” or “especially honored church member,” no one will complain when he leaves the benevolence ministry and so loses the title.
We’ll not be damned for failing to be scripturally organized, because we don’t have to be scripturally organized to be saved (faith in Jesus is enough) – and because there is simply no command that we must have deacons to be scripturally organized. That whole rubric was invented to win debates with Baptists, and it’s long past time to outgrow that approach to the Bible.
In short, our tradition is a mark, not of the one true church, but of immaturity. The desire for titles and the desire to feel saved because of our superior church organization do not do us proud. It’s time to put childish things behind us.
(1Co 13:11 NET) 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I became an adult, I set aside childish ways.
PS — After I’d written this series, Mike Cope brought to my attention Diakonia: Re-Interpreting the Ancient Sources, which has dramatically changed scholarship regarding the meaning of diakonos. Evidently, I’ve got to change some of my conclusions.
I’m pretty sure the result isn’t going to be that it’s wise to have deacons at large, boards of deacons who provide the elders with an exclusively married, male perspective, or deacons who head ministries they aren’t gifted to lead. I mean, I’ve seen all of those traditions in action, and no redefinition of diakonos is going to redeem them.
But I may have to eat crow on some of my other conclusions. I’m looking forward to it.