Deacons: Why I Disagree with the Traditional Views, Part 4 (Should We Have a Board of Deacons?)

Continuing to consider our traditional understanding of the role of deacons …

Tradition 6. The deacons should meet as a body.

Well, if the deacons as a group oversee a specific ministry of the church, as in Acts 6, of course they should meet as a body.

But if the deacons have involvement in several different ministries, no, there is no need for them to become a governing board. Again, we keep trying to convert “important” to “management,” whereas in scriptural thought, “important” is much more about service.

Diakonos, the Greek word translated “deacon,” means servant. It can refer to a waiter — someone who provides food to the guests at a banquet. It’s not naturally a referent to management, much less a governing board.

Besides, the elders are given oversight of the church. No man can serve two masters, and the church cannot have two supervisory bodies. Anyway, most churches have plenty of management and not enough servants, that is, not enough doers. Why take some of your best volunteers and force them to sit through monthly deacon meetings?

Worse yet, we typically require deacons to be male, married, and fertile — that is, to have children. And what does being male, married, and fertile have to do with overseeing a church ministry? Why ban the female, single, and childless from working with the elders and providing oversight?

Of course, these very questions raise the issue of why the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3 even exist or what they’re intended to do.

(1Ti 3:8-13 NASB) 8 Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain,  9 but holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.  10 These men must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach.

11 Women [or wives] must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things.

12 Deacons must be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households.  13 For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

If deacons are members who volunteer to cut the grass, open and close the building, or maintain the facilities, it hardly makes sense that they must be male, married, and fertile. For that matter, it’s hardly obvious why these men would need to be above reproach. After all, these are jobs that many churches contract out to non-members.

On the other hand, if these men are to handle the church’s benevolence funds and to work with widows, these qualifications would make better sense.

Of course it’s important that a deacon, working with widows, be faithful to his wife. Hence, we should prefer the translation “one-woman man” to “husband of one wife.” It’s more about whether he is faithful than whether he’s a polygamist. Besides, Paul is writing to a church in Ephesus, where polygamy would have been quite rare.

Compare —

(1Ti 5:9 NASB)  9 A widow is to be put on the list only if she is not less than sixty years old, having been the wife of one man

The Greek here is the same as in 1 Tim 3:12 — except the genders are reversed. It makes far more sense to translate “one-man woman” than “not polyandrous.” After all, while polygamy was unusual but not unheard of in First Century Ephesus, polyandry (multiple husbands) was unthinkable.

Just so, would Paul really command that a woman who’d been divorced or widowed and remarried could not be supported in her old age?

However, he’s plainly very concerned about sexual fidelity in this passage —

(1Ti 5:6 NASB)  6 But she who gives herself to wanton pleasure is dead even while she lives.

Hence, there should be no risk that their work among the widows will not lead to improper sexual behavior.

This brings us to “good managers of their children and their own households.” The principle of sound interpretation here, as everywhere, is that you look at the purpose of the rule. Why would Paul issue such an instruction?

Well, if a man has children and mismanages them, he might not be a good manager of people in general. If you can’t get your own children to follow your instructions, how could a man be expected to oversee a ministry serving perhaps hundreds of widows?

But it’s hardly the case that he must have children to demonstrate his management expertise in this context. After all, he might have a household filled with servants and others whom he manages quite well — and the ability to manage a staff of adults is surely more indicative of leadership ability within this context — serving widows — than the ability to manage a four-year old. And it’s entirely reasonable to take “good managers of their children” to refer to those deacons who have children in this passage.

Personally, though, I see this as different from the case of elders, where the requirement to have believing children is a much higher standard, is grammatically different, and can very well demonstrate a kind of wisdom and patience that elders need for their very different work. (I’m just saying the answer is much less clear to me.)

And so, the more closely we look at the qualifications, the more it seems important that deacons not be considered departmental managers or simply any fertile, married male with a task. Rather, the text makes the best sense when deacons are seen as handling the benevolence program and monies of the church, especially with regard to widows. In that case, the deacons should certainly demonstrate a high measure of integrity, of sexual propriety, and the ability to manage people well, not as their boss, but as someone tasked to serve them.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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8 Responses to Deacons: Why I Disagree with the Traditional Views, Part 4 (Should We Have a Board of Deacons?)

  1. Alan says:

    Suppose your elders want input on a regular basis on how things are going in the congregation. And suppose they have identified a list of men in the congregation who are known to be full of the spirit and wisdom, and who serve among the people in the congregation regularly. Is there any rational reason not to meet with them periodically to ask them for input? Or do your elders not need that sort of input?

    Sorry, I don’t see the problem with it.

    It seems to me that traditional churches of Christ are so afraid of deacons taking charge of the church that they neuter them from all spiritual responsibility. Pure folly IMO.

  2. Grizz says:

    How much of the tradition and controversy are caused by continuing to use a transliterated word as a title or office? And when we know there is a translation and we translate every other word, why are we still not translating this word in these passages? How would translating this word in these contexts change the way we read and understand these passages?

    Whence cometh this undue fidelity to out-dated translations which waxxeth older and older?

    Verily, it doth strain one’s understanding!


  3. mark says:

    I have concern over your supposition. You say consult a list of men who have the spirit and wisdom. I don’t know your age but realize that from a younger person’s perspective, this method leaves out a lot of people and discounts them and their observations. It leaves out men and women who might be on the front lines doing the real work. It leaves out many people who may see things differently.

