I remember receiving a call from a candidate for a ministerial position at my church. He asked why we didn’t have the deacons listed on our website. I asked why he cared. He explained that a church without deacons is not scripturally organized, and he could not work for such a church. I thanked him for his time and advised him that he need not bother to interview.
But we have deacons. We do. But anyone who would judge our soundness based on whether we advertise the presence of deacons on our internet site isn’t really what we’re looking for in ministerial leadership. I mean, what does posting your deacons’ names have to do with becoming disciples of Jesus? Or being formed into the image of the Messiah? Right denomination. Wrong faith.
Our salvation or soundness is not based on the titles we give our volunteers. It’s based on whom we follow. You see, our candidate thought deacons not only essential to our soundness but also thought that we should consider that so important that we would necessarily advertise our soundness by advertising our deacons. Isn’t that what a lost and hurting world is desperate for: a church with deacons?
So if we were to reject the “command, necessary inference, binding example” heremeneutic, what would we find that the Bible says about deacons? The short answer is: not much. Traditionally, the word diakonos is translated servant, and every Christian should be a servant. It tells us nothing of how a deacon differs from any other Christian.
Moreover, our hermeneutic has to take into account 1 Cor 12, Rom 12, Eph 4, and other passages teaching us that the Spirit gifts Christians to take on various roles within the church. Gifting by the Spirit is obviously authority to use that gift in service of the Kingdom of God. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that, in Acts 6:3, the selection process was based on who is filled with the Spirit — especially if their duties were to include teaching.
Further, any biblical hermeneutic has to reject the notion that our salvation depends on being “scripturally organized,” as the Bible says our salvation is a gift from God for those with faith in Jesus as Messiah.
Therefore, we need not follow a pattern in order to be saved. Rather, we let the passages in the Bible that speak to this question inform our decisions but they do so within the larger narratives of salvation by faith, formation of Christians into the image of Christ by the Spirit, the work of the Spirit in the church, and church leadership as a gift from God.
Thus, under Collins’ definition, deacons serve as assistants to the elders, and we have in Acts 6:1-6 an example of how the Seven assisted the apostles — but not a binding example. Any assistance would be consistent with the title, but serving as teachers would seem particularly appropriate because of how Collins translates Acts 6:1-6 and the presence of “teachers” as a title alongside “elders” in Eph 4:11.
As a matter of grammar, it seems that deacons are simply church members assigned to assist the elders in performing their duties — be that teaching, serving food, administering a baptism, or handling church funds. This fact certainly would permit us to call the church treasurer a “deacon,” so long as we don’t insist that a church must have an office called “deacon” so that its member may go to heaven. That is, the point of the office is to get the elders some help, not to follow a particular pattern of church organization.
The larger point is that we may appoint to a task within the church whomever God equips for that task, regardless of whether that person is male, married, and fertile.
The title creates serious problems in the modern church. Here’s why —
- The traditional interpretation of the 1 Tim 3 qualification is that a deacon must be male, married, and fertile, that is, having children. And yet many of our best leaders and volunteers are female, single, or childless. And so we appoint young married men with children to honor them with a title, while the female, single, and childless are overlooked — and their feelings are ignored.
- Worse yet, we put a married, fertile male over a program he’s not qualified for under the false assumption that deacons must be program heads or must hold whatever is the second-highest office in the church. As a result, we ignore the Spirit’s gifting of our members and handicap our ministry for the sake of tradition.
- Even worse yet, we turn the deacons into barriers between the elders and the real program heads and ministry staff — forcing communications to be via an uninvolved or ungifted deacon — all so our young men can wear a title.
- Some men feel that gaining the title is an important life accomplishment, something their parents can post about them on Facebook. This can lead to hurt feelings when someone doesn’t get the title. And yet few get their feeling hurt over not getting the job and its responsibilities. And that’s a very unhealthy thing.
- If a man works himself out of his job, traditionally he keeps the title. That is, many of our churches have deacons-at-large, deacons without a job assignment. Just a title and the right to go to deacons meetings and offer opinions on how those with an actual job are doing. Again, this is unhealthy in the extreme, but taking the title away is unthinkable in most churches. And so we have deacons who don’t “deak” or we appoint titled men to jobs they aren’t gifted to do so that we can justify letting them keep the title.
- We fight endlessly over whether a women may wear the title “deacon” while putting women in charge of providing meals to our widows — making us horrible hypocrites. We even allow women to teach widows. I mean, every church in the Churches of Christ gives work to women that a deacon does at some other church. We let women have the responsibility but refuse to give the title. And this is seriously offensive to women who run businesses but aren’t considered capable of overseeing the lawn-mowing ministry.
I’ve been to seminars on how to be an elder, and I’ve sat in large classrooms filled with elders from across the country. When asked what their most difficult problems were, one man said, “What to do with the deacons.” Hearty “amens” resounded across the room. It’s just not easy to fit our traditional views on deacons into a church with many programs and ministers. We need the men as volunteers and leaders. We don’t need to be passing out titles as rewards for marrying a wife and fathering children. We need to be able to put those gifted to a task in a position to do that task — even if that person isn’t married, fertile, or male. That is, we need to be able to honor the gifting of the Spirit within our church without fear of offending a tradition built on nothing but a desire win a debate against the Baptists.
In today’s church, we actually have minister-deacons, teacher-deacons, ministry leader-deacons, small group leader-deacons, lost sheep ministry-deacons, and all sorts of other deacons, whether or not wearing the title, and whether or not married, male, and fertile.
We’ve simply used other words that mean essentially the same thing. Any good eldership should assign members to teach, to lead ministries, to conduct the Lord’s Supper, and to otherwise carry out the work that Jesus has assigned to the local church. And if a volunteer carries with them any of the responsibility or authority of the elders, they may properly be called “deacons.”
And if that’s right, then the qualification list in 1 Tim 3 becomes problematic if we take the list as requiring a deacon to be male, married, and a father. If that’s so, we would be required to remove over half of the men and all women who serve the church and elders well in all sorts of responsible tasks.
A better reading
On the other hand, if we read the lists less strictly and more as examples of how a potential deacon would be shown to be “of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3), the problem goes away, and we aren’t required to put married men with children in positions that God has not equipped them to do. [And as I’ve said before, I’m not convinced that this logic applies with equal force regarding elders, for reasons discussed long ago.]
Better yet, we could drop the title altogether. We’ll still have people who are deacons — but they’ll be called teachers, ministers, small group leaders, and many other things. The work of the church could then be Spirit led rather than tradition bound. It would help. A lot.