Continuing to consider our traditions with regard to deacons —
7. “Deacon” is an honorific title.
By “honorific,” I mean a title that causes one to write home to mom.
Or let me put it this way. Imagine an elders meeting where the topic is whether to have deacons at all. One elder suggests having no deacons, just “ministry leaders,” so that the leadership can have ministries led by gifted women and single men — or men who’ve not fathered children.
Another elder speaks up. “But we have several young men here who are wondering why they’ve never made deacon. Their parents are concerned that they’ve fathered children, are raising them well, and volunteer in the lawn care ministry and yet haven’t been made deacon yet. It’s an expectation. It’s part of our heritage, and I don’t know how to explain to these young men that they won’t ever get to wear that title.”
Well, you explain it to them the same way you explain it to the women, singles, and childless who may do far more for the congregation and never get to wear a title.
You see, the very notion that someone might agree to cut the grass or whatever to get a title is offensive to the nature of Christianity.
(Mat 6:17-21 NASB) 17 “But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face 18 so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.
20 “But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; 21 for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Do we really want to create a class of volunteers whose motivation is to receive honor from fellow members?
Now, it will surely be pointed out that we don’t show nearly enough appreciation for our volunteers, and maybe a title is just a nice way to express how much we appreciate someone’s service. But if that’s so, why limit the title to married men with children? Why not grant titles to women and singles and the childless?
And that’s one of the things that I find so offensive about our tradition. I mean, I’ve actually heard it argued that we should make so-and-so a deacon so that he’d become motivated to volunteer — that is, we should bestow honor in hopes that someone might later become worthy of the honor, all the while ignoring countless volunteers who already merit the honor far more!
It’s just wrong. “Deacon” should be no more of an honor than “ministry leader” or “small group leader” or “Sunday school teacher.” Why does “deacon” carry more heft than the others when the others indicate real service to the church whereas “deacon” can mean nothing but a title?
Well, because our thinking is badly skewed. We don’t honor service as we should. And we have this tradition — this mindset — that “deacon” means “pre-elder” or even “adviser to the elders.” And that’s just not biblical.
I mean, 30 years of service in maintaining the building and cutting the grass does not make one qualified to be an elder. It does make you someone who deserves the church’s thanks and appreciation — and perhaps even honor, but not as a “deacon” — as a servant-hearted, Christ-like believer.
Which is kind of the point. If we’re all about helping our members to become Christ-like, to be shaped in the image of Christ, then how does bestowing a title move us in that direction?
Tradition 8. You can be a deacon and have no job assignment.
Nothing more plainly demonstrates the folly of treating “deacon” as an honorific than the fact that so many deacons have no job assignment as such. They might have been active in children’s ministry years ago, but now that their kids are grown, they’ve dropped out of the children’s ministry and no longer volunteer for anything. But the title bestowed on them for work among children can’t be taken away. It would be perceived as an insult.
Hence, many churches struggle with deacons at large — men who’ve quit their volunteer service and yet who cling to the title — either out of vainglory or, more likely, because they don’t know how to surrender the title without it appearing to have been in response to sin.
After all, if “deacon” means “a married, fertile man who is a faithful member,” then loss of the title likely starts the rumor that the man isn’t faithful. And that’s entirely because we don’t associate the title with a ministry. It’s an honor separate from any particular task.
And when we separate the title from the task, we create problems. That’s why no one gets upset when he’s no longer called “ministry leader” — if he’s no longer leading a ministry. But a man can be very upset if you take away “deacon” even though he’s no longer serving.
And so, to me, it’s just wrong to give away titles without an associated job — and it’s also wrong to give married men with children titles when you don’t give equivalent titles to others who do the same or even greater ministry.
The problem is solved if we were to limit “deacon” to those engaged in ministry to widows or benevolence ministry more generally. If the church understood “deacon” to mean “someone who cares for widows,” then no one would take offense at losing the title if he were to stop caring for widows.
Of course, such a change assumes that we actually care for widows or have a benevolence ministry …
You see, the other problem we have with the whole deacon business is that we’ve largely stopped doing what the First Century deacons did. We often far more concerned about the building and grounds and our own very privileged children than for those truly in need.
If you doubt me, check the job descriptions of your church’s deacons and see how many of them are engaged in service to the needy. I bet it’s less than 25% — if any.