    Those men who are consulted might be jockeying for an elder position and so they might not be the most forthcoming with information, even if they dont like how things are going becuase telling the elders there is a problem means that either the man can’t fix it or the elders have done a bad job. Neither of these will help one become an elder. The best idea would be to ask those directly on the front line doing the work and ask some of both genders, single and married, and some of various ages. Why should I have to go through someone who might not believe me or who might discount what i say because it is in his best interest to do so? Or discounts me for not being over 50? Also, certain people in churches still think everything is perfectly fine when it is far from it.

    While I am on the topic, has a church ever polled or talked with its members to get an honest opinion from different perspectives? It is often hard for one homogenous group of men to understand both genders, people of different ages, martial status, races, etc.

  4. One thing I appreciate about Jay’s post is his effort to get behind the “qualifications” to understand their meaning and purpose; the idea being to recognize what God is interested in accomplishing and to align ourselves with that purpose, rather than to merely follow the letter. Consider Paul’s encouragement to Timothy to drink wine for his stomach’s sake. Get behind Paul’s instruction and understand its purpose, or ignore the passage altogether, for following the letter is not only meaningless, but actually foolish.

    One troublesome thing to me continues to be this idea of a ruling church board– whoever it is comprised of. I simply do not find anyone in the NT acting this way, except in an ad hoc manner such as we find in Acts 15. Again, we are reverse-engineering the scripture, presuming the appropriateness of our own management system and working backward to connect it to the Bible. The idea that the role and instructions to elders we find in the NT are instructions to a collective body is not really present. Jesus gives the church shepherds, not a Sheep Management Board. We may have replaced the diocese with a local board of governance, but we kept the very structural function which we thought we were reforming. (Sort of Christian Bolsheviks, if you think about it much. Same throne room, just more chairs.) This is why we have elderships which have strayed so far from being individual shepherds and who no longer even insist that this be an expectation of our board members.

    If we think of the early church in the city as being composed of varied smaller groupings of believers, each with a man or men who have a shepherd relationship with particular individuals, then this picture of a standing governing board does not even appear. Interaction among elders is supportive, even corrective at times. Broad issues may require broader leadership cooperation on an ad hoc basis, such as the council of Acts 15 or the appointment of food service managers in Jerusalem. These do not appear in scripture as standing governmental committees who oversee church operations. That, dear friends, is our own invention.

    Jesus gives shepherds to sheep. And sheep do not follow boards, they follow shepherds.

  5. Alan says:

    Mark, the objections you raised have nothing to do with consulting with deacons. Leaving out and discounting input from other groups does not necessarily follow from that. Men “jockeying for an elder position” doesn’t follow either. Such men wouldn’t be among those full of the Spirit and wisdom, in my judgment.

    Those objections sound more like office politics than caring for the people of God. Something is fundamentally wrong with a church where those are legitimate concerns.

  6. Price says:

    I agree that we often get side tracked with what the purpose of leadership is in the church. Eph 4:12 states it concisely… for the a) equipping of the saints for the work of service and; b) to the building up of the body of Christ. Not that it is true by and large but it does seem that we all have had experiences with some Elders/Deacons (much like our politicians) who prefer that the body do as they say, not as they do. Leadership is best demonstrated by example.

    It does however make sense to me that organization is critical to performance. Running around like a chicken with your head cut off (sorry, my Arkansas roots betray me) leads to confusion and poor performance. Having someone leading up the group and providing central direction seems wise. But, as previously suggested, that could be any gifted person for that particular role, male or female or youth, depending on the matter at hand.

    Regarding deacons as “would be Elders.” Part of me struggles to understand what’s necessarily wrong with that concept. Being a leader is generally a matter experience and what better way to gain experience in leading a congregation than to be tutored or mentored toward that role? Paul spent so much time with Timothy that he considered him as a son. What kind of leader would ole frail skittish Timothy have been without Paul’s mentoring ? On the other hand, I don’t like the idea of “partial authority” as I don’t see that as wise and a particular source of envy, pride, and segregation of the sexes since most churches of Christ would shy away from a formal female Deacon…

    The observation that there is no formal authority given to Deacons in the structural makeup of the church is correct as is the fact that there was no prior instruction to have deacons at all…They just decided it needed to be done, appointed able persons and did it.. It was (can’t believe I’m saying this) expedient… The legalistic pendulum can swing both ways on this issue if we’re not careful.. IMHO.

  7. mark says:

    Your last sentence said it all. However, they are legitimate concerns in lots of congregations and especially among those with no seat at the table and no voice.

  8. Jay Guin says:

    Alan wrote,

    Suppose your elders want input on a regular basis on how things are going in the congregation. And suppose they have identified a list of men in the congregation who are known to be full of the spirit and wisdom, and who serve among the people in the congregation regularly. Is there any rational reason not to meet with them periodically to ask them for input?

    No, but is there a rational reason to meet with them exclusively? I mean, if the elders want a board of advisors, why exclude the single, the female, and the childless? Why insist on a purely married male perspective if your goal is to know what the church thinks? Most of the church will always be female, and today, 30% of all adults are single — and rising.

    [edited by Jay — got a little carried away]

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