One elder mentioned “Deacons!” — and the room resounded with amens. Nearly to a man, the elders struggled with what to do with the deacons. Really.
You see, the Church of Christ traditional perspective on deacons has these inherent difficulties:
- There’s no way to remove a deacon who is unmotivated or whose skills no longer fit his assignment. Take away his title, and while he might feel relieved, he’ll think that the church will assume he is guilty of some “mortal” sin, such as adultery. I mean, our tradition is that deacons are appointed for life — and so removal looks like punishment of some kind.
- Deacons often outlive their jobs. Most newly ordained deacons are given a job. But sometimes the ministry dies or is merged with another program or outgrows what a volunteer can do and is taken on by staff. The result is a deacon without a job — an “at large” deacon. What do you do with a guy who was made a deacon 30 years ago because he maintained the lawn and building, and now that the church has 800 members hires a professional lawn care and janitorial service? Do you de-deaconize him?
- As churches grow larger, the role of deacons changes. For a small church, a deacon might unlock and lock the building or handle the books. A large church may have a janitor to lock and unlock the building and an accounting firm to handle the books. Where does the old deacon go?
- While there is no scriptural warrant for the deacons to meet as a group, many churches have a long tradition of the elders meeting with the deacons. But the deacons are half at large with no job and no real awareness of what’s going on, and half have jobs and are busy doing them well, and don’t really need to give up two hours a month to affirm decisions the elders have already made.
- Worse yet, in such churches, the elders often use the deacons as a sounding board for major decisions, and yet the deacons can’t speak for the singles, the childless, the unmarried, the widows, the widowers, the college students, or the women. That is, they are not remotely representative of the congregation as a whole — and yet they are often treated as “speaking for the church” because some are younger than the elders.
- What do you do if a deacon turn out to be a lousy father? He was ordained because he managed his household well — but that was before his kids became teens. Now that his teenagaers are an embarrassment to the church, do you have the heart to compound his suffering by removing him as a deacon? And what if he’s in charge of vehicle maintenance and doing a great job that no one else could do nearly as well? Do we deny him the use of his gifts to serve God because he has a rebellious child?
- In today’s world, why give titles to men when there are women with no titles who do more for the church and who are more essential to the church’s health than any two of the deacons put together? But if you ordain a woman, you know you’re in for a fight from someone — and is it worth the fight?
- And what about the single and childless men who can’t be deaconized but who are invaluable servants of the church? Why give a title to men with spouses and children who do less? Why does someone have to be married and fertile (or willing and able to adopt) to qualify to turn off the lights after the congregation leaves the building?
- And why, oh, why do we feel compelled to issue titles as though mature Christians should be motivated by an ordination ceremony and title — when we expect women, singles, and the childless to do their work without any such pomp and ceremony?
- And doesn’t our tradition cut 90-degrees against the doctrine of gifts of the Spirit? How do we preach the Spirit’s gifts while only ordaining men with wives and children — when they are not the only gifted members and often not even the most gifted?
- Who decided that every program has to be headed by a deacon? That is plainly not in the Bible. Why do we do that?
- Who decreed that we must have deacons to be “scripturally organized” but don’t have to have an order of widows (1 Tim 5) or assign a committee of seven to oversee the distribution of food to widows (Acts 6)? Or have teachers and prophets (Acts 13:1)?
Our doctrine and practice regarding deacons is a mess. And our leaders have largely figured this out — and so our largest congregations don’t have deacons. Or they have deacons as well as “ministry leaders” — who do the work of deacons but are women or childless men gifted to serve in their areas. We rationalize.
But those churches that create deaconships find some deacons wondering and complaining because being a deacon is just a job — and they were really hoping to get to meet and make big decisions. When they called mom and told her they’d “made deacon,” they were thrilled not just at the honor but at the chance to vote on big church issues.
As a result, there is no easy path for an eldership regarding deacons. Appoint deacons and you’ve insulted the harder working, often more gifted women and single men — and created an expectation of meetings and the exercise of church-wide power — utterly without scriptural justification. Refuse to ordain deacons and you appear to leave the church not “scripturally organized” to many members. Try to explain to the members a more scriptural understanding, and for many, it’s a bridge too far. It’s contrary to our identity as a Church of Christ — and fearsome to risk God’s wrath for not being “scripturally organized.”
So you have my sympathy. It’s a lose-lose proposition.
What’s the solution? Well, here are the choices:
- Teach the church that the Bible doesn’t require the ordination of deacons to be scripturally organized. You are required to respect and honor the gifting by the Spirit (per 1 Cor 12, Rom 12, Eph 4, etc.), and so programs will be headed by the person gifted for that task — on the very sound assumption that God chose to whom to give the gift, and so God’s decisions re gifting are authority to use the gifts in God’s service.
- Of course, this requires a mature church that understands the Spirit.
- And this requires a church with a hermeneutic that isn’t based on command, example, and necessary inference. It must have a Spirit-ual mind rather than a legalistic mind.
- Get ready for the criticism from the traditionally minded members — realizing that they’re being true to their upbringing and trying to honor God. So put your teaching shoes on and be ready to explain your position over and over — and to have friends look at you like you’ve completely lost your mind.
- Appoint deacons but only to jobs they are qualified for, and appoint women and singles to jobs they are qualified for. Call them “deacons” and “ministry leaders” and act like this is traditional behavior. Probably no one notices.
- DON’T empower a board of deacons to meet and make big decisions.
- DON’T expect the deacons to meet monthly and vote on ministries they aren’t involved with. You see, the Ministries Team concept works because every ministry — every single one — sits at the table. But the deacons will represent less than half the ministries — and when they start telling the Ladies Bible Class how to do their ministry, well, it’s usurpation, rude, and foolish. No, they do not know how to run the nursery and have no business making decisions about childcare without inviting the woman who runs childcare to the meeting.
- We used to have deacons meetings. I was a deacon. It felt like a jail sentence. We were asked to meet monthly and vote on things the elders were concerned with — even things the elders had already decided. There were men there with no job, no involvement, and lots of opinions — and the more ignorant of an area they were, the stronger their opinions. It was a waste of everyone’s time. Eventually, the deacons begged the elders to end the meetings. (There are better ways for the elders to receive congregational input.)
- PS — You can’t have deacons meetings and have a Ministries Team or an administrative team. There can only be one chain of command in any organization or else you have chaos.
- Let women and single men be deacons. The overwhelming majority of Church of Christ editors and leaders have approved female deacons — but the churches are all terrified of doing so for fear of criticism from other congregations or even splitting their own church. Even if the female deacons only have authority over other women, giving a title to a woman is considered sinful by many because it’s assumed that being a deacon is to sit on a board that makes decisions for the entire church (junior elders) or is a management position that oversees a program.
A list of earlier articles on deacons will be found at this link.