Deacons: Why I Disagree with the Traditional Views, Part 5 (An Honorific Title? Deacons Without Jobs?)

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.

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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4 Responses to Deacons: Why I Disagree with the Traditional Views, Part 5 (An Honorific Title? Deacons Without Jobs?)

  1. Alan says:

    > 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.

    I think the seven appointed in Acts 6 were deacons. And they weren’t appointed until a need arose. Then they were appointed to that specific responsibility. That’s how we do it in our congregation.

    Forget the building. There are many important areas of spiritual service in the church — you know, the kind of duties that require people who are full of the Spirit and wisdom. Cutting the grass doesn’t rise to that level in my view. Deacons take these responsibilities so that the elders can focus on following the example Paul set before them in Acts 20.

  2. John says:

    Your emphasis on limiting “deacon” to the work of serving the needy is Biblical, without a doubt. I, like most in the Restoration Movement, grew up seeing deacons, as you point out, “mowing the lawn”.

    I think one reason why there is such a disconnect between deacon and service to the needy is that many Christians do not see the need within the congregation; and that is because of the Social programs in place by the state and federal governments. Now, I support those government programs with all my mind, heart and soul, but we do tend to let them create a false sense of “every one’s doing just fine” within the church. “Sister Jones lost her husband, but, after all she is getting his Social Security. And young Lucy Smith is a single mom, but the children are on Medicaid; and of course, the elderly have Medicare for their medical needs”. So, the lawn and the building stay a priority.

    Service to the needy within the congregation does not have to wait until someone is on the brink of starvation or lying in a hospital bed or nursing home. There are many elderly Christians who eat sparingly to pay other bills. Some of these cannot afford a secondary insurance to supplement their Medicare, and they often find themselves in debt to hospitals and rehab centers. And single parents who have children in need of decent school clothing and lunches are usually under the radar.

    Obviously it is going to take some refocusing on the part of elders and ministers to make “servicing” a priority, and that does not come easily in areas where “sound doctrine” has been the focus and goal. When we read the Psalmist who says, “I have not seen the children of the righteous begging for bread”, it should not to be taken as a statement that stands as is. It should be read as the result of the work and care of the community of saints.

  3. Grizz says:

    In an era in which churches exist who think of honorary titles, it is not uncommon to find that the other ‘offices’ (how I hate that word in reference to the church!) of elder and minister are also gifts of appreciation that have nearly no relation at all to the character and wisdom of the persons installed. We have ministers who seldom serve the needy or the sick or the infirm and who only preach to the saved more than 75% of the time. We have elders who know more about being on time for meetings than they do about how to be a good neighbor, but they show up and never stir up controversy and seldom ask a difficult question on purpose and have done for more than 30 years. Some of these men could not counsel their own children in a crisis, much less teach effectively or lead anyone spiritually, but they are appointed elders as though they will be respected and followed and we will have a nice, uncontroversial church.

    When men begin to think that being called a servant is an honorary title, look to the elders who have helped create that culture of shallow expectations. Lay plenty of blame on the preachers who have passed through that pulpit, too, on the grounds that they never made it clear that we were anything more than a social club for the mediocre and the nice. NOTE: Always blame the preacher who just left or the one who was most uncomfortable for you. They are most likely fading memories already to the congregation.

    We find these issues wherever there are men and women unwilling to take responsibility for the culture in which they live. And it only takes a few of that kind who are vocal to control a host of folks who love a lack of controversy more than they love the Lord.

  4. mark says:

    If the congregation is an urban one, or especially if it is in the inner city, you will see far more hungry and homeless people who will come to you for aid and a warm place to sleep at night before it is cold enough for the shelters to open. If you are considering starting a ministry like this, ask the Catholics as they have a large number of inner city churches who have lots of experience with it. Yes, inner city priests work with the homeless and hungry, even converting some. I know there was and unfortunately is still some bad blood between the cofC And other Christian churches but that all needs to cease. No govt. aid program is perfect and urban churches do fill in a lot of the difference. This Is true charity and needs no citation. G-d will know the leader of this ministry and won’t care one bit about age, gender, marital status, etc. that is who you want to please, not man.

    Also, there are many women in churches who baby sit children and teach them age-appropriate things while the mothers pursue education or get time to run errands without baby in tow. Many churches have preschool too. I don’t see male deacons lined up to do this. This task is deserving of honor.

    There are many articles out online about managing volunteers and how churches still struggle with this. I am in no way suggesting people quit volunteering to help secular charities, but they seem to be able to get volunteers faster. The suggestions from these articles were to use the fewest levels of management, allow anyone to volunteer, and not continue to use the same people since they will, over time, get worn out and feel used or become powerful. Also, elders need to make it known that they will refuse to hear complaints, like an appellate court denies appeals, so that all disagreements are settled immediately and nothing gets out of hand.

    Making deacon is not the same as making partner. It is a shame how much influence non-members can have on a congregation.

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